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 Tweak Mac OS X & Access Hidden Settings With Mountain Tweaks & Lion Tweaks [OS X] Tweak Mac OS X & Access Hidden Settings With Mountain Tweaks & Lion Tweaks [OS X] Apple’s walled-garden approach to computing has some pretty far-reaching implications for an everyday user of OS X. Apple provides, on the whole, a smooth and pleasant experience while using your computer, partly because the options... Read More 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:

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 The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX] The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX] As the developer here at MakeUseOf and as someone who earns their entire income from working online, it's fair to say my computer and data are quite important. They’re set up perfectly for productivity with... Read More 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 How To Swap Out Your Macbook's DVD Drive For An SSD How To Swap Out Your Macbook's DVD Drive For An SSD Is your old Apple laptop starting to struggle? Is the boot time so long that you can actually go out and buy a coffee? If so, perhaps it's time to think about upgrading your main... Read More , 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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  1. Claire
    August 7, 2019 at 6:28 am

    Helpful tips. Thanks for sharing. I'd like share my experience to help, too.
    My Mac has been in use for many years and has been running more and more slowly recently. Then I used the iMyMac PowerMyMac recommended by my friend, which is so easy to use that a few clicks can help clean up the Mac.

  2. Alex Findley
    September 28, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    Great tips, even though I've already done most of them. Incredible how long a Mac can be used: I have a 2015 15" Retina MacBook Pro, but I just got bored of my old Late 2007 MacBook Black collecting dust on the bookshelf, so I decided to upgrade and re-install it. Now it's got 4 gigs of memory, new battery and a 240GB SSD, and actually it's so good I'm using it in university as my primary device, using my new MBP for video editing only. Best thing about it is the black model is so rare, especially in this great condition, that many people check it out not being sure what it is.

  3. Nick
    March 25, 2015 at 3:39 am

    I have a question about reformatting the os x:

    You say specifically "Don’t just re-import everything from a backup, or you’ll end up right back in the same position again." But what about using a user profile from a backup disk [time machine]? Is that the same thing?

    • James Bruce
      March 25, 2015 at 11:15 am

      If you restore your full user profile, you fix any underlying OS issues, but you still have a machine cluttered with files and old application settings. It's much better just to start from scratch and import the most important applications and those settings manually, then take a long hard look at whats left and if you really need it. You'll end up with a much cleaner computer. Ideally, your data should be all stored on the network or external device somewhere anyway.

  4. Christina
    March 3, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Like you pointed out, it's true that freeing up space on the Mac's hard drive is the most important steps to speed up a slow Mac. Unfortunately, it's also the hardest and I learned Mac's waste a lot of space with so many files that we do not need. Your post reminds me of the detox macbookhelpers(dot)com performs because it freed up over 6gb on my computer. Thanks for the explanation and tips you always provide; it will help a lot of people.

  5. Jyoti
    August 28, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Nice tips. Defragmentation. cleaning desktop, less startup items etc..helps to speed up your Mac but, if you begin to start removing all these items manually from your Mac then it would take too much time. Mac users must use Stellar Speed Up Mac tool for this work. This tool helps to remove all junks files, widgets, universal binaries etc. from your Mac in a single click.

  6. Sassah122 S
    July 17, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    I think you need to use sudo for atsutil databases -remove

    • Doc Moebius
      October 31, 2016 at 5:49 pm

      That's what my OS (10.6..8) said (well, my Bash terminal mssg.) So, JAMES BRUCE, can you fix your article and clarify? My exact err was "$ atsutil databases -remove
      You must run as root, use sudo in order to remove system user databases"

      Would that syntax then be "$sudo databases -remove"? And does it just kill the font db? This command scares me!!

  7. Tom
    June 20, 2013 at 4:58 am

    A RAM and SSD makes an immediate change for good in the performance of the Mac OS X.

  8. Vishal
    June 13, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Switiching to a SSD would be one of the path breaking step to fasten a dull Mac but SSDs are too costly and many will drop the idea to have it. It is better to invest in Mac clean up utility like Stellar Speed up Mac to clean out garbage data out of Mac OS X.

    • muotechguy
      June 13, 2013 at 7:20 am

      Not only do those apps have horrendous marketing practices that borders on spam, it's also debated as to whether they actually achieve anything. Also, I tired one of those "remove language files" functions once and it's the only time I've ever managed to break an OSX install. Not fun.

  9. Pooky Joralyn
    June 2, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Talking about swapping optical drive for an SSD, is it possible on a Windows laptop? (mine uses SATA)

      June 5, 2013 at 1:57 am

      Um, Of course it is....SATA is just the connection method - there are tons of SATA SSD drives out there

      • Pooky Joralyn
        June 5, 2013 at 7:35 am

        I means, a bay that fits into the optical drive slot too.

        • MakeUseOf TechGuy
          June 5, 2013 at 7:40 am

          It depends on your exact model, but a generic kit like this may work - http://www.newmodeus.de/en/index.html .

        • Pooky Joralyn
          June 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

          Mine has just one screw that hold the drive in place, so it seems to work. The problem is how can I find one of these in my country!

        • MakeUseOf TechGuy
          June 5, 2013 at 8:00 am

          Without knowing what your country is... Amazon? Try searching for "Optibay".

        • Pooky Joralyn
          June 5, 2013 at 8:17 am

          Cambodia, frankly. I already had much trouble finding even an SSD. Go ask the dudes at the shops and in most cases they don't even know what it is!

  10. Aqil Nazeer
    June 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm


  11. ChiJoan
    May 30, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    For even older Macs try Lubuntu 12.10 PowerPC, I installed on my old G4 VGA tower, on another hard drive I'll try Debian 7.0.0 PowerPC net-install, too. Too bad last time I tried updating with Apple, I swear software was removed instead of being added.

    Joan in Reno

  12. macwitty
    May 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Disable window animations and Mail animations and Get rid of Dashboard - Done!

    Then the old tip - check if you can add more memory. Memory is cheep and 0.5 GB makes a difference

  13. Onaje Asheber
    May 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I know a few folks that will glad to read this. Thanks!

  14. nohl
    May 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I liked the comment about scripts being run during login. I did not know that. :)

  15. Gerald D
    May 29, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Interesting and informative article