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How to Keep a Mac Efficient and Well Maintained—Part 4

Macs, like all computers, are prone to break down eventually. With continuous use, efficiency can degrade and the machine may start behaving erratically. A physical component could fail, files may not open, search may get slower or irrelevant and more.

You can minimise both the number and the severity of problems with a maintenance regime.

In the final part of this tutorial, I’ll show you how to

  • Energy saver settings
  • Activity Monitor—the built-in monitoring utility
  • Take advantage of regular backups

Energy Saver Settings

Energy Saver controls how a Mac operates when left alone. Energy is saved by putting a Mac to sleep when it is not in use. A sleeping Mac consumes less power thereby increasing the life of the battery and monitor and reducing the electricity cost.

In long run, this will keep a Mac efficient. But, unlike other maintenance tasks, you might want to customise the settings.

Different people, inevitably, have different requirements. When setting up Energy Saver settings, consider these three factors:

  1. Parameters to set
  2. Using a Mac in different locations
  3. monitoring battery usage

Parameters to Set

To adjust energy related settings, choose Apple Menu > System Preferences and click Energy Saver

What you see on the Energy Saver settings depends whether you own an iMac, Mac mini or MacBook.

Energy Saver preference pane in Macbook Pro with macOS Sierra
Energy Saver preference pane in Macbook Pro with macOS Sierra

There are two types of sleep slider settings, Computer sleep and Display sleep.

Computer sleep determines how long the Mac waits before it goes into sleep mode. This slider exists only on pre–2013 Macs.

Display sleep is how long it waits before the display turns off. Both the settings range anywhere from 1 minute after your last activity to Never.

Energy saver pane of Mac Mini 2012
Energy saver pane of Mac Mini 2012

To save even more battery, tick the option to Put hard disks to sleep when possible. This powers down the hard drive when not in use. Note, this setting doesn’t affect Macs with solid-state drives, or SSD. 

Check Wake for network access to access a sleeping Mac from the network. Ideally, tick this option on desktop Macs or in the Power Adapter tab of laptop Macs.

While a Mac sleeps, Power Nap enables it wake occasionally to perform backups with Time Machine, Mail, Calendar, or software updates and more. 

Power Nap is great—but use it only when the Mac is plugged in a power source.

Using a Mac in Different Locations

When you’re in office, adjust the computer and display sleep as per requirements. The shorter the interval, the faster the Mac will sleep once you stop using it. Setting them to Never will considerably decrease the battery life.

At lunch shut the lid and the Mac automatically dozes off to sleep. Apps running in the background automatically go into paused state. At the end of the day, hibernate the Mac instead of shutting it down. This lets you save energy yet resume work quickly.

At home you’ve the facility to plug in a Mac anytime, but you may wish to conserve battery life of your Mac to prolong the life of the battery. Check Wake for network access option to automatically wake the Mac when other Apple devices wants to access shared resources.

Third-Party Apps

Amphetamine is a menu bar app to keep a Mac and its display awake when you need it most. It can keep a Mac awake for specific duration, apps, schedule and on certain conditions met via triggers such as specific Wi-Fi network, battery level and more. 

The app is free and is available on the Mac App Store.

Tweak the Mac sleep settings with Amphetamine
Tweak the Mac sleep settings with Amphetamine

Wimoweh is a menu bar app giving improved control over how a Mac sleeps and provides a detailed view of apps preventing sleep. 

It can keep a Mac awake on a schedule, using a timer or based on how busy your Mac is. The app is available on the Mac App Store for $1.50.

Wimoweh menu bar app to tweak sleep settings
Wimoweh menu bar app to tweak sleep settings

Monitoring Battery Usage

Apple uses Lithium-Polymer batteries in all their battery powered products. With these batteries, they need to get discharged and recharged periodically for better performance. If you leave your notebook plugged in all the time, the battery will never discharge beyond a few percentage points, so it gets insufficient exercise.

Apart from applying these practical tips for taking care of a Mac’s battery, you may wish to learn more about battery capacity, cycle count, temperature and more. This helps in planning Energy Saver settings and monitor battery usage as well.

Third-Party Apps

FruitJuice is a useful app for battery health. It shows how long you’ll need to unplug each day, percent power remaining, battery time for today, on battery target reached, and maintenance required. It is available on the Mac App Store for $9.99.

Coconut Battery is a useful app to let you know about battery health. You can see the changes occurring on your battery over time, battery health capacity, discharge rate, cycle count and battery temperature. The app is free, but if you donate you can monitor an iOS device battery as well.

Coconut battery app
Coconut battery app

Watts 2 is a useful app to calibrate battery from time to time to keep the battery time and percent display accurate, and to keep the battery operating at maximum efficiency. It substitute the default menu bar battery icon with useful information and advanced features. It is available for $5.99.

Calibrate a MacBooks battery with Watts app
Calibrate a MacBook’s battery with Watts app 

Activity Monitor—the Built-in Monitoring Utility 

There are three goals of system monitoring—prevention, troubleshooting, and resolution.

You can preemptively monitor any Mac in real time through monitoring utilities. This tells you how the system is using resources and the way it’s performing.

Maintenance and monitoring tools works together in a synergy. 

You can’t predict how well or poor a Mac is performing unless you make an effort to find out. This will tell you which maintenance routine you should run periodically or when in need.

The Mac includes two monitoring tools—Activity Monitor and Console. In this tutorial, I’ll teach you more about Activity Monitor.

Activity Monitor lets you to see the apps and processes affecting the CPU, memory, energy, disk, and network usage. Go to Applications > Utilities and launch Activity Monitor app.

Dashboard of Activity Monitor app
Dashboard of Activity Monitor app

The main panel shows the list of open apps and system processes. You’ll recognise some of the apps but there are lots of background processes running as well. 

Click the View menu to add more columns, categorise processes, and configure update frequency. 

Choose All Processes, Hierarchically to see the parent/child relationship between the processes.

Categorise processes in the Activity Monitor through View menu
Categorise processes in the Activity Monitor through View menu

The CPU tab shows how processes are affecting CPU activity. Click the %CPU column to sort processes by the percentage of CPU used by each process. 

Click the column title to change the order from descending to ascending and vice versa. With combined information from the Energy preference pane, this helps identify processes that are affecting performance, battery and temperature.

Click the CPU column to sort processes by the percentage of CPU used by each processes
Click the CPU column to sort processes by the percentage of CPU used by each processes.

When an app consumes high CPU, it deprives resources from other processes, resulting in slow performance and, occasionally, the appearance of the beach ball. Temporary spikes are normal, but they should return to normal when the task is completed.

If the CPU load is always high or near maximum, then there’s a problem. For example—an app could have a bug that causes it to use too much processor capacity. Or more apps are running than the hardware can handle.

Either remove that app or check for update. Another example—Google Chrome is notorious for using too much CPU. Go to More Tools > Task Manager to remove unused extensions or close the culprit tab.

Google Chrome memory usage Google Chrome helper app is the biggest culprit
Google Chrome memory usage. Google Chrome helper app is the biggest culprit

The Memory tab shows information about how memory is being used. For the most part, macOS manages its RAM efficiently. 

The system dynamically allocates both and real and virtual memory, and even if all the RAM is actively in use the virtual memory lets macOS use a portion of the disk to extend the RAM automatically, swapping data between disk and RAM as needed.

Memory tab of Activity Monitor
Memory tab of Activity Monitor

If a Mac is slow, look out for these indicators: Take a look at the Memory Pressure usage. If it is green then memory resources are available, if yellow it means memory resources are available but tasked by memory intensive processes, if red it means memory resources are not available and macOS is using the startup disk for memory.

Consider Swap Used and Compression statistics. A low number is acceptable but a high number indicates that the system does not have enough RAM to meet the application demands.

Also consider memory leaks by the app. To detect memory leak, keep Activity Monitor open and sort the list of processes by Memory. See which app is using the most memory, and the amount they use under normal operation.

Disk tab of Activity Monitor
Disk tab of Activity Monitor

The Disk tab shows the amount of data that each process has read from, and written to, the disk. It shows reads in and writes out (IO), which is the number of times that the Mac has accessed the disk to read and write data.

Pay close attention to how often the system accessed the disk to read and write data, namely Data read/sec and Data written/sec. Sometimes this data correlates with the CPU usage, while intensive data processing task can cause both CPU and disk activity to rise considerably.

If a system is short on RAM, disk activity will rise because of constant swapping of memory contents to disk and vice versa. The use of swap files gives the appearance of the system having more RAM, but takes more disk space. 

If a Mac is short on disk space, you can expect all sorts of problems—cache corruption, kernel panics, failure in updating apps, or losing app preferences.

Conduct Regular Backups

No amount of maintenance guarantees against hard drive failure, that a Mac will work without any problems. Or prevent it being stolen. 

Any number of potential catastrophes could imperil a Mac and its data. To keep the data safe, conduct regular backups. 

The strategy to follow comprises three key parts:

1. Versioned Backups

Versioned Backups protect data by backing up files without overwriting earlier versions stored on the backup medium. The first backup copies all files. Subsequent backups perform incremental updates where there is new or changed data.

A versioned backup is handy if you accidentally delete an important file or when a buggy app corrupts some important files. Having different versions of the data makes it easy to retrieve the file when in need.

You can use Time Machine to create versioned backups. It’s easy to use, automatic, and included with macOS

If Time Machine isn’t working for you, then you might want to supplement it with a more robust and flexible app. These include: ArqChronoSyncCrashPlanProSoft Data Backup, and DollyDrive.

2. Bootable Duplicate

A Bootable duplicate protects data by storing a complete copy of the startup volume on another volume. If the startup drive goes bad you can startup the Mac from a backup drive and get back to work in minutes.

Creating a bootable duplicate of the startup drive is helpful when Mac refuses to startup, crashes repeatedly for no apparent reason, directory gets corrupted, errors while playing media, app failures and more.

If you install a new version of macOS and encounter compatibility problems, you can quickly revert the disk with the help of bootable duplicate copy. The only real decisions you have to make are the app to use, selection criteria, ease of use, and frequency to update duplicates.

Two apps that specialise in bootable duplicates with impressive set of features are SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner.

3. Offsite Backup

Storing backups offsite ensures a copy of data in case the Mac gets stolen, or in the event of natural calamity. You have few options including physically moving hard drives from one place to another and using an online backup service.

You can purchase an extra hard drive, and partition them in two parts: one for bootable duplicate and another for data. Every week or once a month rotate this disk with another and update the backup. Don’t keep an offsite backup in a car or garage as heat and cold extremes may damage the data.

An offsite backup without a cloud backup service is incomplete. They provide protection against data theft and loss, speedy recovery of data due to disk failure, and ransomware attacks. 

Apart from regular cloud service providers, you can choose BackBlazeBackBlaze B2Amazon S3 and GlacierCrashPlan, and Google Storage Nearline.

Key Requirements for Backup

Two external hard drives, recommended minimum USB 3.0. Use the first one for both versioned backups and bootable duplicate—by dividing it into two partitions and another for emergency and as an offsite backup drive.

Apps for conducting versioned backup, bootable duplicate, and online backup. Choose Time Machine for versioned backup, SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner for creating bootable duplicate and Cyberduck or Arq or backing up data to cloud such as Backblaze B2 or Amazon S3.

The app should backup data automatically. It should also let you schedule backups with minimal manual intervention.

Conclusion

In this part of tutorial, I’ve shown you a number of ways to keep a Mac maintained and efficient. You can save energy through tips described in this tutorial. Maintenance and monitoring utilities works together in a synergy. You should always take a look at Activity Monitor and evaluate necessary maintenance steps.

Backups should always be an important part of the maintenance. Many people simply avoid backups, because of complexity. They’re not, follow the three parts described in this tutorial to keep important data safe.

Concluding this tutorial, there’s a series of steps to follow to keep a Mac efficient and well maintained. Follow these instructions as a set of guidelines and from there make your own maintenance regime. 

The strategy and maintenance steps may change but at the minimum you must keep your software up-to-date, regularly check hard drive for errors and perform regular backups.