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  1. Computer Skills
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Computers

Learn Everything There Is To Know About Your Mac's Hardware

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:

A computer is a complicated beast. Even if you know your way around the general specs such as processor speed and memory, there are still a ton of potential questions that could arise. For instance, how many memory slots are available? What graphics card do you have? What type of drive do you need if you want to upgrade? These are questions that pro users should be able to answer about their machine right away, can you?

If not, follow along as we look at four different methods for digging into your system and pulling out any information that you need about hardware, software and more.


Screencast


Watch the video for a quick overview of the methods in the article.

System Information

The first step to learning about any Mac is to check out the System Information application, which is a built in utility that helps you learn all of the basic information associated with your Mac.

To begin, click on the Apple menu in the upper left corner of your screen and go to "About This Mac." This should bring up a window like the one below.

About This Mac
About This Mac

As you can see, this little window tells you a lot of useful information. Without any further work we know the operating system, processor, memory and startup disk for this Mac.  

From here, click the "More Info" button to launch the System Information application. Note that if you're on an older version of OS X, this app will be called "System Profiler" and will look considerably different.

System Info Overview
System Info Overview

In this app, we can find out nearly everything we need to know about a given Mac. As you can see, there are four primary tabs to choose from: Overview, Displays, Storage and Memory.

On the Overview tab, we can see roughly when a Mac was made, along with a more detailed version of the information that we saw in the previous screen. Some great resources here are your graphics card and serial number, the latter of which will come in handy if repairs or replacement parts ever need to be be ordered.

If you're an old school Mac user who doesn't like this new System Information app as much as the old utility, click the "System Report" button to access a breakdown of your system that should be more familiar.

System Report
System Report

The Displays tab simply tells you the resolution and size of your screen along with a redundant bit about your graphics card. Far more useful are the next two tabs: Storage and Memory.

Storage  Memory
Storage & Memory

As you can see, Apple has picked up the graph that iTunes uses to analyze the storage on your iOS device and applied it to your hard disk. This is a fantastic way to get a quick look at what's eating up your hard drive space. This shot shows me that I have over 40GBs in photos that I could offload to an external hard drive to save space on my Mac. Note that there's also a link here to open Disk utility, another vital source of information about your hardware.

The Memory tab shows me that I have 16GB of RAM installed, 8GB in each of my two available slots. It also shows me that my Mac takes 1600 MHz DDR3 memory and gives me a link for the upgrade instructions.

I happen to know that the RAM on my Retina MacBook Pro is actually soldered onto the logic board and is therefore non-upgradeable, but Apple does nothing to inform me of that here!

Unfortunately, this link doesn't take me anywhere but the Apple Support home page. I happen to know that the RAM on my Retina MacBook Pro is actually soldered onto the logic board and is therefore non-upgradeable, but Apple does nothing to inform me of that here! This is an important lesson: the System Information app is great, but it certainly doesn't tell you all that you need to know.


Terminal

Any time you really want to dig into something technical, odds are Terminal can provide you with the information that you're looking for. Unfortunately, for some, Terminal seems like an intimidating place where a small typo can have disastrous effects.

Though you can indeed get into a decent amount of trouble in Terminal, for the most part, it's not half as scary as people make it out to be. As long as you do your research and are confident in the consequences of the commands that you're typing in, you should be fine.

Getting a complete system profile in Terminal is actually pretty easy, all you need to do is type "system_profiler" and hit enter.

Terminal Command for a System Profile
Terminal Command for a System Profile

The resulting text is a fairly massive data dump with all kinds of information about your machine. However, despite the fact that this is a fairly cool and tech savvy way to get this information, it's really just the same data that we saw in the System Report before.

Terminal System Profiler
Terminal System Profiler

Though is seems redundant, this plain text output can be a more useful format for your system information than what we saw before, especially if you want to share or save it. Try running "system_profiler > profiler_output.txt" to output this information to a text file (the file will appear in your Home folder).

If you're ever having someone analyze/troubleshoot your machine, or you're doing the same for someone else, this trick will prove quite useful!


Mactracker

The built-in utilities for getting a breakdown of your system are nice, but sometimes you just need more. Wouldn't it be nice to have an app that stored detailed information about nearly every Apple product ever made? Wouldn't it be great if that app allowed you to keep a catalog of all of your devices for quick access? How cool would it be if this app were free?

The fairy tale app that we just described does indeed exist! It's called Mactracker and it's awesome.

Mactracker
Mactracker

Mactracker is a must have utility for all Mac hardware geeks. Not only does it have detailed information on the Mac currently sitting on your desk, it also covers all of the other Apple products that have been on your desk throughout the years. The app serves as an awesome walk down the long line of failed and obscure Apple products.

Mactracker
Mactracker is chock full of nostalgia

Far more than a catalog of antiques, Mactracker serves as your one-stop destination for information regarding the products that you currently own. For instance, my poor wife is still working on a late 2007 13" MacBook that needs all the help it can get. To see where I can make some potential upgrades, I can pull the machine up in Mactracker and find everything I need to know: model number, processor, which RAM to buy and the actual RAM capacity (which is often different than Apple tells you); I can even tell you minute details like the dimensions and weight of the machine!

Mactracker
Mactracker knows just about everything!

Mactracker is overflowing with great features. You can compare the specs on multiple Macs, keep a running list of your hardware and the related warranty status (just type in your serial number to see this info), create Smart Categories to quickly browse lists with certain characteristics (example: only models with Firewire ports); the list goes on and on.

One of my favorite features is the timeline, which allows you to quickly click on a year and see what was released during that time period, dating all the way back to 1984.

Mactracker
The Mac hardware that started the revolution

Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, the newest products on this timeline are from March, 2012. This means that my brand new June, 2012 Retina MacBook Pro is not currently in the database. I'm sure there will be an update soon to remedy this issue. Again, the app is completely free so it's understandable that updates might take some time.


EveryMac

Up to this point, we've seen three great methods for finding out information about your Mac. However, despite the wealth of information that we've uncovered, there's still a lot to learn about my specific Mac. The built-in utilities gave me some limited information and Mactracker, despite being awesome, is a little behind with the updates, so where do I turn now? The answer is EveryMac.com

EveryMaccom
EveryMac.com

EveryMac.com is a lot like Mactracker, only without the pretty Mac application shell. Here you can find detailed specs and information regarding Apple products dating back to 1984, access detailed comparisons, get links for upgrade hardware and a lot more. This website has the answers you're looking for, whether your Mac is brand new or ancient.

This website has the answers you’re looking for, whether your Mac is brand new or ancient.

Just as with Mactracker, I can browse by year or model to find the machine that I'm looking for. Unlike Mactracker, EveryMac is super fast with updates. I was able to find my specific Retina MacBook right away.

EveryMaccom
Despite being a brand new model, my Mac is on the site.

As you dig through the tons and tons of information that EveryMac gives you on your Mac, you get a lot more than the simple hardware breakdowns provided by the System Profiler.

For instance, if I were to attempt to use this site to find out which RAM to purchase to upgrade my Mac, I would immediately see the critical piece of information that we noted was missing before: that the Retina MacBook Pro cannot receive a RAM upgrade after the initial purchase. Information like this will help prevent you from purchasing products that won't work for your machine.

EveryMaccom
Helfpul information

Getting Help

There's one last bit of information that you should know regarding what to do with all of this information. I briefly mentioned above that Mactracker allows you to enter your serial number to see warranty and repair details, but really all it does is connect you to an Apple web page for Service and Repair.

Apples Service and Repair Page
Apple's Service and Repair Page

Here you can enter the serial number that we found earlier and you'll be taken to a series of pages that informs you of not only your warranty information but also the service options that you have available to you, all based on your unique serial number.

How Do You Learn About Your Mac?

We've just gone over four different methods of learning all about your Mac, from the operating system to the minor components and beyond. You should now be fully equipped to answer even the toughest questions regarding your specific setup. Being an informed user is a great thing when it comes time for repairs or upgrades, so even if you're not like those of us who are nerdy enough to love this stuff, it's still a good idea to acquaint yourself with it all.

Now that you've read all about my methods for digging up information on a specific computer, I want to hear yours! Are there any other resources that you find helpful? What other Terminal commands yield useful information? We want to know!

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