Slow Mac? Here’s How to Fix That
So your Mac is running slowly. Maybe it’s getting a little bit older and it’s just not as quick as it once was. Or maybe it’s still relatively new, but for some reason your apps still load slowly and websites take forever to respond. Well, you can do something about that. Here’s a comprehensive list of steps to take for your Mac, old or new, to help get it back up to speed.
What, Exactly, is Slow?
First thing’s first: what speed issues are you encountering? Is there a single application that’s consistently taking too long to respond? Or is your browser dragging along, loading new pages at a snail’s pace? Maybe the entire system is bogged down and you can’t even open a Finder window without taking a coffee break. All of these things can have different root causes, so it’s important to understand the details of the symptoms being experienced. If you’re fighting with…
A single application: Often all you need to do is uninstall and reinstall that program. Uninstalling apps is easy in macOS, and often you don’t even lose content in the process. But be sure to check with the developer first, just in case you need to back something up or you’ll be asked to purchase the app again once it’s reinstalled.
Slow browsers: Usually a slow browser is really slow Internet. If your websites are taking a long time to fully load, but everything else is snappy, there’s a better than fair chance your connection is poor. If you can, test the issue on a different network to see if there’s any change. If you’re connected to WiFi, try it over Ethernet. A third-party tool that’s helpful in diagnosing WiFi troubles is WiFi Explorer. It’s available in the Mac App Store and is a worthwhile investment if this is something you’ll be spending a lot of time working on.
Everything: Then it’s time to start from the bottom and work our way up! Which brings us to our next section.
Verify the Hard Drive
Your Mac has an excellent built-in program for checking the health of your drive, called Disk Utility. Verifying that everything is okay is as simple as running a First Aid check. The process can take several minutes, but will eventually either give you an all clear, or prompt you to perform repairs. Repairs doesn’t automatically mean that you’ve got a failing hard drive, though! Disk Utility can usually fix whatever is wrong, and that right there will solve a lot of issues. If the repairs fail, Disk Utility will let you know what steps to take next. If you do want a hard drive utility with even more horsepower, a good bet is Disk Warrior.
Run Software Updates
If you’ve got a load of apps that are misbehaving, they might just be out of date. Open up the App Store and find out! Any application or system updates available should be installed, unless you’ve got a pressing reason not to. Many system updates, even supplemental ones, will require a restart, so save your work before starting down this road.
Activity Monitor is another handy built-in utility on your Mac. It can tell you a lot, but for our purposes we’re concerned mostly about a couple of things: the Idle CPU percentage, and the Memory Pressure. Your CPU should show at least 60% Idle, and the Memory Pressure should be green. A number lower than 60% or a color other than green, and you’ve probably got a quirk that needs to be ironed out. Usually, a reboot of the machine will fix either one of those. But it’s also helpful to go digging for a specific task or process that’s eating up an unusually high allotment of resources.
Setup a Test User
It’s not uncommon for an issue to be user-specific. The easiest way to find out whether that’s the case is to simply setup a new account. Make sure it’s an admin account, so that it’ll have all of the privileges you’ll need to run any tests you’d like. Once booted into that User, try to recreate the issue you’ve been experiencing. If you can, then it’s most likely a system-wide culprit. If not, then you can spend the rest of your time and energy focusing on the single affected User. Practically speaking, this means that the issue is isolated to files or settings contained inside of the User Folder. That’s a whole bunch of system folders that you no longer need to worry about digging through! Don’t forget to delete the test User when you’re done.
The next step on your journey should be booting the Mac into Safe Mode. This is accomplished by holding down the Shift key upon startup. You’ll find that everything looks pretty much the same, but it probably takes you quite a bit longer to login. Safe mode does a lot of the heavy lifting for you: it disables all non-essential kernel extensions (kexts), empties caches, prevents startup and login items from opening, and even disables user-installed fonts. Basically, it casts a wide net over potential problematic areas on your Mac and lets you operate in as stripped down an environment as possible. If an issue doesn’t persist in Safe Mode, then it’s probably caused by one of the things just mentioned.
Sometimes, an issue doesn’t come back after booting out of Safe Mode (which you can do by restarting and simply not holding down any keys). If that’s the case, it was probably caused by a temporary cache or directory error. Safe Mode fixes those just by being invoked. If the quirk does reappear, though, then it’s likely there’s something going on with your login items.
So Get Rid of Login and Startup Items
Here’s where it starts to get fun. If you’ve got really stubborn slowdowns that just won’t go away even after everything we’ve done so far, it’s time to start clearing out files. Removing login and startup items is a multistep process, so let’s go over it one bit at a time.
The easy part first: open up System Preferences, find the Users and Groups pane, and go to the “Login Items” tab at the top of the window. There may be only a few things listed here, or maybe there’s a whole laundry list of programs that are all running right when you boot up your computer. Either way, let’s get rid of any that aren’t essential. Highlighting an item in this list and then clicking the minus button at the bottom of the window will remove it from the list of login items, and in so doing may fix your issue!
But wait, there’s more! There are five separate folders you’ll want to investigate. Here’s the list:
A tip for quickly navigating to odd folders: open up a new Finder window, and then at the top of your screen select “Go” from the menu bar. In the dropdown menu, choose “Go To Folder”, and then paste in the location you want. In each of these folders – some of them might be empty, which is okay – we want to remove any third-party items. Most of the files will start with “com.apple”, and it’s important to leave those alone. But everything else? Move it! Don’t delete any of these files yet, since you may want to put it back where it came from if it doesn’t fix anything. But moving files to a similarly-named folder on your Desktop will ensure they’re kept safe while you test out the new behavior. Another tip: moving files to the Trash (without emptying the Trash) will allow you to quickly put everything back where it came from. Simply open the Trash, highlight a file (or group of files, if they all came from the same folder), and press Command+Delete on your keyboard. It’ll send the file(s) right back to the original location. You might feel more comfortable using folders on the Desktop, though, if you have an itchy Trash trigger finger.
Remember, only remove third-party items from these folders! But once you’re done, go ahead and test out your Mac’s speed.
SMC and NVRAM Reset
Still no luck? Here’s a quick couple of resets you can perform. Resetting your Mac’s System Management Controller (SMC) reboots a lot of low-level functions on the computer. Battery and thermal management, keyboard backlighting, ambient light sensors, etc. The reset method will vary depending on what type of Mac you have.
If you’ve got a Mac notebook with a removable battery (most older notebooks, and none since 2009), do the following: First, ensure the charging cable is connected. Shut down the Mac, and then remove the battery. Hold down the power button for five seconds, then release it and reinstall the battery. Finally, press the power button again (just briefly this time) to start up the computer.
If you’ve got a notebook with a non-removable battery: Ensure the power cable is connected, then shut down the Mac. Next, hold down Shift-Control-Option on the left side of the keyboard and press the power button at the same time (this takes some impressive finger dexterity!). Keep all four held down for 10 seconds, and then release. Finally, press the power button to start up the computer.
If you have a desktop Mac with the exception of the iMac Pro (the iMac, Mac mini, Mac Pro, and Xserve): Shut down the Mac, then unplug the power cord. Wait 15 seconds, then plug the power cord back in. Wait five more seconds, then press the power button to start up the computer.
If you have an iMac Pro: First of all, congratulations. That is one sweet, sweet computer. Shut down the Mac, and then press and hold the power button for eight seconds. Release the power button, wait five seconds, and then press it again (briefly) to start up the computer.
NVRAM (which used to be called PRAM before people realized that’s just another word for a baby stroller) is a small amount of memory dedicated to storing certain settings for immediate access. This includes your Mac’s volume, display resolution, time zone information, and other things. The process for resetting it is the same for all Macs. Shut down the computer, and then power it back on and immediately hold down the following four keys: Option+Command+P+R. You’ll need to hold these keys down for about 20 seconds. The Mac will start up (if you have a model with a startup chime, you’ll hear it unless the computer has been muted), and then shut down on its own. Then it will start up again (this time you will hear the chime even if the computer was muted). After the second start, you can safely release the keys. On newer Macs, the startup chime is nonexistent, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the computer has finished its second startup. Look for a very subtle change in the display. There’s a difference between “the display is on but still black” and “the display isn’t lit at all.” After the boot process is complete, you may want to go back and adjust preferences like volume, display resolution, startup disk selection, or time zone, since those will have been set to their defaults.
Hardware Test and Diagnostics
We’re getting close to the end now. At this point, if you’re still experiencing major slowdowns, there is a better-than-average chance that the computer is experiencing a hardware issue. The easiest way to get an even better idea is to run a Hardware Test. There are two variants here, depending on when your Mac was released.
If your Mac was released prior to June 2013, you’ll be running the Apple Hardware Test. To do so, shut down the Mac. Unplug all nonessential peripherals – everything other than a mouse, keyboard, and display (on a desktop), power or charging cable, and Ethernet cable, if you have one. Turn on the Mac and immediately hold down the D key. Once the Apple Hardware Test prompts appear, follow them to complete testing. There is an Extended Test option that takes longer to complete, but will provide you a more thorough report. Once you’ve reviewed your results, shut down or restart the computer to exit the Hardware Test.
On newer Macs, the Apple Hardware Test was replaced with Apple Diagnostics. The process for beginning these diagnostics is the same as before (so go back and read the last paragraph), but once the diagnostics begin, you’ll see different options. At the conclusion of the diagnostics, you’ll see any failures that were identified, along with reference codes. Make a note of those reference codes in case you need to seek hardware service for the Mac later on. Once again, to exist the Apple Diagnostics, simply restart or shut down the computer.
Alright, so the hardware test came back clean, but the computer is still slow. Now what? Time to reinstall the operating system! Fortunately, on a Mac, that’s a pretty simple process. You’ve got two basic options: you can either reinstall macOS over the top of your existing content, which will replace the system files and folders but leave the stuff you care about untouched. Or you can perform an erasure and a reinstall, setting up the computer from a clean slate, and either restoring your content from a backup later on, or starting from scratch.
Either way, you’ll want to start by booting into Recovery. This is done by holding down Command+R immediately upon restarting your Mac. Hold the keys down until you see the Utilities screen come up. From here, if you want to erase the contents of the computer first, choose Disk Utility. If not, skip the next paragraph.
In Disk Utility, choose your startup disk (usually Macintosh HD) on the far left. Then choose Erase. You’ll need to choose a new name for the volume, which can be anything (again, usually Macintosh HD), as well as a format. Prior to macOS 10.13 High Sierra, the format used was Mac OS Extended (Journaled). High Sierra introduced a new file system, called APFS. If you have that version installed, choose that file system. Disk Utility will attempt to intelligently choose for you. Sometimes you will also be asked to choose a Scheme, which should be GUID Partition Map. Once that’s complete, proceed with the erasure. After it’s finished, quit Disk Utility and move onto reinstalling macOS.
Choose Reinstall macOS from the Utilities window, and follow the onscreen prompts. This process is fairly straightforward, but be sure to select the appropriate boot volume when prompted. If you’ve got an external drive connected, you don’t want to trip up and install macOS onto that. The installation process takes several minutes, but doesn’t require much interaction from you once it’s underway.
What? It’s still slow?! Well, one of two things is happening here: either the computer is old and you’re asking more of it than it’s able to give, or there’s a hardware failure that’s gone undetected thus far and the computer will require service. Old computers do happen, and newer software requires a greater collection of resources. Eventually, slower performance is to be expected. So if you’re suspicious that any hardware faults exist, ask yourself if your expectations are reasonable for a Mac of this age and equipped horsepower. If they are, your next call should be to an Apple Store or authorized service center. Don’t forget to check your warranty and look for any current Repair Extension Programs.
The End. (Finally.)