Perhaps not everyone has, as I do, dozens of icons marching across the screen at startup and a system heap hovering around 23 MB, but concern for extensions must be universal. Who has not wondered what strange System Folder denizens a software installation will engender? Who hasn’t been mystified by "ODBC Setup" or "jdgw.ppc"? Who hasn’t installed a fresh system and groaned at the prospect of migrating extensions into it? Who hasn’t blamed a crash on some "extension conflict?" Who hasn’t feared to add or remove an extension, lest this upset the delicate balance of a working system?
I think I’ve made my point. Extensions – everyone’s extensions – need management.
For years, I managed my extensions with Now Startup Manager, until it began to cause trouble instead of averting it, sending me back to Apple’s Extensions Manager. Now I use Jeff Robbin’s Conflict Catcher 8.0.1, from Casady & Greene. How it compares to its predecessor I can’t say, though the program has long been a favorite amongst other members of the TidBITS staff (see our reviews of previous versions). This I do know – nothing will remove Conflict Catcher from my Mac any time soon.
Sees All, Knows All — Conflict Catcher can manage everything in your Extensions and Control Panels folders, including Chooser extensions, shared libraries, QuickTime components, and faceless background applications. It can also, if you desire, manage fonts, Apple Menu items, contextual menus, Control Strip modules, browser plug-ins, or anything whose effectiveness depends upon presence in a particular folder. And Conflict Catcher distinguishes between files that actively load during startup and those that do not, and lets you change the loading order of the former.
Conflict Catcher also tells you the purpose of each startup file – it includes a user-modifiable database of such information. The database is extensive, though you shouldn’t throw out your copy of Dan Frakes’s InformINIT.
Conflict Catcher comes preconfigured with a number of "groups" – collections of "linked" extensions to be enabled or disabled together, or pairs which must not be enabled simultaneously, or which must load in a certain order. Conflict Catcher lets you modify these groups, and construct your own. When you have many extensions, this feature is essential for tracking what you use and why, and for making changes in a consistent manner.
The main thing I don’t like about Conflict Catcher is the interface through which you manage groups. In a pane of its main window, Conflict Catcher lists the files in any selected group. But you can’t click a name in that pane to learn more about that file, or drag names into or out of the pane to change what belongs to the group – and only "link" groups are shown. To create or modify groups, you must shuttle between a horrible modal list of group names and a crippled, non-resizable version of the main window. This part of the interface needs serious rethinking; it’s infuriating, and worse, it may discourage users from taking full advantage of groups.
Conflict Catcher also comes preconfigured with various "sets" – a set being the entire suite of files present at startup time. It knows the default set for your specific system version, so you can revert to a clean setup. And of course you’ll be making your own sets: the set you use most of the time, a minimal set for installing software, a set for finicky games, and so on.
Conflict Catcher’s knowledge of which files go with which system version forms the basis of its system merge feature. When you install a new System Folder, either for upgrading or for maintenance purposes, Conflict Catcher takes the pain out of migrating files from the old System Folder to the new. I have not tried this feature yet, but it looks promising, and Casady & Greene promises an update when Mac OS 8.5 goes final.
Keeping Your Eye On the Ball — Conflict Catcher reports how much memory your extensions occupy. Unfortunately, this information appears to be unreliable. For instance, Conflict Catcher thinks the Open Transport groups occupy no RAM at all, whereas experimentation shows they take up as much as 1.5 MB. TattleTech’s report is better but still not accurate; possibly some system limitation inhibits tracking such information internally.
Conflict Catcher records the installation date of new startup items; this simplifies learning what was just installed. It also lists type and creator codes, how long each extension took to load, and even, in most cases, which company is responsible for the extension.
In viewing a list of startup files, you can sort on these types of information and others, which is incredibly useful. You can also generate reports which can be printed or saved. Reports are the only place where you learn certain other TattleTech-like details, such as which patches are being trapped by which extensions.
Among its many other capabilities, Conflict Catcher lets you "bless" a particular system folder (so you can keep more than one in the same partition). It can treat aliases as originals, meaning that some of your startup files can be mere pointers, with the actual items living elsewhere. And it helps you do a true desktop file rebuild, by trashing your invisible desktop files for you.
The manual, written by long-time Mac author David Pogue, is fine (and the fact that Casady & Greene hired him to write the manual lends credence to Adam’s suggestion in "The Death of Documentation" in TidBITS-428 that professional authors are one solution to our current dearth of decent manuals). David’s style is not my personal cup of tea, but many people like it, and he makes you want to read the manual. The manual is well worth reading, especially since it includes many troubleshooting tips, some having nothing to do with Conflict Catcher.
Catching Conflicts — After rearranging my monitors recently, I started seeing a graphical glitch in some documents. So I decided to try the feature from which Conflict Catcher derives its name. In case of trouble caused by an extension or an incompatibility between extensions, Conflict Catcher helps automate the process of restarting repeatedly, intelligently loading subsets of your extensions in a binary search that eventually isolates the source of the difficulty. After about eight restarts, ten minutes, and one cup of coffee, Conflict Catcher isolated my second monitor’s graphics accelerator card driver as the source of the problem. I might have guessed this (and Conflict Catcher’s Intuition feature can take advantage of such guesses), but I have better things to do.
Even if I hadn’t experienced this conflict, Conflict Catcher immediately did five things for me that made my life better.
- It caused my computer to start up faster – don’t ask me how.
- During startup, it identified each icon by name.
- It let me disable all my extensions and then re-enable them in groups to learn how much each group contributed to my system heap.
- It informed me that several of my extensions were completely unnecessary.
- Because Conflict Catcher can force all disk partitions to mount at startup, it fixed a bunch of files that had lost their icons.
Every time I start my Mac, I know I’m in good hands with Conflict Catcher. And if I ever need to weed out a troublesome extension or migrate to a clean system, I know that Conflict Catcher will help out. I love it, and I bet you will too.
Conflict Catcher 8 costs $80 and consists of an 8K extension, a 1.2 MB application, and the 1.1 MB database. Owners of previous versions can take advantage of a $30 mail-in rebate that expires 01-Jan-99, and those using other extension managers can try a 1.1 MB demo version.