How to speed up your Mac in 30 minutes

29th Jun 2013 | 09:00

How to speed up your Mac in 30 minutes

Got a slow Mac? We've got the answer

Introduction

You opened that beautiful Apple box to find your gleaming new Mac within ages ago! It booted up, and immediately the Mac seemed so much faster than what it replaced. Apps opened with a speed you found astonishing. And any task you could throw at it seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.

The novelty of your no-longer-new Mac's incredible speed wore off a long time ago. Now you find yourself tapping the table impatiently, sighing as you wait for applications to open and documents to load. And if the cursor changes to a spinning beachball, you get that sinking feeling that tells you you're going to be waiting a good long time for whatever you were doing to finish.

It isn't you. You're not getting irrationally impatient - your Mac really may be slowing down. Over time, the software you install may affect the overall performance of your Mac. What's more, software updates, full version upgrades and new versions of OS X may put additional load on your Mac. And as your hard drive fills up, files can get fragmented - that can hurt speed too.

As system and application software specifications change, your Mac's hardware itself may not be as up to the task as it once was. Faster drives, more memory and other hardware tweaks can breathe new life into an old system in dramatic ways, and you don't need to spend a lot.

There are a lot of ways to slow down your Mac, but there are a lot of ways to speed it up too. We're going to take a look at many of the ways you can restore your Mac to its original potential, and we're also going to look at the ways you can improve your Mac's performance beyond factory spec!

What's slowing down your Mac?

Take the guesswork out of tuning your Mac's performance with some helpful tools

Your Mac didn't slow down just by itself. The software running on the device, even core operating system processes, take their toll on your Mac's overall performance over time.

The first step to figuring out how to speed up your Mac is to find out what's running. To that end, OS X includes some handy tools to give you a sense of where your system resources are being spent.

Activity Monitor

Activity monitor

Check inside the Utilities folder on your Mac, and you'll find a tool provided by Apple that will help you understand what's running on your Mac. It even gives you a way of stopping stuff in its tracks if it's causing problems.

Activity Monitor shows you all the processes that are running on your Mac - not just applications that you might recognize, but all the discrete functions the system needs to operate, or software that you depend on may need to continue working even when it's not running.

At a glance, and by rearranging some columns by clicking on their headers, you can quickly ascertain what processes are demanding the most attention from the CPU, or gobbling up the most memory.

You'll find a lot of stuff running on your Mac that might otherwise be invisible, but don't panic. These are usually legitimate things that your Mac and the software you've installed needs to work. Still, if you find a runaway process that's gobbling up resources, you can force quit it from here.

Before you do, though, Google the Process Name exactly - perhaps with 'CPU', for example, if it's soaking up your processor - to check if others have solved the problem.

Activity Monitor's Memory tab

Memory chart

At a glance, this pie chart, accessible by clicking on Activity Monitor's Memory tab, tells you the state of your Mac's memory:

Free: How much RAM is available.
Wired: How much memory can't be offloaded to disk in a pinch.
Active: Information in RAM that's recently been used.
Inactive: RAM that's recently been touched by an app but that can be allocated for something else if need be.
Used: The amount of RAM used in total.

On the right, Page Ins and Page Outs gives you a sense of how often the Mac is moving information between RAM and the hard disk. If you have a high number of Page Outs, or your pie chart is mostly warm colours, adding more RAM to the Mac can help improve performance.

Console

Console

Also inside the Utilities folder is Console, a handy app that lets you check the logs your Mac produces to document what it's doing. The Mac is constantly writing notes to itself, and these notes are useful in diagnosing problems - especially kernel panics.

Console is a handy troubleshooting tool if you think an app is giving you trouble but you're not exactly sure why. OS X documents what it's doing and when it's doing it, and if an app or processes crashes it, a log will be generated telling you what happened. You can even set a preference in Console to alert you when an open log changes, if you want to keep an eye on a specific process or app that you think is giving you trouble.

Admittedly, there's a tremendous amount of alphabet soup in here, with processes running with names you may not recognize. Doing a quick Google search can usually yield answers. Apple Support Communities can also be a great resource to search for what you need.

iStat Menus

iStat menus

This indispensable $16 utility from Bjango populates your menu bar with charts and graphs that show you at a glance how full your hard disk is, what sort of inbound and outbound network traffic your Mac is experiencing, how memory is being used and much more.

30 minutes to a faster Mac

Quit open apps you don't need

Just because you've closed open windows doesn't remove apps from memory - you have to remember to quit them altogether to remove their footprint from the operating system.

If you're a recent Windows convert, this idea might be a bit strange to you. If you run a lot of apps simultaneously and you don't have to, make sure to actually quit them to reduce their impact on your Mac's performance.

Any app that appears in your dock with a light underneath is something that's taking up RAM. You can quit open apps by selecting Quit from the application menu to the right of the Apple menu while the app is active, or right-click on their Dock icon and select Quit.

Clean your desktop

desktop

Do you know all those files and folders you keep within easy reach on your desktop, or the stuff that you saved to the desktop but you're just too lazy to put away?

Technically, the Finder treats every icon on your desktop as a separate window behind the scenes, and that puts a significant additional strain on resources. Find a place for everything in the Documents folder or somewhere else you're likely to remember, away from the Finder.

Clear your browser's cache

Safari cache clear

Safari can fill up with a lot of junk that will slow it down over time, and the last thing you need when you're in a hurry is a spinning beachball.

To do so, first open Safari's Preferences, then click on the Advanced button. Click the checkbox labelled 'Show Develop menu in menu bar' and a new menu will appear. Half way down the list is Empty Caches. Alternatively, try Reset Safari… in the Safari window.

Close Dashboard widgets that you don't need

Dashboard

The Dashboard can be a convenient way to run tools you might need occasionally, but each of them take up memory and eat up your Mac's limited resources. If you only need to know the value of British pounds against Icelandic Króna every once in a while, close the converter Widget when you're not using it (click the minus button and then click the x buttons on the Widgets you wish to close).

Reduce the number of Login Items

start up items

If your Mac is slow to boot, it may be because there are too many software processes trying to load when you first log in. You have control over this activity, however. Simply go to the System Preferences and click on Users & Groups. Click the Login Items tab, and you'll be presented with a list of software that loads before you see your desktop. Select the items you don't want the Mac to load, and then click the minus button below.

Run Software Update

Software update

Apple regularly posts system software updates and even occasionally produces firmware updates for its computers. Some of these can have a positive effect on performance, so they're clearly worth doing. Select Software Update from the Apple menu to check for the latest changes, and make sure to apply them from within the Mac App Store to see if your Mac can speed up a bit.

Clear caches using OnyX or another tool

Onyx

The OS stores tons of rebuildable data in caches and creates temporary files. Over time these files can get corrupted or so big they get ungainly. One excellent tool to help you get a handle on these issues is Titanium Software's OnyX. It lets you clean up caches used by the system kernel and extensions, multimedia components and more.

Restart your Mac

Restart

Sometimes it's a good idea to give the Mac a clean sweep by restarting all together. Restarting clears memory out completely and can stop stuck processes in their tracks, so don't be afraid to reboot every once in a while if things seem off.

Memory and storage upgrades

Memory upgrades

Memory

The easiest way to increase the working performance of your Mac

Apple has traditionally been a bit stingy with the amount of RAM it includes with its systems, so Macs often run out of RAM breathing room as users begin to make more sophisticated demands on their systems. Of all the hardware improvements you can make to your Mac to dramatically improve performance, adding RAM is usually one of the least expensive and most effective.

Adding more RAM makes it possible to have more applications and documents open simultaneously without making the Mac have to swap what's in its RAM to a virtual memory file. Using virtual memory is much slower than using 'real' memory, because it's actually a file written to the hard drive.

The first thing you'll need to do is figure out how much RAM is currently in your Mac. If you're not sure, select About This Mac from the Apple menu, and it will tell you. In Mountain Lion, clicking the More Info button yields an overview of how your Mac is set up; clicking the Memory tab will tell you specifically how your Mac's memory is configured to work.

Soldered on

Some Macs don't have upgradable memory, like the MacBook Air, the new 21.5-inch iMac and Retina display-equipped MacBooks; the memory is soldered onto the motherboard and can't be easily replaced. Others, like the Mac Pro, new 27-inch iMac and recent-era Mac minis, can easily accommodate additional memory by replacing existing chips or using existing open slots.

The More Info window can be deceiving: it might tell you your MacBook Pro has two memory slots, each of which accepts a 1600MHz DDR3 memory module and each of which is occupied by an 8GB memory chip. That's how it appears to the system, but if it's a Retina display-equipped MacBook Pro, it can't be upgraded.

Third-party vendors such as Crucial offer easy-to-use web-based tools to help you figure out which RAM to order for your particular system, or even if your particular machine is upgradable at all.

For what it's worth, Apple is okay with users opening up their machines to put in more RAM. Some Macs are more accessible than others - older Mac minis, for example, require a spudger tool to pry the case apart and demand extensive disassembly before you can get to the RAM; newer ones make RAM slots available by turning a panel on the bottom, no tools required.

If you decide you're up for doing the job yourself, make sure to take precautions: work in a clean, well-lit area, and keep an anti-static strap on your wrist to keep the chances of zapping your Mac's delicate circuitry to a minimum.

Solid-state storage

SSDs

Replace your aging hard drive with the latest solid-state technology

Solid-state drive technology (SSD) is being used more and more in new and old computers alike, and it's easy to see why. Apple's been able to produce ever-more slender laptops in part by eliminating bulky hard disk drives and replacing them with much faster solid-state storage.

A hard disk drive is a very physical device. Under the hood of a hard drive is a magnetised platter, or sometimes a stack of platters, rotating around a spindle at a high rate of speed - typically 5400 or 7200 revolutions per minute. A small actuator arm extends from one corner of the enclosure to just above the disc surface, where tiny heads read from and write to the surface of the platters magnetically.

If it sounds archaic, that's because it is. Hard drive technology has been around since the 1950s. By comparison, SSDs have no moving parts. SSDs are simply integrated circuits that store data even when the power to the computer is turned off, thanks to the use of a special type of flash memory (similar to what's used in iPads and iPhones).

Because there are no moving parts, SSDs are much, much faster than hard drives: reading and writing data is quicker, and you spend less time waiting for the 'disk' to find the information, too. They're also less susceptible to physical shock for the same reason, and they produce no noise.

Not cheap

If SSDs are so great, why isn't everyone using them? They're still relatively expensive - many times more expensive, per gigabyte, than a hard disk drive, at any rate. Consider that a 128GB SSD can cost the same as a 1 terabyte (TB) hard disk drive. So unless you have very deep pockets or a very generous benefactor, chances are you're going to pay a lot more for a lot less storage.

But what you lack in storage you will make up for in blazing speed. While boosting RAM may offer the best overall bang for your buck, replacing a pokey old hard drive with an SSD is the quickest way to supercharge an ailing system, especially since paging RAM out is much faster.

SSDs now come available in replacement enclosures that look like traditional hard disk drives, and they will drop right into place where the hard drive goes - the screws to hold them in place will line up right where you expect, and the cabling is the same.

If the idea of less storage is daunting, there may be another solution. Other World Computing, for example, makes kits that enable some MacBook and MacBook Pro users to remove the SuperDrive and fit the hard disk drive there instead, then put an SSD in the empty spot where the hard drive was.

Or, if you're using a Mac Pro, you can put an SSD in an empty SATA hard drive bay. In those cases, you can move your OS and crucial apps and documents to the SSD but continue to use a hard disk for long-term storage.

Expansion cards

Expansion slots

Slots on your Mac can offer various types of expandability

The Mac Pro is the most expandable of any Mac model, and while not available for sale anymore in Europe as of March 2013, plenty are still in use in professional settings because of the system's massive horsepower and extraordinary flexibility - it's Apple's heaviest iron.

The Mac Pro can accommodate four PCI Express expansion cards (one is already occupied by a video card). PCI Express is a widely adopted standard in the PC world, so many manufacturers make cards, but only some offer Mac-specific cards or Mac drivers to enable them to operate.

Cards available for the Mac Pro include exotic high-speed networking technology like Fibre Channel, or external SATA (eSATA) - a faster hard disk interface than FireWire. Professional digital video companies manufacture specialty cards to enable the Mac Pro to input and output broadcast and cinema-quality video, which can take up massive bandwidth. There are also USB 3.0 cards; while it's become standard issue on other Macs, USB 2.0 is all that the Mac Pro includes from the factory.

Some Mac Pro owners have maxed out the number of internal drives their systems can handle (there are four bays, each capable of supporting a 3.5-inch drive). For those users, adding additional SATA expansion cards can be handy, especially if it's time to start incorporating SSDs in the mix. Put in an array of SSDs and you can set them up as a RAID for even faster performance.

The now-defunct 17-inch MacBook Pro, which went out of active circulation in June of 2012, was the last MacBook Pro to feature an ExpressCard/34 slot - an expansion slot that offered PCI expansion capabilities. Cards available for the MacBook Pro include FireWire 400 and 800, eSATA, USB 3.0, additional Gigabit Ethernet ports and more.

How fast can a Mac go?

Replacing hard drives with SSDs, adding memory and fine-tuning the software contents of your system are all fine ways to improve the performance of your current Mac, but how fast will the Mac get?

From processor improvements to bus speed changes, different types of data storage and more, let's take a look down the road.

Let's start with Wi-Fi. All of Apple's currently shipping products use 802.11n technology, which can transfer data - in theory - at up to 300 megabits per second (Mb/s). Routers are already hitting the market that support the fifth generation Wi-Fi spec, called 802.11ac. 802.11ac can transfer data at up to 1 gigabit per second, and the industry anticipates widespread adoption by 2014. (The routers available today are only using a preliminary version of the 802.11ac spec, and no Macs support it natively yet; tread carefully.)

There may be a reason to postpone your purchase of any 802.11ac networking gear, at least for a bit. Another wireless networking technology called 802.11ad is coming in fast behind 802.11ac. It'll work at up to 7Gb/s, with backwards compatibility for older, slower systems.

Of course, not everything can be wireless - sometimes you still need a good old fashioned cable to connect peripherals to your Mac. To that end, the current state of the art is USB3, which can transfer data at up to 5 gigabits per second. At CES earlier this year, the USB Promoter Group announced a new USB3 enhancement that doubles USB3 to 10 Gb/s instead. That puts USB3 on a similar level as the transfer speed of a single lane of Thunderbolt (Thunderbolt actually uses two lanes, with effective bandwidth of 20Gb/s).

Thunderbolt isn't sitting still, either. It's due for an overhaul late this year, when Intel introduces new silicon that will double the effective bandwidth of Thunderbolt from 10 gigabits per second, per lane, to 20Gb/s per lane. Chips featuring the new 'Falcon Ridge' controller are expected to be widely available in 2014. And Intel says there's plenty of room left to grow Thunderbolt even further.

Serial ATA (SATA) is the interface Macs use as the hard drive or SSD interconnect. In its current form, SATA 3.0, the interface can transfer data at up to 6Gb/s second. SATA was designed at a time that mechanical hard disks were still state of the art, however, and times have changed. Some higher-performance SSDs are already hitting the limit of SATA 3.0 interface, maxing out that 6Gb/s speed limit.

But relief is in the works, according to the Serial ATA International Organization. SATA Express, officially announced at the CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada earlier this year, is a recently proposed spec that will up the speed limit even more. The organisation says that SATA Express will be able to move at up to 16Gb/s.

SSDs aren't the be-all end-all of storage technology, either. Already a company called Everspin is selling 'Spin-Torque Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory' or ST-RAM, a non-volatile solid state storage medium that it says is 500 times faster than current SSDs. The downside, predictably, is price - currently ST-RAM costs about 50 times more than SSD, and SSD is no value compared to a cheap, old-fashioned hard disk drive.

Further ahead

Looking much further down the road, researchers are working on holographic data storage. This optical storage medium stores data in three dimensions instead of two, such as on a DVD or Blu-ray disc, which increases the storage density of the material dramatically.

Genetics researchers have also tested the viability of using DNA as a storage medium, though they admit they're decades away from having real working storage systems available. And IBM is working on storage systems that record data at the atomic level.

Macs will, predictably, add horsepower through improved processors. The next jump in Intel hardware is making its way into the world now with the introduction of Haswell microprocessors, which replace the Ivy Bridge processors used throughout Apple's Macintosh product line today.

Intel's longer-term roadmap calls for continued refinements in processor architecture and a reduction in die size, allowing for ever more complicated processors that gradually grow more power-efficient. While Intel hasn't outlined all of its plans, we can count on chips with even more cores capable of multiprocessing capabilities well beyond what the CPUs in Apple's machines do today.

Ultimately, Haswell will be supplanted by Broadwell, Skylake and Skymont processors through 2017. Intel CEO Paul Otellini believes that silicon, the material that serves as the base of all current CPU designs, is probably in its last decade of use.

Intel hasn't said what it will replace silicon with, but if IBM's research is any indication, carbon may be a safe bet. IBM researchers have built circuits out of graphene, a highly conductive one-atom thick sheet of carbon molecules. It's possible to build much smaller, more powerful chips using graphene.

Quantum computing

Gazing further into the future still, physicists have hypothesized about the feasibility of the quantum computer - a computer that stores data using quantum bits, or 'qubits,' instead of the regular binary bits (0s and 1s) that comprise today's machines. Qubits make it possible for quantum computers to work potentially millions of times faster than today's machines.

Quantum computers aren't a pipe dream. In fact, they've been produced in laboratories since the late 1990s. And one company, D-Wave actually makes what it says is a commercially available quantum computer, a 128 qubit system priced at US$10,000,000.

Clearly, some of this stuff is years away from finding its way into the Mac. But a lot of this technology is just a matter of time. What's for sure is that Apple will keep Macs performing as fast as possible, as soon as it reasonably can. We can't wait!

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