Do You Need a New Mac or Just Some Cleaning?

When we first get a new Mac it’s fast and runs so much better than our old one. We think that it will last that way forever. A few years down the road, the experience isn’t the same anymore. It’s dirty, sluggish, and you frequently see the beach ball.

At first glance, you’d think it’s time for a new computer. But sometimes, a new computer isn’t necessary. You just might need a little cleaning, tweaking and possibly an inexpensive upgrade to get your old Mac back.

How long should your Mac last?

According to Apple, they’d like you to use your Mac for at least 3 years. After all, that’s when their extended warranty (AppleCare) cuts out. If you really need to stay on the cusp of new technology (most of us don’t.), this article isn’t for you.

A normal, everyday user should be able to squeak 4-5 years out of their Mac. If you can go longer, that’s great. However, after 3-4 years, if it needs any sort of repairs – replace it instead of sinking money into a machine well past its prime.

System Cleaning:

One real reason that your once fast system is now a slow turtle isn’t because something is wrong. It’s because of system bloat. As time goes on, technology improves and OS X, applications, and web sites grow larger requiring more resources. Since the latest model has these resources, your older computer slowly begins to struggle with each new version.

The other main reason your system isn’t what it used to be is partially you and partially the application developers fault. I’m talking about Login Items here. Waiting until your system is up and ready will make all your applications launch faster. Also launching them one at a time is the fastest way. Having Firefox, Microsoft Word, Excel, Mail and iCal all fighting for resources at login is a sure way to wait a while before your machine is useable.

The developers are guilty of forcing login items onto you in the interest of “speed launching” or always making sure their application is ready to go and checking for updates. While this is horribly noticeable in Windows land, as OS X versions are being written, they are including this nonsense.

To speed up your startup:

– Go to System Preferences and choose Accounts.

– Select your user account and at the top tab, choose “Login Items”

– Delete all of them.

– If you have Applications starting at login, find their icon in the Dock.

– Right Click on the icon and click on “Open at Login” to remove the check.

Tune your System:

Turn off FileVault: Unless necessary, Filevault will cause a performance decrease as your system decrypts and re-encrypts data during normal operation. Think twice about disabling Filevault if you store sensitive data on your drive, or have a laptop that travels outside of the home often.

Turn off Dashboard and it’s Widgets: These little programs run in the background and can consume a large amount of system processes. Especially if they’re always checking in with the internet to update their information. You can disable dashboard with the following command:

defaults write no-glass -boolean YES
killall Dock

Stop icon preview: Leopard’s cool little feature of displaying a thumbnail of the file’s contents is nice. It also takes a good amount of work on an older machine. Turn it off by choosing “View Options” from the Finder’s “View” menu bar item and unchecking the box next to “Show icon preview”. You’ll need to do this for the Desktop and Macintosh HD, checking “Use as defaults” to totally turn it off.

Clear off your Desktop: Believe it or not, having a large amount of icons on your desktop consumes unnecessary resources. Clean up your desktop to free them up.

Uninstall Adobe Reader: Adobe PDF Reader has become an enormous source of bloat. And security risks. Luckily, you don’t need it with OS X. You have Preview.

Turn off Spotlight’s indexing: This setting depends on how your work. If you use Spotlight, leave it. If you don’t, the easiest way to turn it off is in System Preferences. Choose Spotlight, click Privacy, click the plus sign and choose “Macintosh HD”. If you use Spotlight but don’t want it to open and index the insides of .PDFs, move the file called “PDF.mdimporter” from /System/Library/Spotlight to /System/Library/Spotlight-Disabled. If the folder doesn’t exist, create it.

Clear out your Hard Drive: If you’ve got less than 5 GB free, move off your bulky files (music, video, tv shows, etc) to an external drive. OS X maintains a page file and when OS X runs low on RAM, it begins paging to disk and if there’s no disk space left, things get ugly.

Watch what you install: Not all applications are necessary. You don’t need a special app to get pictures off your camera – Image Capture and iPhoto will do this. Nor do you need an ISP connection app to connect to your DSL / Cable line. Be wary of monitoring apps that watch out for things like low printer levels, hard drive status, email notifiers, constantly running backup systems and 3rd party search/indexing apps (cough..Google Desktop). Read installers before clicking “Ok” to avoid installing unnecessary toolbars and other bundled software.

Tuning Firefox:

The best way to speed up Firefox is the simplest – Uninstall all those add-ons, widgets, toolbars and doo-dads that you installed. Optionally, you may consider AdBlock or No Script to speed up sites by not loading Flash and process consuming ads.

If you want advanced and in depth tips on speeding up Firefox, Make Use has a great article.

Optional – Downgrade to Tiger.

Leopard is great but if you are running a 3-4 year old machine, you may want to reconsider the upgrade. Especially if your Mac is running the older PPC architechture. See, while Leopard has all these really cool features, it also needs resources for them. Don’t get swept up in the hype and the “I want it!” factor surrounding Apple’s product launches. I personally recommend upgrading your OS when it’s time for a new system.

The same goes for upgrading applications – Adobe CS, Microsoft Office, Final Cut Pro / Express, Logic, iWork, iLife etc. Remember, new features = more resources.

Quick Upgrades:

RAM: Bumping up your older Mac to 1GB of RAM will make a huge difference if it’s only running with 512MB. If OS X needs more memory it begins paging to the disk and that creates a painfully slow performance hit. Remember to get matched pairs if you’re upgrading a MacBook.

Hard Drive: Installing a new hard drive in an older MacBook is an easy and cheap way to get more storage. You could get a performance boost if the drive is faster than the original. On iBooks and Powerbooks, unless you’re technically inclined, don’t bother.

As much as you clean, tweak and optimize, there will come a time when you have to say goodbye to your Mac for a new one. However, keeping your system clean and running smooth will keep you sane as your Mac ages and becomes less and less able to keep up with new technology.

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