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A Baker's Dozen Tips for Spring Cleaning Your Mac

Whether you're a recent convert, ambivalent veteran or one of those hardened Apple fanboys, let us remind you: a Mac, like any other computer, needs to be maintained. No, you probably don't need anti-virus software (yet), you may never have to fiddle with registry editing, and you'll likely never need to reinstall the operating system. But you may face a kernel panic, a raft of mysterious app crashes or the dreaded spinning beach ball of death. We've put together thirteen tips for keeping our Macs lean, clean computing machines. Spring has sprung, so, while you dust off your shelves and empty your closets, do some Mac maintenance, too.

1. Get a backup drive and use it.

Time MachineJust do it already. We like Apple's Time Machine because you set it and forget it, but options abound. (See our story on easy ways to back up.) Before anything else, put it on your to-do list and make it happen, lest you end up like the legions of sad-sack schmucks we regularly counsel when they have their laptops stolen or suffer a hard drive failure. So while you fold up your winter sweaters, have a backup going in the background. 'Nuff said.

2. Dump unused apps.

dump appsGo through your Applications folder and take the opportunity to chuck out all those programs you never use -- old versions of AIM, various peer-to-peer apps that are defunct, weird shareware for mounting serial-to-USB adapters and so on. With Macs, you're almost always safe by simply dragging the application to the trash and emptying it. Some software, however, distributes itself throughout your system library, so it's worth using software that hunts down all those miscellaneous files and chucks them too. (We like the free AppCleaner.) You'll free up precious hard drive space and find it easier to locate the applications you actually use.

3. Wack your widgets.

widgetsWe'll admit to relying on a few handy widgets -- we love iStat, for instance -- but have also discovered that some widgets may end up being incredible resource hogs that can subtly eat up precious processing power, or even cause hang-ups and crashes. (Our homemade Web-clip Pandora widget was a real system killer.) Go to your Dashboard, then click the plus sign. Hit 'Manage Widgets' and, in the pop-up Widget Manager, un-check any you don't use. For a deeper purge, go to Macintosh>Library>Widgets and permanently delete any of those files. (It will require you enter your admin password.)

4. Purge your fonts.

Believe it or not, fonts can be real bugbears that chew up serious processing power or cause all kinds of inexplicable conflicts that lead application and system crashes. By default, Apple installs tons of fonts for use by the system -- which you shouldn't delete -- as well as dozens of optional ones that you can clear out if you don't think you'll ever need them (unless you plan on designing Web pages using Kanji or Cherokee script). Open Font Book (in Applications), and select User to see the ones you've installed. Alternatively, select All Fonts, and select and delete any you don't need. If it's an important system font, a warning will pop up; definitely do not delete those, or you'll risk harming your system.

5. Clear off your desktop.

cleanedIf you're like our parents, your desktop is littered with the detritus of literally hundreds of e-mail forwards, groan-worthy Powerpoint photo assemblages and unused MS Word files from 2002. Besides being the computer equivalent of living in abject squalor, desktop hoarding also saps processing power, as your Mac tracks and updates quick-look info constantly for every file and folder on your desktop. Clean those up, get in the habit of popping 'em in folders, and scoot the folders into sub-folders within your Users>Documents folder. For easy access, drag that folder to the Dock beside the trash, and you'll have one-click access to everything.

6. Get permissions in order.

disk permissionsExperts disagree, but we'll take Apple's word: if you've found your Mac slowing down, spinning that beach ball, or suffering application crashes, it's time to do some maintenance. Thankfully it's very easy. Launch 'Disk Utility' (in Applications>Utilities) and select your hard drive in the left column. In the panel on the right, click 'Repair Disk Permissions,' which runs a Unix routine to correct any creeping errors in your startup disk. Depending on how long it's been since you last did this, how fast your processor is, or how messed up your system is, it'll take anywhere from two minutes to ten. Let it do its thing, and then be amazed at how much faster things run.

7. Go monolingual.

monolingualBy default, your Mac comes preloaded with a bevy of foreign languages, which is convenient if you're a polyglot, but is otherwise an extravagant waste of space if you just stick to one tongue. In order to work correctly, that means that every application Apple loads on your system contains the necessary files to work in multiple languages. You can safely delete these and potentially free up a few gigs on your hard drive. (We got back more than 3GB -- a huge savings for an old laptop.) You could do it manually, but 'Monolingual' is free software that'll do it for you, while making sure to not delete crucial files that prevent your Mac from functioning properly. Run it after every software update, since language packs are added back in. Once again, with emphasis added: do a system backup before running it in case things go sour. (Click here for a superb rundown on how to use 'Monolingual' correctly.)

8. Jam up your RAM.

ramFor your Mac to run smoothly, especially when you have a bunch of applications open simultaneously or if you do video or audio editing, you need to have a lot of RAM installed. A base model MacBook comes with 2GB. (Just running the OS requires one gig.) RAM is extremely cheap these days, so hit up your favorite online store (and we like to figure out what type you need. For a hundred bucks or so, you'll turbocharge your Mac.

9. Give your hard drive a little space.

hard drive spaceWhile RAM is important to a smoothly running Mac, a lesser-known albatross is also a hazardous one. Like New York real estate, space is crucial. Take a look at your hard drive; it turns out you should have a minimum of about 10-percent of your space free at all times, especially if you're regularly using large files for processes like video, audio or photo editing. If your drive ever gets below that amount, your Mac will slow down. When you start hitting the few hundred megabytes danger zone, you'll likely start crashing, too. Worst case: It may get so full it won't reboot at all. If you've run out of things to delete (and you ought to grab WhatSize to see the biggest offenders), it may be time to upgrade to a larger hard drive.

10. Cut off over-eager apps.

force quit appsIf you're experiencing constant, annoying spinning beach balls and are nowhere near a Dave Matthews concert, the first place to head is the 'Activity Monitor.' (Go to Applications>Utilities to find it.) Click on the CPU tab and look to the top of the list to see what is chewing up processing power; select anything unnecessary and hit the red stop sign icon to kill it. If it's a system process or has an especially funky name -- or a "kernel task" -- proceed with caution. You may be forced to reboot, but no permanent damage will be done. Another quick fix for stalled applications is clicking on the Apple icon drop-down menu at the top left of the screen and selecting the application that has stopped responding. Or, as we like to call it, "Force Quitting" -- not to be confused with "Force Choking." (Pro tip: If you're so stuck that even drop-downs won't respond, try holding Command+Option+Esc for the same function.)

11. Bootstrap your boot up.

login itemsA number of intrusive applications simply love to be the first in line when you start up your Mac, which is often the reason it can take forever. (We're talking about you, Skype and AIM.) Head to System Preferences>Accounts and select your user name, then click on 'Login Items.' Then un-check any applications or services you don't want to automatically boot when you log in. If you spy any old software or ones you'll never want, hit the minus button to delete them from the list.

12. Take it outside.

external harddriveIf you do any kind of regular video or audio editing, or even high-level Photoshop, using your internal hard drive to store data will not only fill it quickly, but will also slow it to a crawl. Get a big, high-speed external hard drive (preferably one that runs at 7,200 RPMs or more), and use it as your "scratch disk" for all of that stuff. You'll be amazed at how much faster your Mac runs, and how much space you'll save on your hard drive.

13. Thin out iPhoto.

thin out iphotoApple's photo-organizing software is notorious for being a hard drive filler. Not only does it duplicate any photo or movie you drag to it, it also keeps an original of every photo you modify as well as the modified version. Multiply this by a few thousand photos (each a few megabytes) and you're looking at tens of gigs of wasted space. Manually going through them all is a time suck -- and will fatally corrupt iPhoto's library database -- so try using software such as 'Duplicate Annihilator.' Depending on the size of your library and speed of your Mac, it can literally take a day or two to process everything, but you'll be amazed by how much space you get back. And be sure to make a backup of your library before any fiddling attempts.

Tags: apple, backup, BeachBall, crash, desktops, features, fonts, HardDriveSpace, imac, laptops, mac, macbook, OsX, SpinningBall, SpringCleaning, tips, top, whatsize, widgets