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While Microsoft has been trying to get users to move away from XP and to their newer Vista system, Apple's flagship operating system OS X - first introduced in 2001, the same year as XP - isn't going anywhere soon. As a corollary to last week's column on Windows XP, this week I'm looking at Apple's OS X operating system, a competitor even with a small - but quickly growing - market share.

The biggest news with Apple is that their market share has exploded in the last few years. Apple shipped more than 2.3 million Macs in the first quarter of 2008, 51 percent more than in the quarter a year ago, and Apple is now the No. 3 PC vendor overall. Overall, Apple has a 6 percent share of the American personal computer market, compared with 4.9 percent a year ago (New York Times: www.snurl.com/2ovbw).

One of the reasons for Apple's OS X's growth is the very easy setup for the average computer user, as well as integration with iTunes, iPods and other consumer media such as movies, music making and digital photography. OS X's reliable Unix backend is also a huge plus.

Another advantage I think is the ability to easily run Windows on a Mac. Windows and Microsoft Office have a huge share of the business and corporate world's software, so your product pretty much has to involve Microsoft to be in the business world (even with a native Mac version of Office). In 2005, Apple changed the basic hardware that OS X runs on - from Motorola to Intel - and this has made it much easier to run Windows on Mac hardware. You can run Windows either at the same time as OS X (in different windows), or in a dual boot system, where you select the operating system you want on startup using Apple's Boot Camp.

Just like Windows, one of the keys to a healthy Mac are software updates. Apple has been regularly pushing out updates to fix bugs and repair security holes. Software Update (under the Apple menu) will update the system software and all Apple programs that you have installed, such as in the iWork and iLife suites.

Another way to keep your Mac healthy is being aware of regular file maintenance. The software updates often fix bugs in the usually reliable Unix file system and in Apple's applications, but you can still have subtle problems that can lead to files not opening or often having to wait for the "spinning beach ball" before the computer will respond again.

Every file on your Mac has "permissions" assigned to it; those are a requirement of the Unix backend, which depends on permissions to give access and organize the files of different users. Sometimes through day-to-day use and installing software, permissions change due to highly sophisticated reasons, and restoring them with a maintenance utility will help with overall reliability of your Mac.

Look for a program called Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder on the hard drive); it's a general maintenance and repair utility. Start it up and then click on the name of your disk in the left hand pane and then select the "First Aid" tab in the main window, you'll have a choice of verifying or repairing your disk or its file permissions.

Click "Repair Disk Permissions" and let it run. You might see a long line of messages scroll and scroll off the top of the window; those are all instances of a file's permissions being checked and repaired. (If you do get cryptic error messages, go to www.apple.com/support/osfamily/ and search for the message and look for general help with Disk Utility and OS X). After you repair permissions, "Repair Disk" as a whole, too, in the same window; your hard disk needs to be checked as well. Check this Macworld article for advice and ore instructions on using Disk Utility: www.snurl.com/2pder.

Repairing both the disk and permissions is a very good thing to do before you install an OS X update through Software Update. The best practice before an OS X update is to restart your Mac, repair the disk and permissions with Disk Utility, and then install the OS X update. And don't do anything else while installing the update; just let it run and reboot it when requested. Sometimes a significant OS X update will reboot your Mac twice.

One other maintenance task to do with your Mac is to leave it on overnight once or twice a month. Turn the brightness down but disable the sleep mode. What will happen is various Unix housekeeping tasks will be able to run. These are cleaning chores that are coded to run in the very early morning hours (there are three: daily, weekly and monthly), but if you never have your Mac on at those times, they can't run. You may not sense a difference, but you will be heading off some chances of strange and quirky behavior. If you have a Mac that is less than about a year old and has OS X 10.5 Leopard, that version of OS X doesn't need to be left on over night; it will run those tasks within the next few times it is started up.

You can install a utility called MainMenu, which lets you run those Unix periodic tasks, repair permissions, clean out temporary files and caches and lots of other stuff to keep your Mac healthy. MainMenu is sophisticated enough to have a bit of a learning curve in order to use all the capabilities. Check the forums on the MainMenu Web site for help. http://www.santasw.com.

Mark Ratledge is an information technology consultant in Missoula. Contact him through his Web site and blog at www.songdogtech.net.

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