A friend recently sent me an email, questioning why his MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM was “getting slower and slower, with an increasing frequency of the appearance of the SRWOD (spinny rainbow wheel of death).” This is something I occasionally hear about, but haven’t experienced (except for Safari randomly bogging down for several seconds).

Unfortunately, mysterious computer slowdowns can be difficult to diagnose. Overstuffed system cache, old temp files, corrupted preferences, a hard drive in the early stages of failure, and faulty RAM are always candidates for causing this problem. Here are some suggestions to resolve system slowdowns.

Also, please make sure you have a solid backup of your Macs important data before proceeding. I’ll say it again: make sure your Mac is backed up properly before proceeding.

1. Any Mac will slow down when its hard drive is almost full, regardless of processor speed. Simply moving some of your data (especially media files like movies, video podcasts, etc) to an external drive can greatly improve a Mac’s responsiveness.

Read how to reclaim hard drive space in an old Kibbles article by clicking here.

2. Clear your Mac’s desktop. The OS has to draw each of those icons as separate windows, so when you have dozens of files littered on the desktop the system is taxed. Clearing the Macs desktop is proven to improve system performance.

3. Make sure your computer is up to date with all the latest software and firmware updates from Apple. This can go a long way to improving system performance. To check this, click the Apple in the top left corner of the screen and select “Software Update…”

4. Simply running a free maintenance program can often help bring a sluggish and flakey machine back to speed. These programs force the Mac’s regular Unix maintenance scripts; normally these run daily, weekly, and monthly early in the morning. Click here for further reading on this.

I use a program called Onyx to run these scripts. You can get it for Tiger (10.4) and Leopard (10.5). It’s effective and easy to use. It starts by checking the S.M.A.R.T. status of your hard drive, so you can determine if the drive is failing. This step takes several minutes. After that Onyx can flush system cache, etc.

One catch about Onyx is that it has several options that most people shouldn’t use, such as the option for erasing bookmarks and internet browsing history. I do like and recommend Onyx, though—get it for free from the developer by clicking here. You can also download Onyx directly from Apple’s site by clicking here.

You can also download a simpler program called MacJanitor that will only run the maintenance scripts by clicking here. When a tech diagnoses your Mac, he or she runs a battery of programs that are similar to Onyx. This takes several hours. However, Onyx does a great job for occasional repairs and maintenance.

5. Check the health of your hard drive. I depend on Onyx to verify the S.M.A.R.T. status of my Mac’s hard drive. Immediately back up your computer if you think there’s a real issue with the drive. Then consider using a dedicated drive diagnostic/repair tool such as Disk Warrior. If the drive is having issues and you’re going to replace it, consider using a 7200RPM model. A faster hard drive will result in a (slightly) faster Mac.

6. Check the health of your Mac’s RAM. There are several ways to test the health of your Mac’s RAM. I use Rember, which is a free program that is a front-end GUI to a basic Unix ‘memtest’ command. You can read more about testing RAM by clicking here

7. Deal with mutant applications. Ok, so maybe the word “mutant” is unfair. However, it’s always a good idea to delete applications that you don’t use. I use AppCleaner to do this.

Also, many apps install helper programs that run by default whenever you startup your Mac. This typically happens in the background, without the user having to confirm anything. Often these aren’t needed and can hog system resources without having anything to show for it. To disable startup items you don’t use, navigate to System Preferences > Accounts > Login items and uncheck the list.

Finally, any active, running application uses system resources including CPU cycles, RAM and disk activity, even when it is in the background and you’re not using it. Some programs leak memory when they are running, which makes them gobble RAM over time.

8. Use Activity Monitor and iStat Pro to analyze which system processes and applications are hogging system resources. You can download the iStat Pro widget by clicking here. Activity Monitor is found in the Utilities Folder which is nested in the Applications folder in OS X.

9. If you have an Intel Mac, use Xslimmer to trim away the legacy PowerPC code from Universal binary applications. Read more by clicking here.

10. Programs that automatically perform syncing, indexing, and backup operations on your Mac can occasionally slow it down. They can sometimes cause minor drags that slow the system for a couple of seconds at a time.

If none of these helps, the problem will likely be more time-consuming to resolve. At Small Dog, our techs run a battery of tests with several software and hardware tools to seek out and fix strange system slowdowns. Hopefully the above suggestions will keep you from having to send in your machine!

Editor’s note: Check out this cheeky website to log your time spent waiting for the “Spinning Beach Ball of Death!”

Originally featured in Kibbles & Bytes #604.

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