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Ask TUAW: MacBook Pro cleaning, Mac maintenance, streaming video and more

Welcome back to another edition of our weekly Q & A column, Ask TUAW. Each week this column will appear with questions and answers. If you have questions for the following week's column, drop them in the comments, and I will do my best to get to them.

When asking a question, please include which machine you're using and what version of Mac OS X is installed on it (we'll assume you're running Snow Leopard on an Intel Mac if you don't specify). If you're asking an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad question, be sure to note which model and version of iOS you have.

For this week we've got a new batch of questions about how to stream video from a Mac, proper laptop cleaning, finding applications easily, Mac maintenance and more.

Julie asks

I'm new to the Mac after switching from Windows. Are there any maintenance tasks like defragmenting the hard drive I should perform to keep it running smoothly?

If you ask a group of Mac users, you will probably get several different answers to this question. In my experience the short answer is no, you don't have to do anything special to your Mac to keep it running smoothly. If you leave it alone, chances are it will work just fine for years to come, barring any major hardware or software issues.

That said, if you want to, there are a few things you can do to potentially help your Mac run smoother and longer with fewer problems:

Repair Disk Permissions - I like to do this once a month or so, especially if I've installed or removed a lot of applications or have been using my Macs more than usual. It's something simple that only takes a few minutes to perform. Note that permissions repair will only correct the access rights and file flags for Apple-provided applications and system files; it does not do anything to third-party files.

To do it just go to Applications > Utilities > and launch Disk Utility. Once it's open, select your hard drive by name in the menu at the left and then click on "Repair Disk Permissions."

I like to close all other running applications before I run this just in case. Once it's done (It should only take a few minutes), you can close Disk Utility and go about your business.

Run the Maintenance Scripts - Mac OS X performs regular maintenance at night between 3 AM and 5 AM. These scripts clear out various System logs and temporary files that your Mac no longer needs. If you shut down your Mac at night, they don't get a chance to run. If you put your Mac to sleep and are running a recent version of the OS, it will run them the next time your Mac wakes up.

If you want to make absolutely sure these maintenance scripts run, just leave your Mac on all night once a month, and these routines will run automatically. If you're inclined to use the Terminal, you can trigger the scripts by running the command "sudo periodic daily" (substitute "weekly" or "monthly" for "daily" to run the other scripts).

Watch Hard Drive Free Space - Mac OS X likes a hard drive with some free space on it, so for best performance it's good to make sure your hard drive has at least 10 percent of its space free at all times. On a 100GB hard drive that would mean you would want to have at least 10GB free.

That's pretty much all I do for my Macs. I've never really found a need to defragment Mac hard drives or do much else in the way of maintenance. Mac OS X is a fairly sophisticated bit of software and, as such, is good at taking care of itself.

However, if you ever do want to defragment your Mac, one good way (which also backs up your data) is to use a program like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper to make a clone backup of your Mac's hard drive. Then, once you have the clone backup, erase your Mac's internal drive and restore it from the backup. That process will effectively defragment your drive. (Probably a good idea to have a second backup on a different drive before attempting this, such as a Time Machine backup.)

Tom wonders

I often need to access programs or utilities, but I don't have them in the Dock, and I don't use them often enough to put them in the Dock. Is there a quick way to get to them without having to navigate through several levels of folders?

I use Mac OS X's built-in Spotlight search utility to highlight the app and open it. Simply go to the top right of your screen, click on the Spotlight icon to get the search box (or just hit the Command-Space shortcut), start typing the name of the app, utility or other file you want, and it will appear in the drop down list. Select it, and it will open in a new window.

As an alternative, if you want a visual launcher, you might use a Stack in your Dock to save space. Start by making a new folder someplace convenient -- Documents is fine. Put aliases to your desired applications in that folder; you can make an alias by selecting an app or group of apps and choosing Make Alias from the File menu, by hitting Command-L, or by option-command-dragging the icon from your Applications folder to the target folder.

Then simply drag your folderful of aliases (the folder, not the individual aliases) to the right side of your dock. Bingo: you've got a quick-access popup list of applications that doesn't take up all the room in your Dock.

As seen above, there's the source folder of app aliases on the left, and the resulting Stack on the right. Incidentally, it's easy to create a Recent Applications Stack with one Terminal command.

Jon asks

I use a MacBook Pro as my primary computer, and over the months my keyboard has gotten pretty dirty. What's the best thing to use to clean it and the screen?

There are a few companies that make cleaning kits for Apple laptops, but I prefer to use something a bit more simple. Go to your local Target and pick up a bottle of their basic glass cleaner. It's blue in color, and make sure you get the one that contains no ammonia. It should only set you back a few dollars.

Next, make sure to shut down the laptop and unplug it from power. In the old days (around iBook G4 time), I would also take out the battery, but if you can't do that, shutting the Mac down and unplugging it should be enough.

Use a clean microfiber cloth (I like the ones from ZWipes) and spray some of the solution on the cloth. Never spray anything directly on the screen or keyboard, as it could potentially damage your Mac.

Next, wipe the screen in a circular motion until you've covered it completely. Try not to press too hard, but just enough to get the screen clean.

Once you're done with the screen, you can spray a little more cleaner on the cloth and clean the keyboard. Again, don't press too hard.

Finally, to get any stains off the trackpad (and if the keyboard doesn't look quite as good as you think it should), it's time for the secret weapon: the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Run the Magic Eraser on the trackpad and keyboard, and it will remove all those pesky stains left over from your previous efforts. I'm not exactly sure why the Magic Eraser works so well, but it does.

Heather wonders

I don't have an Apple TV, but I do have an Xbox 360 and an iMac. Can I stream video to my TV from my iMac using the Xbox 360?

Yes you can. In fact, it's pretty easy. My favorite way to do it is by using a piece of software called Playback from Yazsoft. Once you install it and start it, your Xbox 360 will recognize your Mac as a Windows Media Server (provided your Mac and Xbox 360 are on the same network) and allow you to play media files, including video, from your Mac.

My workflow is to install the program, configure it to share a certain folder on my Mac's hard drive (I call it Movies), then use that folder to store movie, TV and other video files. You can also stream video and audio from your iTunes library (as long as it doesn't have any iTunes Store DRM) and photos from your iPhoto and Aperture libraries.

At the moment, the Xbox 360 supports video formats for playback with these file extensions: .avi, .divx, .mp4, .m4v, .mp4v, .mov and, of course, .wmv.

I realize the question was about an Xbox 360, but if you have a PlayStation 3, it will also work with that. Playback is a great piece of software that works as advertised, and it's well worth US$15.

Poshboy asks

I'm thinking of getting a Mac Mini server, but I'm wondering if it is possible to configure it such that my iDevices and MacBook can sync contacts/bookmarks/calendars?

Unfortunately, based on past experiences I can't recommend Snow Leopard Server for what you want to use it for. It's not the best solution and has some annoying issues. Of course, you can sync all those bits of info with a MobileMe subscription, and you don't have to buy any hardware.

For those who want to run a server, I've been using and recommending another product called Kerio Connect instead of Snow Leopard's Address Book, iCal and Mail Server; Kerio Connect also works as a replacement for Microsoft's Exchange Server. Kerio Connect uses ActiveSync and will sync calendars, contacts and email over the air to your iPhone, iPad, Android device or other ActiveSync supported devices. It also provides a very good email server.

The best part is you can run Kerio Connect on a standard installation of Mac OS X Snow Leopard -- you don't need server software to run it. However, for the best combination of services and performance, we've been running Kerio Connect on Snow Leopard Server (and on occasion on a Linux server), and it has worked very well.

I sincerely hope Apple takes the time to make the necessary changes to Snow Leopard Server to make it more compatible with its own devices.


Features Ask TUAW

Welcome back to another edition of our weekly Q & A column, Ask TUAW. Each week this column will appear with questions and answers. If...