WARNING: EXTREMELY NERDY MAC CONTENT — proceed at your own risk.
As you know, I’ve been complaining about computer problems for a few months now, with tedious frequency — but not as tedious as seeing a spinning beach ball is to me. Basically, every morning when I started up my iMac to get to work on The Beat, it would take anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour for the beachball to stop spinning and all the programs to start responding. Unbearable, right? You bet!
To everyone who said, “Get more memory!” I explained that my five-year-old computer was long ago maxed out to a kingly 2 gbs of memory. The problem, quite simply, is that programs today take up way more memory to run — think of how many times Firefox has been updated in five years — and 2 gigs of RAM is inadequate for anything but chatting on Facebook.
The ultimate solution is a new computer, of course, but that isn’t fiscally feasible for a few more months. Plus, there’s nothing WRONG with this computer. It’s just built for planned obsolescence. So what to do in the meantime? These constant slowdowns were sapping my productivity — and my will to live.
I should note here that Firefox is one of the main culprits in the memory-swapping hogging. I start up Activity Monitor whenever I turn on the computer, and just left overnight not doing anything overt, Firefox will somehow build up a gig of memory swapping disk space. And due to my digital hoarding, I would often run out of space altogether — this on a 250GB machine. Once again, five years ago that seemed like all I would need, but how foolish I was. (Jim Lee and Trish Mulvihill, my two Mac Genius Bar pals, both warned me that wouldn’t be enough but…well, it was the Aughts.)
The only stopgap possible seemed to be a clean reinstall of Leopard (I’ve yet to upgrade to Snow Leopard out of fear of slow performance.) But the idea of wiping my hard drive filled me with dread. (Did I mention that I’m a digital hoarder?) Despite my anxiety, my newish camera was spitting out dozens of giant 2mb files every time I went anywhere, filling up all the remaining hard drive. Things had reached critical mass.
So here’s what I did.
I back up my hard-drive weekly, using Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC); I have a partitioned 1TB external Firewire drive from Iomega that I use for this purpose. I set aside 250gb for a regular back-up, 500gbs for storage, and the rest for a rainy day. I run the backup late Friday/early Saturday morning, the time of the week I am most likely to be off the computer. Unfortunately, because the back-ups were incremental, I had actually maxed out the 250gb of backup, so I had to start afresh with a a new backup. That took about 16 hours — abnormal, but something was clearly wrong with my computer so I wasn’t too surprised.
However, because I am so paranoid about data loss, one backup wasn’t enough! I went out and bought a Western Digital My Passport Essential SE 1 TB portable hard drive from Best Buy — it was on sale for $99, so a pretty good deal. I should note that this drive has horrible ratings on Amazon because the mini-USB jack falls out, but the one on my unit works fine. Also they say that there’s annoying firmware on it, but I just reformatted it and haven’t had a problem with it. So there.
I had set aside LAST weekend for the reinstall — as mentioned, FMB was out of town so it was the perfect time. Last Friday night I fired up CCC and started a clean backup to the new portable hard drive. After a few minutes, I noticed that it was taking about 10 minutes to back up a gig of data. 10 x 250 = 41 hours. Yes. This backup took 41 hours. I knew something was horribly wrong, but given how my computer was already running with a gerbil wheel and baling wire, I figured I had no choice. So it took the ENTRIE WEEKEND just to make the backup.
No now it looked like TUESDAY would be the big night. However, I decided to update both backups (I told you I was paranoid.) To my shock, the Iomega backup took 6 hours and backed up a whole 2 gigs of new data. WTF was that? I decided to skip a final backup on the USB portable drive — a week’s worth of data wasn’t worth losing sleep over.
After carefully unplugging the portable drive (in case the Rapture came and zapped all the data on it) I started my clean reinstall via the Leopard disk. It was a queasy feeling as I checked that final box — but I knew I had done everything possible to restore my data and forged on ahead.
The reinstall took only about an hour! That was a good sign! Then I used Migration Assistant to port over the data from my CCC backup on the regular backup drive. But here I made a mistake. The new Leopard install had asked me to create a user name, so I made up a new one, not realizing that that would be the main admin for the entire computer. So my privileges are now all screwed up on my backup. Also, my Dropbox folder won’t authorize at all — it says I have some kind of permissions error. Luckily, the reason you have Dropbox is so you can restore files, so I’ll just copy them over when I have a minute.
There was, however, a more serious problem. When I went to restore my files from the backup, there wasn’t room on my iMac’s hard drive. There were about 50 gigs more than would fit on my iMac! No wonder I had a half hour of spinning beachball — I had been shoving 10 lbs of digital shit into a 5 lb digital bag! Now secure in all my backups, I ported over everything but my Music and Movie Folders.
To make space on my hard drive I went on a search and destroy mission for hidden caches. It turns out both Firefox and NetNewsWire had been keeping enormous backups for years of completely useless crap. That alone was nearly 10 gigs! Then I ran CacheOut — which removes all kinds of unneeded system caches — and Monolingual, which takes out unneeded language files, 2 gbs worth.
I also got rid of some things that I should have ditched a while ago, like my System 9 desktop and restore folder. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be needing that.
The end result of all my scrimping and saving was about 40 free gigs, enough to bring back my music and iTunes library, but not the movies.
There’s one big culprit remaining — Thunderbird and Mail mailbox back-ups which take a huge amount of space. I know I don’t really need these giant archives of 20-message long email chains asking where we should all eat dinner on September 30th, 2007, but then I think of the Library of Congress and stay my hand. I think I’m just going to back it all up on an external drive for posterity and move on.
So — was it all worth the time and effort?
Definitely! My iMac is nowhere near peppy, but isn’t sluggish either. It works! I still have some memory swap issues — maybe I should just quit Firefox before I go to sleep every night. (I’d switch to Chrome, but all my Firefox extensions are calibrated perfectly.) While I still need a new machine, I think I can baby this old puppy along until then.
The bottom line? BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP! Storage is so cheap these days. I plan to take the portable drive and store it in a different location as a failsafe. I’ve seen and heard enough data loss horror stories (and also recently lost 500 gigs of random movies and music forever) to know that you can never be too secure in having redundant backups of your precious digital life. Future researchers into our unbelievably advanced way of life will thank you and you’ll thank yourself.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.