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How To Speed Up, Clean Up And Revive Your Mac

Like any computer, Macs benefit from an occasional bout of physical and virtual cleaning. Here are some simple, easy–to-follow tips to give your trusted Mac a new spring in its step.

Clean It Out

Let’s start with the outside of your system. Turn it off, unplug everything, and move it out from where you normally have it set up. Give the area around your Mac, whether it’s an iMac on your desk, or a Mac Pro under your desk, a good cleaning — there’s probably dust and grime built up around it. Apple has specific guidelines for cleaning your gear, and while each system is a little different, it’s always a safe bet to take a microfibre cloth to the surface of your device to wipe away the dust and any smudges or oils that may be lingering on your screen or case. Apple suggests a damp, lint-free cloth to do the job, but even a dry microfibre cloth will get the job done — especially on displays and screens where you absolutely don’t want to use harsh chemicals of any kind. Photo by Cheon Fong Liew.

Even though it’s not officially recommended by Apple, a little compressed air will go a long way towards getting the dust out of the cracks, crevices, and exhaust vents. If you have a Mac Pro, you can crack the case open and attack the inside with the same cloth and compressed air, but be careful — if you have an AppleCare Protection Plan, opening the case will void your warranty.

If your case or keyboard are seriously gunky, we highly recommend attacking the filth with a magic eraser, but keep in mind that they — and other melamine sponges — are slightly abrasive, so you may be rubbing away grease and dirt, but if you keep scrubbing you can wear away the top layer of the finish as well.

Tame Your Cable Clutter

Before you set your Mac back up, go ahead and take some time to tame the cable clutter that may have accumulated under your desk over months of use. Now is a good time to learn how to wrap those cables so they don’t take up so much space, or order some velcro cable ties, twist ties, or zip ties to help you keep everything coming out of the back of your computer neat and tidy and maybe even label them with bread tags. If it’s really bad, you can always repurpose a rain gutter, use a flower pot, or find another container to keep the cables and their slack out of sight.

Get Up To Date

If you’re setting some time aside to clean up your Mac, the first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have all of the latest patches, security updates, and application updates available via Software Update. If you’re running a really old version of Mac OS and you’ve been thinking about upgrading, there’s no time like the present to get on board with OS 10.7 “Lion.” OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion” is coming mid-year, but you’ll probably have to have Lion in order to upgrade, so unless you don’t plan on upgrading past Snow Leopard, it’s worth considering. Even if you stick to Snow Leopard, or newer verisons of Mac OS aren’t supported on your hardware, it’s worth using Software Update to make sure your system is as up-to-date as it can be.

Uninstall Unnecessary Apps

After you’ve made sure your system is all up to date, it’s time to dig into your Applications folder and start uninstalling programs that you know you no longer need. In most cases, uninstalling a Mac app is as simple as dragging the app to the trash, but doing just that can leave orphaned preferences files from those uninstalled apps on your computer. We’d suggest using an actual uninstaller, like our current favourite, AppCleaner, which is completely free. If you’re willing to spend some money ($US13, to be exact), AppZapper has a prettier UI and a few more options, but in the end they both do the same thing. If you use one of these apps to remove those unwanted programs from your system, you can be sure you’re getting rid of all of their associated files as well. Finally, head into System Preferences, click on Accounts, and clean out the Login Items tab of any applications that you don’t want to run on startup. Sometimes even uninstalled apps leave entries behind, and it’s a good idea to tidy up your startup items anyway.

Reclaim Hard Drive Space

If you’ve been following along, you’ve cleaned up your Mac on the outside, your Mac is up to date, and you’ve uninstalled the programs you no longer use or need on your system. Now it’s time to finish cleaning your Mac up on the inside and get back the hard drive space that’s probably being wasted by old VirtualBox images, video game screenshots, or other assorted files you didn’t know were lurking on your system.

The venerable Disk Inventory X is a great tool that will scan your drives and show you what’s eating up all of your space in an easy to understand view, and it’s completely free. Alternatively, $US10, if you have it to spend, will buy you a copy of Daisy Disk, an app that many of you preferred because it allows you to not just see the contents of your drive in multiple views, but go ahead and delete, compress, and organise your drive quickly — and automatically, without you having to lift a finger. Just make sure you empty your trash when you’re through with everything to really get the space back.

Do Some Maintenance and Optimise Your System

Now that you’ve cleaned out the mess from your Mac, it’s time to give OS X a little TLC. Head into Disk Utility and click “Verify Disk”. It shouldn’t take too long, and if you see any errors, wait for it to finish and click “Repair Disk”. It’s always a good idea to verify your disk every few months, just to make sure you’re not missing some creeping issue with your hard drive or your OS X installation. You may also notice that you can verify or repair disk permissions. It doesn’t hurt if you do it, but whether or not it’s actually useful as a troubleshooting step is hotly debated. All-things-Mac writer John Gruber says it’s voodoo, and honestly, he’s right — it’s not very useful for regular troubleshooting. However, Dwight Silverman says it’s saved his bacon, although he had to dig deeper to fix his issue. Apple still reccomends repairing permissions for specific issues and references it in its knowledge base. Your mileage may vary.

Beyond Disk Utility , you may also want to look into a system optimisation utility like Onyx, our favourite system tweaker for Mac. Alternatively, previously mentioned cleaning utility iBoostUp does a great job of tidying up your system, as does the newly released CCleaner for Mac.

Back Up Your Refreshed Mac

These steps are all well and good to keep your Mac running smoothly. That said, they’re all but wasted if you’re not backing up your system. If you need help getting started, here’s how to set up a bulletproof backup system using our favourite tool, CrashPlan. I use it personally to keep both my Mac and Windows systems backed up, and once it’s set up, it really is fire and forget — and you get to sleep at night knowing all of your data is safely backed up to another computer, external drives, or — if you have the money to spend — an offsite location.

You may also consider taking a disk image of your freshly tidied Mac in case you need to restore later after a hard drive upgrade or replacement. You can do this in Disk Utility, but our favourite disk cloning tool for Mac is Carbon Copy Cloner, which is a bit more robust and reliable.

That’s all there is to it. Macs usually don’t need much in the way of maintenance, but they can definitely use some cleanup from time to time, especially after heavy use. Apple doesn’t ship a lot in the way of tweaking or optimization tools for your Mac, but there are plenty out there for all versions of Mac OS, so don’t be shy when it comes to giving your ailing Mac a tune-up.

Do you have any Mac cleaning tips that we left out? Share your tips — and suggestions — in the comments below.