Now that Apple has released new MacBook Airs, you might be tempted to buy one of them (we recommend this one because of the blistering performance that an SSD provides. You should be: once you start computing on an SSD, you’ll never want to go back, and the MacBook Air is a wonderful introducing to the powers of solid state storage.
That said, if you’re used to have a 500GB or 1TB hard drive to play around with on your laptop, you might be worried that it’s hard to live in a small 64GB or even 128GB footprint.
Don’t sweat it. I’ve been using a 64GB MacBook Air as my main work machine for the last nine months, and I’ve found it very easy to live within that space, after having learned a few tricks. Here’s how to make the most of your MacBook Air’s SSD.
1. Start Fresh
When you first get your MacBook Air, you’ll be tempted to use Migration Assistant to migrate the data on your existing Mac to your new ultra-notebook. Don’t.
While with most new laptop purchases you usually get more hard drive space than you previously had, when you buy your Air, you’ll be taking a step back on storage space and trading up in performance.
If you start fresh on your MacBook Air, you won’t inherit all of your old systems’ space-hogging legacy cruft: apps you barely use, gigantic mailboxes, overflowing download folders and so on. Depending on how long you’ve been using OS X, you could have almost a decade worth of legacy files cluttering you your drive.
Do yourself a favor. Leave this stuff behind, and use a USB disk drive or external hard drive to transfer over only the stuff you really need.
2. Move Your Media Library / iTunes Library To An External USB Hard Drive
Music and video files take up the vast majority of most hard drives, and you simply don’t have a lot of room to play around with on your MacBook Air, so if you have a large media library of, say, greater than 10 gigabytes, the first step here is to make sure that you store these files on an external USB hard drive.
If you have a library of videos or music that isn’t attached to iTunes, just copy it to a USB hard drive. If you’re using iTunes, though, it’s a bit trickier: you’re going to have to tell iTunes to an external hard drive.
Here’s how you do it. On a fresh library of iTunes, make sure your USB hard drive is plugged in, and then do this:
1. In iTunes, go to File > Preferences.
2. Click on the Advanced tab.
3. Click ‘Change’ next to “iTunes Media Library” and select a new folder on your external hard drive where you want to save your iTunes Media Library.
4. Under Advanced again, make sure that “Copy files to your iTunes Media Library” is ticked.
Now, if you’ve got an existing iTunes library on another machine, copy your iTunes media folder to your external hard drive, plug that hard drive into your new MacBook Air, and drag it onto your MacBook Air’s iTunes icon. It should copy all of the media files you have to your external hard drive’s iTunes Media folder.
You’re all set. Now, whenever you want to listen to iTunes, just make sure your USB hard drive is plugged in before you open iTunes. If you forget when you buy new apps or download new songs, no problem: just make sure your USB hard drive is plugged in, relaunch iTunes and go to File > Library > Organize Library. Tick ‘Consolidate Library’ and click OK. Your iTunes database will be updated so all files are on the USB hard drive.
3. Turn Off Automatic iOS Device Backups
While we’re in iTunes, you should do something else to maximize storage space: turn off iOS Device Backups. These can choke up multiple gigabytes on your hard disk, and while it’s a useful feature, it’s not necessary: you can always backup manually as needed for right now, and when iOS 5 and iCloud land in September, backing your iPhone or iPad up locally will be moot.
Here’s how to turn off automatic backups.
1. Quit iTunes.
2. Open Terminal.app
3. Copy and paste this in, then hit return:
defaults write com.apple.iTunes DeviceBackupsDisabled -bool true
4. Quit Terminal.app
5. Relaunch iTunes.
Now iTunes will stop automatically using your MacBook Air’s SSD to store old device backups. Just make sure that once a week or so, until iOS 5 is released, you plug in your iOS device, right click on it under ‘Devices’ under the sidebar, and click ‘Backup.’ When iOS 5 is released, iCloud should make backing your iOS device up locally moot for most people anyway.
Want to delete some of these old manual backups? They can be manually deleted under File > Preferences > Devices. Just highlight the old ones and click ‘Delete Backup’,
4. Stop Using A Dedicated Email Client & Switch To Webmail
You’d be absolutely shocked by how much of your MacBook Air’s SSD can soon be taken up by an email client like Mail.app, Sparrow or Postbox. If you want to make your Air’s SSD count, you should switch to a webmail application and start doing all your email in your browser.
Pick a webmail service you like and stick with it. Your MacBook Air’s SSD will thank you for it. And hey, if you just can’t live without a dedicated client, pick Gmail and use Mailplane. It has a lot of the benefits of a dedicated email application without any of the local storage drawbacks for a pithy SSD.
5. Stream Instead Of Download
Downloading is your enemy on a small SSD, but luckily, the last couple of years have made actually downloading most content superfluous. There are a host of great subscription services that will stream almost anything you want.
For example, instead of buying iTunes tracks, why not subscribe to a streaming music service? At the time of writing, it’s pretty much a toss-up between Rdio and Spotify. Spotify’s got the better interface and feature set, while Rdio has the better indie selection. It’s up to you: we like both.
On the movie side of things, if you pay Netflix $9 a month, you can stream from their extensive collection of movies and television shows. The same goes for Hulu Plus. Want to watch something that’s not available on either Netflix or Hulu? Amazon Instant Video will let you rent or buy movies and stream them to your browser, no downloads required.
6. Use Hazel To Automatically Delete Old Downloads
Noodlesoft’s Hazel is a fantastic utility that will automatically scan your hard drive for files matching certain conditions, and move them to a location of your choosing.
For the MacBook Air, Hazel is a godsend, because it can keep an eye on your Downloads folder and automatically move to the Trash any file that hasn’t been added or opened in the last two weeks. You’re going to want to keep your Downloads folder trim on the MacBook Air.
To make things easier — a tutorial on using Hazel is out of the scope of this how-to — we’ve provided a rule that will automatically trash any files in the downloads folder that is older than two weeks and hasn’t been opened in the last two weeks. You can download it here. All you need to do is install Hazel, then double click the “Downloads.hazelrules” file you just downloaded. Voila!
7. Use AppCleaner to delete unwanted apps totally
Usually when you delete an unwanted app, OS X keeps around all of the old file settings in case you reinstall it later down the line. That’s a great feature for bigger hard drives, but it can soon cause your MacBook Air’s smaller SSD to wheeze and gasp.
That’s where App Cleaner comes in. It’s a small utility that allows you to thoroughly delete an app from your computer, including all of its settings and library files.
All you do is this: instead of deleting an app by just dragging it to the trash, open AppCleaner and instead drag the unwanted app on top of its icon. Once that’s done, click “Delete.” All the files from that app are now truly gone!
8. Keep Big Files On Your USB External Drive
This probably goes without saying, but if you do a lot of work in PhotoShop, iMovie or iPhoto, you should be storing all of these files on your external USB hard drive whenever possible. You may have to learn some tricks here to make sure everything plays nicely, but generally speaking, if you’re going to launch one of these programs, just make sure that your USB hard drive is plugged in before you do so and you’ll be fine.
9. Keep An Eye On Your MacBook Air’s SSD With OmniDiskSweeper [Experts Only]
Even after doing all of this, you may still want to make sure that no multiple gigabyte unnecessary files are falling through the cracks. What you’ll want to do is scan your MacBook Air’s SSD occasionally for big files and delete them accordingly.
Luckily, there’s a great free app for that, called OmniDiskSweeper. All you need to do is download it, install it, open it up and tell it to sweep your Macintosh HD occasionally. It’ll show you your MacBook Air SSD’s problem areas. You can then highlight problem files folders and delete them accordingly.
Warning: This is for experts only. Unless you know exactly what you’re deleting with OmniDiskSweeper, don’t use it. It’s too easy to delete important files if you start deleting multiple gig folders haphazardly.
Like I said, I’ve been using a 64GB MacBook Air for the last nine months. It was rough going at first: I was constantly running completely out of space on my SSD. Using the above tips and tools, though, I’ve mastered my MacBook Air, and I’m currently sitting at around 10GB free, without any headaches. Even if you’re used to having hundreds of gigs of space to play with, living on a small SSD is totally doable, and even a lot of fun… you just need to be a little more disciplined.
Got any other great tips for living with a small hard drive? Let us know in the comments.