Mac is getting slow and I'm sick of it--what to do?

I had this happen to my last Mac, but it was so beat up at the time that I just got a new one.

Here’s the deal:

• Plenty of hard disk space (99+ GB)
• Cleaned up permissions
• Not running a crazy amount of apps. In fact, if I look at the Activity Monitor, things look good.
• FWIW, I have Norton Virus (free from Comcast!) and ran that. Nothing found.

But I keep getting the spinning beach ball. Yeah, sometimes Firefox gets clogged up and I have to restart it, but it’s other stuff. Click on another app… zzz… perform a function in an app… zzz… You get the picture.

It’s not all the time, but it’s enough to be driving me crazy.

Now I know you’ll suggest some things, but I’m wondering if just upgrading to Lion couldn’t fix a lot of stuff. If that would basically nuke all the crap, I’d be willing to do that (it would be conceptually simple plus… I’d have the new OS).

Thanks for your help!

Please give us your Mac specs. But in general, there’s two things that cause the “spinning beach balls” in my experience:

  1. Some program has gone haywire. Usually this is something driver-like that runs all the time, like the controllers for input devices (mice, tablets, that sort of thing), printers, screen or media sharing apps, that sort of thing. This is by far the most common. Have you installed anything new recently?

  2. You’ve got a hard drive about to die: this is usually on Mac Pros and other multi-drive systems. Mac OS will spin drives down when they haven’t been used in a while, and if they’re slow to come up again, you get the beach ball at odd times. this usually won’t happen on a single-drive Mac.

It’s NOT normal for a Mac (or modern Windows, for that matter) to just “slow down” over time – it’s almost always some sort of always-resident program getting in the way. Reinstalling the OS cleanly (i.e. install onto a new parition or drive, don’t upgrade your existing one) should restore your speed – an upgrade in place might or might not–it depends on whether it changes the OSes’ relationship with the offending app or kext. (kext = kernel extension, which is the Mac name for what Windows would call a low-level driver).

First thing to try, as always, is /Application/Utilities/Disk Utility, and check for permission and disk errors (you’ll have to boot off an install drive if you need to actually repair the boot disk). This is easier in Lion and beyond, because the system creates a repair partition for you (hold down command-R at startup to boot to it), but it sounds like you’re still in Snow Leopard. While you’re there, take about 40GB of that free space you’ve got and turn it into another partition (this can be done live, without damanging the data on the existing partition) so you can try a clean install to the second partition and see if that fixes it without affecting your current install (it’s always a good idea to have a small, second boot partition, anyway, for testing stuff like this). Once you’ve installed Mac OS X (same or different version) to the second partition as well, you can choose which one to boot to using the “Startup Disk” control panel, or by holding down the option key at boot.

You can also go to /System/Library/Extensions, look for recently installed, non-Apple extensions, and remove them (to a safe backup). Restart the machine and see if the problem goes away. If you do this, make sure you’ve got another way to restart the machine, since it’s easy to render your system unbootable – this isn’t meant to be a user-servicable part of the OS.

If you do upgrade/reinstall the OS, you might want to wait a few days. Mountain Lion is about to be released (Apple says “July”, so it’s within two weeks now), and it’s cheaper than Lion if your machine is supported. ($19 vs $29).

Thanks, TW!

Those are good ideas. I’ll wait for the Mountain Lion…

So… would the crap that’s getting in the way show up in Activity Monitor, you think?

How much RAM do you have? I used to see the beach ball a lot - upgrading from 2gb to 4gb took care of it.

Pretty much this.

Beachball hell is often a result of “swapping” - not enough real RAM available, so the OS swaps pages to disc. Activity monitor will show the number of page in/outs. They should ideally be zero.


Some would, some wouldn’t. CPU use you can monitor there: click on the “%CPU” column in the process viewer to sort by CPU use, leave it up, and see if some process is taking up large amounts of CPU every time it happens.

Memory’s the same: click the “System Memory” tab at the bottom, and look at the little chart. As long as at least 20% of that chart is green (Free) or Inactive (Blue), you should be fine. (Also check the page outs, as mentioned above. “Page ins” are a normal part of running apps in the Mac’s VM system.) If it’s all–or nearly all–red and yellow, consider more RAM. I’m suspecting it’s not RAM in your case, since you say it’s decreased over time rather than always being bad, but that’s a place to check. There are other things that can cause spin waits, including waiting on resources that aren’t easily monitored in Activity Monitor. Still, it’s a place to start.

Another place to look is /Applications/Utilities/ - turn on the list of logs on the left, and click the “All messages” at the top. Leave it running, and see if there are any interesting messages that always coincide with your beachballs. If you get actual crashes, this is where crash reports go, too, and that will usually name a culprit process explicitly.

You can fix any bad files by restarting and holding down the Command and S keys. It’s called “single-user mode.”

When white type on a back background appears, release both keys. Wait a few seconds until the type flows up a bit and the last line is:

:confused: root#

This is one step before the graphical user interface kicks in, and since the GUI isn’t running, any bad files can be repaired. It’s the same thing as running Disk Repair from a DVD or from the Lion partition but without the hassle.

After those few seconds the cursor will be at the point following the #. Type:

fsck -fy

This means files check, force yes. Type it lower case and include the space. The - is a hyphen. Then hit Return.

The f after the hyphen means to force check because the system is journaled. Before journaling was introduced, the f wasn’t required (I don’t know why journaling makes a difference). The y means yes. Without typing the y and if any problems are found, the machine would ask if you want it fixed. You’d have to type y and hit return each time.

If, after the machine completes its check and the message it returns is “The file system appears to be OK,” or words to that effect, type reboot and hit Return. The machine will restart.

But if the message says “Some files have been modified,” or words to that effect, which may include a second line saying “The file system appears to be OK,” run fsck -fy again, because some errors may hide other ones that may not be apparent until the first ones are fixed.

Norton has a very bad Mac reputation. Unless you were having the slowdown problem before installing it, it’s very likely that Norton is causing it. It’s tentacles go everywhere, deep into the system.

Norton was so bad it not only wrecked the system software, (as it did mine) it damaged hard drives. Hardware. Norton pulled it from the market, its reputation ruined after the sterling job it did with pre-OS X systems as a file-fixer and an anti-virus app.

If Norton is back as an anti-virus app and you’re using it, download ClamAV. It’s free, nearly as old as OS X and is one of the best. It’s available here.

You can also try a so-called safe start. Restart the machine while holding down the Shift key. When the spinning gear and progress bar appear, release the Shift key.

The machine will take a long time to very long time to start because I think it’s running fsck -fy. But when it does start, only the OS and Apple’s applications will run. So if another app is the trouble-maker, it won’t be running and the beachball won’t appear, thereby narrowing the possibilities. Nickles to doughnuts it’s Norton.

If, after the machine is running, you may have to click the mouse before the menu bar appears. Restarting the machine again might seem to take forever, and with Lion, I’ve had to shut the power off, so I don’t use safe-start. I stick to single-user mode and typing in fsck -fy.

By the way, I looked, and I do only have 2 GB of RAM. What would the cost of an upgrade typically be?


Also, I did “verify disk” a few days ago, and it said there was nothing wrong with the hard drive. Don’t know if that makes anything else clear.

Page ins and page outs are 6.23 GB and 3.72 GB, respectively. That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

“Page ins” simply means code/data was read into RAM from disk. happens pretty much all of the time. “Page outs” means the amount of data that has been written out to the pagefile (Windows) or swap (*nix.)

You need more RAM.

ETA: TimeWinder asked for your Mac’s specs; that would help us make a recommendation. you have 2 GB now, that may be sufficient for the OS and a couple small things but with the way software has grown it’s really nowhere near enough. I have 8 GB in my (Linux) laptop and 16 GB in my (Windows) desktop. RAM is cheap as shit; find out how much your Mac can take and max it out.

ETA: TimeWinder asked for your Mac’s specs; that would help us make a recommendation. you have 2 GB now, that may be sufficient for the OS and a couple small things but with the way software has grown it’s really nowhere near enough. I have 8 GB in my (Linux) laptop and 16 GB in my (Windows) desktop. RAM is cheap as shit; find out how much your Mac can take and max it out.

I don’t know how to get other specs, but this is a MacBook bought in January 2009. It is still in pretty good physical shape, so I figure I’d keep it a couple more years until it’s really behind the curve. But of course buying a new Mac is an option.

Is putting in RAM something the guys at the Genius Bar could do? I just want a quickie, so to speak.

oy vey. Yeah, I suppose they could, if you like throwing money around.

The mark up on Mac RAM is very expensive. Buy from here -

Before you do, find out which Macbook model you have. Do a youtube search on how to add/change RAM on that specific model, and then buy from the link above.

Actually, Apple has your instructions here:

A 2009 Macbook would be the white plastic model? The memory modules are in the battery compartment - very easily user replacable. And it should support 4 GB.

It appears that Apple no longer stocks modules for those MacBooks, but google “macbook memory” and you’ll find a source. I found one source for a 4gb upgrade for $60.

No, it’s the aluminum body. Any difference in what I need? Thanks!

Look up your specific model here for memory specs and specific instructions. You have to take the bottom plate off the aluminum ones, but it’s still an easy DIY.

The link tomcar provided will probably sell it for half as much as direct from apple. has great online manuals with step by step instructions. makes it easy to find the right memory - As does above.