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12 Steps to Improving Your Mac's Performance

by Joli Ballew, author of Degunking Your Mac (from Paraglyph Press)

It is common for computers to slow down as they age; that's a fact. This slowdown isn't just inherent to PCs; it applies to Macs, too. No matter how much care you take, your computer will eventually bog down and perform sluggishly. That's just the way it goes.

In Degunking Your Mac, published by Paraglyph Press, I detail why this slowdown occurs. The problems are common to all computers, with only minor variations brought on by the individuality of The One Using The Computer The Most. Figuring out what causes the slowdown is a start to getting better performance. Knowing the cause of the problem is only half the battle; though. To recoup the performance lost, you must know what steps are required to fix the problem, and learn how to maintain the computer once it is running properly.

What Happened?

What happened to cause your computer to slow down, and why does it run more slowly than it did the day you brought it home? Consider for a moment all of the files, photos, videos, music, and applications you've added or installed. Imagine the CPU and the hard drive working to find, open, play, edit, and run all of the stuff stored on your computer. If you have anything you no longer need, that's gunk, and too much of it can cause your computer to have to work overtime to perform presumably simple tasks.

Besides gunk you've added on purpose, you probably have gunk that you're not aware of. You may have old installation files, programs you no longer use, too many fonts that look the same, or you may even have (yes, you can have this) a fragmented hard drive. Worse than all of this, though, is running programs and applications not created for your operating system. If you're using OS X, it's time to upgrade those old applications.

Finally, even if you're a fairly organized person, you still may not be aware of what needs to be done on a regular basis to keep both you and your Mac happy. Keeping your Mac happy includes organizing the data you want to keep, getting updates, deleting unnecessary files and emptying the Trash, backing up your data regularly, using anti- virus software, and using third-party tools to check for and repair problems.

You can enhance performance considerably by following the steps I've outlined in Degunking Your Mac, which I've summarized briefly in this article. As is noted in the book, it's best to move sequentially, so I recommend you start at Step 1.

1. Throw Away Data You No Longer Need and Defragment Your Drive

Related Reading

Degunking Your Mac
By Joli Ballew

Making more room on the hard drive by deleting unnecessary files and programs helps both you and your Mac work better and more efficiently. For you, there's less to sift through to find what you want (so you'll work faster), and for your Mac, there's less for it to sift through to find what it wants (so it will work faster). Deleting unnecessary files, folders, fonts, and applications is therefore always a good idea.

But deleting data doesn't come without a price. Your hard drive is a circular disk, and data is written to that disk starting with the first open space available and working inward. When you repeatedly save and then delete data from the hard drive, you create little pockets of empty space all over the hard disk where subsequent data can be saved. Thus, when a chunk of data, say a large video file, cannot be saved in the first pocket of space it finds, it is separated into various open areas on the hard drive. When you ask your Mac to pull up the file, it has to go to two, three, or more areas of the drive and piece the file together. When this happens, the file is considered fragmented. Pulling together fragmented files takes longer than pulling up a single file that is not fragmented.

So after deleting all of your unnecessary data, and after taking out the Trash, you should purchase a third-party defragmenter and run it. You'll see a huge difference in performance, because the defragmenter will locate all of the fragmented files on your hard disk, piece them together, and save them together. This is a necessary step in enhancing performance, and should be performed two to four times a year.

2. Get Rid of Problem Applications

As mentioned in the previous section, when you reduce clutter, you improve the performance of your system. You also improve your personal performance and efficiency because all of the junk has been put in the Trash and you no longer have to sift through it to find what you want. The next step after removing unnecessary personal items is to remove programs and applications you don't use and their related preferences files.

In addition to removing programs you don't use, though, you can remove programs you can't use, such as the image application you installed with your first web cam -- you don't need that now that you have iSight. You can also look for programs that you installed with printers you no longer own, or programs for an old scanner or digital camera you no longer use. You may also have programs that have expired, beta programs you tested and didn't like, or programs you tried but didn't buy. Finally, if you've recently purchased the newest version of Photoshop, you might no longer need or want Photoshop Elements or similar programs.

Your Mac came preinstalled with things you might not need, too. Although I'm not recommending it, you can delete iMovie, iTunes, iDVD, iPhoto, iCal, and other built-in applications if you desire. You can certainly delete Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, the trial version of Microsoft Office that expired months ago, and similar programs as you deem necessary. The point is: if you don't need it, get rid of it.

3. Get Organized

If you can find things faster, your computer will (at least seem to) run faster. There are lots of ways to organize your data. The simplest is to create personal folders inside of your Home folders and move existing files into a folder that details its contents. When creating folders and subfolders, create a plan first. The hardware you have connected to your Mac generally gives you a clue there. Do you have iPods, digital cameras, DV cameras, or musical instruments hooked up? If so, you should start there. If you need a little help deciding what folders to create, what to name them, and where to store them, consider these ideas:

The idea is to take a good, hard look at what you use your Mac for and create folders that represent who you are and what you do.

Note: You can also personalize the desktop with folders, and use labels as a colorful way to highlight a folder's name for easy recognition. This will make finding your files faster and easier. You can also compress and archive data you rarely access.

4. Clean Up the Desktop, Dock, and Finder Windows

Teaching your Mac how you want it to act and look is very important, and it is something that many users overlook, especially when it comes to fine-tuning the Mac for greater productivity . Do you have too many icons on the Dock? Remove them. Do you use the same programs every day? Add them to the Dock or the Finder toolbar. Do you need an icon for your display properties on the menu bar? Add it. It's important to focus on getting you working more efficiently by personalizing what you access every day.

5. Take Control of Spam

Email is the glue that holds your personal and business computing together. Unfortunately, this glue is a magnet for gunk. Just a little carelessness will attract an unimaginable amount of gunk in the form of spam. Spam is one of those phenomena for which prevention is the very best cure.

Taking control of spam starts with prevention and is kept to a minimum with common sense. There are a lot of things you can do to lessen the amount of spam you get, and to take control of your email account.

Start by creating three different email accounts -- primary, backup, and disposable -- to minimize spam. Choose a primary email address that is not vulnerable to dictionary attacks, and don't use your primary email address on newsgroups, with vendors, on the Web, or anywhere else. Do not use "unsubscribe" options to get rid of spam, and choose, use, and update a separate spam filtering product to reduce the spam you'll inevitably get. Take advantage of Mail's Junk Filtering options, too, and learn about mail proxies and free and low-cost spam-filtering utilities.

6. Get Rid of Font Gunk

Having unnecessary fonts, fonts with only minor differences (such as a bold, italic, and normal versions of the same font), fonts that are the same but have different names, unorganized fonts, or duplicate fonts not only slows down your system and how fast you work, but it can also cause system crashes. (Graphite and Tek look almost exactly alike; Chancellor and Penman do, too. There's likely no reason for a non-professional artist to have both.)

You have fonts in lots of places on your hard drive; five folders, in fact. To remove a font, an administrator must remove it from each of these folders. Remember, when OS X looks for a font, it works through all five available folders; the font will continue to be available as long as your Mac can find it in one of the font folders. Because the operating system needs certain fonts, though, you should concentrate on fonts you've added or acquired by installing programs.

7. Install Upgrades Automatically

With Software Update, you can enhance performance and security by configuring your Mac to automatically download and install updates both for the operating system and for critical system components such as AirPort, iPod, and iSight. Of course, not all updates apply to all computers, and Apple will tailor its suggested updates around what you have installed. For the most part, you should always install what Apple suggests for your particular setup because those updates will generally enhance performance and increase security. Updates and upgrades will solve known problems too, such as glitches in a software program or bugs in prior updates, and may even contain updates to drivers or firmware, which are necessary to keep your computer running smoothly.

8. Secure Your Mac

Securing your Mac is just as important as enhancing its performance. It doesn't do any good to clean up, maintain, and organize your Mac if you're going to leave it unlocked for anyone and everyone to drop in without your permission. Don't go to all of the trouble of getting it running efficiently, organizing all of its files and folders, and performing maintenance tasks when you've left a door open to malicious co-workers, uninformed visitors, viruses, spyware, or thieves, all of which can really gunk up (or destroy) your Mac. Protect your Mac by incorporating some simple security measures such as using screen saver passwords and turning on OS X's built-in firewall.

Here are some "must do" things: purchase, install, and configure anti-virus software, understand Safari's security options, let friends use a visitor account if they need to use your Mac, turn on FileVault if necessary, understand encryption and when to use it, and set up a firmware password for really tight security.

9. Back Up Your System

Your Mac came with installation CDs that you can use to restore your system if you ever need to. That's all well and good, but they won't restore your personal data: the fonts you've acquired over the years, your Preferences files, the folders you've created, the music you've downloaded, the movies you've made, your Internet cookies, your Keychain entries, and your mailbox files -- you get the idea. If something happens, you need to have all of that backed up.

It's going to be pretty hard to back up, on your own, every single thing you'll need to recover from a hard drive crash. It'll even be harder to try to keep these backups up to date. If you can afford it, purchase a third-party backup utility to help you; the Mac doesn't come with a dedicated one. Sure, there's Disk Copy, but it's not really a backup program, and it isn't going to really do what you want in the way of backups.

There are lots of programs you can purchase to assist you in backing up regularly, and they range in price. Take a look at the options by visiting If you want to try to find some freeware to help you back up your data, visit You never know what you might find!

10. How to Maintain Your Mac Once Degunked

Maintaining you Mac once it's degunked will help it perform better for a longer period of time. There are several things you should do on a regular basis, and I've outlined still more in my book. Knowing when and how often to do them is part of it too. Here are just a few things to keep in mind:

11. Disable Unnecessary Components

There are many system components that can be tweaked to offer minimal improvements but, when combined, offer noticeable changes. For instance, you can remove extraneous extensions, preferences, or fonts you're not using. These extra files increase boot time and slow down reaction time. Application preferences can be set, too, and applications such as Photoshop or Mail can be made to open faster. You can also get rid of system- intensive desktop images and screen savers, or even reduce the color depth of the desktop for a faster redraw. You can disable Calculate All Size, deactivate Remember Recently Used Items, and disable file sharing if you don't need it. There are lots of tweaks that, although seemingly insignificant when performed separately, really add up to improve your Mac's performance when combined with others.

12. Move to OS X if You Haven't Already (Or if You Have a Hybrid System)

The differences between OS 9 and OS X are complex and many. Because they are so vast, the new technology of OS X has forced Apple to offer a hybrid operating system to get people (and software manufacturers) through the move. For programs that are not yet OS X compatible, OS X offers a Classic environment that kicks in when older programs need to be run. The complex changes to the OS may thus require you to use both operating systems for a while, or at least until software manufacturers catch up with all of the changes Apple has made and you purchase the upgrades.

Using older programs though is not the best choice. Your ultimate goal is (or it should be) to use your Mac the way it should be used, with all programs running smoothly in OS X and with OS X performing as a healthy, happy OS. There are several steps involved in making that move, though, including taking inventory of the software and hardware you use often, purchasing new programs when necessary, and even adding RAM.

Briefly, there are six steps to moving to OS X:

  1. Take a survey of what software you use that causes Classic to open. If you configure System Preferences so that Classic does not start automatically when you log in, and your Mac warns you before starting Classic, you'll be able to see this easily.
  2. Take inventory of your hardware. Does your web cam hardware and related software open Classic? If so, save up for an iSight, or see if your hardware manufacturer has an upgraded driver and software. Does your bargain-basement printer open Classic? Same thing there -- look for an updated driver or purchase another printer. That'll teach those manufacturers to keep up when a new version of the OS is released!
  3. Purchase third-party tools to keep the system running smoothly. Your old OS 9 applications aren't going to do the trick. You can also look for freeware or shareware to optimize performance. Check out for the latest.
  4. Consider adding RAM. RAM is the single best way to increase the performance on your machine and may, in fact, become necessary after upgrading your applications and hardware drivers and adding new programs.
  5. Transfer your favorite fonts from OS 9 to OS X, just in case you get a wild hair and want to trash the OS 9 folders some day.
  6. Gather up any documents, pictures, music, artwork, or movies from your OS 9 folders and move them to your OS X folders. Put them in the appropriate folders, such as Documents, Music, Pictures, and Movies.


The thing is, all computers slow down. They all bog down. The reason is that the day you bring your sparkling new computer home, you start storing stuff on it. Stuff can be pictures, music, videos, email, drivers, spam, and whatever else you have obtained, knowingly or unknowingly. You have to take control and maintain control, and if you do, your Mac will be a happy one!

Some text in this article has been excerpted directly from Joli's book, Degunking Your Mac.

Joli Ballew is a professional writer, technology trainer, and network consultant in the Dallas area, and she is a Microsoft Windows Expert Zone Columnist.

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