5 mistakes made by professionals using Macs

11 February 2017, 07:38

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I have a sideline providing Mac support and it’s astonishing how I see the same sins committed by professionals who use Macs (typically those working in the design, webdev or media industries). I thought I’d list a few here, together with their solutions.

Disk death
Typical quote:
“I’ve had the iMac for six years and never had a problem but now my Mac won’t boot.”
Analysis of the problem:
From my experience, nobody in the world realises that hard disks die. In fact, of all the components in a computer, the hard disk is almost certainly going to be the first to bring the show to a halt. I’m talking here about traditional rotational hard disks, used in iMacs, Mac Pros and older MacBook Pro models created before the switch to solid-state storage. It’s very difficult to say how long a traditional hard disk will remain good for but the backup company Backblaze, that uses a incredible number of hard disks, points out that if you bought 10 disks, two of them will probably have died after four years. By the six year point, five will probably be dead. That’s a 50/50 chance of losing your data on a six-year old Mac that uses a traditional hard disk. Because Macs are used for much longer than other types of computers – I have clients happily still using iMacs from the last decade — disk failure is often a hidden menace they just don’t see coming. Countless times I’ve turned-up at a client’s premises on a completely unrelated matter to find their Mac’s hard disk clicking away, seconds away from death, at which point they explain in passing that, yeah, they’ve had a few problems accessing their files…
Advice:
If you really care about your data and uptime, get your Mac’s hard disk replaced every three years. This sounds like a radical proposal but, really, it isn’t. Remember that even if you have a backup you will still lose valuable work time having to restore that backup if the disk fails — not to mention the time spent getting your system shipshape so it’s ready for work (fitting a new hard disk, personalising the OS and your apps etc). What about solid state disks? Well, the signs are that these have longer lives than traditional hard disks – but there will come a time when they fail too.

No backup!
Typical quote:
“I’ve been meaning to sort out some kind of backup for a while…”
… or …
“I bought an external hard disk for backup but the last time I did one was five months ago.”
Analysis of the problem:
That Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign file you’re working on for a client has an actual monetary value corresponding to the fee you’re going to get paid. If it disappears because of a disk fault or human error, that income also disappears. Why the hell are you taking chances like this by having just one copy of that file?
Advice:
Get either an external hard disk, start a backup regime, and leave the hard disk attached to your computer at all times OR get some network attached storage. Learn how to use Time Machine. It’s really, really easy – so easy that there’s genuinely no excuse not to use it. At the very least install Dropbox and sync your files to it – although using Dropbox in this way isn’t foolproof.

Saving to network shares
Typical quote:
“I’m so tired of Photoshop crashing when I’m saving files!”
Analysis of the problem:
There are two issues here. The first is that Adobe has never supported working directly off a network share, and there have been some terrifying bugs that have made it doubly stupid to do so (e.g. files simply disappearing). Adobe advises you to copy the file to your Mac’s hard disk, work on it, and then copy it back. If you want to collaborate with others then that’s what Creative Cloud is for. The second issue is that the SMB networking software within macOS (formerly OS X) has never been great, and Apple tweaks it radically seemingly with every new release of macOS/OS X. SMB is used to communicate with Windows servers/NAS devices.
Advice:
Don’t work off network shares. As for crappy file sharing, try using AFP instead — Apple’s older and slower yet more reliable file sharing technology. To do this you’ll need to ensure the server supports AFP (many NAS devices do, although you might have to turn it on in the NAS configuration panel). There’s an issue with AFP being depreciated by Apple and it might be removed entirely from macOS in a future release — but right now it’s still there.

Working over Wi-Fi
Typical quote:
“File transfers to our server are so slow — and sometimes they just fail half way through.”
Analysis of the problem:
Wi-Fi has good points and bad points in equal measure. For browsing on your iPhone in a café it’s terrific. For watching Netflix at home it’s OK. But for transferring a 100GB photographic asset in a work environment…? It’s just not good enough for that and will reward you with pain — especially if your office is one where the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t work well and if there are many other computing devices chewing up the Wi-Fi bandwidth. Note: even the hyped-up 802.11ac Wi-Fi isn’t good enough. You’ll never reach those advertised top speeds in real life. Nowhere near.
Advice:
Use wired networking, which is to say Cat6 Ethernet cables going into a gigabit switch, to which your NAS or server also connects directly. Compared to Wi-Fi the data transfer speeds will be mind-blowing. Yes, newer portable Macs will need Ethernet dongles but that’s just the way things are now. Spend the $20-$30 getting one. You won’t believe the difference.

Installing crapware
Typical quote:
“My Mac’s been really slow recently. A few months ago I installed a few apps to try and speed things up but if anything it’s made things worse.”
Analysis of the problem:
No app will genuinely speed-up your Mac. Apps making that kind of promise are a modern form of snake oil, collecting a fistful of dollars each time from the gullible and desperate. The number of Macs I see with the familiar and dreaded MacKeeper logo in the menu bar is astonishing, although “RAM cleaners” are also popular (tip: you can’t clean RAM). For what it’s worth, while it might help things run more smoothly, a tune-up by a professional isn’t going to turn things around either — and you can judge the honesty of a Mac support guy by whether they point that out.
Advice:
Around 90% of slow Macs I see require a RAM upgrade (usually they have 2GB or 4GB and I upgrade them to 8 or 16GB). Additionally, recent releases of macOS/OS X have been made with solid state disks (SSDs) in mind, and really fly once the Mac has one fitted. Sometimes the operating system or apps are so broken that they’re slowing down the Mac, and a tune-up will help — but these situations are vanishingly rare. Incidentally, here’s how to completely remove MacKeeper.

Update: There’s one I forgot to include here and it’s a weird one: Macs with the wrong screen resolution set. This is evidenced as black borders at the left and right, and everything on-screen looking blurry and just wrong. I’ve seen this on iMacs and MacBook Pros, and in theory it should be impossible because of the strong hardware and software tie of the Mac and macOS. But still it somehow happens, and people work with their Macs for years with this happening, without realising! The solution is, of course, to open System Preferences, click the Displays icon, then the Displays tab, and select either Default For Display – if it’s listed – or the top-most resolution setting in the list.


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