5 Ways to Take Care of Your Mac in 2014

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.