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May 26th, 2000

[Tip] Optimize Your Mac's Performance And Stability, Part I
by Michael Munger

Does your Mac crash too often? Do you think that its performance is unacceptable after investing so much money in it? Wait, you called Apple's technical support line and they drilled into your head that you should clean install your system yet one more time to try to get rid of those bugs. Annoying, eh?

Well, here are a few solutions and tips to get the most out of your machine and to keep it running for days without a single crash.

Know how to prioritize your methods

The first advice I can provide is to keep clean installs and disk reformats as the last solutions to use. In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Smart troubleshooting and general maintenance - details are below - will usually do just fine to fix your problems. If this fails, then you should reinstall everything or reformat your disk.

The Memory control panel

You have no idea how much power and speed is under your nose if you do not use that control panel to manage your memory. This is, point by point, how to combine the use of its features for your Mac to kick some ass.

  • Disk cache: The disk cache is a static area in RAM that keeps more data available to reduce disk access and transfers. This increases speed because no matter how fast your disk is, accessing it all the time will slow your Mac down. If you listen to Apple, your disk cache will remain at its default setting. Well, if you limit yourself to that, you will miss out. Try changing its setting. Do not decrease it. Increase it according to your amount of physical RAM. The more RAM you have, the bigger your increase will be. Here, I have 128 MB and I set my disk cache to 5120K and everything is faster than at the default 3776K. Adjust it as necessary to find the right setting for your setup.
  • Virtual memory: I have mixed feelings about this. If you can afford to live without VM, do so. If your Mac remains stable, do not turn it on because it will slow things down, especially with Photoshop. If your Mac experiences errors such as type 2 and type 3, then it is a great idea to turn VM on and adjust it to 1 megabyte more than your amount of physical RAM. It will save you a lot of crashes. You should note that an increased disk cache will reduce VM's speed hit and make it less noticeable. It is the best of both worlds.
  • RAM disk: Your Web browser is too slow? Speed it up by setting up a RAM disk in the control panel. Give it around 10 MB and restart. Use your browser's preferences to point your browser cache to the RAM disk at all times. Your browser will download and render HTML and images faster than before and the browser won't curse your whole Mac anymore. Note that this takes RAM away from your system or other applications to use, so use a RAM disk as your RAM allows.

Smart use of your Memory control panel can speed things up and, if necessary, the virtual memory can save crashes.

Use Conflict Catcher

I am not the biggest fan of Casady & Greene's products in general, but you have to give them credit for Conflict Catcher.

Its chief function is to manage your system extensions, control panels, and other system files, but it can also help you to troubleshoot with conflict tests. If you are having weird crashes or system freezes that you are convinced is an extension conflict, you can start a test and it will step you through a methodical testing process until you find the culprit. You can expect to restart your computer many times during this process, but Conflict Catcher does all the work!

The second feature you should use often is its ability to scan files for damage. CC will scan your files better than ResEdit or Norton Utilities, and it will do a better job of fixing them too. You never know if a corrupt Finder is responsible for making your life impossible. You can scan your whole disk for that matter! It can save you from reinstalling almost any piece of software, including the Mac OS.

A third good reason to use Conflict Catcher is its system folder management capabilities. In the main window, its "Memory Use" column will give you the number of kilobytes used by each extension or control panel, a slash and then the amount of memory allocated. If the first exceeds the second, the extension or control panel hogs more memory than it is allowed to, and can make your Mac unstable. CC will list this in bold if it happens and such files are the first culprits you should examine unless the difference is only of a couple of kilobytes. For example, StuffIt Deluxe's True Finder Integration control panel takes up to 1.1 MB of RAM while it is allowed to use around 800K at startup. Disabling it made my Mac stable again. Coincidence?

The last reason why CC is so useful is its listing of known conflicts. It allows you to find out if you have system folder elements that do not get along well and it allows you to create such lists in case you find a conflict by yourself.

Conflict Catcher

Beware the shareware

I do not suggest that all shareware titles are crash prone, but let's face the facts. Not all shareware authors know how to write quality and versatile code. If you use badly written shareware, your machine can pay the price for it. Trust me, I had my experiences with it. Those shareware CDs are more than tempting, but you have to know better.

[Editor's Note: Mr. Munger's position is not the opinion of the Mac Observer as a whole. While there is certainly some sloppily coded shareware on the market, the vast majority of Mac shareware programmers are doing a very good job and are very talented.]

Apple's Technical Info Library

This is a gold mine of knowledge. You can find all kinds of technical information about your Mac, the ins and outs of its hardware and software, and tips on how to use certain resources for the better. Ask to any pundit, you will hear that the TIL is one of the resources that you have to consult before cursing your Mac.

Apple's TIL

MacFixIt

MacFixIt is one of those "must bookmark" sites because the publication and the community that surrounds it provides you with the latest information about bugs and even some tips to speed up your Mac. There are also forums dedicated to software titles or topics. They usually keep special sections updated when a major release takes place (Troubleshooting Mac OS 9 is an example), therefore serving their readers when a hot topic is there.

MacFixIt

Forums and newsgroups

On the Net, there are all kinds of forums where you can exchange tips and ask questions when you experience a problem or have an idea to share. Forums are usually dedicated to topics, so a Photoshop forum is usually the best way to reach Photoshop experts. I know that members of Microsoft's teams hang around the Outlook Express Talk mailing list and the Internet Explorer newsgroup, for example. It is nice when the people behind the software help you directly. All those forums will also allow you to learn more about your Mac, thus increasing your general knowledge faster than the "trial and error" method.

OE Talk - Explorer newsgroup: microsoft.public.inetexplorer.mac

Next week we'll continue with Part II of this report.



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