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12 Steps to Improving Your Mac's Performance

by Joli Ballew, author of Degunking Your Mac (from Paraglyph Press)

It is common for computers to slow down as they age; that's a fact. This slowdown isn't just inherent to PCs; it applies to Macs, too. No matter how much care you take, your computer will eventually bog down and perform sluggishly. That's just the way it goes.

In Degunking Your Mac, published by Paraglyph Press, I detail why this slowdown occurs. The problems are common to all computers, with only minor variations brought on by the individuality of The One Using The Computer The Most. Figuring out what causes the slowdown is a start to getting better performance. Knowing the cause of the problem is only half the battle; though. To recoup the performance lost, you must know what steps are required to fix the problem, and learn how to maintain the computer once it is running properly.

What Happened?

What happened to cause your computer to slow down, and why does it run more slowly than it did the day you brought it home? Consider for a moment all of the files, photos, videos, music, and applications you've added or installed. Imagine the CPU and the hard drive working to find, open, play, edit, and run all of the stuff stored on your computer. If you have anything you no longer need, that's gunk, and too much of it can cause your computer to have to work overtime to perform presumably simple tasks.

Besides gunk you've added on purpose, you probably have gunk that you're not aware of. You may have old installation files, programs you no longer use, too many fonts that look the same, or you may even have (yes, you can have this) a fragmented hard drive. Worse than all of this, though, is running programs and applications not created for your operating system. If you're using OS X, it's time to upgrade those old applications.

Finally, even if you're a fairly organized person, you still may not be aware of what needs to be done on a regular basis to keep both you and your Mac happy. Keeping your Mac happy includes organizing the data you want to keep, getting updates, deleting unnecessary files and emptying the Trash, backing up your data regularly, using anti- virus software, and using third-party tools to check for and repair problems.

You can enhance performance considerably by following the steps I've outlined in Degunking Your Mac, which I've summarized briefly in this article. As is noted in the book, it's best to move sequentially, so I recommend you start at Step 1.

1. Throw Away Data You No Longer Need and Defragment Your Drive

Related Reading

Degunking Your Mac
By Joli Ballew

Making more room on the hard drive by deleting unnecessary files and programs helps both you and your Mac work better and more efficiently. For you, there's less to sift through to find what you want (so you'll work faster), and for your Mac, there's less for it to sift through to find what it wants (so it will work faster). Deleting unnecessary files, folders, fonts, and applications is therefore always a good idea.

But deleting data doesn't come without a price. Your hard drive is a circular disk, and data is written to that disk starting with the first open space available and working inward. When you repeatedly save and then delete data from the hard drive, you create little pockets of empty space all over the hard disk where subsequent data can be saved. Thus, when a chunk of data, say a large video file, cannot be saved in the first pocket of space it finds, it is separated into various open areas on the hard drive. When you ask your Mac to pull up the file, it has to go to two, three, or more areas of the drive and piece the file together. When this happens, the file is considered fragmented. Pulling together fragmented files takes longer than pulling up a single file that is not fragmented.

So after deleting all of your unnecessary data, and after taking out the Trash, you should purchase a third-party defragmenter and run it. You'll see a huge difference in performance, because the defragmenter will locate all of the fragmented files on your hard disk, piece them together, and save them together. This is a necessary step in enhancing performance, and should be performed two to four times a year.

2. Get Rid of Problem Applications

As mentioned in the previous section, when you reduce clutter, you improve the performance of your system. You also improve your personal performance and efficiency because all of the junk has been put in the Trash and you no longer have to sift through it to find what you want. The next step after removing unnecessary personal items is to remove programs and applications you don't use and their related preferences files.

In addition to removing programs you don't use, though, you can remove programs you can't use, such as the image application you installed with your first web cam -- you don't need that now that you have iSight. You can also look for programs that you installed with printers you no longer own, or programs for an old scanner or digital camera you no longer use. You may also have programs that have expired, beta programs you tested and didn't like, or programs you tried but didn't buy. Finally, if you've recently purchased the newest version of Photoshop, you might no longer need or want Photoshop Elements or similar programs.

Your Mac came preinstalled with things you might not need, too. Although I'm not recommending it, you can delete iMovie, iTunes, iDVD, iPhoto, iCal, and other built-in applications if you desire. You can certainly delete Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, the trial version of Microsoft Office that expired months ago, and similar programs as you deem necessary. The point is: if you don't need it, get rid of it.

3. Get Organized

If you can find things faster, your computer will (at least seem to) run faster. There are lots of ways to organize your data. The simplest is to create personal folders inside of your Home folders and move existing files into a folder that details its contents. When creating folders and subfolders, create a plan first. The hardware you have connected to your Mac generally gives you a clue there. Do you have iPods, digital cameras, DV cameras, or musical instruments hooked up? If so, you should start there. If you need a little help deciding what folders to create, what to name them, and where to store them, consider these ideas:

  • If you have a digital camera and take a lot of pictures, create folders with subfolders that are named after the type of pictures you've taken: Weddings, Vacations, Wild Parties, Building Our Home, and folders for each of your children and each of your pets.
  • If you are a freelance artist or run a graphics company, create folders that contain artwork for specific companies or clients. You might also have folders for artwork in progress, finished artwork you can archive, and artwork ideas.
  • If you have a scanner and are the family genealogist, create a folder named Scans and create subfolders for each branch of the family tree.
  • If you create GarageBand projects for fun or profit, organize your GarageBand tunes by date created, by name, by client, or by song.
  • If you have a DV camera and take a lot of video, create subfolders inside of the Movies folder that are named after the type of movies you've created.

The idea is to take a good, hard look at what you use your Mac for and create folders that represent who you are and what you do.

Note: You can also personalize the desktop with folders, and use labels as a colorful way to highlight a folder's name for easy recognition. This will make finding your files faster and easier. You can also compress and archive data you rarely access.

4. Clean Up the Desktop, Dock, and Finder Windows

Teaching your Mac how you want it to act and look is very important, and it is something that many users overlook, especially when it comes to fine-tuning the Mac for greater productivity . Do you have too many icons on the Dock? Remove them. Do you use the same programs every day? Add them to the Dock or the Finder toolbar. Do you need an icon for your display properties on the menu bar? Add it. It's important to focus on getting you working more efficiently by personalizing what you access every day.

5. Take Control of Spam

Email is the glue that holds your personal and business computing together. Unfortunately, this glue is a magnet for gunk. Just a little carelessness will attract an unimaginable amount of gunk in the form of spam. Spam is one of those phenomena for which prevention is the very best cure.

Taking control of spam starts with prevention and is kept to a minimum with common sense. There are a lot of things you can do to lessen the amount of spam you get, and to take control of your email account.

Start by creating three different email accounts -- primary, backup, and disposable -- to minimize spam. Choose a primary email address that is not vulnerable to dictionary attacks, and don't use your primary email address on newsgroups, with vendors, on the Web, or anywhere else. Do not use "unsubscribe" options to get rid of spam, and choose, use, and update a separate spam filtering product to reduce the spam you'll inevitably get. Take advantage of Mail's Junk Filtering options, too, and learn about mail proxies and free and low-cost spam-filtering utilities.

6. Get Rid of Font Gunk

Having unnecessary fonts, fonts with only minor differences (such as a bold, italic, and normal versions of the same font), fonts that are the same but have different names, unorganized fonts, or duplicate fonts not only slows down your system and how fast you work, but it can also cause system crashes. (Graphite and Tek look almost exactly alike; Chancellor and Penman do, too. There's likely no reason for a non-professional artist to have both.)

You have fonts in lots of places on your hard drive; five folders, in fact. To remove a font, an administrator must remove it from each of these folders. Remember, when OS X looks for a font, it works through all five available folders; the font will continue to be available as long as your Mac can find it in one of the font folders. Because the operating system needs certain fonts, though, you should concentrate on fonts you've added or acquired by installing programs.

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