Between September 2005 and July 2011 I was a regular contributor to MacFormat in the UK.

Whereas I’m posting the published articles for my MacWarehouse writing with the MacFormat ones I’ve decided to post the text as submitted, including any comments that I included for design. I am, however, allowing myself a few small edits for clarity, such as in the one below (which originally had two number 4s).

The particular one is my very first column, written in September 2005. This is presented purely as a historical record as much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime.


1. Positioning (photo suggestion: testing lab – from the 1950/60’s)
This column is not about sexy, exciting and cutting-edge technology that you can use on your Mac. It’s about using your Mac in business and how to make it cost less and earn more, how to keep both it and you productive and profitable.

New technologies certainly have their place in business but they need to be kept in their place, in a test environment rather than a production one. Before rolling out something new test it – test it, and test it again. Use it somewhere where it can’t do any harm to your business and where you are in control. When you do deploy something new make sure that you can always step back to where things worked rather than cutting off your own escape route.

Let someone else find the bugs while you learn from their mistakes and keep working, meeting your deadlines and keeping your customers happy.

Cutting edge is better than bleeding edge but tried and tested is by far the best approach. Remember the old axiom; pioneers get arrows but settlers get land.

2. Facing the inevitable (photo suggestion: child fiddling with toys)
Let’s face facts; things will go wrong, computers will crash, hardware will fail, you will overwrite a file inadvertently. Now that we have accepted that things will go wrong we need to formulate strategies to minimise the impact of these eventualities on business.
Backup, backup and backup again. Think about what the damage to your business will be if you loose data. Think about the ways that you can loose data, not just from a hard drive crashing but also disasters such as fire or theft.

Don’t change things when you have a deadline. This seems so obvious but many people ignore it. Don’t install anything new, don’t make any changes to your system configuration, don’t run the risk of breaking things if a deadline is looming and you need to use your Mac to hit that deadline.

If your system is stable and functioning properly then don’t fiddle with it just for the sake of it. If you have a problem then address that problem, if you don’t have a problem then get on with being productive.

Install things in the right way. Learn the safe way of installing and always make sure that you can back out of the installation.

3. Standard maintenance routines. (Businessperson with diary)
As a UNIX-type operating system, Mac OS X is designed to be left on all the time and it runs a number of periodic maintenance routines daily, once a week and once a month. Because these routines can slow the Mac down a little when they are run they are set to go off between 3 and 5 am local time. Unfortunately the periodic maintenance routines don’t run if your Mac was either switched off or asleep at their scheduled time so use Energy Saver to wake your Mac up so that they can run.

Keep a diary, make a note of any changes that you make to your system or any unusual things that happen. That way if you can try to work out what caused the problem by seeing when it happened or what may have caused it.

Use a development system. Don’t try new things out on the system that you use to earn your living. If you can’t afford another Mac then simply get a FireWire hard drive and clone your system onto it. That way you can boot from the clone and experiment with that while leaving your production system untouched.

4. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it (photo suggestion: Mac software pop-up box, person confused)
Software Update bounces in the dock to tell you that a new update for some system component is available or your application announces that a new version is available when you open it. Before you blindly accept the update stop and think, “do I really need this update?” Newer is not always better; ask yourself why you are installing the update:

  • Does it add a new feature that would be of use to you?
  • Does it fix a problem that you currently have?
  • Does it fix a problem that you might reasonably experience in the near future?

If the answer to all of the above is no then you probably don’t need the update at all. Even if the answer to one or more is yes you probably don’t need it the moment it is available. Give it at least a week to allow for any unforeseen problems to emerge on somebody else’s Mac and not yours. There have been a number of recent updates that have had to be withdrawn, or which themselves have had updates, because of major problems.

By far the most important thing is to ensure the stability of your system. If everything is working perfectly right now then don’t change something just for the sake of it or risk entering the update spiral. The update spiral happens when you install one update but that breaks something else, which means that it needs to be updated but that breaks something else and so on.

When you do come to install an update doing it in the right way can minimise the likelihood of experiencing problems and can ensure that any downtime is kept to a minimum. I’ll cover that next time.

5. Careful with that update Eugene (photo suggestion: repair man)
Surely installing an update is just a case of running the installer program and letting it get on with it. Yes and no. Yes if you want to run the risk of something going wrong and no if you want to minimise the impact on your business.

There are six stages to a successful update, or indeed for installing a new product.

  1. Take an image of your system as it is now
  2. Repair privileges
  3. Clean caches and run maintenance routines
  4. Disconnect all FireWire devices
  5. Install the update or program
  6. Repair privileges again

Taking an image of your system before you start to work on it means that you can always go back to a known working state if things go wrong with the update. Restoring an image is far faster than wiping the hard drive and installing everything from scratch or trying to undo whatever the update just did.

Repairing privileges, clearing caches and running maintenance routines will fix any minor problems that you may not have been aware or and will ensure that the caches will be created afresh taking the update into account rather than risk using any old data.

6. Cache rich and money poor (photo suggestion: person browsing in library)
Mac OS X makes a great deal of use of cache files and a variety of other hidden or unobvious files. Getting to know where these are and what they do can greatly assist troubleshooting and best of all you can do it all for free.

In order to speed your computer up Mac OS X keeps a copy of frequently accessed data in a number of cache files, this data is not something as simple as a copy of a Word or Quark document but instead things such as which application opens a file, how to render a font smoothly on screen or the icons for the items in your dock.

These cache files can get corrupted and lead to odd problems with your Mac. If a document has a generic icon and the program doesn’t open when you double-click it the problem is likely to be a corrupted LaunchServices cache.

The good thing about cache files is that if one isn’t there Mac OS X will create a new one when it needs it. It may take a little longer to access the chunk of data that the Mac needs initially if the required cache file isn’t there but the next time it is needed a new cache file will have been created so access to the data will be as quick as it should be.

The upshot of this is that you can safely delete a cache file that you suspect has a problem and clearing out old cache files ought to be part of regular system maintenance.