5 Ways to Take Care of Your Mac in 2014

| TMO Quick Tip

One of the things that I like very much about my Mac is its steadfastness. You know the old U.S. Postal Service motto, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat,” and so on? Well, none of that actually applies, because rain and snow and heat could kill the crap out of your computer. But the point is that Macs are pretty darned reliable under non–weather disaster circumstances. Here are some tips, though, on keeping your machine (and your data!) happy in 2014. 

BACK UP YOUR STUFF. Yes, it’s all in caps. Yes, it’s like I’m shouting. That’s because this is the most important step you can take for keeping your computing sanity in the new year. If you have no backup, then please go buy an external drive and create one as soon as you can. Under the recent versions of OS X, all you’ve gotta do is plug it in. Your Mac will ask you if you wanna use the drive to back up with Time Machine, and once you confirm that yes indeedy-o, that’s the plan, you’re golden.

If you only have one backup, though, now’s the time to make your disaster plan even better. I recommend that everyone maintain at least two backups—one that’s kept onsite and one that’s somewhere else (in case your house burns down or some butthead comes and takes everything you own). For the onsite backup, any of a number of setups will do just fine—a Time Capsule, say, or an external drive for using Time Machine or Carbon Copy Cloner. For offsite backups, you can choose an Internet-based service, such as CrashPlan, which I use and adore. Or you could keep a different external drive in a safety deposit box, at a trusted friend’s house, or what have you. 

If I could, I would meet with each of you personally over a nice frosty glass of beer to express how strongly I feel about backups. Trust me, I see a lot of worst-case scenarios in terms of people’s data, and the worst-case scenario just isn’t all that uncommon.

Check remaining disk space. You may think that you can use every bit of space on your Mac’s hard drive or SSD without causing problems, but that just isn’t so. If OS X doesn’t have enough room to do the things it has to in the background, you’ll start seeing all sorts of weirdness, like spinning beach balls, odd error messages, incredibly slow performance, and more. I recommend keeping 10 percent of your drive’s space free at the very, very least, and preferably more in the realm of 15 to 20 percent. To see how much you’re using, click on the Apple Menu at the upper-left of your screen, choose “About This Mac,” and then click “More Info.”

In the window that follows, pick the "Storage" tab, and you’ll know how much you've got left. 

(Running an OS earlier than 10.7? An easy way to check your storage is with the Activity Monitor program, which is within your Applications> Utilities folder. Once it’s running, click on the “Disk Usage” tab.)

If you’re getting close to that 10 percent threshold, you’ve gotta clean some stuff off and trash it or move it to an external drive. There are plenty of utilities that’ll let you see what you’re storing and where. My favorite is OmniDiskSweeper; I really like the way it presents the information.

No matter what you use, though, don’t wait until problems start cropping up to keep an eye on your space.

Cycle your laptop’s battery. If you leave your laptop plugged in all the time, you’re significantly shortening the life of its battery. Apple’s got a couple of really great support articles on that very topic, one concerning how to maintain battery health and one about checking your battery’s estimated life remaining. Both are important reads for any Mac laptop owner.

Check the health of your disk. Use your Disk Utility program (which lives in Applications> Utilities) to see if OS X thinks your disk has any directory problems. To do so, open the program, click on your internal drive from the left-hand list, and then choose the “Verify Disk” button at the lower-right corner. 

It’ll warn you that your machine will act weird while it’s verifying your startup disk, so let that process run. When it’s finished, if you see any warning messages or pretty much anything other than “[Your Disk] appears to be OK,” you should boot into the Recovery Partition on your drive to attempt to repair things. If you can’t repair the damage, make sure you have a functioning backup, as your Mac may be having a physical problem with the disk. And book an appointment at the Genius Bar!

Analyze your Mac’s security. You guys still reading? Are you awake? If so, then my work is not in vain. ::sob::

The scope of this particular topic could take up way more space than we’ve got in this article, but here are a few basic things to think about:

  • Do you use a lot of public networks (like at coffee shops or hotels), especially ones that don’t require a password to join them? If so, consider using a VPN service like Cloak to encrypt what you’re sending over those less-than-safe networks.
  • If your data is incredibly sensitive, think about using FileVault to encrypt your disk in case your machine is ever stolen.
  • Along the same lines, setting up a Firmware Password offers even more protection against thieves by preventing them from booting your machine off of external disks or from using certain modifier keys to change its startup behavior. To set one up, boot into the Recovery Partition as I mentioned above, then pick "Firmware Password Utility" from the Utilities menu and follow the instructions. Please don't forget the password you set!
  • Are you using different passwords on every website you visit? If not, getting a program like 1Password to help you start doing so is an absolute must. And no, Terribly Bad People aren’t fooled by using variations like “Fido1” and “Fido12,” so be sure to use complicated passwords, too. 

Whew! If you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal. And if you actually take some steps to make your computer healthier and your data more secure in 2014, you’re even more awesome. Heck, I knew you guys were awesome already, so it ain’t no surprise to me.

Comments

ctopher

Yes, I’m still awake smile I will boot into recovery mode before I leave work today and Repair Disk (Why bother checking if you want to make sure it’s repaired?)

I will also “Repair Disk Permissions” while I’m at it.

But the other thing I do every new year is some e-mail maintenance. I create 2 new mailboxes nested in an “Old Mail” mailbox.

The first is for all of last years unsorted email from my inbox (I hate to disappoint, but I am not disciplined enough for zero inbox!) I move everything from the Inbox into this box.

The second is for all of the e-mail I sent last year. I copy everything from my “Sent” mailbox into this (e.g. “2013 Sent”).

Thus, I start the year with an empty inbox and sent mailbox. Search finds everything I need so it’s not like I’m without, but this way no mailbox gets out of hand and difficult for mail to manage.

What do others do I wonder?

tonywardmusic

If you’re buying that beer, I’m in. Call me. =)

Anyway, I’d recommend Backblaze for those of you heeding Melissa’s sage advice about online backup. They’re inexpensive, great to work with, and have saved my virtual bacon on more than one occasion.

Melissa Holt

Hey ctopher,

Some folks wouldn’t want to reboot, I guess, so if you verify the disk without doing so and everything’s fine, you can repair permissions and be on your way. But whatever floats your personal Mac boat. grin Good tips on archiving e-mail! Maybe others will chime in with their maintenance routines.

tonywardmusic, I’d totally buy you and everyone a beer if I had the fundage. Remember that old Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”? Well, my version of that commercial would have a lot more beer in it. And fewer ‘70s haircuts.

Gary LearnTech

Melissa…  Consider, umm, let’s say, twins who are going off to university.  Each buys a new Mac at the same time.  Their typical usage will be the same.  Let’s say social media, email, iWorks for university work, iTunes for music and occasional movies.  Pretty typical usage, right?

Okay, one of them needs a laptop and buys a new MacBook Air, while the other one goes for a new iMac.  But they’ll both be running OS X 10.9 and doing the same sort of things with their new machines.

A brand new, entry-level MacBook Air ships with a 128GB drive. By the 10% minimum free disk space rule, the first twin would have to stop and do some serious housekeeping when the free space finally dropped to about 12-13GB.  That sounds fair enough.

However, the equivalent brand new, entry-level iMac comes with a 1TB drive, so the second twin would have to stop and do their serious housekeeping when their free space dropped to a little above 100GB.

But that twin is doing the exact same sort of tasks with their iMac, so why can’t the iMac twin keep going until they’re also down at about 12GB – the same as their mobile sibling?

Conversely, if we take the iMac as the reference machine, why doesn’t the laptop toting twin have to stop at the same point as the iMac twin, when the MBA is down to a little above 100GB?  Yeah, I know that they only begin with 128GB and have to accommodate the OS and their initial payload of apps, so that’ll easily eat up, say, 30GB.  They’re immediately in contravention of the 10% rule, if it’s taken in the context of their sibling…  But it’s the 10% rule…

I strongly believe “the 10% rule” should have been buried years ago.  It was certainly a useful rule of thumb once upon a time, but it should have been dropped years ago.

What do you think?

Gary LearnTech

On the Mac Security front, how about this…  If you’re a mobile user, make sure your Mac boots to the login screen and prompts you for a reasonable password – rather than logging straight in to the desktop.

Melissa Holt

Hey Gary,

(Re: Your first post.) That’s very smart thinking, and you really gave me pause! I think it’s a strong possibility that you’re right in that the “10 percent” rule of thumb is a remnant of the time when drives were much smaller. However, I do think it’s probably still a good idea to suggest that to folks, because it seems to me that keeping “10 percent” in people’s minds is a simple way to prevent the problems that come with lack of free space, especially for the people who use smaller SSDs and what have you.

I can’t find any evidence of Apple giving any specific recommendations on how much to keep free (I even pulled out my Support Essentials book!), so if anyone’s able to find a definitive answer, I’d love to see it. I could swear that I remember having to answer that question on my first Apple certification test back in 2008, but my mind (being the sieve it sometimes is) could be lying to me.

I very much appreciate the food for thought. And I DEFINITELY agree with your second post. grin

—Melissa

LauraSchulz

Hi Melissa,

Great article about backup! Many people tend to forget this in their efforts to clean up and prepare their computers for 2014. The best solution for many people is to combine onsite with offsite backup. I personally use SuperDuper and Crashplan (yet I do have Backblaze running, too). I think Backblaze is the easiest way to back up data yet Crashplan offers more features. What do you think?

-Laura

Gary LearnTech

Hi Melissa On the one hand I can see that it’s easy to continue to recommend the 10% rule since it’s simple for, say, non-technical consumers to understand and follow. But on the other hand, while it may not be bad advice, it’s not really good all-round advice. In fact, it’s likely that “The 10% Rule” doesn’t apply in more than about 15-20% of situations. wink

Surely it’s not so difficult to advise, instead, something along the lines of this: “If you see your free space getting down to around 30GB start planning to do some serious housekeeping. If you allow it to get down to 20GB, Stop Planning And Start Doing! And if you find you’ve let yourself get to around the 10GB free mark, well, you’ll probably be having problems already – why don’t you listen to me any more? Stop Doing Anything Else And Get Your Act In Gear RIGHT NOW!”

You could call it something memorable like “Gary’s Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management”. Or, since it’s you, I’d let you call it “Melissa’s 30/20/10 Rule” – because I like you. :-D

I think that Gary’s Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management (hmmm, maybe going need something a little more catchy!) could easily be applied quite widely and work pretty well. I also reckon it would continue to work for new OS’s for at least the next few years. In my own case, I’ve been nursing my trusty Mid 2007 iMac with its 500GB drive for quite some time. I’m managing to keep it around the 40-50GB free mark and have found myself down around the 30GB mark only a couple of times. (Note to self: why have you not ordered that nice new top-of-the-range iMac yet, eh? It’s not as if you don’t have the money – you just don’t want the hassle of doing the migration once it arrives, do you?)

Like you, I’d be interested to hear if there is any official advice from our friends in Cupertino. But I suspect that they realise that if you factor in some types of ‘power users’ that their usage patterns would invalidate The Rule for them. And then you’d have to have two (or even more) rules and, well, it just starts to get messy…

Melissa Holt

Hey Laura,

I can’t really comment, honestly, as I’ve never used Backblaze. But I’ve had incredibly excellent customer support from CrashPlan, for what it’s worth. grin

—Melissa

Melissa Holt

Hey Gary!

Boy, you have no idea what kind of conversations you’ve started over here at Camp Melissa. A friend of mine got interested in this discussion and started doing some searching, too, and there’ve been some fascinating arguments made. I really do thank you for bringing this up!

The aforementioned pal found this link (http://pondini.org/TM/30.html) from the great Pondini, who points this out:

“Local snapshots require space on your internal HD […] but only if there’s at least 20% free space: Time Machine will delete some or all as necessary, and make no new ones, if the drive gets over 80% full.”

So that’s a good reason to make sure that at least 20 percent of your drive is free—Time Machine apparently won’t make any new local snapshots if that much isn’t available. This doesn’t prove anything in our current discussion, really, but I thought it was interesting. And thus far, it’s the closest I’ve been able to come to any sort of well-sourced advice on why percentages are important. Short of some random dude on the Apple forums saying so, that is!

I think I like “Gary’s Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management” better than “Melissa’s 30/20/10 Rule.” It’s just…catchier. Snazzier. Let’s go with that, no matter what we find out. :D

And for what it’s worth, I hereby authorize—nay, insist—that you get a new iMac soon. grin

—Melissa

Gary LearnTech

Hey Melissa, it’s you-know-who again, back for more! I’m really glad I’ve challenged your assumptions (in a positive way)!  grin

Aha! After a couple of clicks, that useful Pondini page led to this official Apple page, which offers up the first absolute value we’ve some across, 5GB, though only after first working through woollier, relative values. And it uses the 5GB in conjunction with 10%, choosing whichever is the lower value.
“OS X Mavericks: About local snapshots”
http://support.apple.com/kb/PH14329

But bear in mind that this particular discussion specifically applies to local snapshots on laptops (a nice bonus feature) and not desktop machines, though Pondini does document a Terminal command which will enable the functionality on desktop machines.

Having said that, the 5GB final threshold does seem pretty absolute and something we can take away from the “local snapshots” discussion for more general application. And better still, it supports “Gary’s Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management”, since it would allow a 5GB secret safety net at that last stage. (Hmm, how does the “the GTGHDCM 30/20/10 Rule” sound? Nope, I think you’re right, maybe it’s better to spell it out in full.)

Here’s a thought for you – you could introduce a special clause into the support contracts with your clients. “If you don’t heed my initial warnings and end up below 10GB (or 10%) – and finally decide at that point to call me in to sort out the problems with your machine, you’ll be charged triple the regular rate, so there!!”

When I order that new iMac, I’ll almost certainly get it with the 3TB Fusion Drive. Under that pesky, old 10% Rule, I’d have to begin housekeeping at just over 300GB free space. Compare that to the previously discussed hypothetical twin with the 128GB MacBook Air – eek!

[You know, I think I might just write up “Gary’s Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management” as a post on my blog. I think it’s over a year since the last post and this would be useful to have out there. If nothing else, it might trigger some further discussion. I will, of course, link back here and give you full credit for forcing me to finally put fingers to keyboard!]

Melissa Holt

Great clarifications, Gary (especially in finding that support article)! You rock!

Be sure when you write your article—which I am very much looking forward to reading—that you include a trademark symbol on your new awesome scheme. “Come one! Come all! Read about Gary’s fantastic ‘Trusted 30/20/10 Generalised Rule of Hard Disk Capacity Management™’! Amaze your friends and enlighten your children!” grin

And there’s no need for crediting me. You did all of the dirty work yourself!

—Melissa

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