Alan Home: Computer Optimization 03/24/12
Every month, a daily progression of fundamentals on a topic.
And we kick off this new section with technologist Alan Home. Alan has been working in Desktop/Systems Support since 1999 and in creative agencies since 1995. As our resident Whisperer, Alan will be giving us regular advice, tips and best practices on how to keep our edit systems humming along.
Edit Workstation Maintenance and Optimization
Alan, how would you talk about those things as one unit?
This idea of optimization and maintenance is that they sort of go hand in hand because if you don’t do your maintenance you are certainly gonna notice a performance hit. And unfortunately because I have had both feet in both operating system worlds for so long I can’t separate them, so if you’re okay with doing the separating on your own parts…
So let’s be honest – maintenance is the least sexy, least fun thing to do with your computer. It’s sort of like doing the dishes or folding laundry. It’s not fun. But it’s absolutely something you have to do.
TIP #1: CLEAN UP YOUR HARD DRIVE
The biggest thing that you can do to make your system work better is clean up your hard drive and there is no automated tool in the world that will do that for you. You have to do the work and and go through and find the files you want.
And a lot of times I’ve found software that I loaded on my computer as a whim hoping this would satisfy this one time need that I have and then I realize that I have 5 applications on my hard drive that do the exact same thing and it was just me sort of poking around and being like, “well will this do it? I don’t know. I got this open source thing and maybe this will do something. And you wind up with all these duplicate things for this one time need that you don’t even need any more. So get rid of ‘em!
Whether you’re on Windows and you have to go through the control panel, Add and Remove Programs or you’re on a Mac and you can just throw them into the garbage or whatever I mean that’s fine but all that stuff takes up time from other things. So for instance, on the Macintosh, one of the big tools that we use to me were doing Macintosh desktop support was we ran this program called Onyx.
Onyx is a fantastic tool. It’s free. There’s no installation necessary. They give you a DMG and you drag it out of that into whatever folder you wanna put it in. Most people put it in the applications slash utilities folder. Great. Throw in there. Run it. And what it is, is the graphical user interface (GUI if you will ) of just a bunch of command line stuff and it runs based on how much stuff there is in your hard drive.
So if you’ve got half your hard drive filled, it’ll run twice as fast is if you have the whole thing completely filled. So, your hard drive really impacts every other aspect of your system. I’ve heard all these horror stories and I can’t verify them they’re all secondhand but a lot of people say if you’re over ninety percent usage of your hard drive then your gonna start having problems and one of things that people don’t understand is that your operating system, your applications, write to your hard drive to do things.
So it’s often not the case that your performance issue is because you’ve run out of RAM, it’s often because you’ve run out of drive space.
Ok, so I know about Onyx – but it can be kind of confusing from an end user standpoint when you look at Onyx vs Hazel vs Butler. Does it kind of come down to a matter of trying these out and seeing what works best for you or are there significant differences in those types of programs?
I am less familiar with the other apps that you mentioned but as far as I know all of these are just graphical user interfaces for the things that the computer already does or things that you could run at the command line if you are friendly with Console or Terminal. like Onyx just because they have an automation section and in automation there is a section called maintenance and there’s a check box for repair permissions and there is a check box for execute maintenance scripts. On the Mac there is a daily, weekly, monthly set of maintenance scripts. And obviously your computer has to be on or for them to run but through Onyx you can just force them to run, just by you know clicking that check box and then letting it go.
And the other thing is unfortunately, due to a lot of the terrible natural disasters that struck Korea, Japan, China, our hard drives are now a lot more expensive than they used to be. So maybe don’t upgrade your hard drive right now.
You’re right because of what’s happened over in Asia, hard drive prices have gone up and it’s a huge pain right now to buy hard drives. Do you think that situation is going to get better?
Absolutely. Hard drives are not going away and we always need more hard drives and I would say honestly, hard drives are still the great frontier of expandability. Yes, our computers are always getting faster but our cameras are getting greater megapixels which means every photo we take means we need more hard drive space. And because of digital technology, we’re not just taking one photo – we’re taking twenty photos and we’re not throwing away any of them. So we always will need more hard drives. That demand will always be there and as soon as Korea and all the other countries get back on their feet the hard drive production will be back to pre-disaster levels.
TIP #2: DO REGULAR VIRUS SCANS
Obviously if you’re on Windows, you have to have a anti virus program of some kind and the one I used is by AVG. They have a free thing that you can just download and I don’t know why they do that because nobody else is but it’s a great viable antivirus solution.
Then you create and schedule a virus scan. You have to do that. Turning on an anti-virus program and just hoping that it catches every e-mail and everything that comes through is not a real antivirus solution. So you schedule an antivirus check but of course, nothing slows your computer down faster than an antivirus scan because it is checking every single file on the hard drive and reading and going through them. Drive access is a thing that people don’t think is going to slow down a computer. They think it’s all, RAM or CPU usage but hard drive usage slows it down just as fast as everything else. You gotta make sure you schedule your antivirus checks but you schedule it a time when your computer is on and you’re not using it.
So if you’re gonna leave it on overnight – boom, put it on then. If you’re somebody who doesn’t want to do that, figure out what time you eat dinner on a regular basis and do it then. But remember, the antivirus scan lasts as long as the amount of things that you have on your hard drive. So if you want your antivirus scan to go faster, clean up your hard drive. Get that stuff off of there and your antivirus scan will go much, much faster.
Ok, here’s the classic debate or myth. If I’m using a Mac, do I need an antivirus program?
Ok, if you are a contractor and you are working by yourself and your deliverables are video files or Photoshop documents. No.
To this date, I have not heard of any Macintosh viruses. I heard of one case where a dude, on principle built a virus to run on the Mac. So I would say no, don’t bother. Of course if you are trading files with people on a regular basis and you are dealing with things like MS word or Excel there are malicious things that they can put in the VBScript of those files to mess you up and if you don’t have an antivirus they will catch you. Now of course, if you work in a corporation they have their own policies and they will mandate, whether you’re Mac or Windows, what kind of anti-virus software you have to run on your computer. The reason why is that you could potentially get an e-mail from someone that you could pass on an that people could click on. But no, I’d don’t think for Mac users viruses should be a big concern.
TIP #3: REPAIRING PERMISSIONS AND TRASHING PREFERENCES
Ok, repairing permissions: how often should you do it if that’s gonna help performance on your hard drive?
In terms of repairing permissions, as much as I would like to preach the gospel of pro-activeness in terms of computer maintenance, as far as I know there is no pro-activeness with permission. It’s like, as soon as they are set incorrectly, you will know it. Right?
And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it and what’s crazy is, and I don’t know this a hundred percent, but based on my experience it seems like Adobe and their Creative Suite writes permissions as often as it reads permissions. Which is insane as far as I am concerned because reading a thing is fine. It’s fairly harmless. But every time you write a thing, you risk the chance out of a bit getting set wrong and if that bit is set wrong it will screw up everything. And I shouldn’t say everything – everything within that file.
So this is a really good point in terms of maintenance and this also gets a little bit into backing up which is, back up your user settings. So if you’re someone who likes a custom desktop or costume on keyboard shortcut layout, anything that you’ve done and you’ve spent any amount of time to customize the way you like it, back it up. Export that profile. Put it somewhere. Because it’s the kind of thing that you will do once and you know not even think about for a couple of years and then when your preference file gets corrupted and you can’t launch your application anymore and you have to throw that preference file away, you’re gonna want those user settings back.
If you find and you’re on a Mac especially and for instance, the Adobe Creative Suite no longer loads and it gives you some error message that makes no sense at all, immediately go in to user / library / preferences. I know acrobat does it differently than the rest of the CS but there are preferences, there’s plist files in there and whatever application is not working just throw that plist away and try launching it again and it will launch. The good news is – it will look to see if that plist is there, if it’s not it will re-create it and then you’ll be back in business so at least you can get some work done. If you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve backed up your workspace or your preferences then you’ll be able to load that in.
There used to be a 3rd party app called FCP Rescue that would trash preferences for you automatically in (older versions of) FCP. Are their helper apps for the Adobe Creative Suite or is it all just scripts that you can run inside their programs? What kind of 3rd party ecosystem exists for Adobe apps that you know of? Is there anything?
You mean, in terms of fixing them and repairing them?
Yeah, the utility stuff not just the creative stuff. FCP Rescue (which has been discontinued) was a good example but there’s some other examples like the utility apps from Digital Rebellion. They are a bunch of unsexy utility apps for NLEs. And I just wondered if you knew of any of these kind of apps or does it mainly just come down to ‘you need to figure out how to manually go in there and fix the problem yourself? It seems like that’s what you’re saying.
If you really wanna get deep inside. And this is a little bit outside the realm of video but I am a huge fan of Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max and they have a whole Max scripting programming language that you can use to do things with. I love that idea of this because there’s so many repetitive tasks. I would say if you’re new to the scripting environment whether it be Adobe or Autodesk apps or other things, just go out there and look on the Internet because there is probably someone who has designed a script do what you want it to and if there hasn’t been yet there will be in six months.
Especially with the scripting stuff, the thing that you want to do might not be available now or somebody might not have done it or you just don’t have the skills yet. So I would say just you know every six months or so just go ahead and Google it. Because that’s the great thing about this Internet age that we live. I was born like way too soon. I should have been born like twenty years later because then all this stuff would of been there.
TIP #4: BE AWARE OF BACKGROUND PROCESSES
So the only thing other than your hard drive and doing the shop work and cleaning it up – is people don’t realize how much is going on in the background of their computer while they’re doing things. You really need to be conscious of that. I run carbonite on my Windows machine but that takes up resources, that takes up Internet resources, that takes up hard drive resources. A lot of people have that knee jerk reaction of ‘all I need is more RAM. That’s what the problem is’. Well, do you? Maybe that’s not where the problem is but the great thing is is that on the Mac you’ve got Activity Monitor which will tell you your disk usage. it will show you your CPU usage. It will show you all kinds of things. On Windows, the old school people are so conditioned that control-alt-delete means reboot but now that’s not the case. You hit control alt delete nowadays and you get a list of options. One of them is the Task Manager and that will show you your CPU usage, your RAM usage and then applications like 3D studio Max, part of it’s render window is here’s how much physical RAM you’re using. Here’s how much disk RAM you’re using. So you’ve got to really look at that to see what you’re really using. And you can sort an activity monitor by CPU usage and you can really see what hogging all of the system resources.
The one thing that I am very disappointed in with both of these operating systems is disk usage. I’ll see my hard drive light flashing like crazy and I’ll be like ‘what is that? what is doing that?’ So I’ll have to do my own detective work to figure that out, but I want one of these monitors to tell me – this is the thing that is accessing your hard drive like crazy.
On the Mac side, do you use iStat Menus? I thought iStat showed you exactly what’s the problem in terms of usage.
No, wait I gotta get on that.
Yeah, they’re by a company by Bjango. I just did an interview with them. Yeah it’s wonderful. It’s blended right into the top part of the UI on the Finder level. iStat Menus and an open-source version of them is Menu Meters which is free. But iStat Menus is pretty cheap. I’d love to know what you think about them, they’ve been around for a little while. They even have an iPhone version.
In terms of the Mac, the Dashboard – I don’t know where the Dashboard really is now but I know that in the past like, I’d launch the Dashboard and I’ve closed the Dashboard and it continues to run in the background that’s why it’s so fast. On first launch its a little bit sluggish in order to pop up all of your applications but in later usage throughout the day, it fast. That’s because it is running in the background. Another thing is, Web browser tabs. People don’t understand the consequences of kicking out a new tab tab tab tab. People have like 20 tabs! Each one of those tabs takes up your resources and they’ve all got animated gifs and flash ads and all this junk that’s running in the background. All that stuff takes up system resources. So this idea of ‘only Photoshop is going to be taking up system resources’ is a myth. One of the great things I mentioned earlier was AVG. They have a great monitor that will tell you, ‘hey man, your Google Chrome is eating up your resources’ and then you’re like ‘oh, crap – I gotta dial back my tab usage or something. Or I gotta stop playing so many games on Kongregate.
So, just be conscious of what you’re running in the background because all that stuff eats up system resources. Use the Activity Monitor, use the Task Manager to really see what’s doing before you know throw your hands up and chuck your computer out the window and say, ‘nothing’s working right!’
TIP #5: DON’T SAVE TO THE DESKTOP
Now, I’m assuming that most of the people reading this are a little bit more computer savvy than the average person but I’m just gonna say this because if I don’t say it and somebody does it and I’ll feel bad because I didn’t say it – so I’m just going to say it. Where I used to work they treated the desktop like a dumping ground. The desktop is the worst place to throw files, specifically image files because every time you go to the desktop it has to look to its thumbnails file and and its resource forks and all of that and determine, ‘what’s the preview image of this? What’s the thumbnail of this?’ and try and render it out. And when you’ve got a couple hundred files on your desktop that you were gonna get to eventually, it takes resources to render all of these previews and thumbnail images. Most people like to go to their desktop a lot because they have resources there that they want to get to and they don’t want go through their dock or Start Menu or whatever so I would say treat your desktop like you would any other folder. By that I mean treat your folders with some degree of organization. Get stuff off of your desktop into a folder structure that will save you processing time because you’re OS won’t have to render out all those things. The other benefit of getting your stuff into a folder structure is so the future ‘you’ will know what past ‘you’ meant when he downloaded a thing from a client at the eleventh hour and threw it in a folder. So when you’ve got to go dig that thing up again, you’ll likely remember where it is and there may actually be some sort of hierarchy to the folder. So anytime you’re using some sort of visual view like a desktop or a album cover view or anything other than a list view, anything that has a preview image or anything to it, that requires system resources and a lot of hard drives usage to figure out what those thumbnail images are. So just be conscious of that because I know lot of people just think that that’s magic and it just happens.
TIP #6: HAVE GOOD DOCUMENTATION
All of this brings up a good point that you have to know where your backups are! Put it in a place where you can find it later. Get into a rhythm with yourself. There have been times when I was like, ‘okay – I don’t know where this is but if I walked up to me and asked me where I thought it was, where would it be?’
Nine times outta ten because, I know this about myself – I know where I mostly put the thing I’m looking for. You have to start training yourself to do that and get some sort of structure to your file organization so on those times when you don’t necessarily remember exactly where you put a thing you’ll know ‘you’ well enough to know where ‘you’ would have put it if ‘you’ were ‘you’ and you ARE ‘YOU!’ Congratulations!
You’re basically talking about documentation. You’re talking about having set places where you put stuff and you know this because you can check your documentation. It may be a wiki or some kind of Cloud-based document that says, ‘oh, this is where I save things, this is normally the day and time I save things – that kind of thing right?
Well yes – absolutely, I would totally recommend that, especially for the personal user. So for instance, any password that deviates from the one or two passwords you always use, you have to recognize it and understand that this is an abnormality from the norm.
I worked at a place, a big big corporation and we had no wiki originally and we found ourselves in situations where we would figure out a solution to a problem we had. But then six months would go by and the problem would surface again but we didn’t remember the solution. We’d go, ‘hey, what was the answer to that?’ and we would spend hours and hours trying to figure it out and then be like, ‘right – that was it’.
So be your own tech support. Part of that means when you use forums, respond to forum posts that you’ve posted to. For instance, we would say, ‘hey, does anybody know the answer to this?’ and then time would go by and we would figure it out on our own and then we would go back and say, ‘hey, if anybody was wondering – this was the answer’.
This way you would be helping yourself from the past. So you have to do this in terms of everything you do. Again, this is no fun. I thoroughly recognize that this sucks! You desperately want to go on to the next new thing, the next fun adventure, whatever, but the thing that you do today will save yourself a headache down the road.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I recommend Evernote and Google Docs and those kinds of things to everybody I meet because there’s really no excuse nowadays. You have a problem you’ve solved. Put down that solution somewhere and have instant access to it everywhere. As long as you can pull out your phone you can get to that answer. But, I know it’s the commitment of doing it every time, the consistency of doing it every time, that’s tricky.
TIP #7: KNOW THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MAC VS PC
You were talking earlier about Windows optimization. A lot of video editors are fed up with Apple now and the whole FCP X drama and so a lot of people are switching back to Windows but the thing is, a lot of these editors haven’t been on Windows since like XP. So they’re used to going to the Start menu and finding things in the control panel. How much has this changed? Has it become a thing with Windows where they’re trying to hide a lot of the machinery, like what’s been happening with Lion and the whole Apple world? What kind of framework should editors have as they get familiar again with Windows if they haven’t been in there in awhile?
Well the great news is that all operating systems steal from each other. So what happens is, each operating system looks at the other one and says, ‘hey, you did this thing that we think is really cool so we’re gonna bring that over to us. For instance, Apple introduced Spotlight and Windows saw that and said, ‘great – we’re gonna do our own indexing version of what you’re doing and so as time goes by all of these operating systems get closer and closer together. And as much as you can avoid it, avoid Windows XP. I loved XP. I was a diehard XP guy but now that I’ve been on 7 – forget about it!
Here’s another thing. Now that Apple computers run Intel, this means they run the Windows OS. So if you’re going to buy a new machine, absolutely spend the hundred plus dollars or whatever on Windows 7 and get it on there because you will invariably get some weird thing from somebody that can only be done on Windows. And I wouldn’t bother with Parallels just because parallels is, on its own CPU intensive and if you for whatever reason need to do something CPU intensive on it then it’s just not gonna work out well. So in terms of the switchover between Mac and Windows and Windows to Mac, I would say the big difference is Windows still has the quote unquote Start Menu but now it’s just a like a big ball in the bottom left hand corner.
But what’s great about Windows and this is something I think Windows has always done better than Mac is that when you install the program into Windows is puts it in that Start Menu window. So you can see all your applications whereas on the Mac, you’ve got the applications folder where you might have to dig in, one or two sub folders within it to find something. It’s not very obvious, especially with the Adobe Creative Suite it’s definitely a nested environment.
TIP #8: TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE WORLDWIDE KNOWLEDGE BASE
I had a guy the other day say (because I do predominately Flash stuff at my current job) ‘hey, how long does it take to get really good Flash?’ and what I said to him was well here’s the deal – if you have a foundation in a programming language then you’re good. Because you’ll know the kinds of things you can do. Obviously every programming language is different. Action Script is different than PHP is different than Ruby. But if you have that idea of, iI need to create a sub string or I need to create an array or a hash, how do I do that in this language?’ then you just type the language plus your question into Google and usually a Stack Overflow article will pop up. But I would say it’s the same idea between switching between Mac and Windows. As long as you know the idea and the concept, just pop it into Google.
And two more quick Google things. So if you get an error message, go to Google and type in the exact error message that you get. I know a lot of people try to type like sort of the circumstance that they’re up against into Google to get the fix. Type the exact error message and that’s what people do and you will get super quick responses to the thing
that you’re looking for. I think people a lot of time second guess Google and there like ‘no, that’s too easy, that’ so simple’ and yet – yes it! Sometimes it is that easy – just type in that error message.
Yeah, I’ve done that and sometimes I’m like, ‘this is a super-long sentence, it’s in engineering speak, it doesn’t even make sense. There’s no way this is going to be in Google. But sure enough, there’s about 15 – 20 responses from people from all over the world who typed this very same message into Google. So it’s funny how that works. What do you think about some of these new tools for finding information, particularly Twitter and Quora? Can you think of some other places that would be good tools for editors to find information?
I’ve done a lot of 3D Studio Max and Maxforums.org is a great resource. If you do any kind of scripting Stack Overflow is fantastic and and what’s really great about all of these, at least all the ones I’ve mentioned is they’re all forum driven. And they’re not policed. They’re just frequented by really nice, helpful, smart people – people way, way smarter than me and and so I feel like this is the Golden age of forums. On Stack Overflow for instance, they have every single programming language covered. So the best advice I would give you is whether it’s Illustrator or Final Cut Pro or Photoshop or whatever, find a forum that has a fair amount of traffic and a place where you feel like you’re getting good answers. But also pick one that you frequent regularly and you get to know the people who are on a regularly. You’ll recognize the names that come up over and over again. I feel like forum posters are like movie reviewers. You gotta find that movie reviewer that likes what you like. You gotta find that forum poster where you read a thing he says and you’re like, ‘yeah!”. I know I can trust that guy.’ People have often accused the Internet of being nameless and faceless and shapeless, I would lobby the exact opposite. If you can find a site that you can frequent that you can get into, not only will you know them, they will know you and then they will trust you when you say things. There have been times when I’ve gone on these sites and posted, ‘hey, I need to hire somebody to do some freelance work for me’ and these people – they know their business. They don’t jump at a stranger. But it if they know you and they trust you then they’ll be like ‘all right we’ve seen on the forums a lot. We’ve checked your user profile and you’ve been here since 5 years ago, so we know you’re cool guy. We’ve looked at your other posts and you know what you’re talking about. Ok.’ So these forums in a sense are a form of networking and you are fostering bonds not only to get information but to do much more than that in the long term.
You’re right. Forums are a form of meritocracy. The cream rises to the top. As a reader you form your own internal ratings system of the people who are on there answering questions. I think it’s alive and well and a lot of video editors use Creative Cow, a lot of creatives use Creative Cow. But yeah, it’s so many forums out there to choose from, it’s pretty awesome.