A Guide to Mac Diagnostic and Repair Utilities

Back in the very old days almost every Mac (s aapl) user owned a copy of Norton Utilities, a name synonymous with fixing any Mac problem. “Have you run Norton on it?” was the first step in any repair routine. Today, no single program dominates the market. There are several different maintenance applications to choose from, and the one you end up using will depend on both the specific problem you’re encountering and your level of comfort and experience with Mac troubleshooting.

Apple Utilities: Your First Step

Regardless of what problem you’re having, your first step should be to try one of Apple’s own utilities. Apple provides several free Mac utilities in the OS. Apple Hardware Test (AHT) is included with every new Mac. The AHT boot CD bypasses your operating system and tests basic hardware such as your hard drive, memory, processing, and video. The tests are very basic and a passing  grade doesn’t always mean all is well. Apple sees AHT as a quick test to rule out obvious problems. If your Mac is just acting weird, AHT is a quick and easy place to start your troubleshooting journey.

Another Apple utility is Apple’s Disk Utility which can be found inside the Utilities folder (which is in your Mac’s Applications folder). The app is also on your OS X installation disc. Disk Utility’s is primarily for screening drives for serious problems like disk file structure errors (things are out of place), SMART failures (early warning signs of a problem), or permissions issues. For some repairs, you’ll need to boot from your installation disc. Apple’s provides extensive instructions on how to use Disk Utility on its support website.

General Disk Maintenance and Basic Repair

For basic hard drive checks and repair, the closest equivalent today to the power and simplicity of the original Norton Disk Doctor is Alsoft’s Disk Warrior ($99.95). Disk Warrior primarily does one thing and does it very well: it repairs disk directories.

All the cryptic and confusing errors Apple’s Disk Utility has problems with, Disk Warrior fixes with flying colors. Your disk’s directory is similar to a table of contents crossed with an index, and when it gets confused (usually due to program crashes or improper machine shutdowns), Disk Warrior rebuilds (instead of repairs) the directory, allowing the computer to operate normally.

Disk Warrior can’t repair the drive it’s installed on, so you’ll have to run it off of the installation DVD or another volume if you want to repair your boot drive.

Disk Warrior should be a part of any basic troubleshooting routine and I always run it before any system updates. It’s my most trusted and relied upon Mac Utility.

Data Recovery

At the first sign of disk failure, you need to consider whether or not you’ll be sending the drive off for forensic-style data recovery from a company like DriveSavers.  If you think you’ll be using professionals, then stop all recovery efforts and call them right away. Although these services often cost thousands of dollars, sometimes it could be covered by insurance.

If you want to go the do-it-yourself route, my first choice is Stellar Phoenix 4.1 ($79). The program is extremely powerful and deals best with volumes that won’t mount on your Mac. It pushes right through read errors and recovers data that other programs can’t find. Some recovery applications may give up if they encounter excessive read errors, which are common on dying hard drives, but Stellar Phoenix will keep trying until it recovers whatever data it can. Unfortunately, the interface is confusing and unintuitive like. In spite of the bad UI, however, the program itself is very reliable.

Hard Drive Optimization

Drive Genius 3($99) by Prosoft Engineering, has a comprehensive suite of hard drive utilities attractively packaged with a easy-to-use interface that lets you tweak every possible byte of performance from your storage device.

Drive Genius includes not only those functions covered by Disk Utility such as secure erasure, initialization and partitioning, but also adds a slew of maintenance and optimization routines. For those using a smaller hard drive, their proprietary DriveSlim algorithms removes unnecessary files to add space.

Although not necessary for the average user, Drive Genius also includes a defragmentation option, along with advanced functions for sector editing, benchmarking, cloning and an early warning system for potential problems called “Drive Pulse.” Drive Genius is used by Apple’s own Genius staff for yearly checkups. I recommend Drive Genius for more experienced users and geeks who want to really explore their hard drive.

Hardware Problems

TechTool Pro 5 ($99) by Micromat goes way beyond the AHT, doing more extensive testing of your memory, hard drive, audio and video. Apple includes a limited version of TechTool called TechTool Deluxe with the purchase of AppleCare that provides a limited subset of the full version’s hardware tests.

A unique part of TechTool is the “eDrive” feature, which creates a bootable partition on your current hard drive in order to run its utilities in case of emergency. More technical users probably would be more comfortable using an external hard drive, but rest of us will find this eDrive very useful for basic maintenance and testing. eDrive and most of TechTool’s other hard drive tools aren’t included with TechTool Deluxe, representing the major difference between it and the full Pro product.

Which should you buy?

Overall, every Mac user would benefit from owning a copy of DiskWarrior for periodic maintenance. If you aren’t fastidious about backing up (or work with others who aren’t), Stellar Phoenix can really save your data and I suggest it as your primary recovery tool, but you might be able to wait until something actually goes wrong. For the more technically inclined, I’d recommend TechTool Pro over Drive Genius because it includes both optimization and hardware testing. If all you want to do is occasionally optimize your hard drive and save space, owning just Drive Genius is a great choice.

While one program doesn’t do it all like in the days of good ol’ Norton, this list of programs will provide you the key to solving some of your own computer problems.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):