End-of-the-year cleanup checklist for Macs
There's no arguing that Apple creates beautifully engineered machines. The combination of aluminum, glass, and refined technology make for some of the nicest computers available.
On the software side, macOS is no slouch either. Boasting gorgeous graphics and a simple, easy-to-use interface, the stable OS (powered by its Unix roots) is powerful, but it can become bogged down without proper maintenance.
There's no better time to perform maintenance on your systems in order to keep them running well into the new year. Also, this is the time of year when equipment is often upgraded, and older equipment is handed down or sold to make way for new products.
Follow this handy checklist of practical steps to take to keep your Macs humming.
1. Upgrade applications
Though updating applications should be a normal part of the maintenance cycle, upgrading apps, say to a new build, is not something that's done as frequently (paid apps are likely to be on an annual upgrade cycle). You should take great care to ensure that applications are always up to date to maximize compatibility with newer hardware and to support the system's overall security.
2. Back up data
Backing up data is another task that should be performed on a regular basis, arguably daily to ensure data is recoverable. Without a properly working and automated backup scheme, the next best thing is to manually perform a full backup of all pertinent data; this is especially true for those upgrading to a newer Mac and looking to hand down their current Mac or otherwise decommission it.
Apple includes the excellent Time Machine backup app, which not only supports automated set-it-and-forget-it backup of your entire system, but it also offers a comprehensive versioning scheme to roll back changes to a file from mere minutes to months or years and restore it to your computer.
Another notable backup client is CrashPlan, which has a simple-to-use interface, a powerful backup feature set (including encryption of local and remote backups and file versioning), and various options for backup destinations. CrashPlan offers free and paid options, including business and enterprise options that add cloud-based backup and recovery for peace of mind.
3. Perform system updates
Any OS released in the last few years has the ability to automatically install system updates; the simple feature is built in to help keep machines patched against malware threats. And yet, millions of devices throughout the world do not regularly receive system updates. I can't think of a better time than the new year to change that by getting into the habit of performing system updates to protect your devices and keep them running stably.
4. Clean temporary files and cache folders
With the large amount of data going back and forth online and the increased reliance on web-based applications, the temporary folders and cache folders, including the cookies that are used to store all this data, can grow to unbelievable sizes in a short period of time. To shore up storage space--and to prevent this data from being used to compromise your system or accounts--great care should be taken to delete these temporary files in order to clean your system.
5. Perform a full-system scan for malware and update security software
I know what you're thinking--Macs don't get malware, right? Wrong. In the last few years, malware targeting macOS has increased. The best protection for your Mac, and subsequently your sensitive data, is to install and maintain a security suite that provides multiple levels of protection.
Also, you should perform full-system scans periodically to catch anything that might have been missed--even malware intended for other OSes, since malware doesn't have to infect the host OS to be bad. Macs can act as carriers to infect other computers on a network they may connect to.
While dozens of choices exist on the security front, some packages offer very high detection rates, are free to use or are low in price, and won't tank the Mac's performance while protecting your computer. Offerings from AVG, Sophos, and Avast are all free and will work to keep your Mac protected. Paid apps, like those from ESET ($39.99-$59.99) and Kaspersky ($29.99-$49.99) rate highly, offer the least impact on system resources, and bundle in additional security protections, such as a firewall and email filtering.
6. Scan and fix permissions
Scripts are built in to macOS that will scan the permissions assigned to the system files and, if any discrepancy is detected, the permissions will be corrected automatically.
While macOS generally does a good job of self healing thanks to its UNIX underpinnings, there are times when the system will need a tune-up of sorts. The permissions scan and fix from Disk Utility can resolve many issues that affect a Mac's ongoing performance.
7. Uninstall unused applications
We all use a variety of apps to get work accomplished. Over time, some of these apps lose their viability and no longer serve their function--keeping these unnecessary apps installed presents problems on several fronts.
Most commonly is the issue of bloat, and more importantly is the security issue the unused apps present. If an unused app is no longer supported by the app's developer, it may represent a greater security risk and should be resolved immediately before data loss occurs.
On a Mac, it's usually easy to delete an app--you just drag it to the trash; however, some apps are installer-based and don't go away as easily, and they tend to leave behind temp files and other data since only the app is deleted. Programs such as AppCleaner (free) or the more expensive but de facto standard AppZapper ($12.95) will remove the app and all leftover data so the program is truly gone from your system.
8. Transfer system information using Migration Assistant
This step primarily applies to users that are upgrading to new Macs or swapping out their gear.
By using the Migration Assistant, users can transfer their account profile, including files and folders, settings, and applications from their old Mac to a new one. This information can also be transferred from a backup, such as one that is part of a Time Machine backup, in order to restore a user's data after loss or change in computer ownership.
Luckily, Migration Assistant has the same aesthetic as Apple for simplicity. To use Migration Assistant, it typically only requires following these steps.
9. Reset SMC and NVRAM
All Macs come with a System Management Controller (SMC) and a Non-Volatile Random Access Memory (NVRAM). Both of these store system function configuration and system settings respectively and, through normal use, one or both can sometimes need to be cleared to keep your Mac functioning properly.
SMC controls basic system functionality, such as powering on your device when the power button is pressed or the keyboard backlighting turning on when the ambient light sensor detects low-light situations. If any of these basic functions are not working or perhaps are working erratically, then resetting the SMC controller may help.
NVRAM, which stores certain system settings such as volume levels and screen resolutions, may need a reset at times in order to correct a non-working Mac.
10. Clear out Startup Items and empty the trash
For those of us that wish to squeeze as much automation from our Macs as possible, the use of Startup Items allows the Mac to handle launching files and apps or connecting to network shares automatically upon a successful login. While basically anything can be added to the Startup Items section, over time the list can grow unchecked and forgotten until your once-zippy Mac takes 10 minutes to become ready to use due to all the items it must first process upon startup.
By going to System Preferences.app | Users & Groups and clicking on your account, you will find the Login Items tab, which stores a list of all the items that are set to launch upon logging in. Review the list and then use the "-" button to remove any items from the list that are of no use; you are effectively giving your Mac fewer tasks to process each time you log in and, depending on the number of items cleared, could speed up the process significantly.
And please, don't use your trash as a filing system. Users often don't realize that trash works exactly like a folder sitting on your desktop, taking up valuable space until the contents are emptied. If there are sensitive documents in your trash, the documents won't be completely deleted until the trash is emptied, and this could allow unauthorized users to retrieve data you thought you'd deleted.
11. Reboot your Mac to clear sleep and hibernation data
I'm guilty of this one. I'll use my Mac for work or home purposes and, when I'm done, I put it to sleep. I hardly ever reboot or shut down unless the system has become unstable, which is rare.
Each time the Mac goes to sleep it stores copies of your working environment into RAM and temp files so that when you wake the system, you'll be ready to resume where you left off. The problem is that the files never get flushed properly until you reboot or shut down so it just sits there taking up space and potentially leaving a security vulnerability since some system updates require a machine restart to complete properly.
12. Upgrade hardware
For those of us working with non-2016 Apple gear (MacBook Pro-late 2009 here), it may be a good time to reassess the viability of continuing to use your existing Mac or if you may need to upgrade it by adding more RAM, swapping out a mechanical HDD for a solid-state drive, or maybe even upgrade to a larger external drive or add accessories to boost performance.
If you choose the total system upgrade path, performing the tasks listed above will prepare your Mac for its new owner by ensuring that not only is your data completely backed up and ready to be transferred to its new home, but that the older Mac is in primo condition for the next user.
13. Audit system permissions
Most of the time, our computers are for us to use solely for getting our work done. But if it's a shared resource, an audit of user permissions should be accomplished at least once a year. By determining if these accounts should be allowed to log in or have privileges on the system, we can make sure access to the system and, more importantly the data contained therein, is strictly for authorized users only.
14. Enable new security features
With new versions of software, like operating systems, typically new features like disc encryption are introduced to enhance security and provide greater protection of data. Depending on how macOS is upgraded, you might receive a prompt to enable FileVault 2 during the Setup Assistant phase, or the system might ask if you wish to have your credentials added to escrow during the subsequent logon after it upgrades, or it simply might not. Either way, the full-disk encryption service resides within the system and the added layer of protection is a highly recommended method of protecting your data at rest - particularly on mobile devices.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated in December 2019.