Speeding up your Mac

Christopher Breen
16 December, 2010
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A reader who has switched from a Windows PC to the Mac, has a general maintenance question to keep his new machine running fast:

I used to reformat my PC’s hard drive yearly to clean out all the files that slowed it down. Then it would run like it was brand new. How often do I need to do that with the Mac? I want to clean it up, make it run faster, etc.

There are two schools of thought on this oft-asked question. They fall into these camps:

‘Never’ and ‘Never ever’.

I’m not a Windows guy, so forgive me if I paint this incorrectly, but my understanding is that this kind of advice is thrown so casually about because attempting to locate and cleanly dispense with all the dribs and drabs of cruft that slow down a PC can be the work of an unpleasant lifetime. So, rather than propel yourself into such a time-sucking hell-hole, you start fresh.

But again, not a Windows guy so the reality may be far worse than I’ve posited.

Although I’ve heard of Mac users taking such a slash-and-burn approach, I honestly can’t recall the last time I did such a thing. Instead, you might try these techniques:

1. Restart your Mac every so often

Like battery-sponsored bunnies, a Mac running OS X can stay on its feet seemingly forever. Launch Terminal (found in /Applications/Utilities) and enter uptime. You’ll learn how long your Mac has been running since the last reboot. If it’s been trotting along for weeks, restarting it may afford it the opportunity to flush out some old junk that’s slowing it down.

2. Keep the desktop clean

If you have a lot of files on the desktop your Mac will slow down. Tidy up those files by placing them in folders and the Finder will be snappier.

3. Slim down the contents of your hard drive

If your hard drive is nearly full, your Mac will run more slowly. Archive or trash old files you no longer need.

4. Add RAM

More RAM can speed up some applications.

5. Restart your browser and clear its cache

Browsers are notorious for slowing down after they’ve been running for a long time. If you find that your web surfing has been reduced to dog-paddling, quit and restart your browser. If it’s still slow, clear its cache. In Safari choose Safari > Empty Cache. In Firefox choose Firefox > Preferences > Advanced > Network and click the Clear Now button.

6. Check login items

Background applications and processes can slow down your Mac. Open the Accounts system preference, select your account, and click the Login Items button to take a gander at what’s slated to run at startup. Do you need everything it lists? If not, delete the unnecessary items.

7. Check Activity Monitor

Launch Activity Monitor (found in /Applications/Utilities), choose My Processes from the pop-up menu at the top of the window, and click the %CPU heading (either once or twice, so that the arrow is pointing downwards). Look at the top several items. This tells you what’s drawing most of your Mac’s attention. Are there items there that you can do without? (Note: Be careful when Quitting a process from this window – only proceed if you know what the application or process is actually doing.)

8. Quit applications

Per the last suggestion, it’s very easy to run multiple applications on your Mac. But perhaps there are more running than you need. Look in the Dock. If you see scads of applications with little blue dots beneath their icons (indicating that they’re active), quit those you aren’t planning to use in the near future.

9. Speed up your wireless network

There are times that your network is the bottleneck rather than your Mac. If you suspect this is the case, take a look at Macworld contributor Glenn Fleishman’s Speed Up Your Wireless Network. It’s the goods.

10. Buy a faster (or different) drive

A faster hard drive can speed up your Mac as can a solid state drive (SSD). SSDs can have read and write times that are four to five times faster than a standard spinning hard drive.

And more? Certainly. We have lots of helpful forum members here – just ask for advice. And whether you’re a forum member or not, be sure to add your tips to the comments below.


4 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Joshua Taylor says:


    I have been using a program called…”CleanMyMac” for some 6 months now…..Its been money well spent, as whenever I feel the need, I simply relaunch it…..and away it goes, keeping everything running smoothly and without any issues for me…..Its function, as I understand it…is to keep the Mac free of unnecessary files, etc.

    Sure hope this recommendation helps any one who needs a ‘clean up’.

    Not expensive to buy….and IT WORKS…!! Yeahhhh…!!

  2. Don Munro says:

    What about repairing disk permissions (using Disk Utility or your backup utility)? I have to do this at least once a week (Java seems to be the main source of problems). It makes a lot of difference, especially if you restart after you’ve done the repairs – no spinning beach-ball for a few days.

  3. meinrosebud says:

    Dude, the whole point of switching to Mac is to avoid that ‘Windows’ cycle of constant maintenance; or like me you suddenly discovered that you aren’t interacting with your computer as much as you did when it was a ‘Windows’ device and you are a little directionless. Start getting creative and use your computer for something other than enslaving you to a constant cycle of maintenance; try photography or art on your iMac.

  4. Darren says:

    on my 2 year old iMac, the beachball of death became a very frequent visitor. tried all the usual tips mentioned above, but couldn’t isolate the cause. was about to splash on a new hard drive, but a last-ditch reformat and reinstall of OS X solved the problem. still vastly preferable to windows, just pointing out that sometimes the ‘slash and burn’ approach is necessary.

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