Speed Up an Old Mac with These Tricks [Mac OS X]

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speed up old macGiven time, the performance of any computer will tend to degrade – even Macs (gasp!). Years of improperly un-installing applications can leave your drive littered with preference files and resources that are no longer needed. A small drive can quickly fill up with photos or music, causing everything else to come crashing to a halt. Or perhaps your Mac is just old and can’t quite handle the latest software or OS updates – but with a little performance boost, it’d be good to go for another year at least!

Whatever the reason, if your Mac isn’t in tip-top condition, here’s a few things you can do to speed up that old Mac again.

Disable window animations and Mail animations

We all love Macs for their visually stunning desktop – and who hasn’t done the old hold down shift to slow the animation down trick and show off to friends – but really, do you need those animations? Enter the following Terminal commands to disable all window and Mail animations (change true to false or vice-versa to re-enable them).

defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindowAnimationsEnabled -bool false
defaults write com.apple.Mail DisableSendAnimations -bool true
defaults write com.apple.Mail DisableReplyAnimations -bool true

You’ll need to log out and in again for these to take effect. If you’d not touch the scary Terminal command line, use Mountain Tweaks to make the changes instead.

speed up old mac

Get rid of Dashboard

I suspect there’s only a handful of people who even use the ancient Dashboard widgets anymore – like Vista gadgets, the Dashboard widgets need to be resigned to history. Until that day though, you can kill your Dashboard with the following Terminal commands:

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defaults write com.apple.dashboard mcx-disabled -boolean YES
killall Dock

Remove login items and tray applications

If your system tray is starting to look a bit bloated and you have apps you there you no longer use, remove them from your system completely with the free AppCleaner or AppTrap. Use these to clear up other Applications you no longer need and save drive space, even if they’re not in the tray.

speed up mac

For login items (apps and services that automatically open at login) head over to System Preferences -> Users and Groups -> Login items. This will only apply to a fresh login though and by defaul, Mountain Lion is going to keep open any apps that were open when you shut down. Hold Shift when logging in to disable this auto-resume feature.

speed up mac

Make sure you have 5-10% free space

Virtual memory, caches etc are all stored on your hard drive. If you’re running low on space, this can cause serious slow downs as the OS tries to delicately move around and manage the remaining space. If you’ve completely filled your drive, there’s a chance it might not even boot again.

So to avoid this keep about 10% of your drive free at all times to ensure the remaining space can be used effectively as needed by the OS. If your iTunes or iPhoto libraries are adding up, consider moving them to an external or NAS drive.

For the absolute best performance, only ever use 50% of your drive and consider partitioning off the rest as a backup. This ensures everything is written to the fastest part of the drive, the latter half is slower.

If you’re having trouble figuring out exactly what’s taking up all that room, download Disk Inventory X (free) for an easy to understand breakdown of file types and folders using the most space.

Defragment your drive

Unlike Windows, OS X uses very efficient ways of writing smaller files to a disk in one large block rather than all over the place, so the need for defragging at all is significantly reduced. However, if your Mac has gone through several OS upgrades over a good few years and seen apps come and go on a regular basis, there’s a chance you could benefit from defragging. The process can be performed without expensive third-party defrag utilities, but is risky if you’re not 100% sure what you’re doing.

Note: If you have an SSD, defragging is not necessary at all.

Reformat and perform a clean install

As with any version of Windows, I’ve grown accustomed to nuking the whole machine and just re-installing from scratch at least every 6 months, yet I’ve never quite felt the need to do this on my Mac. After a few years though, and especially on particularly old Macs that have been through numerous updates, a completely fresh install will do wonders for performance. Just be sure to backup what you need on external drives, and be prepared to spend the time re-installing apps you genuinely need. Don’t just re-import everything from a backup, or you’ll end up right back in the same position again.

Clean up your desktop

OSX renders every little icon on your desktop as it’s own window with its own preview image, all eating away at your memory. Put those files and folders into their proper storage space and stop using your desktop as a temporary dumping ground. If you’re too lazy to do this, use Clean, a free utility avaiable in the app store which takes all your files daily or weekly and dumps them somewhere else instead.

Check what’s using all your memory

It could be one particular app that running away with your system resources, but you won’t know unless you check out the Activity Monitor (under Applications > Utilities).

speed up mac

Rebuild Font Cache

Inatalling and removing fonts can corrupt a font cache, causing it to become slow over time. Rebuild the cache with the following terminal command.

atsutil databases -remove

Add a Quit Finder menu item

Finder is a common cause of the “spinning beach ball of death”, yet there’s no apparent way to quit or restart the Finder “app”. Enter the following commands to enable a new menu option, and reboot Finder.

defaults write com.apple.finder QuitMenuItem -bool YES
killall Finder

Repair disk errors

Power outages can cause disk errors or corrupt caches and permissions; this is one cause of random slowdown and beach balls, but they could also be indicative of a failing drive. Either way, you can check the drive and repair permissions using the built in Disk Utility. Be sure to run both Repair Permission and Verify Disk (then Repair Disk).

how to speed up  mac

Onyx is a free app that will clear caches, rebuild the fonts, and do a lot more besides. Be sure to download the right version for your OS X.

Prepare for the worst

It is possible your system slowdown is due to a failing disk: Disk Utility may be unable to fix the problems, or you may hear strange sounds as well as occasional lock ups. If this is the case, backup what you can immediately (using at least two or three Mac backup methods outlined here). Get your Mac to a repair centre, and while you’re at it, consider…

Switching To An SSD

SSDs are incredibly fast – but much more expensive on a per-GB basis compared to regular hard drives. If you’re happy to replace your DVD drive you can get the best of both worlds: an SSD to hold system files and apps, with a second regular drive to hold your data. See my article on swapping a DVD drive for an SSD in an old Macbook Pro, but only try this if your machine is well and truly out of warranty.

Use Chrome or Safari, slim down extensions

Chrome and Safari are the fastest (modern) browsers on OS X, fact. But even then, the number of tabs and extensions you have installed can seriously slow your machine down. Consider using Chrome’s user-switching feature to separate tasks you perform, such as a different user for research: you can close down that user and restore as needed, rather than keeping everything open all the time.

Actually quit applications

As a recovering Windows user, I’m quite guilty of this: leaving applications running even when you’re not using them. Use CMD-Q to actually quit an application once you’re done with it – don’t just close the active window with CMD-W or the red X.

speed up old mac

And finally… one MYTH

You may find some articles that advise you run the built-in maintenance scripts if your machine is powered off between 3am and 5am every day when they would normally run automatically. However, the latest versions of OS X no longer work in the same way as the BSD systems that OS X is based on, and instead run maintenance during login and other times. This means you can safely power off the whole night and not worry. Running those maintenance scripts manually isn’t dangerous in any way, it’s just a complete waste of time.

I think that’s a pretty comprehensive list, and my 2009 iMac is running quite snappily again even without a full re-install. Do you have any more tips? Add them in the comments so we can all get back to work and be slightly more productive.

[Image credit: Broken apple, ShutterStock]

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