Five tips to speed up your Mac

Boost your Mac's performance and reclaim hard-drive space with this handful of tips.

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Matt Elliott/CNET

The only place I like seeing a beach ball is at a beach or in a stadium during a baseball game or concert. The one place I least like to see a beach ball is on my aging MacBook Pro, where the spinning beach ball has become an altogether too familiar a sight. If your Mac has become frustratingly slow, there are a number of ways you can speed it up again.

Before you engage in any maintenance, I would urge you to take caution and back up your data. For Macs, it's easy: grab an external drive and run Time Machine. With your Mac's drive freshly backed up, you may proceed.

1. Replace your hard drive with an SSD

Moving from a traditional spinning hard drive to a solid-state drive (SSD) is the single best thing you can do to improve the performance of an aging MacBook. Follow Sharon Profis's instructions on how to upgrade your MacBook Pro with an SSD. You'll be shocked at not only how easy it is to do but also at the huge impact it has on performance.

I just performed the maneuver myself, replacing my 2011-era MacBook Pro's 500GB hard drive with the 500GB Samsung 850 EVO. The Samsung SSD and a SATA-to-USB cable kit cost me just north of $200 on Amazon. And the whole procedure took less than an hour (not counting the half a day it took to clone my MacBook's hard drive to the SSD). Really, the hardest part of the whole thing was tracking down a size 6T torx-head screwdriver for the four torx screws that help hold the hard drive in place.

2. Add more memory

While you have your MacBook opened to replace its hard drive, you may want take the opportunity to add more memory. Like the replacing a hard drive, adding more memory is a straightforward, simple process.

First, you need to find the right type of memory for your specific MacBook model. The brand doesn't matter; everyone has his or her favorite. Just make sure you are buying the right amount, type, and speed. Apple has a handy support page that shows the memory specifications for a variety of models, along with an illustrated guide to replacing the memory.

In my case, my early-2011 MacBook Pro has two DIMM slots, each of which is occupied by a 2GB module. Since I don't have any free slots, I will need to replace those two modules with two 4GB modules. I need DDR3 memory with a speed of 1,333MHz.

After finding the right RAM for your MacBook, you will need to power it off and remove the 10 small screws on its bottom panel (if you don't already have your MacBook opened to replace the hard drive). Be sure you note the position of the screws when you remove them; some are short and some are longer. Since I need to replace the existing memory instead of simply adding a new module to an open memory slot, I had to push outward on the two levers holding the sides of the memory module to release it before gently sliding it out. Repeat for the second module. Install your new memory by lining up the bottom notch of each module with the memory slot and push it in until it clicks. Once your new memory is installed, screw the bottom panel back into place.

3. Clean your hard drive

If you aren't up for the challenge of getting inside your MacBook's case (or are already using an SSD and have maxed out the memory), there are still some ways you can speed up your system. Instead of replacing your hard drive, you need to clean up your data on the existing drive. I'd wager that over the years, you have cluttered your Mac with files and applications you no longer use or need.

To get started, let's look in the Applications and Downloads folders. If there are apps in there you can't remember installing, odds are you can live without them. Move them to the Trash to reclaim some hard-drive space. There are files associated with every application you install, however, and they are left behind when you simply move an application to the Trash. Mac OS X lacks anything resembling an uninstaller, but AppZapper is one such app. With it, you can uninstall apps and the related files. AppZapper is free for the first five zaps, after which you'll need to pay $12.95.

Next, let's clean up the applications you are keeping. When you install an app on your Mac, the piece of software arrives as part of a package of files, including permissions that tell OS X which users can do what things with specific files. Over time, these permissions can get changed, resulting in your Mac lagging, freezing or crashing. Repairing these disk permissions, in the most basic terms, amounts to reshuffling and re-dealing these permissions so that they return to their rightful place. Thankfully, OS X has a built-in tool called Disk Utility that does just the trick. Read my previous post on how to repair disk permissions for a step-by-step guide.

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Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

If your Mac acts like it needs a nap every afternoon, when you are at the height of multitasking, there is an easy way to see which of your open applications is using the most system resources. Open the Activity Monitor. The numbers are constantly fluctuating, but they show you the amount of CPU and memory resources each app is using. After watching the Activity Monitor for a while this morning, I see that Firefox generally takes up more CPU resources and more than triple the memory resources. Perhaps it's time for me to abandon Firefox and use Chrome exclusively. Also, I found that the sluggish iTunes isn't nearly the resource hog I thought it was. My apologies, iTunes.

Now that you've paid some attention to your applications, it's time to look at the files cluttering your drive. You can use Finder to search for huge files. To do so, open Finder and select the volume you'd like to search. Next, choose File > Find (or hit Command-F). Click on the Kind pull-down menu and select Other. When the Select a search attribute window opens, check the box for File Size, uncheck any other boxes, and click OK. Change the "equals" pull-down menu option to "is greater than" and then change KB to MB. Enter a minimum files file size such as, say, 100MB. You can then delete any files that show up on the list that you no longer need -- or move them to an external drive at the very least.

4. Reduce login items

If your Mac is slow to boot up, the problem may be it simply has too many applications to open that it can't load the OS in a timely fashion. Many applications by default open automatically at startup. Go to System Preferences > Users & Groups and then click on the Login Items tab to see a list of the apps that open when you boot your Mac. Highlight the apps you don't want to open at startup and click the minus-sign button below the list of apps.

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Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

5. Keep current with OS X

Apple releases new versions of OS X as free upgrades, so there is no reason not to stay current. New versions of OS X contain performance enhancements and security improvements to keep your Mac running smoothly and safely. Check in periodically with the Updates tab of the Mac App Store for OS X updates and don't ignore notifications of updates that are ready to install.

 

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