Five Mac essentials for healthy digital living

There’s as many ways to use your Mac as there are Mac users using the Mac – there’s no one true path in a user-centric OS – this isn’t the Windows way. All the same, there’s always a few essentials that can boost productivity, secure data, generally improve your Mac experience in every way.

We’ve been considering this for a while, and what follows is a short collection of ideas we think most Mac users should consider if they want to improve their experience, starting with that often over-looked but perhaps most critical investment any Mac user should make before crashing the cash on a new computer – more memory.

1/ Upgrade your Memory

Sluggish performance? Beachball of death each and every time you open up one too many Safari web pages? Mail.app behaving sluggishly? Inexplicable hangs when you have all the windows you need open? iMovie or Final Cut or Photoshop transitions sapping your will to live when you try to enable them?

Sure, a new Mac may help you quite a lot, but trust us – fork out a few pounds, dollars or yen and do what you can to max out your Mac’s memory. This singular improvement will bring you much joy, we promise.

In the UK, try Crucial – they deliver fast, fast, fast and are widely recognised as offering top-quality memory at the best – sometimes the very, very best, prices. Click here to find out more….

In the US, take a look at 4 All Memory, who are offering 20 per cent off all PC and Mac memory right now. But do a Google search before committing to purchase – memory is a competitive market, and you’ll often find a better deal – be warned to use original authorised memory, though, as cheap isn’t necessarily best. (In the UK, Crucial are consistently good, though).

2/ Snow Leopard, AppleCare and know what you do

Unless belt-tightening budgets mean you’re stuck to a PowerPC Mac for a while longer, there’s no reason not to be fully up-to-date with Apple’s latest OS, Snow Leopard. This is fully supported (security updates and so on) but only runs on Intel processors (which leaves PowerPC users a little stuck, as Apple no longer sells the PowerPC-friendly Leopard OS – it should).

Now’s a great time to buy, as the initial flush of sales has passed and you’re seeing a dollar or two lopped off the OS price (low anyway) from most retailers. Or you could opt for the Mac Box Set, which provides the OS upgrade and new versions of iLife and iWork and is currently heavily discounted on Amazon.

AppleCare

Did you know that Apple offers up to three years maintenance and warranty for your Mac?

Did you know that if you don’t buy that contract when you buy your Mac you can still sign-up for it so long as you do so within the first year of owning that Mac?

Well, perhaps you did, but maybe you weren’t aware that AppleCare is available at remarkably good discounts via Amazon – so you can save a good few dollars (up to $50 on some packages.)
Know yourself for yourself
Look at the websites (especially 9to5Mac), explore Tips forums, spend time at Apple Discussion strands – all these things enhance your Mac knowledge, and the more you know about your system, the better your experience of using the platform is going to be.

Its also worth having a book to hand, we suggest investing in Mac OS X Snow Leopard: The Missing Manual and/or Mac OS X Snow Leopard Digital Classroom.

The first is a general work, while the second offers a series of in-depth classes to help you increase understanding of the OS.

3/ Storage, storage, storage – and why it matters (more and more and more)

These days it’s a truism, but as your Mac becomes the central convergence device at the heart of your personal and professional life, the data you have inside it becomes ever more valuable. “Data” isn’t that sexy a word – so let’s define some of what this means….

…if you want to make sure you don’t lose your:

  • Contacts
  • Emails
  • Work and personal creations
  • Music
  • Movies
  • Photos
  • TV shows
  • Applications
  • AND MORE…

You need to back up your drive – preferably twice.

There’s numerous options – here’s a few. We’ve skipped some, such as burning to DVD/CD and folder and file sync specific back-ups, though these are also part of your arsenal.

Time Machine
Apple’s built-in backup system. It isn’t perfect, but it is pretty good – you need to ensure you have a Mac-formatted external USB hard drive (you can format those which are not using Disk Utility). We favour a hard drive we connect up every week or so above using networked Times Machine drives via AirPort, as the wireless back-up has proven patchy (even using Time Capsule).

Clone Your Drive
Another back-up, cloning. Carbon Copy Cloner, www.bombich.com or SuperDuper, www.shirt-pocket.com are two popular software packages for this. What they do is create a copy of your drive – apps, settings and all, which you can choose to revert to if your system dies or becomes damaged (for example, in the event of hardware failure). We run one of these apps each month, to an external drive – don’t forget, you can also boot from a cloned disc in emergencies.

Online Back-up
MobileMe (usually discounted c.$20 here) offers a lot more than just online storage and is increasingly becoming a more useful investment, particularly for iPhone and Mac owners. However, while handy for storing your essential files, the space you get is limited. Take a look at the growing collection of online back-up services. (Box.net, DropBox, Adrive etc). At present we like Carbonite. That company’s Mac backup service offers unlimited data storage for $54.95 per year and ships with software to automate your backups. They offer a free 15-day test drive, (www.carbonite.com).

4/ Choose your Drive

Whatever the back-up regime you choose – and we suggest using two or more different forms of back-up, particularly if you’re deeply into iTunes – then you’re going to need a good reliable external hard drive. There’s lots of options when choosing a drive: an empty case to put your own in? Do you go for USB, or Firewire?

As a general rule we suggest choosing as high a capacity drive as you can find (OK, that’s a little obvious, but we also observe you’ll get more storage for your buck if you opt for a desktop drive. Also note, unless you’re involved in moving assets between drives for video editing or some-such, a slower drive is likely to be a little more reliable, so long as it’s a recent model).

We’ve picked three drives we think should be more than adequate for back-up:

Iomega Prestige 1 TB USB 2.0 Desktop External Hard Drive
This nice little drive from Iomega’s also available in 1.5 TB, 2TB and 500GB varieties,Energy efficient this 1TB USB 2.0 drive ships with Retrospect Express software (which manages file and folder-specific back-ups). Available in up to 2TB capacities. Right now you can pick up the 1TB version for $104.77, a $68 discount on normal price.
Western Digital My Book Studio II – 2 TB (2 x 1 TB)
This solution adds a little security as it can be configured as a RAID drive. A RAID solution is even more secure as it duplicates data on both the internal drives (leaving you with just 1TB of storage). Alternatively you can use it as a standard drive for 2TB storage.

Normally retailing at $319.99 it’s available for $239 – not the cheapest, but worth the investment if you want a secure back-up system on a consumer user’s budget with a five year warranty.

LaCie d2 Quadra Hard Disk 1TB

Available in capacities up to 2TB, this configurations being sold for $149.99 via Amazon right now (10 percent off). It supports eSATA, FireWire 800/400, and USB 2.0 connections and hosts a 7,200rpm drive.

LaCie’s been offering storage solutions since 1989.

5/ User interface – it’s more than software, stupid

We use our Macs…a lot. Think about it – its not just work and play, its also what we use to organise both of these. Whether its syncing an iPod or iPhone, hitting the web for a news hit, writing an email or engaging in a face-to-face video chat with iChat, Skype or whatever – you are using your Mac. And while the on-screen user interface is invaluable, you’re sure holding that mouse/trackpad/keyboard a lot of the time….and this poses different challenges.

I’ve been using computers for around 20 years. I used them a lot. I got into writing early, was putting sites together for the early internet in the early ‘90s’s. The Mac became pretty central to my existence, as a result I contracted RSI – a kind of problem which means I can’t always fully use my arms – which is why I’ve kind of down-sized what I do these days. A few simple changes could have helped prevent that.

It has been suggested that to prevent RSI you should take a five-minute break after every 20 or 30 minutes of continuous activity. If you’re suffering from RSI you should clearly take more frequent and longer breaks. You should stop what you’re doing a few times an hour, relax, take a few deep breaths, and close your eyes or look off into the distance. Better yet, get up and walk around to stretch.

Here’s a couple of things I’ve written before on this topic:
Macworld Secrets: Take control of your workplace
Macworld Secrets: Type less – do more

One key tip I’ve learned which can really make a difference – use several different mouse/interface systems, and switch between them regularly – because each one imposes slightly different demands on you physically, doing just that can make one huge difference.

RSI problems are often compounded by poor hardware designs, which cause you to use awkward positions and excessive force while typing or using your mouse or trackpad. It’s essential to use a mouse rather than a trackpad if engaged in extended working sessions.

These are three of the products I use in my set-up, which I boost with different optical mice as and when I find them.

Kensington Slimblade Trackball
This easy to use solution is so comfortable to use, and has a few extra features which keep pulling me back to it. It is also available at half-price ($78) in the US at the moment…

Wacom Bamboo
Or any Wacom tablet, but I like the Bamboo ($52.99) because it is affordable, and because it enables me to control my Mac by using a pen-type stylus, rather than a mouse. This makes for much more natural and flexible movement.

MacSpeech Dictate
This remains the best speech-to-text solution for the Mac on the planet, it enables you to write that lengthy essay without touching the keyboard much. And it gets better with every point or full version upgrade.

Keyboards
Not just the mice, also the keyboard – particularly laptop keyboards – you need keyboards that push your hands outwards. Take a look at Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 (half price at the moment), which turns the right and left sides of the keyboard outward so your arms, wrists and hands work in a straight line.

If you’re one handed, then there’s the Maltron One Handed Keyboard (www.maltron.com) an ergonomic keyboard that’s been designed to be completely usable with one hand.

One more thing – do yourself a favour and get yourself a suitable chair...

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