Ten ways to turn your Mac into a lean, mean, agile machine…right now

Apple Inc. hasn’t done much talking about Snow Leopard, the next-generation update to Mac OS X that’s due to be released in 2009 (possibly within the first quarter of the year).

But in what came as a surprise to many, the company has said that the new operating system will contain a limited number of new features.

Instead of going the route of Leopard, which added more than 300 new features, Snow Leopard is designed to focus on the underpinnings of the operating system. The result, according to Apple, will be an operating system that takes greater advantage of multicore processors, is able to leverage the often-untapped power of graphics processing hardware for general computing operations and extends 64-bit architecture compatibility — all of which will deliver much higher performance over Leopard.

At the same time, reports indicate that Snow Leopard will actually slim down the code required by Mac OS X and its installed applications, not only improving performance, but also freeing up large amounts of hard drive space in the process.

It seems clear that Apple’s biggest focus with Snow Leopard is slimming down and speeding up its flagship operating system — both of which are attractive to any computer user. But why wait until Snow Leopard ships? There are a number of ways you can slim down and speed up your machine right now.

While the following tips probably won’t deliver the dramatic improvements we expect to see in Snow Leopard, they can make a noticeable difference — particularly on slightly older Macs or those where hard drive space is getting cramped.

Warning: A number of tips in this article require modifying system or application files. Be sure you have a solid backup of your system before trying them in case you experience any problems or need to restore specific features later on.

1. Get rid of the languages you don’t speak

Mac OS X has always supported a wide range of world languages. The entire interface (menus, dialogs, help files, etc.) is localized for over a dozen languages and included in the Mac OS X system files automatically during installation (the exception being languages that require non-Roman alphabets, such as most Asian languages).

This makes it easy to switch the language used on your Mac using the International pane in System Preferences.

Selecting language preferences

Like Mac OS X, many applications are written to support more than one language, allowing all their user interfaces to display in the preferred language(s) along with Mac OS X. Since not all languages are supported by every application developer, the International pane in System Preferences lets you provide an order of preferred languages. Applications that don’t support your first choice will display using the highest preferred language they do support.

While the diversity of language support is a must for Mac OS X and applications to be sold around the world, chances are that you speak only one or two languages. That means all those extra language files are taking up valuable space on your hard drive. You can trim down the footprint of Leopard and most individual applications (particularly apps with heavy language support like Microsoft Office or Apple’s iLife, iWork and Pro apps) by removing unneeded localization files.

Manually removing languages

There are a couple of ways to go about this process. You can manually remove language files from applications by selecting an application in the Finder and using the Get Info command (from the File menu or the command-I keyboard shortcut). In the Get Info window, expanding the Language section will show you a list of language localization files bundled in the application. To remove any you won’t need, select them and click the remove (minus sign) button beneath the list.

Note: The checkboxes in this list denote which languages you are choosing to enable; unchecking languages will prevent their use but not remove the localization files.
While manually removing localization files from individual applications is an option (and it’s interesting to see which languages each application supports), it can be a time-consuming process. Another option is to use a tool such as Xslimmer ($13; free trial), TinkerTool System ($9.75; free trial) or Monolingual (free/donationware) to remove localization files from both Mac OS X and installed applications.

These tools make quick work of the process and also offer additional features that can be used with some of the other tips in this article. (Monolingual has not been updated to specifically support Leopard, though most users have not reported any problems using it with Leopard.)

2. Cut out the non-native code

When Apple made the transition from PowerPC to Intel processors in early 2006, it needed to provide solutions for two major problems. First, since Intel processors couldn’t natively run code designed for PowerPC processors, Apple introduced Rosetta, a technology that allows an Intel Mac to emulate a PowerPC processor on the fly as needed to run PowerPC code. Rosetta makes all Intel Macs able to run software that has not been updated to run natively on an Intel processor.

As with any type of emulation, however, this is a drain on processing power and performance. So one of the biggest performance advances you can make on an Intel Mac is to get rid applications that are PowerPC native. Unless you’re working with specific older applications, you should be able to manage this by updating your installed software, as most developers now offer Intel-native or universal binary applications. (The last major holdout was Microsoft Office, which now supports Intel processors with Office 2008.) You should also ensure any non-application executables like third-party preferences panes are also updated.

The second challenge Apple faced in moving to Intel CPUs was providing a mechanism, known as a universal binary, that would allow developers to offer a single application that would run natively on both Intel and PowerPC Macs. Universal binaries achieve this by including both the Intel and PowerPC native code. While effective for making application distribution easier for developers and users, universal binaries double the size of the code contained in an application.

The utilities mentioned in the previous tip can all be used to remove this excess code from your installed applications, slimming down your system. Don’t expect all your applications to be immediately cut in half, however, as most applications include files beyond just code (files that define dialogs, windows and menu items, for example).

Note: If you have a mix of Intel and PowerPC Macs and you need to copy applications between them, you may want to skip this space-saving tip, since it will effectively create PowerPC-only and Intel-only versions of your applications.

3. Trim down iLife media libraries

Perhaps nothing takes up as much space on a Mac’s hard drive as media collections. Apple’s iLife suite allows you to maintain libraries for iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie that store your media; make them easy to search or browse; and make them accessible throughout Leopard and other apps.

These libraries can take up a lot of space. For many people, however, simply culling material isn’t a valid option, as that means giving up music, photos and video that you want to keep. Here are a couple of other options to consider.

First, if you have an external hard drive, consider relocating your media library to it. This will keep your media but free up space on your internal hard drive. This can be done with each library, but is probably most effective with video. While you may want your music and/or photos accessible at a moment’s notice, that’s probably not the case with your video library.

If you’re using a portable Mac, consider building separate libraries on both your internal and external drive. This gives you access to your entire library while your machine is plugged into the external drive at home or work, and you can also have a small subset of music or other media — such as movies to watch on a plane — with you at all times. Tools like Syncopation ($25; free trial) and iPhoto Library Manager (free; advanced version $20) can help you manage this dual-library existence.

Another option that has both organizational and disk-saving options for iTunes and iPhoto is to search for duplicates in your library. With thousands of songs and photos, having duplicate tracks or photos is a very real possibility.

De-duping in iTunes

Both iTunes and iPhoto provide basic duplicate detection features, but those features may not always turn up all your duplicates. iTunify ($15; free trial) and iSweep ($15; free trial) provide advanced duplicate detection for iTunes, and Duplicate Annihilator ($8; free trial) provides in-depth detection for iPhoto.

4. Clean out logs

I mentioned this one in my recent list of tips for keeping Leopard purring, but it’s worth mentioning again. Log files are generated by a number of Leopard’s processes as well as by applications, which may maintain their own logs or record items to Leopard’s system.log file.

Leopard’s maintenance scripts automatically archive and compress log files on a regular basis. Even so, the number of archived log files can grow rather large. If you do not have a need to keep archived logs dating back weeks, months or even years, then you can remove some of these older log files to recover some disk space.

Systemwide logs (those that record events from system components and applications that impact all users of a computer) are typically stored in the /Library/Logs folder at the root level of your start-up drive, and user-specific logs are stored in the /Library/Logs folder inside each user’s home folder.

5. Delete unused applications and tools

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s easily overlooked but can really affect performance. Deleting unused applications (including those that come with Mac OS X, those that come with other commercial suites or shareware apps you’ve downloaded but never really used) alone can save a lot of disk space.

So can removing unused system components such as screen savers, preference panes for System Preferences and Dashboard widgets. Since your Mac needs to load many of these items at start-up/log-in or when launching Dashboard, you can see performance as well as space-saving gains by trimming down the add-ons that you don’t use.

System components are typically stored in the Library folder in your home folder (if installed only for your user account) or at the root level of your hard drive (if installed for all users). A similar set of items that take up space is unused printer drivers, though these are more safely and easily removed using the Print Therapy utility ($30) than by hand for most users.

In addition to removing the actual application and component files, you should remove the supporting files and preferences files. These can often end up taking up more space than the application itself. Applications typically create support files in the Library/Application Support folder in your home folder or at the root level of your hard drive, where they store a variety of different files that are needed to implement functionality. (iWeb, for example, stores every Web page and related file that you create in this folder, which can take up huge amounts of space.) Preferences files rarely take up as much space but are worth removing as well.

Some applications also create folders at other locations in the Library folder(s). So, taking a quick look for anything that looks specific to a deleted application can help eliminate space as well.

Deleting applications and supporting files with AppZapper

If performing this process by hand seems a little too complex or time-consuming, AppZapper ($13; free trial) is a great inexpensive utility that ensures that when you delete an application, all of its supporting files go with it.

AppZapper can be used to locate and remove third-party preferences panes and Dashboard Widgets as well.

6. Reduce log-in items

This tip takes on performance rather than disk space. You can often speed up Leopard’s initial log-in time, as well as some of its overall performance, by limiting the number of Login items.

Login items, which can include applications and helper processes for system components and apps, launch automatically and typically continue to run in the background while you’re working. Often log-in items are installed along with an application without your knowledge. Some of these may be needed for the application to function properly, but not all.
Also, not all Mac users may need access to log-in items installed by every application. You can speed up things for other users by removing log-in items that they don’t need from their user accounts.

To stop apps from starting up when you log in, go to the Accounts pane in System Preferences and click the Login Items tab. Then select the log-in item you want to remove and click the minus button beneath the list of log-in items. (If the Hide box next to a log-in item is checked, it will still launch at log-in, but you will not see any indication of it launching; this is typically the case for helper applications or processes, such as the iTunesHelper application.)

Selecting log-in items

If you later discover that removing a log-in item creates problems with an application or component, launching the item manually often resolves the issue, and some helper processes will automatically launch when their associated applications are started. To restore a log-in item permanently, you can locate the file on your hard drive and drag it back into the list box, or use the plus button to add it through a file open dialog. This is the same approach you would use to add additional log-in items.

7. Do without the 3-D effects and animation

You can display folders as folders, not Stacks

Leopard’s interface sports many 3-D and animated effects. From the 3D Dock with its Stacks icons, to the optionally translucent menu bar, to a number of Finder animations that were originally introduced in Tiger, Leopard is chock full of high-end graphics goodness. Of course, those fancy graphics require rendering power. This can make Leopard seem sluggish on some older Mac models.

One solution to this problem is to disable some or all of these effects. You can revert to Tiger’s 2D Dock using tools such as TinkerTool (free) or LeoColorBar (free), turn off the translucent menu bar using the Desktop & Screensaver pane in System Preferences, and display folders in the Dock as folders rather than Stacks (control-click on each folder in the Dock and choose Display as Folder). You can also disable animation effects in the Finder (as well as adjust several other system variables) using TinkerTool.

8. Remove the fonts you don’t use

Getting rid of unused fonts provides both a performance and disk space benefit. Obviously, every font file is a file that takes up space. However, Mac OS X must read the installed fonts as part of the start-up and log-in process, making a large number of fonts a performance issue.

Perhaps even more importantly, all applications read available fonts at launch. This means that reducing the number of fonts can have a two-fold benefit, though it is probably most dramatically seen on older and slower Macs and may not be overtly noticeable for more recent models (unless you have an inordinate amount of fonts installed).

You can remove or disable fonts using the Font Book application included with Mac OS X (which can also be used to preview any installed fonts). Disabling a font will increase performance (as the font is essentially ignored by the computer) without removing it completely. Removing a font completely will free up space as well as improve performance.

Managing fonts with FontBook

To disable a font, select it in the font list and click the button below the list that looks like a checkbox. To re-enable the font, select it and click the same button. To delete a font, select and press the delete key on the keyboard.

You’ll notice that fonts are organized by collection and family. A font family contains one or more variations (such as regular, bold, light and italic) of a single font. Removing a single member of the family removes only that variation, not all versions of the font. Font collections are organized groups of fonts that you can use to quickly locate specific fonts. The Collection column also includes an All Fonts collection, system-generated collections for specific languages and collections labeled Computer and User.

9. Find and remove large files and folders

This may seem like an obvious solution to slimming down the contents of your hard drive. In fact, finding and removing large files wherever possible is the best and most obvious way to recover space. The trick here is finding those large files. Files created by applications in obscure locations on your hard drive, documents that have gone from one Mac to the next over the course of several years, or folders that you just assume don’t contain as much as they do are all reasons to take a good look at which files are taking up large amounts of hard drive space.

Finding large files with Disk Inventory X

Since we’re talking about files and folders that may not be obvious, consider using one of the following tools to help with the task. Disk Inventory X (free/donationware), WhatSize ($13; free trial), GrandPerspective (free/donationware) and OmniDiskSweeper (free; enhanced version $15) are all designed to look at your hard drive as a whole (rather than browsing through individual folders) in order to give you a clean and unbiased picture of your disk usage.

Once you’ve found the large files on your hard drive, you can choose to delete them, move them to an external drive, store them inside a compressed disk image or archive them as a .zip file.

10. Increase RAM

The final tip for this article is probably the most well-worn piece of advice for any computer user wanting to boost performance: Add more RAM. Any computer will perform faster and better with additional RAM. RAM provides working memory space for the operating system and running applications.

Leopard can allocate RAM very effectively and will swap data from RAM to the hard drive if need be, but having more RAM to work with will certainly increase performance. In particular, Intel Macs that rely on integrated graphics, where the system RAM does double duty for both regular computing and video memory, will benefit from more RAM.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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