Speeding Up a Sluggish Mac
Is your Mac feeling slow? Does iTunes take forever to start up? Do programs that used to feel snappy suddenly feel like they are running on a virus-clogged Windows machine? Then this is the post for you, with one caveat: if you came here looking for hardware-based fixes for a slow Mac like additional RAM, faster hard drives or new video cards, this is not the post for you. But you might learn something useful anyway.
Slow Mac issues are generally caused by one of three things: RAM over-utilization, too little free space on your hard drive or various, esoteric issues with system permissions and the like. It is undeniable that two of these three could almost certainly be helped by hardware upgrades, but it is also undeniable that there are likely things you can do to optimize the performance of the Mac you have rather than the Mac you might have someday in the future. That’s what this post will help with. So read on because even if you are planning on adding RAM or a bigger hard drive, there is no sense in using what you already have inefficiently.
Cleaning Out Your RAM
If you want to see if RAM over-utilization is your issue, start the Activity Monitor. You can find it in the Applications>Utilties folder. After it launches, click on the “System Memory”
tab at the bottom of the screen. Take a look at the processes that are running on your machine right now and how much memory they are using (the “Real Mem” column). Anything in there you don’t recognize or didn’t even know you were using? Let’s clean it up, starting with the easiest steps first.
Restart. If your Mac is running properly, it can go for weeks and even months without a restart. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to never restart it. Some applications treat your RAM with respect, releasing it fully when they are done using it. Others, not so much. Safari in particular has a reputation as a known memory hog, though recent releases of the browser seem more memory-friendly to the Tired Donkey. Restarting will clean out your RAM and may speed up your machine.
Check your Login Items. Login Items are applications that your Mac launches at startup, and you may have some that are completely unnecessary. To check, go to System Preferences>Accounts, select your account in
the pane on the left, and then select the “Login Items” tab in the pane on the right. Scroll through the list. It’s likely that you’ll see some items in there that are a mystery to you. Google them to find out if they are really necessary. If you find some that you don’t need and you know are not necessary to the proper functioning of your machine, get rid of them by selecting them and then clicking the minus button at the bottom of the list. Your changes will take effect next time your restart, and deleting items here will speed your startup times.
Make sure Speech and Universal Access options are turned off unless you really need them. Launch System Preferences and take a look at the Speech tab and the Universal Access tab. Unless you need the features in here, turn everything off as they use a lot of system resources. Because a number of
third-party apps need the “Enable access for assistive devices” box checked under Universal Access to work properly, leave this one alone: if it is checked, leave it checked; if it’s not, you don’t need it and should leave it unchecked.
Delete “Other” items in the System Preferences if you don’t need them. Take a look at the “Other” section at the bottom of your System Preferences pane. If there are items in here that you don’t need, select them and hunt around for the Uninstall option; when you find it, kill them. If you don’t know whether you need them or not, do a little research about their function or just leave them alone.
Remove Dashboard widgets you don’t use. Dashboard widgets use RAM, often very inefficiently. If you don’t need them, kill them. To do that, start your Dashboard, click on the + sign in the lower left corner of the screen and then click on the X that appears in the corner of each widget you don’t make routine use of.
Cleaning Up Your Hard Drive
OS X treats free space on your hard drive as additional (slow) RAM when necessary. When you hear people mention “virtual memory,” this is what they are talking about. To function smoothly, your machine needs at least 10% of your hard drive free; the Tired Donkey prefers to keep at least 20% free. If you are using more than 90% of your drive, you are going to see your performance begin to degrade in very significant ways, and you need to free up space by deleting some files.
Don’t panic. Chances are if the above information is news to you, you have a lot of unnecessary files on your drive that you can delete with no problem. Here’s how.
Do the obvious. Empty your Trash and check your Downloads folder to make sure you are deleting the various stuff in there that you needed at one point, but are now useless to you (like
installation packages for software). The best way to avoid having your Downloads folder become huge without your knowledge is to stop using it. To do this, change the default download location to your desktop by (i) starting Safari, (ii) clicking on the word Safari in the Menu Bar and selecting Preferences, (iii) selecting the General Tab, and (iv) selecting Desktop under the drop-down menu labeled “Save downloaded files to:”. By keeping your downloads on your Desktop, you will always get rid of them when you are done either by moving them to the Trash or by moving them to a permanent storage location on your hard drive.
Get rid of languages you don’t need. When OS X was installed, it added support for a number of languages that you almost certainly don’t need. Use Monolingual to get rid of the extras. It’s free, but the Tired Donkey recommends you make a donation to SourceForge because it’s a great app and they deserve to make a little money.
Get rid of digital content you have forgotten about or no longer use. The biggest hog of hard drive space is video content. If you have a bunch of movies and television shows stored on your boot drive, archive them to a DVD or move them to an external drive.
Find the other big files clogging your drive. The Tired Donkey’s favorite tool for this task is GrandPerspective; it’s another free SourceForge app, but consider making a donation. GrandPerspective gives your a visual representation of your entire hard drive and lets you identify giant files
quickly and easily. But don’t just start deleting big files if you don’t know what they are because some may be critical to your system; if you don’t know what a file is, search the web to figure it out before deleting. In the embedded image of the Tired Donkey’s own boot drive, you can see that a single HD episode of Dr. Who takes up 1.5 GB of space. That’s a lot of space for an hour of TV.
If you don’t like the graphical interface of GrandPerspective, you could use WhatSize to perform the same task in a different way. If you want a more in depth look at this topic, check this great guide from MacRumors.
Empty your caches and other areas where detritus collects. The Tired Donkey’s preferred tool for this is the great (free) program called Onyx. More on that below.
Performing General Maintenance on Your Mac
Over time, disk permissions get corrupted and various programs cache information on your hard drive that you no longer need. To fix all this stuff, use Onyx. Onyx is, in the words of the developer, “a multifunction utility for Mac OS X which allows you to verify the
Startup Disk and the structure of its System files, to run misc tasks of system maintenance, to configure some hidden parameters of the Finder, Dock, QuickTime, Safari, iTunes, Login window, Spotlight and many Apple's applications, to delete caches, to remove a certain number of files and folders that may become cumbersome and more.” It works, and you should run it at least monthly. The easiest way to do this is to use the Automation Tab to have Onxy do everything you want at once, but you should experiment with the individual items under the Maintenance and Cleaning tabs first until you are certain about how deep you want Onyx to go. At a minimum, have it repair permissions and run maintenance scripts for you if you have having any problems with sluggish performance.
Those are the basics. If you want additional information, a number of people have done good blog posts on this same topic. You can find some of the best here:
11 Ways to Optimize Your Mac’s Performance
25 Ways to Speed Up Your Mac
If you have gotten all the way to this point and your machine is still unacceptably slow, there are a few questions you should consider. First, are you trying to do something with your Mac that it is simply incapable of doing? For instance, are you trying to edit video on a G4 iBook? If the answer to that question is yes, it’s probably time for a new Mac.
Second, are you using your RAM wisely? Are you closing applications when you are done using them? Do you restart Safari occasionally? Do you restart your Mac occasionally? If these answer to these questions is no, trying modifying the way you work to see if you can get another year or so of life out of your current setup.
If you know your machine ought to be able to do what you are asking it to do, but it still seems slow, you may have hardware-based issues that are more difficult to diagnose such as faulty RAM. So run the Apple Hardware Test that was included on your install disc. You can find instructions here.