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Panther Maintenance Tips

by FJ de Kermadec
11/21/2003

Have you noticed that over the life span of a system software release, such as Jaguar, things just don't run as smoothly as in the beginning? At some point, we become thankful that a new release is on the way so we can just "start over."

Aside from the normal glitches that can occur, many performance and stability issues are preventable. Indeed, over weeks and months of use, users often neglect important maintenance tasks, or even worse, perform operations that are likely to marginally damage their computers, such as disconnecting drives without ejecting them, or installing many third-party "hacks" on their machines without fully understanding the impact they may have under the hood.

After all, why not? Computers -- and especially Macs -- are here to be enjoyed, right? The good news is that you can continue to enjoy your Mac and still make sure that everything runs smoothly.

If you've just upgraded to Panther, or are thinking about it, then the maintenance tips in this article will help ensure good performance throughout the life of this OS release. Some of these tips will be reminders and others might be new to you, but combined, they will help you run a lean, mean computing machine.

I Thought That Mac OS X was Stable?

Related Reading

Mac OS X Panther Pocket Guide
By Chuck Toporek

Yes, it is! In fact, Mac OS X is even able to take care of itself most of the time, by running UNIX maintenance tasks that discard unused logs or cache files.

Even better, the latest release of Mac OS X, Panther, includes a very powerful feature, previously reserved for super-serious servers: it keeps a diary of what it does on your hard drive to be able to recover instantly and effortlessly after a crash. This is the famous "Journaled" HFS+ file system that raises many questions on the Web.

However, some poorly written applications may damage your file structure, or a clunky installer can ruin the permissions of what it installs.

These small errors often go unnoticed: we quit the installer, reboot, and everything behaves normally.

However, the fact that you do not immediately notice symptoms does not mean that you do not have issues. Most of the time, Panther will deal with them, logging the errors and going forward. For example, slight permissions issues will slow your computer down a tiny bit, but won't prevent it from running.

However, when you run an update or install an application, the installer expects files to be at a certain place and directories to have a certain owner. Should these issues interfere with the installation process, you may discover, upon reboot, that you cannot log in any more or that the Finder doesn't start up.

Here are the most common Mac OS X maintenance steps and how to perform them:

Repairing Privileges

Repairing the privileges of a file or folder is one of the most non-intrusive Mac OS X maintenance tasks: you can launch a utility and let it run in the background while you continue to work.

To do so, open the Disk Utility located in your Utilities folder and click on the First Aid tab. Then, select the Mac OS X partition — not the whole hard drive — and click on Repair Permissions. You do not need to Verify first.

Panther Disk Utility
Figure 1. Disk Utility under Panther

By doing this, you will ensure that installers will be able to install the right files in the right places and that they won't be denied access when they shouldn't. The reverse is also true: this makes sure that the parts of your installation that should be locked are locked indeed, and prevents some applications from writing files where they shouldn't.

The new Panther disk utility has greatly improved the speed of the repair process — that's another reason to do it on a regular basis! The messages it prints to the window are also better formatted, making it easier to understand for beginners.

Repairing the Disk

You can run your computer on a hard drive with a damaged file system until, one day, it simply crashes without any warning.

To prevent that, boot from the Mac OS X Install CD 1 and use the Installer menu in order to open the Disk Utility. Then, click on the First Aid tab, select your hard drive and repair it until it "Appears to be OK." Note that you may have to repeat this step a few times on heavily damaged installations.

However, no amount of software maintenance will protect you in any way against hardware failures. So, please, have a good backup system in place, too!

Here's a Panther-specific tip: at the bottom of the Disk Utility window, you will see a line called "S.M.A.R.T" status. No, this doesn't check your disk's IQ! "S.M.A.R.T" technology is a monitoring system that allows your hard drive to perform self-checks and to warn you when it is about to fail. If you see "verified," your disk is doing well. Perform your regular backups and continue reading this page. If you see "About to fail," your disk will fail, and will do so sooner than later. Immediately backup your files and replace the hard drive — or contact your nearest Apple Store or Apple Authorized Service Provider.

As a general rule, you should monitor the status of your disk once a week; once a month, at least. Hard-drive failures happen to everyone sooner or later. Be prepared so that you can minimize data loss.

Forcing Periodic Maintenance

You may know that every night, Mac OS X runs periodic maintenance tasks to get rid of unused logs and cache files. It also backs up some UNIX files.

However, these maintenance tasks were programmed to run at night, at 3, 4, or 5 AM, depending on what they do. That is, unless your computer is turned off or asleep.

The good news is that not running these tasks is more than very unlikely to cause instability. However, running them may free some of your disk space and make logs easier to read over the time.

To perform them on Jaguar or Panther, open your Terminal and type :


sudo periodic daily
sudo periodic weekly
sudo periodic monthly

Press return between each line, and wait until the first command has completed to start the second one.

Updating the Prebinding

Sometimes, for some (apparently) inexplicable reason, your computer slows down to a crawl after you have installed a big application.

In that case, you may want to "update the prebinding." This means forcing Mac OS X to go through all of the application files and make sure that they are correctly linked together. The Mac OS X default installer usually takes care of this by itself, but some third-party installers may be less cautious.

To do this, simply open your Terminal and type:


sudo update_prebinding -root / -force

Then, enter return, type your password, and enter return again.

Don't worry about the lines of text that will scroll on your Terminal. This simply means that the command is doing its work.

The whole process should only take a few minutes. However, it will considerably slow your computer down and for maximum efficiency, you should not use it at the same time.

Once the command has exited, immediately reboot your computer.

Users who still have Classic applications and a Mac OS 9 system folder on their computers do not need to worry: the command will simply ignore the files and won't damage them.

Now that you know what these maintenance steps are, you may wonder when you should perform them.

What to do and when to do it?

Now.

Now would be a good time to back your data up and perform all of these steps, just to give a boost to your Mac and who knows, perhaps even make things better and solve a few issues you may have had.

When you don't do any special installs, etc.

Once a month:

  1. Repair the privileges.
  2. Repair the drive.
  3. Force the periodic maintenance.

After an application crash, a power failure or a force reboot

Immediately:

  1. Repair the drive first.
  2. Repair the privileges.

Then, if the computer slows down:

  1. Force the periodic maintenance.
  2. Update the prebinding.

Around the installation of a big new application or a system upgrade

Before, do this:

  1. Repair the privileges.
  2. Repair the disk.

After, do this:

If this is more than a simple OS incremental update, repair the privileges and the file system again with the new, updated Disk Utility.

A Note about Upgrading to Panther

Upgrading your computer to Panther, even from Jaguar, is a very complex task for the Installer: it has to look for certain files, and replace or update them. Following our maintenance agenda should allow you to avoid most problems easily.

However, you may feel that it's time for a "clean install." Sure, it's a bit more time consuming; however, the Installer runs up to five times faster, the resulting installation is snappier, and all freshly installed applications will behave wonderfully.

Tempting, isn't it? For once, you may want to forget about traditional maintenance, take the plunge, and initialize your hard drive. All of the information that you will need may be found here.

Now that you know what to do and when to do it, you may want to read about a few maintenance misconceptions that often cause issues to appear on even the best-kept machines.

A Few Maintenance Don'ts

Performing maintenance is a great idea and it should be done often. However, taking care of a computer is like taking care of an old painting: would you put too much product on it to make it shinier? You may actually damage it!

Using Certain Disk Utilities

Certain disk utilities are amazingly efficient and safe, while some others (though sold by your nearest computer shop) may harm your installation more that they will repair it.

Before using a third-party disk utility, you may want to check a few forums and ask users for their personal opinions, or simply search the existing database. That way, you should be able to buy a trusted application.

As a general rule, if a disk utility asks you to boot into Mac OS 9 to solve Mac OS X issues, use caution! If it doesn't clearly state on the box that it is compatible with your 10.x version, or only says "Mac OS X," check with the authors and ask them for some details.

Also, keep in mind that the disk utilities provided by Apple are the safest, and the ones that should always be used first. They may not be all-powerful and repair some heavily damaged disks, but they will never prevent stronger utilities from working. The reverse, however, is not true: when a third-party disk utility has damaged your disk, don't expect good old Disk Utility to fix it!

Of course, keep in mind that Apple updates its disk utilities too. Using the Jaguar one to repair a Panther installation might help if you are stuck in the middle of the Pacific ocean with an unreadable hard drive, but this definitely isn't something you want to do otherwise!

Defragmenting Too Often

Defragmenting a hard drive is a way to make a computer go a bit faster by rearranging the information that is written on it. Some Mac OS 9 users and PC switchers remember that defragmenting was an essential step in their maintenance processes.

However, the Mac community now seems to agree that Mac OS X is able to handle normally fragmented disks very well, without any noticeable slowdown.

The news gets better with Panther. It defrags files (those less than 20 MB, which should be most of yours) on the fly.

Given the fact that forced defragmenting with third-party utilities can be a risky procedure -- data is moved all around the drive -- and that it may be very demanding for tired or defective mechanisms, it should not be performed without good reasons to do so.

Panther users are best off letting their OSes do the work and taking this maintenance step off the list.

Updating to Fix

Some users who experience issues sometimes think that updating their operating systems or specific applications will fix things and allow them to go back to a default state that isn't affected by a specific issue.

However, unless a problem really is caused by an update in itself -- and that's uncommon -- updating a faulty or damaged installation is likely to make things even worse.

The maintenance steps we listed at the beginning of the article should allow you to solve most issues before you go forward.

"If it Ain't Broken, Don't Fix It"

It's true that updates should not be applied carelessly on mission-critical computers. Computers that need an uptime of 100% should be treated with the greatest care and be backed up by a properly configured network.

However, some users sometimes do not apply recommended or critical security updates, thinking that they can only raise issues on their Macs.

Simply follow our upgrade advice or the one of your network administrator before upgrading. Things are likely to go a lot smoother than you think.

Keep in mind that the new Panther Disk Utility contains a new Restore feature that you may find useful while planning your backups and emergency boot drives for your most important Macs.

Mac OS X is a great, easy-to-use, and very powerful operating system. However, like any OS, it needs to be taken care of to make sure that things will run smoothly. This article should help you to keep your computer in a safe state and avoid most of the common pitfalls.

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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