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Mac Maintenance

By in featured, mac, podcast on February 24, 2011
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if you look at the marketing for commercial and freeware “Mac maintenance apps” you see stuff like “Apple should bundle this!” or “it totally saved my bacon!” and finally “best app ever!” dubious marketing at best. the thing is most modern Macs aren’t in a “regularly scheduled program.” people just use them without doing anything special to them to keep them running.

the people of Know Tech are divided on the care and feeding. Chris has a Windows centric attitude causing him to rebuild and reinstall the System and all his apps twice a year. Kenji lived with a broken MacBook Pro keyboard for nearly 2 years before he bothered to get it fixed. Craig has a detailed backup system. Kristin just uses her Macs. and all the Macs that John takes care of just seem to work without any messing about.

so why do people have a need to maintenance their Macs? it’s something that is built into all consumer products. your car needs regular care, you have to put chemicals into the pool, the heater filter gets changed, the coffee maker needs de-liming and the refrigerator needs to be de-iced. maintenance is all around us and were programmed to accept doing it. some people actually like the peace of mind that they’ve “done something” and other people “just like doing” maintenance because it makes them feel good.

but it can’t hurt? if you listen to the guy that runs “some maintenance tool every week” he’ll exclaim “I never have a problem with my system therefore what I’m doing is working!” you have to weigh that against our own findings that show you don’t have to do anything at all and all is well. sometimes “doing something” can make it worse. look at the Oynx forum here you will find some of reports that a Mac sometimes breaks after running this tool. this makes the “solution” worse than the “problem” in our mind.

the thing with maintenance tools is that they often get used at the wrong time. these tools usually get pulled out when something is horribly wrong with the a Mac like it won’t boot, applications won’t launch, something takes forever to open or it’s just slow. what happens next is a person will start to “try things” in the hope of making it better.

reboot
command option P-R
remove the battery and hold down the power button for 5 seconds.
reset-nvram
reset-all
repair permissions

if you phoned tech support at any company you will be asked to try it these things because it’s on a list. the thing is that none of the above will actually fix anything. and doing it regularly won’t actually make your Mac run any better than it already is running.

almost nobody suspects that the actual problem is a hardware problem. the modern computer is a highly reliable tool. but it’s not infallible. parts wear out, static takes it’s toll and that time you dropped it yet it still worked has caught up with you. instead of resorting to a long list of tricks the first thing that you should make happen is busting out the backup drive to make sure all the photos, music, writing and email is up-to-date. you do have a backup drive right?

if you don’t buy one right now.

there are quite a few “maintenance tools” that will invoke various scripts that clean caches, dump logs and do other repairs. these tools include applejack, TinkerTool, mainmenu and OnyX.

we aren’t not recommending these tools. nor are we flat out saying don’t use them. the point of all this is to know what you are getting into before you click GO. pretty much don’t take the word of “my Mac friend” just because they sound like they know what they are talking about. look into the forums before you commit to running because there are reports of problems. now, to be fair, maybe these tools didn’t cause the problem at all. maybe this was what got tried in an attempt to undo some other hail mary attempt of a fix.

remember, if you aren’t totally sure about something don’t use the tool.

okay so commercial software is better? there’s is a list of these tools as well: Drive Genius, Drive Tool Box, Disk Warrior, Tech Tool Pro, and Disk Utility (included on every Mac). yep, sometimes these tools actually do things that will fix your broken Mac meaning running them once in a while help eliminate potential problems? maybe. but more likely not. we consider these tools to be rear view mirror apps. you would use them when the problem is so big that it’s a last ditch. maybe because your backup drive is hosed (aka you never had one).

a very important thing to note about maintenance tools is that you must check to make sure the version you are about to run is compatible with the system you have. that 12 year old copy of Norton Utilities is not going to help you. and it may do lots of damage to your system if you actually got it to run. but any out of date “fix it tool” will have the same issue. what worked for OS X 10.2 is out of date for 10.6 as lots has changed. find a way to check to make sure you have a compatible version BEFORE you subject your Mac to it’s fix.

another common maintenance problem starts because an application appears damaged or doesn’t run at all. Final Cut Pro has this problem as do some Mail programs. the hidden “holding down the shift key or option key while starting the app” will reveal a secret maintenance mode. sometimes these the repair will make it work again. but sometimes the only way to make it work again is to reinstall the application or worse (only because it’s so time consuming) rebuild the entire system.

96% of apps uninstall simply by deleting the app. the applications that that don’t are from Adobe, Microsoft and Apple. for example Garage Band puts all the samples and loops in the Library folder so deleting GB from the Applications folder won’t get you 12G free. you could “use a good uninstaller” but there’s few 3rd party tools and the rest of them come from the maker.

the biggest problem is that doing things like re-installing often won’t help because the installer doesn’t kill all the old files in the installation process. if a pref or a .plist or some hidden file is corrupt no amount of reinstalling will fix the problem. one of the wonkiest problems we ever saw was when a user deleted a Microsoft Office demo instead of using the Remove Office application. when they tried using the real version it acted weird. in this one case it took copying a Demo folder to it so it would uninstall using the dumb app. the newer Uninstaller for Office seems do a better job of finding deleted versions.

and then there is Repair Permissions. this is here because that it’s part of the Apple support check list. they do it because sometimes, and this is only once in a blue moon, a problem is actually fixed by running it. and they will run whenever there are weird problems reported even though the failure is clearly hardware. we had a MacBook with a SuperDrive that would burn CDs but not DVDs. the first thing they wanted to do was re-install the OS. they being the airquotes Geniuses. booting from a different drive proved that it was the hardware. but the airquotes G insisted on Repair Permissions, Zap’d the PRAM and some other rubber chicken waving. finally convinced that it wasn’t software the hardware fix commenced.

the user desperate to have a working Mac again will try anything to get it to work. the problem with having a button called “repair” in a app is that the user will trust it implicitly. they will try it and try it all the while ignoring the tell tale signs of a dying drive—clicking, popping, long delays, beach balls, etc. using Reparing Permissions as a gauge for drive health is interesting. thing is, that Mac with that drive would have already been slow. and having it take an hour plus shows how bad it was. we’d say that Permissions fixing was never the issue at all as the drive had been dying for a weeks.

Permissions have not been a big problem since 10.4 was released. which means we really need to understand exactly what Repair Permissions does.

http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1452
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2963
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repair_permissions

one of the things that gets this feature so much attention is the word Repair. it became the catch-all task to do first for any problem that arrises. like magic is going to happen every time this runs. here’s a quote of what you usually see in a forum post:

“This is on an older PowerBook G4 with 10.5.8. I ran Fix Permissions and it made no difference.”

duh, right? the thing to note is that the user wrote it as “Fix Permissions”. there it is FIX as in FIX my problem! I bet we could release a series off apps called “Error Tools” that essentially do nothing yet that everyone would report in “dude, it fixed my problem!!”

so what is the best thing you can do for Mac maintenance? have a backup. and have another backup. but remember your backup is only as good as how fast you can use it and how complete it actually is.