A Mac Expert's Favorite Tools

Thursday Oct 30th 2008 by Ryan Faas
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Mac software for maintenance, troubleshooting, app removal, freeing up disk space, and more.

Keeping any computer running at its best, or fixing its problems, is much like keeping your car in good shape. It requires regular maintenance.

And as any mechanic or handy man will tell you, doing maintenance work or repairs easily and quickly requires the right tools. With hundreds of Mac utilities on the market – free, shareware, and commercial – it can be confusing to understand which ones you need and which ones are appropriate to which tasks.

Here’s a rundown of the best tools available and the types of chores that each is designed to handle.

Hard Drive Tools

Among the most common Mac problems are hard drive issues. These include a wide range of symptoms, from files not opening to applications quitting unexpectedly to a Mac refusing to boot or recognize a hard drive.

Although physical failure of a hard drive does occur, the most common issues are problems in which the directory structures of the drive (the map that a Mac uses to locate physical sectors where pieces of files are stored) becomes damaged or corrupted.

Hard drive tools can compare the actual data on the drive to the directory and can often repair (or replace) a damaged directory to get a drive working again. They can also often offer additional features like defragmenting the contents of a hard drive, partitioning the drive, and cloning a drive (either to or from another physical drive or a disk image file).

While Apple’s Disk Utility offers a number of these features (the notable exception being defragmenting/optimizing a drive), third-party tools offer a range of more advanced features and can give you better chances for recovery of a drive with particularly bad directory corruption.

Disk Warrior (http://alsoft.com/) – Disk Warrior focuses primarily on recovery from badly corrupted disks by building a new directory for the disk (and allowing you to preview the new directory before replacing the existing corrupt directory). Although limited in features, Disk Warrior is often considered the best hope by Mac technicians and power users.

Drive Genius – Drive Genius offers a range of features including the ability to recover damaged disks, advanced partitioning options, features for cloning existing drives, securely erasing drives, and a Xslimmer feature that can be used to locate large and unused files to recover disk space.

TechTool Pro – TechTool Pro also offers a wide feature set. It includes a number of hard drive-related tools, including the ability to defragment drives, recover and optimize directory data, recover data from damaged drives (though success varies depending on the amount of damage to the drive), and the ability to securely delete data.

It also offers a range of diagnostic tools that can check for problems or failures with almost every hardware component of a Mac. A stripped down version known as TechTool Deluxe is included by Apple with the purchase of an AppleCare Protection Plan for any Mac.

iDefrag – As its name implies, iDefrag is a tool aimed solely at defragmenting and optimizing a hard drive for the best performance, making it a good companion to other tools that don’t offer these capabilities.

Data Rescue II – Repairing a corrupted hard drive is always the best possible option. However, for cases where the corruption is too great or where there is physical damage to the drive, it isn’t always possible. In these situations, the goal becomes recovering data from the damaged drive. Prosoft’s Data Rescue II, while not a hard drive repair tool, is designed to enable you to attempt to recover such data.

SuperDuper – SuperDuper is designed for simple cloning of a hard drive to either a second hard drive or to a disk image, which can be used for basic backups (including backups prior to major system changes and bootable system backups) or for preparing a disk image that can be then rolled out to multiple similarly configured workstations.

Carbon Copy Cloner – Similar to SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner performs largely the same functions and can be used to backup a Mac or prepare a disk image for mass deployments.

NetRestore – NetRestore (created by Mike Bombich, the developer of Carbon Copy Cloner) is designed to facilitate mass rollouts of identically configured Macs (such as in an office or classroom) using disk images. NetRestore can be run from an external hard drive or from a share point hosted by a server. It can also integrate with Mac OS X Server’s NetBoot functionality for easy and almost completely automated mass deployments.

Mac OS X Maintenance and Troubleshooting

While hard drive corruption may be one of the most common problems for Mac users, it is by no means the only one. Like most operating systems, Mac OS X requires a number of common maintenance tasks to run at its best.

These include tasks such as clearing system and user caches, verifying the integrity of application and system preferences files (corrupted cache and preferences files can both cause erratic behavior and application crashes), removing old and outdated log files, verifying and repairing system permissions, and running of the daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance scripts built into Mac OS X.

There are a number of utilities available that perform some or all of these core maintenance and troubleshooting feats (most with the click of a only one or two buttons). Many of these utilities also offer additional features, such as the ability to customize various aspects of the Mac OS X user interface. While all are widely viewed as excellent tools, the user interface, cost, and specific features of each tool may reflect on which one is right for you.

Cocktail – A commonly used utility, Cocktail offers a wide range of features, including the ability to clear cache and temporary files, manage logs, run periodic maintenance tasks, and configure several hidden features of Mac OS X.

Onyx – Onyx offers a similar feature set to Cocktail, including the ability to clear cache and temporary files, verify and repair disks and permissions, run Mac OS X maintenance scripts, and configure a variety of hidden features and customization options.

Tinkertool System – Tinker Tool System offers many of the same features as Cocktail and Onyx, but also provides a number of additional features. It can run maintenance scripts, clean cache files (with the option of specifying which cache files to clear), tune various file and system attributes, configure advanced file permissions, adjust startup and login options, remove unneeded language translations, verify preferences files, and help recover disk space by removing all files associated with applications or removing non-native code from universal binary applications.

Mac Helpmate – Mac Helpmate is an application largely aimed at support professionals and consultants. It offers many of the same maintenance and troubleshooting features of Cocktail and Onyx as well as easy-to-enable remote screen sharing sessions, allowing for remote desktop support. Mac Helpmate can also be customized to a particular consultant or company.

AppleJack – AppleJack is a command line troubleshooting tool that can verify and repair corrupted hard drives and file permissions as well as clear cache and virtual memory swap files and verify preferences. What makes AppleJack unique from other tools in this category is that, once installed, it can be accessed when a Mac is booted into single user mode (an option that can allow command line access and troubleshooting when Mac OS X cannot successfully boot).

Preferential Treatment – Preferential Treatment is a graphical interface to the plutil command line tool. It is designed to verify the integrity of user and system preferences files.

Application Removers

Simply deleting an application from your Applications folder often doesn’t completely remove it from your Mac. Most applications create a number of support files when they are installed or when they are run for the first time as well as preferences files. These files can be scattered across your hard drive (most commonly they’re located in the Application Support and Preferences folders inside the /Library folder at the root level of the startup drive and/or inside each user’s home directory).

These two tools help you ensure that all the related files installed with an application are removed along with it (helping free up space and ensuring that no excess data from removed application is left floating around your Mac).

AppZapper (http://www.appzapper.com/) – AppZapper is a simple utility that allows you to delete all files associated with any installed application, Dashboard widget, or third part System Preferences pane. You can delete applications by drag and drop or you can view a list of all installed items on your system and choose which to remove.

AppDelete – Similar to AppZapper, AppDelete focuses on applications but also offers the ability to inspect and/or choose which specific files are deleted. And because it simply moves items to the Trash rather than deleting them, AppDelete offers the option to fully restore application files at any point between the time they’re removed from your system and when you empty the Trash.

Space Savers

In today’s world where Macs serve not just as a computer, but a media hub storing all your photos, music, and digital video, it’s easy to fill even a large hard drive very quickly. When a Mac’s startup drive gets full, not only do you run out of storage space, you can also see the effects in the speed and stability of the machine.

A Mac performs best when there is at least ten percent free drive space. The following tools can each help you slim down your hard drive by removing unneeded data or locating large files (which you can either delete or move to an external drive).

Xslimmer – Xslimmer is a tool to remove unused language translations (known as localization files) from both applications and Mac OS X system files as well as the non-native code from applications that ship as a universal binary (universal binaries include code to run natively on both Power PC and Intel Macs).

Disk Inventory X – Disk Inventory X provides a graphical representation or map of your hard drive, identifying specific files and file types in different colors. This provides a visual method of identifying large files. You can also view specific folders. Disk Inventory X doesn’t itself reduce disk usage, but it does provide a method for easily identifying large files that you can consider moving to an external drive or potentially deleting.

Grand Perspective – Grad Perspective, like Disk Inventory X, allows you to graphically view the relative sizes of files on your hard drive and can help locate overly large files.

Spring Cleaning – Spring Cleaning is a venerable Mac tool that has been around since before Mac OS X. It includes a range of features for slimming down a hard drive, including tools to organize large groups of files, locate duplicate files, locate specific types of files (photos, movies, podcasts), and work with file permissions and attributes.

Drive Genius – As I mentioned earlier, Drive Genius offers a feature known as DriveSlim that can be used to locate duplicate files and files that are large and/or not frequently accessed. DriveSlim can also save space by removing non-native code from applications that ship as universal binaries and unused language translations. It also offers the ability to clear cache and temporary files based on their frequency of use.

Additional Utilities

There are a few more utilities that are well worth keeping in any Mac user’s toolkit, but which don’t really fall into a succinct category. These include the following.

Print Therapy/Print Setup Repair – Print Therapy is a tool for resolving various problems relating to printing from Mac OS X (earlier pre-Leopard versions of the tool were known as Print Setup Repair). Print Therapy can perform a number of tasks including verifying and repairing printer files and related permissions, deleting corrupted spool files, and viewing print-related log files. It also includes feature deleting or replacing various printer driver/PPD files.

Winclone – Winclone allows you to clone a Boot Camp Windows installation. This can be a great tool for moving installations between two Macs or for rolling out a large number of dual-boot Mac computers with identical configurations.

Little Snitch – Many applications (legitimate and malware alike) connect to the Internet in the background of computing operation. Little Snitch is a tool that allows you to view and configure rules for allowing and denying outgoing connections from your Mac. This makes it a great tool for securing a Mac or determining if a Mac has been compromised.

Versiontracker Widget – One of the most important tasks to keep a computer secure and functioning at its best is keeping its installed software up to date.

While the Mac’s Software Update feature keeps all Apple-branded software updated easily, keeping tabs on all your third-party applications and system add-ons can be more difficult. The Versiontracker widget can help by comparing your installed applications to the vast Versiontracker database of Mac applications.

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