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.



  1. I get a really nerdy glee out of hearing nuts and bolts stuff like this. I’ll definitely be trying CacheOut on my own Macs soon.

  2. If you’re going to go to all this trouble then you might as well just replace the internal harddrive with a bigger one. It only takes a few minutes longer.
    Also DropBox makes a great backup solution for current files. If you save everything into it then even if your computer explodes you can be back working again in a few hours or even immediately if you have it synced to another machine.
    The Cloud means never having to care what computer you are using.

  3. Oh, dear god, yes — don’t let Firefox run unattended. Leaving it running overnight is like asking for all your memory to be sucked up. My wife and I share a laptop and whenever she leaves Firefox running when not using the computer, everything on my half of the system runs slowly. You can watch the activity monitor tool thingy and see the memory leaks Firefox has grow out of control over the course of time. It’s horrifying.

    So, yes, keep Firefox and all those handy plug-ins, but do yourself a favor and shut it down when you’re not using it. Close unused tabs. Clear the cache frequently. (I think there’s an option to limit the size of the cache to so many megs or gigs.)

    And good luck with everything! I bought a new iMac in December with a built-in 1TB hard drive and I’ve alraedy filled it up. Of course, I’m shooting 20MB pictures with my camera at an alarming rate, so I knew it would come to that…

  4. I don’t run Firefox unless I come across a website that acts wonky in Safari. It’s a rare occurrence these days.

    Even with a 2 TB external I feel the need to go larger. Photos really hog space, not to mention giant Photoshop files I generate everyday. There’s a big digital cleanup weekend in the near future.

    Thunderbolt should make the back-up process much zippier. My next Mac will be a pimped-out iMac…. first desktop since my old G4.

  5. Heidi – upgrade to Snow Leopard. The whole OS release was about streamlining code — you will in all likelihood get a couple of gigs back and you will see your computer run faster.

    Next time I see you, remind me to tell you how in 2003 I had Panther running on my 1995 era 8500! :P

  6. I agree with Simon, with all the work you did backing up files (kudos to you btw, I don’t have the patience for that many back-ups) you really should have replaced the HD with a 1TB HD or something. Like you said, storage is cheap and 250gb is never enough these days. Glad to hear you did benefit from the reinstall!

  7. Max G: It’s my understanding tat on Journaled Mac disks, defragging is not really an issue. Obviously, it was for my hard drive, however.

    To those who suggest a new hard drive — I don’t mind fiddling with software, but I’m not a tinkerer on beyond a no-brainer like putting in memory. I would have to operate on some cadavers before trying a patient.

    For those who don’t mind, however, here’s a guide to upgrading hard drives on Macs:


  8. I agree with Chip. Upgrading to Snow Leopard scrapes out the old Power PC code that, if you’ve already got rid of OS9, is just a waste of space. I reclaimed gigs of space!

  9. I got the dreaded back-up lesson a few months ago the hard way. I made out pretty good but there was still some things lost.

    And yeah Firefox is excessive. I’ve actually switched to using the more obscure Flock. Aside from it’s really annoying attempts to sync with every social media thing I look at, its weird design, and the inability to pull a tab out of a window to turn into its own window, it’s pretty smooth.

  10. “And yeah Firefox is excessive. I’ve actually switched to using the more obscure Flock. Aside from it’s really annoying attempts to sync with every social media thing I look at, its weird design, and the inability to pull a tab out of a window to turn into its own window, it’s pretty smooth.”

    It was also discontinued in April so will receive no support from this point onwards which means it will have security problems.

  11. Good warning about Firefox, but taking from 5 minutes to a half hour for an iMac to turn on sounds like there are definitely other problems going on — esp. if you already had 2G of RAM installed! That should give you plenty of memory for running nearly everything!

  12. Just curious – your talk of 10 lbs in a 5 lb bag and your “digital hoarding” – how much free space was on your 250 gb drive? I’ve known people that will fill up 99% of a drive and not expect it to cause any problems, which it most certainly will! For a 250 gb drive you should generally have 25 gb free – having less can definitely slow you down as data swaps from RAM to ROM.

  13. I’ve been using Applejack to do occasional general housekeeping, and TimeMachine for frequent daytime backups, with nightly backups going on a network Raid drive.

    All very wonderful, but still running Leopard on a Power PC G5, so can’t upgrade the system. Some day…

  14. Too late for Heidi here, but if you’re going to do a clean install on an Intel-based Mac for any reason, invest $29 in Snow Leopard and do it with that.

    And for Ford’s sake, people: Leopard (either color) has Time Machine, the easiest-to-use backup software in Known Space. Use it.