Ask the Mac.AppStorm Editor #6

It’s time for another “Ask the Editor” post today. A big thank you to everyone who sent in their questions – it’s great to have the chance to help you out with your Mac-related queries and quibbles.

Some of the topics covered this week include speeding up Safari, how to create and edit PDFs using OS X, replacing your MacBook hard drive, and tracking down pesky startup items.

Read on for plenty of handy Mac knowledge, and I hope you’ll find most of it useful for your own situation as well!

My hard drive is not working, and my MacBook is out of warranty. Every time I put a CD in, it pops it back out. I know that a new hard drive is very expensive, so what should I do?

- Luke White

First up, the obvious question to ask would be whether you’re inserting an official OS X install CD? If so, be sure to hold down the “C” key when booting, as this should launch you into the OS X setup program and allow you to Verify your hard drive using Disk Utility.

If this doesn’t work, and you can’t boot from the CD, maybe there’s something wrong with the disk. You could either try to borrow an install disk from a friend, or take your machine into an Apple Store Genius Bar.

They should be happy to take a look at your computer and diagnose the problem. As you’re out of warranty, they’ll charge you parts and labour to install a new hard drive for you (which is always considerably more expensive than replacing the part yourself).

Installing a new hard drive in a MacBook is far less complicated and expensive than you’d think. Take a look at this guide for more information about the type of hard drive required, although it’s likely to be a 2.5″ SATA.

These aren’t particularly expensive, and you can pick up decent sized drives from upwards of $40. Fitting it is just a case of removing your battery, pulling out the old hard drive, and pushing the new one in.

Also worth considering is whether you’re able to recover the data from your old hard drive. This works more often than you’d think, and a fantastic utility for data recovery is DiskWarrior. This has worked splendidly for me in the past, and it’s worth every cent if the data on your old hard drive is particularly important.

With several tabs open, Safari starts showing the spinning beach ball. Is there any way can make my Safari to work smoother, or an alternative browser I could use?

- Girish Kolari

Safari can be a frustrating beast at times, and performance is definitely a problem experienced by many users. It often seems to improve with new releases, but can still slow to a crawl if you have a series of processor-intensive tabs open.

First up, you should clear our all your caches, history, cached favicons, and preview images. You can do this from the Safari > Reset Safari menu item.

Reset Safari

Reset Safari

Next, you should disable any add-ons or plugins you have installed that could be causing performance to suffer. These are less prevalent since Apple introduced official support for Safari Extensions, but they might be lingering around in your system.

Finally, I’d recommend installing ClickToFlash, which will disable Flash unless you explicitly load a particular animation by clicking on it. This is a nice alternative to uninstalling Flash completely, but can give you a huge performance boost on Flash-heavy websites.

Hopefully, performing all these steps will lead to a much snappier Safari experience. If not, you could always give Google Chrome a try, another popular browser for the Mac that’s based on the same underlying engine as Safari.

ClickToFlash is a great way to speed up Safari

ClickToFlash is a great way to speed up Safari

I have a new iMac and am looking for a good piece of software for creating PDFs (commercial software is fine).

- Johan Bos

First up, it’s worth noting that OS X has great in-built support for handling PDFs. From any document, you can press File > Print, and select “Print to PDF”. This will create a PDF from any document, and it allows you to use popular software such as Microsoft Word and Pages for creating great looking documents.

Save to PDF

Save to PDF

There’s even a way to make this process easier if you do it regularly, by creating a keyboard shortcut to automatically export your current document as a PDF. It works system-wide, and saves me lots of time every day.

For editing existing PDF files and merging documents together, you can use Preview. Just open a PDF document, and drag another file into the Preview sidebar. You can re-arrange pages, and then export it as a new document in a few clicks.

A few other piece of software you may like to take a look at include PDFLab, Jaws PDF, and Adobe Acrobat.

Certain applications launch upon startup, even though they don’t show up in the Login Items in System Preferences. How do I stop these programs from running every time I turn my computer on?

- Matthew Butler

As you mentioned, the first place to look when you encounter an unwanted startup item is in System Preferences > Accounts > Login Items. This is great for disabling many applications, but a few always manage to get under the radar (such as CleanMyMac and Adobe Updater).

Login Items

Login Items

So how can you track down and disable these other login items? Well, there are a couple of places you can look. Here are a few different directories that you can scout through to try and find the file that might be launching the program you’d like to avoid:

  • /Library/StartupItems
  • /Library/LaunchDaemons
  • /System/Library/LaunchDaemons
  • /System/Library/LaunchAgents

If you spot the offending application in any of these folders, move the file in question to your Desktop, and then reboot your computer to test it out (don’t delete the file, as it might turn out to be something crucially important that you need to put back!)

It might take a little experimenting to find and delete the right file for a particular app, and be careful – you don’t want to delete something that was required for your computer to boot correctly.

Didn’t See Your Question?

If you asked a question but didn’t have it answered today, don’t worry! I’ll do my best to get to it in a future week. I love a challenge, so feel free to ask some weird and wonderful questions…

If you’d like to submit your query, you can do so here:

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I mentioned today!


  • George

    While the advice to Luke White is good for a bad hard drive, I think his problem may just be a bad CD/DVD drive.

    He says his hard drive is bad, but then states the actual problem as “Every time I put a CD in, it pops it back out.” I’m thinking he just has the terminology mixed up.

    If that’s the case (I could be wrong, it’s impossible to know without being able to talk to him directly), I would suggest just getting a USB CD/DVD drive.

    Also, it the machine isn’t that far out of warranty, he could try taking it to an Apple store to have them check it out. He might get lucky and they might replace it for free. Apple’s support is very good, and I hear stories of them going the extra mile all the time.

  • Thore

    Thanks for the tip about startup items. I had been wondering about that before as well. I had to delete them, however, as Finder wouldn’t allow me to move them (only copy).

  • Terence

    It is possible that both the hard drive and CD drive are going out. I would try two tests. First, try the CD/DVD that he is having issues with in another mac. If it works there, it is the drive itself. He could also try different CD/DVD’s in his drive and if it spits them all out, or a good portion thereof, it is the drive. Like George said, you can get an external USB drive. I myself just replaced my internal one myself. It was not difficult, and it now works for the first time in a year. I have also replaced the hard drive myself, again not difficult. And with Time Machine, everyone was completely restored in an hour.

  • Randy

    About Safari and many tabs simultaneously open. Upping your RAM to 4GB or even 8GB will DRASTICALLY improve performance in this scenario. I had been using 2GB for over a year and I’m a very heavy tab user. I was always frustrated in performance after I guess around 40 tabs. Give or take some, I never count my tabs really.

    The point is, after upping to 8GB ($130 from Amazon) my MacMini has performed SOOO much better all around, but especially concerning numerous open browser tabs. I can even have say 60+ tabs open AND some other non browser apps running without any real big drop in performance.

    I’ve been monitoring my RAM usage a bit since the upgrade using Activity Monitor and noted that I’m usually only using around 3-5GB. So I’d imagine just 4GB would still be a considerable alternative for those trying to get the biggest bang for their buck. However the extra 4GB does get used a little and sometimes a lot of it gets used, so it’s not wasted and it helps “future-proof” the computer a bit longer.

    Now about browser alternatives. To be honest, Opera seemed the most capable concerning responsiveness when many tabs are open. This is why I used it primarily for many years. However, it’s starting to show it’s age and it’s just not keeping up in all the other areas. Since the RAM upgrade, I have been able to try out Chrome and Safari for several months and I’ve decided to stick with Safari. It’s more Mac-like, extensions have brought it much needed improvements and it integrates with SOOO many other things and is usually the first to integrate with new apps and tech.

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