How to speed up a slow Mac

Mac running too slow? Here are some performance tips & software recommendations to speed up a Mac or MacBook and make OS X and macOS Sierra run faster.

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  • MacMini 2014 VS MacBook Pro Speed up a slow Mac
  • speed up slow mac 1 close apps Shut down apps
  • speed up slow mac activity monitor Activity Monitor
  • speed up slow mac 3 preference pane Preference panes
  • speed up slow mac 4 start up items Login items
  • storage space Make space
  • Photos DropBox Move photos
  • how to move your itunes logo2 Move music
  • speed up slow mac 5 free up Empty trash & download
  • show size Delete, delete, delete
  • speed up slow mac app zapper Remove apps & widgets
  • speed up slow mac auto update Software update
  • onyx Empty the cache
  • speed up slow mac 8 reset safari Safari cache
  • speed up slow mac 9 repair disk Repair Permissions
  • speed up slow mac 10 dock Visual effects
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  • speed up slow mac desktop clutter 966 Desktop clutter
  • speed up slow mac restart 932 Restart regularly
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Speed up a slow Mac

If you've had your Mac for a few years you may be looking longingly at the Apple website wishing you could justify the expense of buying a new Mac. Luckily you don't have to fork out for a new computer to enjoy speed increases.

Follow our tips to enhance the performance of your current Mac (unless you're really set on buying a new one, in which case you might want to read our Mac buyers' guide).

There are a few reasons why your Mac could be running slowly. It could simply be old age, or maybe the hard drive is nearly full. You might be running an old version of the operating system that isn't designed to work with some of the apps you're using, or perhaps some of the background workings of the Mac have become muddled - for example your permissions might be broken.

You may have too many things trying to run automatically when you start up your Mac or perhaps you're just running too many programs at once - Mac users are notorious for not properly shutting down their Macs at the end of the day so some apps may have been running in the background for weeks. 

Spending a bit of time cleaning up the operating system and doing some basic housekeeping with your programs will help your Mac pelt ahead at full speed.

Lou Hattersley, Vic Lennard and Kenny Hemphill also contributed to this article.

Read: How to clean up your Mac: 17 ways to revamp and refresh any Mac.

Read next: Mac System Preferences Guide 

Next »

Next Prev MacMini 2014 VS MacBook Pro

If you've had your Mac for a few years you may be looking longingly at the Apple website wishing you could justify the expense of buying a new Mac. Luckily you don't have to fork out for a new computer to enjoy speed increases.

Follow our tips to enhance the performance of your current Mac (unless you're really set on buying a new one, in which case you might want to read our Mac buyers' guide).

There are a few reasons why your Mac could be running slowly. It could simply be old age, or maybe the hard drive is nearly full. You might be running an old version of the operating system that isn't designed to work with some of the apps you're using, or perhaps some of the background workings of the Mac have become muddled - for example your permissions might be broken.

You may have too many things trying to run automatically when you start up your Mac or perhaps you're just running too many programs at once - Mac users are notorious for not properly shutting down their Macs at the end of the day so some apps may have been running in the background for weeks. 

Spending a bit of time cleaning up the operating system and doing some basic housekeeping with your programs will help your Mac pelt ahead at full speed.

Lou Hattersley, Vic Lennard and Kenny Hemphill also contributed to this article.

Read: How to clean up your Mac: 17 ways to revamp and refresh any Mac.

Read next: Mac System Preferences Guide 

 

Step 2 of 24: Shut down unwanted apps

It might sound obvious but the best place to start is to close down any programs that are running unused in the background. Your Mac may be devoting memory and CPU space to a program you haven't used since last week instead of to the apps you want.

A quick way to see which apps are running is to glance at the Dock at the bottom of the screen. Programmes that are running will have a dot underneath them (if you can't see this dot, open System Preferences and click Dock and ensure there is a tick next to 'Show indicator lights for open applications'.)

Alternatively you can press Command-Tab (cmd-tab) to bring up the App Switcher and tab through to view the open apps (hold down the cmd key and tab through). 

There are a few ways you can shut down these apps. Right-click (or ctrl-click) on their icon in the Dock and choose Quit, or if you are using the App Switcher, press Command-Q to quit unused programs.

If you get the Force Quit option against one of those running programmes you likely have identified the culprit because a problem with that app probably slowing down your whole system.  

See also: How to uninstall a software application in Mac OS X

 

Step 3 of 24: Use Activity Monitor

Some apps are more power hungry than others, and sometimes apps have issues that cause them to grab more than their fair share of your system resources. 

If you want to see which apps are using up your system resources, open the Activity Monitor in the Utilities folder. (Or press cmd-space bar and start to type 'activity' and press enter to open it from there). 

Activity Monitor shows all the processes on your Mac (some of which you can't, or shouldn't, close) so click on View > Windowed Processes. Now click on the CPU button and the "%CPU" column to list all programs by the amount of CPU they are using. You can also use this to see what Memory, Disk and Network different processes are using.

If you see that one app in particular is gobbling up a lot of CPU power then you can close it from here by selecting the app with the mouse and clicking on the x in the left-hand corner of the Activity Monitor. 

Take note of the apps that are using the most power - they might be due an update which would make them work more efficiently. 

Speaking of efficiency, a feature added a few years back in OS X Mavericks was Energy, which enables you to see which apps and processes are using up the most amount of energy from your battery (so if you are trying to preserve battery you could shut down any apps that are particularly power hungry). 

 

Step 4 of 24: Edit preference panes

Open System Preferences and check in the row at the bottom. This is where custom items are added to your System Preferences and if you're not using them then they are taking up your CPU.

Right-click on an item and choose Remove From Preference Pane.

 

Step 5 of 24: Cut out Login items

Open System Preferences and click Users & Groups. Now click on the Login Items tab to view which programs and services are launched when you first power up (or log in) to your Mac.

Highlight an item in the list that you don't want and click on the Delete from Login Items (-) button at the bottom of the list.

 

Step 6 of 24: Find out how much space is free

Part of your Mac’s performance depends on empty hard (or flash) drive space. The Mac needs to be able to write and read its swap files and contiguous free space helps. This brings up the thorny issue of defragmenting. With the older Mac OS this was debatable but Mac OS X but has its own built-in safeguards that prevent files from becoming fragmented in the first place. This is probably the reason why there isn’t a defrag option in Disk Utility. But for these safeguards to work, you need at least ten percent of your disk drive empty. Replacing your hard disk with a larger capacity model is one answer but it will still fill up eventually. The answer is to offload some of your larger files.

Therefore, if you want your Mac to run at its best you need around 10 percent of your storage space available. 

Your hard drive hosts a number of big files and folders. These include email files and backups, old versions of apps that you no longer need, and photos. If you frequently upload photos to your Mac and download music you may find that you quickly use up the space. There are a few ways to find out how much space you have available. One way is to open the Apple menu by clicking on the Apple logo in the top left of your screen and then click on About This Mac.

Choose Storage from the tabs and it will calculate how much of your storage is being used, and also show you what is using it.

In newer versions of the Mac OS you can click on Manage to get options for optimising your storage or storing photos and videos in iCloud rather than on your Mac. 

You can also use WhatSize ($29.99, whatsizemac.com) or OmniDiskSweeper (free, www.omnigroup.com) to view your disk usage. 

 

Step 7 of 24: Move your photos

You might be surprised by how much of your Mac's storage is taken up by photos and home videos.

You could pay for iCloud storage and move your photo library to there so that it can be accessed on all of your devices, or you could set up a separate storage device and store those photos there.

Read: How to back up your Photo library, including how to store Photos on a hard drive for advice on how to do this. 

 

Step 8 of 24: Move your music

Another big folder is likely to be your iTunes library, especially if you have movies and mobile apps as well as music. 

As with Photos, you could free up disk space by offloading your music files to an external drive.

Your iTunes library which can be relinked via iTunes’ preferences/advanced tab, here's how: How to move your Mac's iTunes Library to another location

 

Step 9 of 24: Empty the trash & downloads

An obvious way to free up space on your Mac is by emptying the Trash (right-click on Trash in the dock and choose Empty Trash).

You should also delete any items you're unlikely to need from the Downloads folder. Click on Downloads to the right of the Dock and the arrow at the top to open it in the Finder to see everything that's in that folder. 

 

Step 10 of 24: Delete old, or large, files

One quick way to recover a lot of space quickly is to open the Finder and choose All My Files, then either choose to sort by date or size. 

Choose size and you can selectively delete the biggest files. 

Choose date to selectively delete the older files. 

If your finder window isn't showing sizes go to View > Show view options, and choose Size.   

 

Step 11 of 24: Remove unwanted programs and widgets

It's often a good idea to start removing apps that you really don't use. You can just drag and drop apps into the Trash, but we advise you to invest in a program called App Zapper that can show you how much hard drive space apps are taking up and when you last used them, and can delete apps and all associated files.

You may also find a lot of iOS apps lurking in your iTunes library and some of these can be pretty hefty. Remember once you have downloaded an app from the App Store you can always download it again without paying for it twice so don't worry about deleting any that appear here. 

If they are on your Mac, the iOS apps can be found in the iTunes folder, which is in your Music folder. 

You should also remove any widgets that you don't use from the Dashboard. Dashboard isn't readily available in Sierra but Widgets are still there in Notification Centre. In over versions of the Mac OS you can click the Remove (-) icon in the bottom-left of the Dashboard (in Mission Control) and tap on the Remove ('X') icons on any widgets that you don't regularly use.

Alternatively open the Notification Centre by clicking on the bullet list icon on the top right of your screen and remove any Widgets from the Today view, for example Stocks. To do so, click on Edit at the bottom of the screen and click on the red minus icon. 

Unresponsive apps? Here's how to ctrl-alt-delete on a Mac, aka Force Quit on a Mac

 

Step 12 of 24: Software update (and set to auto update)

Make sure you perform a software update for Mac OS X or macOS Sierra and all the apps installed in Mac. Click on the Apple icon in the Menu bar and choose Software Update (or open Software Update in the App Store).

If you have apps purchased outside of the App Store they will need to be updated separately. You'll usually find Check for Software Update from the program name in the Menu bar.

AppFresh is an app that can help keep track of all your software and checks constantly to see if updates are available. Some apps can also self update by integrating with AppFresh.

You should also make sure that Mac OS X and macOS Sierra keeps itself up to date. Click on System Preferences > App Store and ensure that Automatically Check For Updates is ticked. You can also tick Install App Updates which will automatically ensure that apps are updated.

 

Step 13 of 24: Empty Caches

Macs use a number of caches, small files retained on the hard drive with the intention of re-using them. As such, they increase the performance of your Mac. Some are controlled by the system, others by individual apps. For instance, a web browser will cache web pages so that when a website is revisited, the pages can be read from hard drive rather than re-downloaded.

The problem is that not all apps are well behaved in this area. Have a look at your user caches by hitting Command+Shift+G from your desktop to bring up Go To Folder and then typing ~/Library/Caches/.

Don’t be surprised if a number of gigabytes are residing here. The biggest ones are likely to be for your web browser and the likes of Google Earth, iTunes and Spotify.

As user caches are rebuilt when needed, you can safely delete these, especially for apps that are no longer used. Safari, Firefox and iTunes all allow you to clear caches directly within the apps. 

There are a number of useful utilities here including OnyX (free, www.titanium.free.fr) and Sierra Cache Cleaner ($14.99, www.northernsoftworks.com). While both do far more than just deleting caches, they will allow you to keep your user caches under control.

 

Step 14 of 24: Empty Safari cache

Speaking of Cache, Safari sometimes gets clogged up with data. Cleaning this out will help speed up Safari in Mac OS X and macOS Sierra.

Open Safari and choose Safari > Reset Safari and check Remove all Website Data. (Leave the other options unticked.)

Now click on Reset. This can help speed up sluggish web browsing.

 

Step 15 of 24: Repair Permissions

Open Disk Utility and choose your main hard drive from the sidebar (in most Macs there will only be one.) Now click on First Aid and Repair Permissions. This will ensure that all the files on your Mac have the correct permissions, which will help keep things ticking along.

As of El Capitan (and macOS Sierra), you can no longer repair permissions in Disk Utility. It's gone because the new System Integrity Protection (SIP) in El Capitan and macOS Sierra prevents permissions on files being modified which, according to Apple at least, means there should be no need to repair permissions.

Read next: How to defrag your Mac

 

Step 16 of 24: Turn off visual effects

Most Macs can run OS X and macOS Sierra without any trouble. But some people prefer to have keep the Dock static to prevent slowdown. Click System Preferences > Dock and untick the following check boxes:

  • Magnification
  • Animate opening applications
  • Automatically hide and show the dock
  • Turn off accessibility

Now click on 'Minimize windows using' and change Genie Effect to Scale Effect.

 

Step 17 of 24: Install more RAM

Historically, upgrading RAM has been the go-to solution for improving your Mac's performance. Before you go ahead and spend money, however, it's worth trying to figure out how much of a difference it will really make, if any.

The easiest way to do this is to fire up Activity Monitor (it's in Applications/Utilities), click on the Memory tab and keep an eye on the memory pressure gauge at the bottom of the window. If it's permanently green, you're probably not going to see a huge difference by upgrading. If it turns red regularly, it's worth the expenditure.

How much RAM you add and how you add it is dependent on your Mac. But as a rule of thumb, the effort of performing the installation compare with the marginal cost of bigger RAM modules means that it's worth maxing out your Mac's RAM in one go.

That will often mean removing the existing modules and replacing them. It's a good idea, though not essential, to buy all the RAM you fit at the same time from the same manufacturer. If you decide just to fill empty slots, the same applies. And you should pair RAM modules of the same capacity, if possible.

Read more: How to install extra RAM in a Mac

 

Step 18 of 24: Get rid of desktop clutter

Every file on your desktop is a window with an image in it - either an icon or a preview of the file. Each of those windows and their contents is stored in RAM so that when you switch to the Desktop or use QuickLook, your Mac can show you what's in the window.

In other words, the more files you have on your desktop, the more data is stored in RAM. That could result in your Mac running more slowly, especially if your Mac's memory is already under pressure.

Organise files properly in the appropriate user folder - Documents, Pictures, Movies etc - and you may see an improvement in the speed of your Mac.

 

Step 19 of 24: Restart regularly

Few aspects of Macs cause more arguments than the one about what to do at the end of the day: shut down or sleep? The old argument of leaving a computer on as much as possible was based on the wear and tear of restarting the hard drive, but the restart argument rests on more than just this.

The main advantage of sleeping your Mac is to be able to continue where you left off quickly. But the disadvantages may outweigh this especially if you’re marginal on RAM.

Mac OS X uses swap files, spaces on your hard disk that allow your Mac to pretend it has more RAM than it actually has, for virtual memory. Once the number of swap files exceeds five or so, your Mac starts to slow down. Then it's time to reboot.

Depending on your usage and RAM, this could be several times per day. MenuMeters (free, www.ragingmenace.com) shows the number of swap files along with free/used memory and other useful info. Rebooting also clears all system temp, swap and cache files.

If you run maintenance or backup scripts at night, your Mac can always be set to shut down after these.

If you do leave your Mac running at night note that means caches don't get flushed and applications that hog RAM don't let it go. Restarting your Mac clears the caches and shuts down applications. The result is a Mac that's refreshed and should perform better.

 

Step 20 of 24: Manage Spotlight

Spotlight, particularly in recent versions of OS X and macOS Sierra, is a terrific tool. But if you use multiple drives, particular on older Macs, it can take Spotlight time to index and re-index the filesystem. That in turn will slow down your Mac.

The answer is to manage Spotlight to limit the files it indexes. This is done in the Spotlight pane in System Preferences. Once you've opened the pane, click on the Privacy tab. You can now drag any folders or volumes that you don't need to search on to the window.

That will stop Spotlight indexing the folder or volume and thus reduce the number of files it needs to index, meaning it spends less time indexing and should improve performance on your Mac.

 

Step 21 of 24: Make your own Fusion drive

Most of the current crop of Macs come fitted with SSD storage in place of a hard drive. SSD is smaller, uses less power, and significantly faster than a hard drive. It's also, however, more expensive per GB.

To provide inexpensive high capacity storage alongside the speed benefits of SSD, Apple came up with the Fusion drive - an SSD and a hard drive that your Mac sees as one volume, but which keeps the system and applications on the fast SSD while putting documents, photos, music and video on the hard drive.

You can make your own fusion drive if you have a spare hard drive bay in your Mac, or if you have an optical drive you don't need. The instructions on how to do it are here.

 

Step 22 of 24: Customise the Finder

By default, opening a new Finder window takes you to the All My Files view, which displays every file on your Mac. If you have an older Mac and lots of files - especially if they're image files or videos and so display a preview of their contents - this could slow down your Mac.

Change the folder that's displayed when you open a new Finder window by going to Finder Preferences, clicking the General tab and choosing a different folder from the drop down menu.

 

Step 23 of 24: Turn off File Vault encryption

File Vault allows you to encrypt every file you store on your Mac to keep it safe from prying eyes. It also uses lots of processor cycles, however, to encrypt and de-crypt those files. If you use it currently, switch it off and see if you notice a difference in performance.

Click on the Security & Privacy tab in System Preferences, then on the File Vault tab. Click the padlock, type in an admin password, and click Turn off File Vault.

 

Step 24 of 24: The nuclear option

If all else fails, and you've tried everything we've suggested to speed up your Mac without success, there is one more option: a clean re-installation of the OS. It's not a job to be undertaken lightly - you'll need to delete your entire boot drive. But, it will clear all the files that have collected in the system Library and the user Libraries over the years and which may be causing the Mac to run slowly.

We gave new life to a 2009 iMac which had been running Lion, and was grinding to a halt, by doing a clean install of El Capitan or macOS Sierra. It now feels like a new machine.

Remember to make at least one, preferably two, complete back ups of your bit drive before you start so you can copy documents, images, music and anything else you need back once you've installed the new OS.

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