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How To Give Your Mac A Checkup

by
Gift

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Believe it or not, your Mac is a bit like your car – it does require service every now and again. Just like you'd take your car to the garage every 6 or 12 months for a mechanic to tinker around with it, your Mac requires a little TLC, although I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that you don't have to take it to a garage. In fact, you don't even have to make an appointment at your local Genius Bar – there are plenty of ways of checking your Mac's performance right from the comfort of your own house. Let's find out what they are.


Benchmarking Your Mac

Before we get our teeth really stuck into this tutorial, you'll want to find out how your Mac is performing, especially when it comes to measuring processor and memory performance. This process is called benchmarking and it's the easiest way of comparing your Mac's performance to that of similar models and specifications.

The main way of testing your Mac's performance is by using Geekbench, which is a free download for all Macs running OS X. Although you'll have to purchase a licence to exit the so-called "tryout mode", you can still run a basic test and find out roughly how your Mac stacks up.

Make sure you exit all running applications on your Mac before running the tests, as any app running in the background can impact on your score!

Geekbench Splash
Geekbench running on my MacBook (in the tryout version, only 32-bit tests are available)

Geekbench will then run a series of benchmark tests on your Mac (depending on your processor speed and/or configuration, these tests can take up to 3 minutes) then spit back a so-called Geekbench score (if you're really interested in knowing how the scores are calculated, check out the interpretation guide on the Geekbench website).

Geekbench Score
My mid-2010 MacBook with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and 4 GB of RAM scored a Geekbench score of 3,415 in the test.

So what does this mean, then? Well, to put that score into perspective, a Power Mac G5 with a 1.6 GHz processor would score a Geekbench score of 1,000 and obviously the higher the score, the better your Mac. A score of 2,000 would indicate a Mac that has double the performance of that Power Mac G5 (as 2,000 is double 1,000, of course!).

Geekbench Benchmark
A comparison graph for my MacBook against others of identical specification. The scores range from 320 to 4,239.

Once you've run the benchmark test on your Mac and obtained your score, you can see via the Geekbench website how your Mac fares against the same model of Macs and against the entire Mac range. As my MacBook has just very recently celebrated its second birthday, my score of 3,415 doesn't bode well against models such as the cheapest MacBook Pro (2012 model), which scored a Geekbench score of 6,773, and of course its performance is slipping slightly thanks to old processors and slightly outdated architecture.

Of course, don't be disgruntled if your Mac performs worse than identical models. Your Geekbench score can vary slightly depending on how your computer and processor is being used at the time of the test (for the full test scores for my MacBook, head over here) and it isn't entirely reliable for measuring the performance of your Mac!


Freeing Up Disk Space

Whenever you move or delete files on your Mac, little fragments of them are left lying around your Mac's hard disk drive, which obviously take up space that could be used for something else! Almost every single operating system does this. However, compared to Windows, OS X doesn't include anything that can help you clear out these wasted space. There are, however, a couple of third party options out there.

First of all, you'll want to see exactly where space is being taken up on your computer. Of course, you could go hunting through your Finder, but there is a much simpler way in the form of DaisyDisk, which costs a mere $9.95. The app will scan your entire hard disk drive and display all folders and files in a beautiful wheel interface – the fatter the individual "sections" of the wheel, the more space it is taking up.

DaisyDisk
DaisyDisk is an easy way to see which files and folders are taking up the most space on your system.

A really handy feature about DaisyDisk is that you can trash files and folders straight from the application (unfortunately, this feature isn't available in the trial version!), making it a handy tool to get rid of odd files and folders hanging around on your Mac's hard disk. Although it may sound fairly obvious, but do make sure you know exactly what files and folders you are deleting – if you trash important system files this can screw up your Mac, sometimes permanently!

CCleaner

CCleaner is a great (and free) option from the App Store and has been available for OS X for a short while now. The app searches through areas such as the caches of your favourite browser (a common space hogger), Internet history, cookies, system logs, etc. and cleans them out, without damaging your computer.

CCleaner
CCleaner has been on OS X for some time now, after previously being only available on Windows.

You can free up an impressive amount of disk space by just cleaning out your browser cache (every time you visit a webpage, a "snapshot" is saved onto your hard disk drive for quicker access later on) – I managed to free up just over a gigabyte by cleaning out my temporary files and Safari cache and I would recommend running CCleaner once a week to ensure your hard disk stays neat and tidy.

CleanMyMac & Gemini

A similar program is CleanMyMac which does pretty much the same as CCleaner, but with a few more features and a more agreeable interface. However, you'll have to pay for it (a full licence costs $60). There is a free version available for download with some limitations.

Learn more about CleanMyMac.

Another option is Gemini, which is developed by the same people and helps you find and remove duplicate files on your Mac. It is available on the App Store for $9.99.

Gemini Clean
Gemini is a great and cheap way to remove any duplicate files and folders from your Mac.

Xslimmer

Xslimmer is another one of those useful little apps in your arsenal that can help you keep your Mac running smoothly and also frees up unwanted disk clog. The utility strips out any unused language files in apps (do you really need your favorite app in 20 different languages?) and also removes unnecessary code from binaries without damaging your applications.

xslimmer
Xslimmer removes all those additional language files and unnecessary code from applications

Users have reported a significant space saving. For example GarageBand has decreased from 537 MB to a mere 156 MB and Google Earth from 84 MB to 49 MB. There is a free version available on their website, but it will only allow you to remove up to 50 MB – the full version is priced at a mere $14.95.

AppCleaner

Although uninstalling a program on OS X is fairly simple (i.e. you just grab it from the Finder and drag it to the Trash), it can sometimes leave bits of the application left lying around on your hard disk drive, which equates to a bunch of useless data in the long run. If your app doesn't come with a built-in uninstaller, then I can highly recommend downloading AppCleaner, which is completely free and available for download from the developer's website.

xslimmer
AppCleaner ensures that no bits of applications are left lying around on your hard disk drive.

Instead of dragging applications straight to the Trash, now when you want to uninstall a program, open up AppCleaner and drag it to that instead. The app will scan your drive for any related files (such as application preferences) and trash those along with the app itself, so nothing is left lying around!

Tip: With the exception of Xslimmer and AppCleaner, I would recommend running the programs described above around once a week to ensure your Mac runs smoothly.


Some TLC for your Disks

A happy and healthy hard disk leads to a happy and healthy Mac, so here are a few tips designed to keep your disks in top condition.

Disk Utility in OS X

Although it may look pure and innocent, the in-built Disk Utility in OS X is a beast of a tool (it's under Utilities > Disk Utility by the way). Here you can do virtually anything with your computer's disks and any disk images you may have on your Mac as well. You can also verify and repair the structure of your disk's file system, which I would recommend doing every two weeks or so.

Disk Utility

To do so, follow these simple steps:

  1. Head over to Disk Utility and click on your Mac's startup disk (in my case, it's called Macintosh HD)
  2. Under the tab labelled First Aid click on Verify Disk. Your Mac will then start verifying the structure of your file system (bear in mind, this may make your Mac turn unresponsive for several minutes – this is normal!)
  3. Disk Utility will then tell you whether your disk needs repairing or not – if so then click on Repair Disk (depending on the size of your disk, this process can take several hours)

You can also use Disk Utility to repair any corrupt disk permissions as well.

OnyX

OnyX is another one of those useful tools that every Mac user should have hanging around in a utilities folder somewhere. It not only deals with your hard drives but also allows you to repair your system permissions (a common issue if your Mac is running a little dodgy) and clean your browser settings.

onyx
ONYX CAPTION

OnyX is really simple to use (and free as well) and I would recommend running it weekly. You can download it from here (make sure you select the right version of it for your version of OS X).

Cocktail

Cocktail is yet another handy little system utility that helps you clean out, repair and optimize your Mac – all in one great package. Not only does the app take care of your hard drives but it can also clear temporary files, search for and repair any corrupt system preferences and allow you to customise the look of OS X and the hidden settings of default OS X applications, such as Safari, Mail and QuickTime which would normally have to be altered using Terminal commands.

Cocktail
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac.

Probably one of the most useful features about Cocktail is that you can perform repairs and optimization with a single mouse click and you can schedule maintenance as well (both your Mac and the app have to be running for this to work). The full version of the app costs $14, and you'll need to enter an administrator password every time you use it.

TechTool Pro 6

TechTool really is the mother of all Mac maintenance programs (and, in retrospect, is priced accordingly!). It lets you diagnose your hardware, repair drives and perform daily maintenance, all from one program. It's a great program and if you're serious about keeping your Mac in pristine working order then it's well worth the $100 investment. However, some users may find its features a little overwhelming for their use.

TechTool Pro 6
Cocktail INFO

Although some programs will duplicate TechTool's functionality (OnyX, for example, can run SMART checks on your drives, inspecting them for any possible failures), the program will let you create a bootable Mac OS X partition really easy, which can be used for system recovery and can recover data from corrupted drives. I received a copy of TechTool with my AppleCare program and perform an overnight scan on all my drives around once a week, something which I'd highly recommend you do as well if you have the program.

You can grab TechTool Pro 6 directly from Micromat's store by clicking here.


Bits and Bobs

Here are a couple of other tips that I couldn't organize into any of the previous categories!

Clean Up Your Desktop

A tidy desktop does lead to a tidy mind and you'll also find that your Mac boots up quicker when it isn't cluttered up with a thousand icons and files! You can, of course, do it the old-fashioned way and drag every single loose file and folder into where it belongs, but I'm far too lazy for that and I prefer to use Clean, which is available from the Mac App Store (and even better news: it's free).

You set the cleaning frequency (either daily or weekly) and Clean will shift everything on your desktop into a folder of your choice – you can also perform a desktop sweep any time you want by simply clicking the "Clean now" button.

Should I Defrag?

Having to defragment drives is a real pet hate for most Windows users out there as it is a long-winded, laborious process that involves leaving the computer running overnight while its goes through every single file and "defrags" it. Unlike Windows, you'll probably have noticed that OS X doesn't come with a built-in defragmentation utility. Whether you should defrag a Mac is, however, a fairly debatable topic.

Whether you should defrag a Mac is, however, a fairly debatable topic.

The HFS Plus file system, which you and I know as Mac OS Extended, attempted to introduce back in 1998 a number of optimizations that automatically defragmented files while they were being accessed, thus avoiding the need for the user to run a separate defragmentation process. Ever since Mac OS X 10.2 (or Jaguar), there have been safeguards built in to OS X to prevent file fragmentation. As well as this, every time you open a file, OS X checks whether or not it is highly fragmented (more than 8 fragments) and if it is, then the file will be automatically defragmented in the background.

iDefrag
iDefrag is one popular choice of defragmentation utility for OS X.

Having said that, some users have reported an enormous performance boost after defragmenting their Mac's hard drive and if you've tried everything else without avail, then it may be worth doing it (results aren't guaranteed). If you are interested, then two popular defragmentation programs are iDefrag (which costs $30.95) and Drive Genius (which costs $99). The latter also includes plenty of other features, is used in Apple Genius Bars around the world and is worth investing in if you plan to checkup your Mac regularly (which I highly recommend you do!).

Learn more about Drive Genius.

MacKeeper: Yes or No?

There have been many a time when I've been casually browsing the net and an advert for MacKeeper has popped up, promising total and complete Mac maintenance for a low price of around $50 for a single user. This does sound pretty tempting, especially when it offers all sorts of fancy features like internet security, fast disk cleanup, file recovery, data encryption and so on.

However, the software has a rough reputation in some circles, with some likening it to highly invasive malware that is difficult to remove or even a scam to make you buy the program (some users have reported it locking them out, asking them to purchase it straight away). On the other hand, some professional Mac users have it installed without any problems.

MacKeeper
MacKeeper advertises itself as a great maintenance app for your Mac, but has been tainted somewhat by negative reviews.

I did use the app once and it unfortunately locked me out after a couple of hours of use (when the trial is 15 days long) so I would personally not recommend it. Feel free to leave a comment if you've had a positive experience.

Regardless, here's something to keep in mind: most of those utilities included in MacKeeper are available in some form or another either in OS X or in other free software out there on the Net (MacKeeper's "file recovery", for example, is almost identical to Time Machine and OS X will encrypt files for you using FileVault).


Monitoring Your System

One thing that you should do regularly is monitor your system's performance, as any drops can often be acted upon quickly and therefore rectified. OS X includes a very useful Activity Monitor in the Utilities folder which allows you to view all currently running processes on your Mac, disk activity and usage, and anything currently running on your network. However, there may be times when you want to delve a bit deeper into the underbellies of your system and this is where a couple of additional utilities may be extremely useful.

xScan (formerly CheckUp)

xScan is a useful little tool that allows you to monitor virtually every single thing going on underneath your keys (if you've got a laptop, of course!) or behind your screen. It evolved from another popular program known as CheckUp.

xScan
xScan can monitor various areas of your Mac, including your processor performance, disk usage, network statistics and more.

You can monitor various aspects of your Mac's performance, such as network processes, applications running, disk usage and so on. xScan sits quite unobtrusively in the corner and can be called up when necessary (and it doesn't hog system resources) and it can also alert you if something isn't right either and suggest solutions on how to rectify it.

iStat Menus

If you prefer something a little more customizable and visible, then iStat Menus might also be a good choice as well. For just $16, you can view a whole load of stats plus replace the default date and time in the status bar with something a lot more powerful. Clicking on any stat (such as the battery stats) brings up more detailed information about it – in the case of the battery the app brings up its health, number of cycles, voltage and so on.

iStat Menus
iStat Menus is a really simple way of viewing all the statistics related to your Mac – and without having to launch a separate app.

If you don't fancy spending $16, then a cheaper program called MiStat is available for a mere $4.99, which gives you pretty much the same amount of stats though in an application form, not in your status bar.


Have We Helped?

As I hoped this guide has demonstrated, giving your Mac a quick checkup needn't be a stressful task and with a couple of utilities you can guarantee that your Mac runs smoothly for a fairly long time. I'm telling you this from first-hand experience. I left my Mac to become clogged up with any old garbage and after a year or so it became almost unusable, forcing me to wipe it and rebuild it from scratch!

Ever since I've been more careful and given it a bit of TLC (which it deserves highly), it has run smoothly and without any issues. No matter how old your Mac is, I would highly recommend that you do give it a checkup a few times per month to ensure that it runs problem-free. Believe me, having to rebuild your Mac is no pretty (or fun) task! Please feel free to share any of your own checkup and maintenance tips in the comments section below for the benefit of all our readers.

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