How to Bulletproof (or Unf*ck) Your Mac

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(Photo: Small Dog Electronics)

Macs are easy to use. Intuitive!

Viruses? Never heard of ‘em!

Well, perhaps. But problems do crop up, even with the venerated Macintosh. Not long ago, I went to use Spotlight (cmd + spacebar) and, well, it looked a little off.

It displayed “Indexing Spotlight,” with an estimated finish time of several MILLION hours.

I’m no computer scientist, but that seemed like an abnormally long time. Alas, “ruh-roh” realizations alone do not diagnose problems, let alone fix them. Much of the world has felt the same at one point or another: “My [fill in the blank] is screwed, but I don’t even know where to start.” Cars? Computers? Health? We’re all ignorant of something, as mastering everything just isn’t an option.

So, I put a notice out on the Internets asking for help and learned a lot about Macs in the process. First and foremost: It need not be complicated to bulletproof (or unf*ck) your Mac.

But what if your Mac crashes or is stolen? Does that goddamn spinning beachball mean that my computer’s going to implode? Is there a simple way to sleep soundly at night?

My hope is that this post somehow helps you to do exactly that. It won’t be fancy, and it won’t impress the Carnegie Mellon CS crowd, but it will get the job done with minimal headache and paradox of choice. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

We’ll start with an e-mail thread from Jared Cocken, Creative Director of The Wonderfactory, then we’ll lead into personal suggestions.

If you have alternative solutions or more elegant fixes, please let me know in the comments!

Enter Jared

Most software glitches on OS X are permissions-based. Permissions set the read/write characteristics of every file and who those files can be viewed by; it’s an old system that comes from Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings. Luckily, it’s usually pretty easy to repair permissions.

Below are a few steps that will (A) Fix common issues on Macs, and (B) Keep your Mac running smoothly.

Step 1: Backup Data and Repair Permissions

1) Backup your data using one of the following methods:

Local Incremental Method – You can use Time Machine to perform incremental backups. I like the freedom of no wires, so I back up over WiFi to a Time Capsule ($299). The initial backup will take awhile, so plug your Mac into the Time Capsule’s ethernet port and let it run overnight. The subsequent, incremental backups take far less time since they only back-up items that have changed. If you don’t want to spend the cash on a Time Capsule, you can opt to plug in an external drive. I like these drives from Western Digital; they’re affordable and easy to store.

Off-Site Incremental Method – If you don’t want to spend the cash on an external drive and you’re more worried about your data than your OS, I recommend Backblaze ($4 per month for unlimited storage). It won’t backup your OS files, so if you want to avoid the pain of hand-restoring your system, you’ll want to double up with one of the other methods, as well. If you have a lot of data, the first back-up will take you a long time even on a fast connection; incrementals will speed through. Should you have a fatal drive error and don’t have time to wait for a large data download, Backblaze will expedite you a harddrive (for a fee).

Off-Site Clone Method – I recommend SuperDuper! ($27.95). It allows you to create a bootable clone on an external drive, meaning you’ll be able to get your machine restored with all of its data in no time. It can be scheduled, or set to run when you plug in a specific external drive. I perform a clone weekly and store it off-site.

 

2) Open up ‘Disk Utility’ – [Location: “/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility”]

  1. On the left, you’ll see little drive icons. There should be a slightly indented icon ‘Macintosh HD’ underneath another icon with a number (mine is 500.11 GB)
  2. Select the one named ‘Macintosh HD’
  3. Select ‘First Aid’ from the tabs
  4. Hit ‘Repair Disk Permissions’ and let it run
  5. When the repair is complete, click the non-idented drive and run another repair
  6. Congratulations, you just repaired your permissions. It’s actually good practice to run this every time you install/update software. I normally set a calendar reminder so I don’t forget.

3) Restart your Mac

Did that solve your problem? No? Not time to reach for the whisky just yet. It’s time for some drive repair.

Step 2: Fixing A Corrupt Directory

Another common problem is a corrupt directory file. The directory keeps track of how all the files are connected. If it gets messed up, your computer will effectively be driving in the dark. But this can be fixed.

Remember that DVD that came with your Mac? The one that has the ‘Do not throw these DVDs away’ label on it? It’s time to go and dig that out.

  1. Insert your OS X DVD
  2. Restart your Mac
  3. Press and hold the ‘C’ key until the Apple logo appears (you’re now booting from the DVD)
  4. Open up ‘Disk Utility’
  5. 1. Select Macintosh HD on the left
    2. Select ‘First Aid’ from the tabs
    3. Hit ‘Repair Disk’ (NOT ‘Repair Disk Permissions’) and let it run
    4. If you see any red results, they were likely the cause of your Mac’s problems

  6. Restart your Mac (making sure to select ‘Restart’ from the hard drive, not the DVD)

Did that solve your problem?

No? DAMMIT MAN… what have you been doing to that poor computer?!

Time to move onto the final step…

Step 3: Enter DiskWarrior

If Disk Utility wasn’t able to fix the problem, you’re going to need to bring in the big guns. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m talking about DiskWarrior ($99), the Spartan Army of OS repairing awesomeness. I’ve been using it since 1998, and it’s saved my bacon on numerous occasions. Sure, it might not look like much, but it’ll bring a whole world of hurt to those evil directory demons. How? It wipes them from the face of the earth by building it’s own directory.

Here’s how to use DiskWarrior:

  1. Insert the DiskWarrior DVD
  2. Restart your Mac
  3. Press and hold the ‘C’ key until the Apple logo appears (you’re now booting from the DVD)
  4. Agree to the ‘Blah, Blah, not our fault if you lose stuff, but we’re TOTALLY claiming the credit if we fix it’ disclaimer
  5. Select Macintosh HD from the drop-down menu, and hit ‘Rebuild’.
  6. Once DiskWarrior has finished building a preview directory, you’ll get two options: ‘Preview’ or ‘Replace.’ Click ‘Replace’ while shouting “This. Is. SPARTA!” (wearing an adhesive beard is recommended during this step).
  7. Restart your Mac
  8. Rejoice that all of your problems have gone away!

No? Okay… Now would be a good time to book an appointment at an Apple Store. The specialists at the Genius Bar will probably perform the exact same steps you just walked through, so it’s worth printing this post out beforehand to show what you’ve tried already, just so you don’t waste your time (or theirs).

If you call Apple Support, chances are that they’ll just tell you to reinstall your OS. Unless you followed Step 1 and backed up your data, that’s going to be a giant pain in the ass. Consider yourself warned!

Good luck!

Afterword and Additional Thoughts from Tim

Ultimately, I did all of the above but remained unconfident, even after adding other safety nets like using DropBox for redundancy and the lightweight Prey for theft protection. Why still unconfident? Simple: I’ve f*cked this type of thing up in the past with alarming regularity.

After all, the basic concept of a “bootable drive” eluded me for an embarrassingly long time. In plain-speak: you need a way to look at your computer without *using* your computer. Duh. The afflicted machine needs to be treated like a patient etherized upon a table, hard disk as still as a dead heart.

In the end, I took perhaps the simplest route as an insurance policy: I made an appointment at my local Mac store’s Genius Bar and brought DiskWarrior along with me, hat in hand. Long story short, my friendly Mac Jedi fixed my laptop using the store’s external drive, and the computer’s been fine since.

During the wait, I peppered this fine gentleman (nameless for reasons that will become obvious) with Mac questions of all sorts. There were a few additional takeaways that I found helpful:

1) If you’re going to run around with your laptop in a backpack, as I do, it’s best to get a machine with a solid-state drive, like the new Macbook Air.

2) To speed up reboot time, take all the crap on your desktop and put in a folder labeled something like “Desktop stuff to July 17, 2011.” This eliminates the need for your laptop to generate thumbnail images and accelerates everything.

3) Think Macs are impervious to viruses? Not forever, at least that’s my bet. I ended up installing the simple Sophos Anti-Virus for peace of mind.

4) You don’t need to buy new licenses for software when you get a new computer. Just copy and paste the following folders to your new computer in the appropriate locations:

– “Applications” folder
– Within “Library” (in your home directory), the “Applications Support” and “Preferences” folders.

Can anyone confirm or refute that this works?

5) Computers inevitably end up clogged with crap: stupid applications that don’t pan out, bloated unnecessary files, etc. I asked him: “If you were starting from scratch, what would you put on your short list of must-have applications?” His survival list included the following:

Tuneup – for cleaning up and unbloating iTunes.
Cocktail – use 1x per month to clean up your OS.
Handbrake – for ripping DVDs to your hard drive.
VLC media player – for playing various media files.
Transmission – for downloading torrents (BitTorrent client).
1Password – for (not)remembering log-ins and passwords.
Quicksilver or Alfred – for quickly launching apps (Call me old-fashioned, but I’m perfectly happy with Spotlight for the app-launching feature)
Netnewswire – RSS reader (I don’t have an RSS reader installed)
AppZapper (Tim addition to the list) – aptly called “the unintaller Apple forgot,” I use AppZapper to delete all the niggly hidden files, sometimes dozens, associated with applications that you want to get rid of.

Any other votes for elegant must-have applications? Other Armaggedon-avoiding Mac tips?

###

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Posted on: July 17, 2011.

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150 comments on “How to Bulletproof (or Unf*ck) Your Mac

    • To speed up your pages, have a look at a site called google web page test, put in your website and it generates whats called a waterfall chart, shows what is loading slow so you can work on speeding the pages up, I used it on one of my sites and it helped me pinpoint the issues.

      Like

  1. CleanApp for getting rid of installed junk when you delete a program. FileSalvage for if you have really screwed up and wipe files clean.

    Like

  2. Perfect timing. This couldn’t have come any sooner, as I’m experiencing a slower-than-normal boot up time, and am about to head off on some adventures where I run around with my laptop in a backpack. Thanks gents!

    Tim, was that Carnegie Mellon piece in the beginning a little rub on Charlie’s TEDx speech?
    :)

    – Josh

    Like

  3. Yeah – copying an applications files from “[home]/Library/Preferences/com.[application or company name].plist” and “[home]/Library/Application Support/[Appplication Name]” will contain all of the apps data.

    Lion installed a bootable drive such that you don’t need the install DVD in order to access Disk Utility from outside of the actual OS installation.

    More app props:
    * Moom by Many Trickets (http://manytricks.com/moom/): resize windows with the keyboard / grid resizing of windows
    * Perian (http://perian.org/): play all sorts of files in quicktime
    * f.lux (http://stereopsis.com/flux/): better lighting for your computer depending with options for actual room light
    * Spotify (http://www.spotify.com/us/hello-america/) [requires invite]: because music on demand is cool

    Like

    • This isn’t completely true – it’s only part of where some apps can get installed.

      A lot of apps on the mac are self-contained (all their dependent files reside inside the single app icon (which is actually a folder) so everything travels with it – minus user preference file, which can be transferred).

      However there are a lot of applications that depend on installed files inside the Application Support folder as you have mentioned. That being said, some applications install and rely on files placed inside the “Frameworks” area of the system library as well….

      Plus there are actually two Application Support folder areas (one system, one user) and sometimes/often both are used…

      So the real answer is Yes & No. It really all depends on the application installed.

      Like

  4. I am dreading the day my MacBook starts to act up. Thanks for the tips. As much as a I KNOW that I’ll end up making the Genius Bar pilgrimage, this post gives me some solid options to try before doing so..

    BTW, how is the ultra training going? I am working my way through “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall – pretty inspiring. Any views on the book?

    Like

    • I read Born to Run and found it very inspirational. I had the pleasure of meeting Chris last summer on a barefoot run from Harlem, NYC to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He ran with our group and then gave a presentation at Word Bookstore. I’ve been running barefoot for over 10 years now (Vibrams were only invented about 5 years ago), so this book has served well to reinforce what I have been telling skeptics all along- that sneakers, as well as any footwear are detrimental to the feet. Yes you guessed it, I am one of those crazy dedicated barefoot people. If you want to see one of them, come to one of our professional meetups in NYC listed on the above website. While it may not be as obvious in the summer, if you happen to go in the winter time when male/female alike is wearing closed shoes and socks, then this guy iwith bare feet walks up to you, and asks you how you’re doing, chances are you’ve just met me!

      On the subject of unf##king your MacBook, as I am typing this response, that annoying spinning beach ball keeps coming up and preventing me from doing anything remotely productive (tweeting, writing non-sensical surveys, checking my friends’ facebook status, and of course typing up silly responses to these posts). The most irritating part is that after about 5 minutes of beachball fun, I’ll attempt to do some work again. After about 3 characters, the beachball returns to do its thing for another 5 minutes! It especially likes to sit there and heckle you each time you go back to correct a typo! I am running Super Duper! as I am typing this and hoping that it works. Right now it is at the point of repairing permissions – (oh sh*t – there’s that beachball again!) – anyway, it is at the point of repairing permissions which it has been doing for the last half hour (beach ball f**k off!). I will post again after going through (Beachball, get your f##kin rotund a** off my screen!) the rest of the steps. In the meantime, it’s about time I move my country a** away from this laptop and enjoy the rest of the day outdoors in (beach ball, did you hear me? f##k off! I said F##K OFF!) barefoot bliss!
      BTW I hope you like this response. I personally find it pretty lame, especially combined with Mr. Beachball (whose a** I am about to kick if it were ever possible), and Super Duper running in the background, it’s taken me almost an hour to type this out!

      Like

      • LOVED the response:) Very entertaining discourse on the beach bacll:) And the next time I am in NYC (I could possibly be there in November – I checked out your site but couldn’t tell what the dates are for meetups), I’ll try to make a meetup. I am impressed with your barefoot running. I’ve been obsessing about having the right shoes and I am starting to think that I have been working off of the wrong premise completely.

        Footwear aside though, running allows me the endorphin-induced clarity to make my biggest decisions and to stick with my vision for life… I simply think better in the cool-down right after my run. It really is amazing.

        Very impressed that you got to meet Chris. Any views on the best training schedule for an ultra?

        Like

      • Loving the Beach Ball post. Yeah, the little nerd likes to bounce in and play for the LONGEST time at the most inconvenient moments.

        Life can be full of those inconveniences…until you start to notice how they can be turned into opportunities, like going outside barefoot…

        Anyway, Tim, THANKS for this. I ran a computer repair shop for a year and these things you listed are some of the core tips. Love that you posted it all so thoroughly here, despite some commenters reacting to this being a “tech blog”.

        TechToolsPro is a great little app to fix stuff as well; someone mentioned the PRAM reset and that’s the only other tip I’d ad.

        Rawk on.

        Like

  5. Tim you really need try Reeder, it’ll change your life or at least the way you digest blog news. Available on Mac, iPhone and iPad. I have no relationship with the creator.

    Like

  6. Hey Tim –

    A few other handy apps that can make life on a mac even easier include Default Folder X, which makes save dialogues a whole lot smarter, and Daisy Disk, which can help you locate huge files which are taking up room on your hard drive. When using that one, though, caveat emptor: if you’re using it to delete unnecessary files, be sure you know what you’re deleting before you send it to the trash!

    One other sweet little utility is Take Five, which puts your iTunes (or other media player) pause on a timer. Handy for when the phone rings!

    Like

  7. Little Snitch is a great app to see what’s going on in your internet up/down streams. See which apps are doing what and block those that shouldn’t be doing things.

    I feel real naked on computers where I can’t see how the internet is behaving.

    Like

  8. I would recommend : Disk Inventory X

    It gives a nice visual representation of your harddrive and colour codes it, for video, photos, data etc.

    Also, Why is there no link at fourhourbody.com/ultra. It keeps saying “coming soon.” At the very least, I think you should explain why the conclusion of your story on ultrarunning isnt available.

    Thanks.

    Like

  9. I use all backup outlined above too. Time machine once a day, seven days a week. Backblaze is always running in the background and I have a clone made twice a year. There is no way I can afford to lose data on my MBP. My friends call me paranoid but the one time when my HD died, I was prepared and up and running within an hour.

    Some of my favorite software for the Mac (aside the ones already mentioned in the post):

    Omnifocus – the best task manager.
    Busycal – they call it iCal on steroid for a reason and works great with Gcal.
    Pathfinder – I never liked Finder. You can’t copy and paste easily. Pathfinder does that beautifully and supports tabs for browsing around.
    Mindmanager – for mindmapping.
    Textexpander – great tool for having shortcuts for common phrases you use.
    F.lux – turns your screen brighter/dimmer based on the daylight time.
    Quiet Read – nifty tool for savings URLs that you don’t necessarily want to instapaper, but want to revisit later.
    Hazel – automate routine tasks on the background. I love this little app.
    Cloud.app – easy and fast way of sharing screenshots.
    Istat menus – handy menu bar tool for system monitoring.
    Omnigraffle – for making diagrams and flowcharts.
    Screenflow – for making screencasts.
    Launchbar – my favorite application launcher. Can be very basic but if you explore the advanced options you’ll almost never use a mouse/trackpad again.

    For bloggers, I can highly recommend Scrivener – the best writing program. Ever. Tim, you should consider writing your blog posts with Scrivener. You can store all your research material within the program and they are easily accessible. You won’t have to leave the program to Evernote to use your research data. Plus, if you use Multimarkdown + Scrivener you can blog really fast and efficiently.

    Like

    • Macs don’t ‘copy & paste’ in the Finder, that’s Windows thing. Just hold the option key while dragging a file to a new location, that’ll duplicate it rather than move it.

      Like

  10. One utility I would suggest you install on your Mac is AppleJack. It’s basically a trouble shooting utility for when the OS won’t start, and you don’t have a startup disk handy.

    I’ve used it a few times at work for Mac’s that refuse to boot, and it’s saved me a ton of hassle. It’s an open source project on sourceforge, and you can get it here:- http://applejack.sourceforge.net/

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  11. The most important thing to note is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Run an antivirus, a dedicated firewall, and make backups before you need them. Keep all of it updated.

    On the windows side, for a really bad machine, it’s often easier to rebuild from scratch and just pull the old drive using it as a slave. Then pull just grab your data from the slave (or your nice off-site backups).

    Hardware is cheap, time is not.

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  12. The preferences bit sounds right. I use it for people at work almost everyday. Although I keep a backup of my serials/licenses on a server and my local machine in case I need to reenter them later.

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  13. My Macbook Pro was stolen a few weeks ago, and I was SO glad I had Prey installed. I got the computer back this week! You can read the full story on my blog.

    Glad to know about the benefit of Solid State drives for travel. I’m using a Macbook Air now and will probably continue using them from now on. Lighter, smaller, and fast enough for my needs.

    I agree with Tim – Spotlight fills my needs for application launching, although it sounds like QuickSilver can do a lot more than just that.

    Like

  14. Some applications (Not many, but a few) store their settings in /Library rather than /users/[username]/Library. In Finder, open your hard drive, then look in the Library folder. You can then copy Application Support and Preferences from there.

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  15. As a former Mac Genius, a truly hellish retail job, I can say that this is a sound article.

    I offer a few tips:
    – Backing up your data is a must, do it often and before any troubleshooting when possible. Cannot stress enough, Apple will almost never help you with lost data. Data is a liability and Apple doesn’t want to touch it.
    – If you have a portable and you are going to have it in your bag for longer than 10 or 15 minutes turn it off before hand. The boot times aren’t that bad and it prevents heat related issues. Just because it’s sleeping doesn’t mean it can’t decide it wants to roast.
    – Allow the sleep indicator light to pulse before moving your portable after you close it. When you close the lid it starts writing down anything it needs in its sleepimage file, moving it is bad and increases the amount of time it takes to get to sleep while introducing unneeded hard drive wear.
    – If you’re missing your disk and the drive isn’t completely shot you can boot holding command and s at the same time to boot into single user mode. The command listed “fsck -fy” will do the same directory repair disk utility will, with higher success in most cases.
    – For a lot of issues making a new user account from the System Preferences menu will tell you whether the issue is system wide or account based. Account based issues are a little more annoying to troubleshoot, system wide issues are usually resolved with a reinstallation of the OS. This normally will not result in data loss if you use Snow Leopard. With Leopard just make sure you check “Archive and install” and “Preserve Users and Networking Settings.”
    – AppleCare is actually a good idea, even though most warranties aren’t. For proprietary parts it’s amazing to have and increases resale value of the machine drastically. You can sell a computer with a year of AppleCare for almost as much as a new computer, allowing you to upgrade for less when the shiny new things come out.
    – Run your updates. They fix bugs and don’t create issues, only bring about things that were bound to happen anyway. Set a day of the week to check for updates that works for you in the rare event that they cause an issue. Back up your data first.
    – If you hard drive fails out of warranty and it’s user replaceable (All MacBooks, and any unibody MacBook Pro) just replace it yourself. It’s simple and will cost less for an upgrade than a repair for the same part. Plus, if you didn’t back up you can do data recovery if you want to shell out the $500-$2600 to most reputable places.
    – Most current Apple viruses are designed to trick you into installing them. Be mindful of what you give your password to and ask yourself if you really wanted to install this application advertized in a pop up. Common sense is still enough to protect you, can’t promise for the future though.
    – If your computer is out of warranty don’t expect Apple to cover it past 45 days. If your computer is over 3 years old, don’t be surprised at issues, it can happen to any piece of hardware.

    After 4 years of that job you start to pick up a few things. Most issues are software based, isolating the user account or operating system are the first steps, follow by component isolation. Think logically, and be nice to the guy behind the counter, and you’ll get any issue resolved.

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  16. Nice Post- Here ar e a few of my tips that I have used as often as soap:

    Tip-1
    Backups:

    Backup to external harddrives and keep them away.
    Backup via firewire port (if you have an air- use usb) Thunderbolt port soon to come.

    Tip-2
    When you purchase a new mac you can buy One-One- Apple’s unlimited one to one sessions with an apple specialist good for a full year.

    Tip-3 Purchase Apple Care. Helps when you want to resell your mac and you can call Apple and get help on any issue you are having with your mac.

    Cheers

    Like