how-to-guides

Apple’s iconic, gently spinning beach ball may be the only one of its kind to bring more pain the pleasure. It’s not an indication of the changing seasons, or some half-ass homage to the beach scene in Top Gun, but rather a rainbow-adorned, rotating pinwheel alerting you that the current Mac OS X application is trying to cope — usually rather poorly — with all the events it receives. And though the cursor takes merely several seconds to being spinning, it takes users even less time to realize it’s implications beyond the initial application and occasional software error.

Despite Apple’s top-tier price tag and heralding reviews from consumers and techies alike, the company’s products aren’t immune to the crippling hallmarks of an older system. It happens to nearly all machines, whether using a laptop or desktop model, rendering the once-basic process of opening applications and merely navigating a folder a daunting task in which you hesitate with every click. It’s understandable, given the sheer amount of strain software updates and decreasing hard drive space place on your system, but it doesn’t make the inconvenience any less frustrating day in and day out. Fortunately, there are a few twists and tweaks anyone can perform on their Mac to boost its overall performance sans installing a solid-state drive, additional RAM, or other expensive components that will significantly increase your system performance at the cost of your wallet. Sometimes new hardware just isn’t an option we’re willing, or capable of taking. Alas.

Here’s our quick-hitting guide to speed up your Mac, regardless of your operating system, product model, or system’s overall age. Our step-by-step instructions utilize a 2008 MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.9.1, but the process is similar and straightforward enough on any platform that you should understand the gist of it. Also, check out our accompanying guide on how to speed up your PC if you’re running a machine on Microsoft’s flagship platform.

Step 1: Update your Mac’s hardware

Regardless of which OS you utilize, updating your software to the latest version thereof is something everyone should get in the habit of doing. Although sporadic and often unpredictable, Apple and third-party developers frequently issue system and application updates curtailing notable security flaws, adding new features and increasing overall stability. Which updates are available depend on your machine, but most users shouldn’t have trouble updating their Mac to its fullest potential … even if it is behind the current industry standards.

To update your software, first ensure your Mac is connected to both a power supply and the Internet. Afterward, click the Apple icon located in the left corner of the main Mac OS X , select the Software Update option near the top of the resulting drop-down menu and click the gray Update All button housed to the right of the available updates within the App Store.

Step 2: Run some antivirus software

The whole “Macs don’t get viruses” thing is a myth. Although they are less susceptible to viruses and other forms of malware given their innate build and lesser market share, they’re still prone to the occasional intruder as evidenced by July’s supposed FBI ransomware attack. Malware is notorious for slowing down multiple facets of your system, from the initial boot up to basic application usage, thus eradicating any pesky Trojans, worms, viruses, and other infectious forms of malware can help boost overall system performance in a matter of minutes. We’ve also conveniently chosen some of the best antivirus software for Mac so you don’t have to.

To run your chosen antivirus software, simply launch the application and select the option to start a new scan from the navigation bar. Typically, scanning options are available somewhere directly within the main application interface, providing easy access to scans, application history, and other tools directly upon start up. Once you run a scan, take note of the threats and deal with them accordingly using the software’s suggested actions. 

Step 3: Disable login items

Login items are terrific, that is, if the item in question is one you actually utilize. Although they differ from one machine to the next, the items are essentially applications (notifiers, schedulers, etc.) that automatically begin when your machine starts up, thus allowing quick access to frequently used applications as soon as you log into your computer. Disabling a number of unnecessary login items, even those from applications you previously uninstalled, can help decrease your Mac’s initial boot time if it seems to be hanging on startup.

To disable login items, click the Apple icon in the main Mac OS X, select System Preferences from the resulting drop-down menu, and click the Users & Groups option located on the left-hand side of the window. Afterward, select the Login Items tab in the upper-right corner, highlight the item you wish to disable, and click the minus icon below the list. If necessary, click the lock icon in the bottom-left corner of the window and enter your password to apply the changes.

Step 4: Clear the browser cache

Despite appearing to be the case, it’s not always your machine running slow. Applications, specifically Internet browsers, have a knack for becoming bogged down with excessive data in the form of history, cookies, caches, and similar Web elements. Your browser cache — though a great tool for storing website components such as images, scripts, and other page snapshots for quick viewing — is likely one of many culprits making your browser and Mac appear slow. It’s not surprising users often mistake slow browser for slow computers considering we use the Web in nearly every facet of our daily lives.

To do clear the browser cache, follow our comprehensive guide on how to clear your browser cache. Alternatively, consider purging your search history, updating any coupled browser plugins, or resetting your browser entirely for a more enhanced system sweep.

Step 5: Uninstall unnecessary applications

If you’re anything like me, your Mac is littered with shareware apps you used once and then shoveled into the digital wayside. However, said applications still manage to take up space regardless if you frequently utilize the programs or merely opened them once. Most programs can be deleted by merely dragging the application in question to the trash bin, but some require further action as they often leave behind preference files and other trailing software components that will continue to eat up precious space once the initial application has been deleted. If you’re unsure which applications and processes are utilizing the most system resources, launch Apple’s Activity Monitor, a memory management utility built-in to Mac OS X. The tool will show a constantly-fluctuating set of numbers representing each applications’ respective memory usage, whether simply a dashboard component, the dock, or more exhaustive applications such as Photoshop.

To uninstall an application, drag said program from within the main Applications folder, dock, or Launchpad directly into the Trash before CTRL-clicking the bin and selecting Empty Trash. For a more a comprehensive uninstall that eradicates any application-related files consider purchasing AppZapper for Mac ($13), using the trial version of the software or picking up the freemium AppCleaner. The two applications essentially function in the same way, removing associated application files even after the application has been placed in the Trash, but the latter swaps additional features such as AppZapper’s licensing retainer for a nonexistent price tag.

Step 6: Remove unnecessary files

Although it may not be as immediately apparent as stockpiling eggshells or used Kleenex in your living room, digital hoarding is a real thing. Over the years, our computers have quickly become littered with unnecessary files, folders and applications that take vital space and further exhaust system resources. Sift through the file masses and delete any photos, music, and documents you don’t use (or are ever likely to). Trust me, you probably don’t need to hold on to the Loutallica album or save high school chemistry assignments any longer than need be. If deleting photos in iPhoto, make sure to empty the in-app trash bin located in the left-hand navigational panel once you’ve added the files you wish to delete. Also, check out our quick-hit guide on how to back up your computer if you’d like to store the data elsewhere before purging your machine of the files and information.

To delete a file, drag said document, image or file from within its respective save location directly into the Trash before CTRL-clicking the bin and selecting Empty Trash.

Step 7: Organize the Desktop

Not-so-fun fact: Mac OS X ultimately treats each desktop item as a separate window with a small memory footprint to boot. That being the case, it’s best to properly organize your Mac desktop — combining like files into more all-compassing folders — to reduce the clutter and ensure the footprint is kept a minimum. The process likely won’t produce a notable difference, nor is it necessary for most people unless their desktop is completely saturated with files and folders, but it’s the kind of spring cleaning that will leave your desktop looking fresh and feeling even better. Simply put, no icons is the way to go.

To organize the desktop, drag the desired file, or folder from the desktop to a new location. Although you can move the files nearly anywhere on your Mac, we suggest relocating the files to the Documents folder or similar folder thereof. If the files aren’t necessary or you no longer need them, drag them to the Trash, CTRL-click the bin and select Empty Trash

Step 8: Disable unnecessary Dashboard widgets

There comes a time when everyone needs an ambient, virtual aquarium in which to watch all manners of marine life discretely meander by. However, that time is extremely rare. Though many dashboard widgets increase our productivity and keep us on task, many do little more than consume vital RAM frequently utilized by other, more important, applications. Deleting or disabling unused widgets thus increases the available memory for other processes, especially if the widget in question is heavy on system resources.

To disable or delete a Dashboard widget, launch the Dashboard and click the subtraction sign located in the lower-right corner of the screen. Afterward, click the “X” in the upper-left corner of the widget do disable it. Alternatively, click the addition button in the bottom-left corner of the screen, click and hold the widget you wish to delete, and click the resulting subtraction sign in the upper-left corner of the widget.

Step 9: Properly close applications

Closing an application in Windows requires little more than clicking the infamous “X” button in the top-right corner of the selected window. However, Mac OS X is a different breed, one that requires you to actually quit the application in order to prevent it from quietly running in the background. If you’re not one who shuts off your Mac daily, there’s a high probability there are multiple programs constantly running minimized in the background, subsequently leeching system resources when you do not intend to use them. Although subtle, a glowing marker beneath the application in the dock will alert you of which programs are currently open.

To properly close applications, CTRL-click or click and hold the open application and select Quit at the bottom of the resulting pop-up menu. Alternatively, click the main application menu when using the program and select the Quit … option at the bottom of the resulting drop-down menu.

Step 10: Remove unnecessary languages

Being a virtuoso when it comes to language is quality rarely overlooked, but one many of us don’t possess. Thankfully, Mac OS X is chock full of nearly 150 languages from which to choose from, though I sincerely doubt you’ve picked up Tigrinya, Byelorussian or any other foreign language available within Apple’s language directory. The sheer number of available languages is vast and welcoming, but narrowing it down to merely the one or two languages you prefer using the freemium Monolingual app can free up additional space (however little it may be). 

To remove unnecessary languages, navigate to the main Monolingual homepage and click the blue download link in the upper-right corner of the page, beneath the Download section. Once installed, select which the languages you wish to remove from the curated list and click the remove button in the bottom-right corner of the window. Afterward, wait 30 minutes or so for the deletion process to complete.

Step 11: Maintain and optimize your Mac

A little maintenance and optimization can go a long way in retaining the longevity of your system. Once you’ve cleared your system of any and all unnecessary files, applications, widgets, and the like, it’s not a bad idea to set up your Mac for a bit of routine maintenance to ensure it remains up to speed (pun intended). We recommend Titanium Software’s Onyx, a  free multifunction utility available for Mac, as our go-to option given the application’s premium feature set and nonexistent price tag. Once downloaded and installed, routine tools for verifying your machine’s disk, clearing caches and running maintenance tasks can all be carried within the application’s streamlined interface.

To download Onyx, navigate to the main Titanium Software download page and click the blue link corresponding to the appropriate version of Mac OS X. Afterward, install and launch the software before running various tasks within the Maintenance, Cleaning, and Utilities panels.

What do you think of our sweeping guide on how to speed up your Mac? Did you notice results or have another suggestion on how to do so? Let us know in the comments below.