Mac Maintenance, Part 1: Protect Your Hard Drive and Data

- 2005.06.29

In order to squeeze as many years of use as possible out of you Mac and keep it zippy, you need to do some basic maintenance. In this three-part tutorial, we will cover some hardware and software maintenance. This article is about your computer's hard drive.

It's important to maintain your hard drive because your operating system, your software, and your data resides on it.

Here is a brutal reality: Your hard drive has mechanical parts that will fail one day. You should not ask yourself if it will fail, but when. There are two cases of data loss that you may face:

  1. Your disk gets confused by damaged directory structures.
  2. Your disk crashes.

Protecting Your Directory

The first step is maintaining the directory structures, and it is the easiest step because, unlike a crash, directory damage can be fixed. The directory keeps track of all your files, from the operating system to your tiniest JPEG or Word document. If the directory is damaged, your hard drive doesn't know where everything is and can overwrite or damage files.

Directory damage is sly. It comes in without knocking, and it doesn't let you know about its presence. In fact, data loss can happen several weeks or several months after uncorrected directory damage begins, which makes directory protection mandatory preventive maintenance.

To avoid data loss, you have to start with the right formatting and journaling. Journaling, available under Panther and Tiger, monitors your disk's activity and records it in a log. Should your Mac shut down unexpectedly or should you experience disk problems, recovery will be faster and repair will be easier.

If your disk is already formatted, start up your Mac from the Mac OS X Installation CD - hold down the C key at startup - and use Disk Utility to turn on journaling. TechTool Pro 4 and Cocktail can also do this, as can some other utilities.

If you are reformatting your disk, choose "Mac OS X Extended (Journaled)" before going ahead.



On top of journaling, I add another recommendation when formatting: Split your drive into system and data partitions. Partition 1 should be used for nothing but the Mac OS X system and applications, and partition 2 for your documents. Why? With this kind of setup, you can still access your documents partition to salvage data in case you didn't have a full backup should the system partition run into serious trouble.

Ideally, this kind of split should be done with two hard drives - a "system" drive and a "documents" drive - but I recommend partitions if you are on a budget.

Disk Utilities

Disk Utility

Journaling isn't everything. You still have to do preventive maintenance to detect potential directory damage before it's too late. Firstly, you should know that Apple's basic Disk Utility can do a fine job unless it runs into severe damage. To use it, start up your Mac with your Mac OS X Installation CD and launch Disk Utility. Then choose a drive, click on First Aid, and click on Repair Disk. Running this test every two weeks or once a month is a smart idea.

If Disk Utility reports damage that it cannot repair, you have to decide whether you want to back up everything and reformat your drive or if you prefer using a utility to fix it. Most people like to use a utility. Several of them are available, but which one should you adopt - DiskWarrior, TechTool Pro, or Norton SystemWorks?

The answer is tricky, because each of these programs has strengths and weaknesses.

DiskWarriorAlsoft DiskWarrior is the pound-for-pound champion. It draws a graph of your disk directory to let you know if it needs to be rebuilt. If you rebuild the directory - a task that takes a bit of time on a system disk - all potential damage disappears because DiskWarrior discards the old directory and replaces it with a new one.

If you have DiskWarrior handy, just start up your Mac from the DiskWarrior CD. Click on the Directory button, then click on Graph to see the graphic and click on Rebuild to go ahead with directory rebuilding. Doing this once a month or every other month should be enough.

TechTool Pro 4TechTool Pro 4 works differently, because it separates the job into parts. Under its Tests panel, TechTool can scan and rebuild volumes structures (this takes a long time). It can optimize the directory separately using the feature called Maintenance (found under the Performance panel). TechTool Pro 4 does some nice work, but I have had some trouble with its slow execution, and it sometimes damaged my directories. On the other hand, it comes with an amazing set of hardware tests, which we will look at in a future column.

Where does Norton SystemWorks stand? I know it has a bad reputation, in part because Symantec is not a good Mac developer, but there are reasons to like it.

Norton, with its Disk Doctor component, tries to "patch" your disk directory instead of rebuilding it completely. That makes Norton the fastest utility for preventive maintenance. The big drawback is that patching is not easy: It is not always a permanent solution and it exposes your directory to additional errors. This is part of the reason why Norton caused trouble when "fixing" some people's disks.

Don't demonize it, however, because apart from speed, it has another major strength. Do you remember the old days, when you used Mac OS 9 and saw a flashing question mark at startup? Your Mac was unable to mount your hard drive, even if a utility was able to "see" it.

This can also happen under Mac OS X, with the difference that when starting up, you get a "Please restart your computer" screen, a Unix crash known as a kernel panic. Believe it or not, Norton Disk Doctor is the best tool when this happens. It fixes a series of major errors and mounts your drive. Just when things looked hopeless, Norton saved your butt...

The final verdict on utilities? If money is not a concern, buy all three, because each of them has different strengths. If you have to pick just one, DiskWarrior is my recommendation. And if you cannot mount your disks correctly, Norton is probably less expensive than bringing your Mac to a technician....

Minimize the Workload

As I stated above, a hard drive can crash because of wear and tear. To prevent this, you have to minimize your disk's workload. The first way to achieve that? Know when to put your Mac to sleep and when to shut it down. The jury is still out on this one, mostly because there are many credible theories about the amount of wear and tear caused by different user habits.

Here are the main points:

  • Every time you start up your Mac, the cold hard drive receives an electrical charge and works very hard to get your Mac ready for use. This puts a lot of stress on a drive.
  • If you leave your Mac on at all times, your disk remains hot and it keeps spinning, wearing it out slowly.
  • If you put the computer to sleep or put the hard drive to sleep, every wake-up process will put some stress on the drive.

There is no perfect solution. Apple recommends you shut a computer down it you don't plan to use it for eight hours or more. Otherwise you may put it to sleep or leave it on. Personally, I have been following Apple's advice, and it has served me well.

Optimize Your Files

Another method to reduce your hard drive's work is to defragment your files and optimize your data. When your files are fragmented (that means your file isn't stored in one place on your hard drive; two or more parts of the file are stored in different places), your hard drive has to work harder to read and write them.

Imagine that all your tools are scattered around your house. Putting them all together in a basement room or toolbox will save you a lot of time and effort when you need to find several of them for a project. With your hard drive, the difference is that additional wear and tear will make it wear out sooner than it should.

What can you do about it? Optimize your data on the disk. I know two tools that do this well: Norton Speed Disk (part of Norton SystemWorks) and TechTool Pro 4's Optimization feature. Both will analyze your files, gather the scattered pieces, and rewrite them without fragmentation to make file access a lesser pain. Your system may also run a bit faster as a result.

There is no consensus about file optimization, because the operation is demanding for a hard drive - it can create more wear and tear than it prevents if done too often. Therefore it is crucial to take a good look at the graphics produced by the optimization tool before going ahead with the whole process. Defragment and optimize your disk only when fragmentation is severe. For most users, this will only be necessary two or three times a year.

Verify Your SMART Status

Are you smart?

What I mean to ask is whether your disk passes the SMART test. SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) can allow a small piece of software to take a quick look at your drive and let you know when it is about to fail. When you get a warning, it means that your drive may crash soon. It is nice to know it beforehand.

My software recommendation is SMARTReporter, and it is. Once installed, it checks your hard drive at startup and displays a small icon in the Finder's menu bar. The green disk means that everything is okay, and the red disk means - well, I'll let you guess.

Note that SMART doesn't work with external USB or FireWire drives. LEM

Next Week: Mac OS X Maintenance


Join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or Google+, or subscribe to our RSS news feed

Michel Munger is a journalist who lives in Montréal. He discovered the Mac in 1994, and his work on a PC reminds him every day why he embraced Apple's platform. Munger has also authored some MacDaniel columns.

You can learn more about him on his personal website.

Today's Links

Follow Low End Mac on Twitter
Join Low End Mac on Facebook

Page not found | Low End Mac

Well this is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?

It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for. Perhaps searching, or one of the links below, can help.

Most Used Categories


Try looking in the monthly archives. :)

Page not found | Low End Mac

Well this is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?

It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for. Perhaps searching, or one of the links below, can help.

Most Used Categories


Try looking in the monthly archives. :)

Favorite Sites

Cult of Mac
Shrine of Apple
The Mac Observer
Accelerate Your Mac
The Vintage Mac Museum
Deal Brothers
Mac Driver Museum
JAG's House
System 6 Heaven
System 7 Today
the pickle's Low-End Mac FAQ


The iTunes Store
PC Connection Express
Macgo Blu-ray Player
Parallels Desktop for Mac

Low End Mac's Amazon.com store


Well this is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?

It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for. Perhaps searching, or one of the links below, can help.

Most Used Categories


Try looking in the monthly archives. :)

at BackBeat Media (646-546-5194). This number is for advertising only.

Open Link