Keep Your Mac Healthy and Happy in 2005


- Episode 33 - January 7th, 2005

This is my first column of the year, so it's chock full of resolutions to help you keep your Mac (and yourself) healthy and happy in 2005.

* Resolve to buy more RAM if you have less than 256MB.

More RAM means Mac OS X has more room to stretch its legs; when it has enough legroom it will run noticeably faster. Plus, you can have more programs open and those programs will run faster.

RAM is cheap; don't spend another year suffering; if you don't already have enough of the stuff, buy some in 2005.

* Resolve to back up important files religiously and regularly.

I know I recommend this so often I'm beginning to sound like a GarageBand loop, but you'd be shocked at how many e-mails and phone calls I get that start out with, "I know I should have backed up, but..."

No ifs, ands, or buts about it-you have to back up files you care about. Your hard disk (and most media) will fail someday. If you don't have multiple copies of important files, you may never see them again.

Can you live without them? I thought not.

So back it up now, and back it up regularly.

Hard disk prices have never been lower so consider external FireWire drives as your backup media rather than slower optical CD or DVD discs or tape. It's fast, efficient, and cost-effective to back up to hard disks these days.

Moving right along, if you automate the backup process, it will work religiously even when you don't.

I'm a huge fan of Retrospect and its scripts. I merely schedule my backups to run unattended; all I have to do after that is leave my Mac on and make sure the disks or discs have space available. I have more than a dozen different backup scripts that run unattended 24/7 on my Mac. One backs up my Writing folder every two hours, copying files modified since the last backup; one backs up my Home folder every 12 hours; one backs up my Applications folder each week; and I even have a script that clones my entire hard disk to a second hard disk every morning at 2 A. M., so I always have a bootable duplicate of my startup disk handy if I need it.

Most of the scripts back up the files to one of my four external FireWire drives; a handful back up files to DVDs, which I store off-site for disaster recovery.

Finally, remember these two rules for effective and efficient backups and you'll never go wrong:

Rule #1: One backup is never enough.

This one is absolutely immutable: One backup is never enough for any important document. Here's why: Say you have a document file. It is a perfectly good document file one day; a few days later you discover it's damaged and won't open. If you only have one backup, it's very possible you have two bad copies of the file and no good ones. If you have multiple backups, there's a much better chance of you recovering a recent, undamaged version of it.

Here's another reason one backup isn't enough: Let's say you're diligent and you always backup your important files on a hard disk, optical disc, tape, cartridge, or whatever. Now, imagine that one day that disk, tape, cartridge, or whatever, disintegrates. Poof-it's gone!

Again, multiple backups would more than likely have saved your bacon.

So I recommend at least three backups of every file you care about.

Rule #2: At least one backup should be stored off-site.

If all of your backups are stored in the same room, or even the same building as your Mac, you run the risk of losing everything to fire, flood, earthquake, or other acts both natural and unnatural, including but not limited to theft and acts of aggression. Losing data this way more or less defeats the purpose of backing up, so keep at least one recent backup in a different physical location.

No matter what you are backing up, from a single document to your entire hard disk, it's a bad idea to keep your only backup in the same room (or even the same building) as your Mac.

I have a set of backup DVDs at my neighbor's house. I also have a safe deposit box at the bank with a recent set of backup DVDs in it. So even if my office were flooded, burnt down, vandalized, or even vaporized, the files in the safe deposit box would be, well, safe.

* Resolve to run Apple's Disk First Aid or the Unix file system check (fsck) once a week or more.

Disk Utility is a little program that can, among other things, check your hard disk for damage and then repair it using its First Aid function. This can go a long way toward keeping your Mac running smoothly and it only takes a few minutes a week to do. It can't hurt and just might help.

Alas, to run Disk First Aid on your hard disk, you need to boot from a CD or DVD such as the Mac OS X installer disc that came with your Mac. Finding that CD or DVD, booting from it, launching Disk Utility, running First Aid, and then restarting again afterwards, can be somewhat inconvenient. Fortunately, there is a faster alternative-the Unix file system check, which you can run without booting from a CD or DVD.

You will have to start up your Mac in single user mode and type a command or two, but it's really quite easy and since it does pretty much the same thing as First Aid, it might save you time.

Here's how to run fsck on your Mac:

1. Restart your Mac.

2. Immediately press and hold the Command and S keys down until you see a bunch of text begin scrolling on your screen. In a few more seconds, you'll see the Unix command line prompt (#).

Now that you're at the # prompt, here's how to actually run fsck:

3. Type "fsck -y" (that's fsck-space-minus-y).

Note: If you are using a disk with Journaling enabled (e.g. Mac OS X 10.3), you'll need to type "fsck -f" instead of "fsck -y")

4. Press Return.

If you see a message that says: ***** FILE SYSTEM WAS MODIFIED *****.- and this is extremely important - you must repeat Steps 3 and 4 again and again until that message no longer appears. Having to run fsck more than once is normal, because the first run's repairs may uncover additional problems.

When fsck finally reports that no problems were found, and the # prompt reappears:

5. Type "reboot" or "exit."

6. Press Return.

Your Mac should proceed to start up normally to the login window or the Finder.

* Resolve to run Disk Utility's Repair Disk Permissions regularly.

For whatever reason, Mac OS X can become confused about which files can be managed by which users. That's why savvy Mac users run Disk Utility's Repair Disk Permissions function often. I run it after I install ANY piece of software, and I run it once every couple of weeks, just in case.

It's fast and easy and doesn't require you to boot from a CD or DVD. And, you don't have to restart your Mac, either. Just launch Disk Utility (from your Applications/Utilities folder), click your boot disk in the list on the left side of the window, click the First Aid tab, and then click the Repair Disk Permissions button. That's it. When repairs are completed (See Figure 1), just quit Disk Utility and get on with your work.

Figure 1: Disk Utility has finished repairing Disk Permissions on my boot disk, Boots.
(Click the image for a larger version)

* Resolve to join a user group or at least attend a User Group meeting.

Mac User Groups are one of the best resources in the world for Mac users and a great way to meet other Mac enthusiasts who share your passion. They're also a great way to learn more about how to use your Mac better, faster, and more elegantly. Most offer special interest groups for many applications, and question and answer sessions with experts, in addition to raffles, lectures, and much more.

If you're not already active in your local Mac user group, visit and find the group in your neck of the woods and then join it (or at least attend a meeting or two).

That's all he wrote...

There is one more thing: Have a very happy and healthy New Year!