Yesterday, user Yacko asked me why I keep closing and re-opening applications on my Mac, especially since Mac OS X has been built from the ground up for multitasking and features many a way to hide, minimize, tuck away and generally forget about unused processes, applications or even documents. Now, my personal preferences matter little to the world but, giving the question a bit of thought, I realized there is more to it.
If you came to my office at night, you would find, in addition to the big, hungry attack dogs, a dark, silent room. Every night, I religiously power down every single device, from router to computer and from printer to headphones. Mind you, everything is set up to run smoothly: the wiring is new and up to the last standards, there is a UPS in front of every device giving them enough juice to withstand power cuts - which, in a city like Paris, are about as common as acts of selfless generosity. The office is also wired for fire detection and we have remote backups, so there is little to be worried about on a daily basis. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely within acceptable computing standards.
Yet, over my years of computing, I have come to appreciate that consumer machines are seldom made to run continuously. Even on today’s Mac OS X, a stable, UNIX-based OS with no fundamental faults that would require frequent reboots - compared to say, Windows Me -, things get wonky after a while: console starts logging messages along the lines of “unknown error” and “this really should not happen” every couple seconds, memory leaks from a few well known applications like cooling fluid from old G5s, lookupd, the master of all things DNS on the Mac, starts whining and slowing down and complaining Apple.com does not exist. Meanwhile, the router freaks out and slows down on its own accord when the ISP starts shuffling IP addresses. Even my past three cell phones, each from a different manufacturer and sporting a different mobile OS, required rebooting about every week, lest one wanted them to place spontaneous calls to Scotland, freeze mid-call or mix address book entries.
Now, you may believe I have a remarkably unstable installation and I know many users who have not rebooted their Mac in weeks. I even know Linux and Windows users who never reboot. Yet, it is my experience their machines often end up full of quirky bugs, annoyances and refresh issues, that they often chalk up as “normal” and blissfully ignore. After all, to each his thing and if they feel comfortable with it, that’s perfectly fine.
In our world of fast release cycles, there is almost no time for long-term QA. Sure, applications are opened, tested, sometimes very well, and closed when the next build arrives and the cycle is repeated. Devices and applications however are rarely left to sit alone and just “do their thing,” because it is often assumed little goes on when a computer is not used. That, of course, is untrue: network interfaces keep receiving and sending packets, background processes keep backgrounding and disks keep spinning. Millions of little silent operations that are seldom tested together over time.
The solution? It’s an old trick and it’s vexing at times because it makes you feel like you live in 1996. It is, however, easy: power down the machines at night, power them back up in the morning. If that’s too much for you, do it once a week. Additional points if you have an AppleScript that clears up all user caches before shutting down: I know I do and I know it helps. Sure, it gives me time to grab a cup of coffee while Mail starts up and rebuilds its indexes but I’d get the coffee anyway and I’d rather do this often than stop seeing new messages or be asked to read five new messages out of two - true stories, I assure you.
To answer your question, Yacko, I am not a Windows switcher. I’ve lived with the Mac my entire life and with UNIX for the best part of it. Yet, even in this day of high availability, 24/7 serving and fast booting, I just don’t believe in keeping things running all the time.
Even my toaster gets unplugged at night: I’m sure it runs embedded Linux somewhere. And even if it doesn’t, that is one less appliance that could spontaneously burst in flames at night from a short.
What are your experiences?