Mac Care and Maintenence [Wiki]

by Kelle on May 30, 2012

In the spirit of the end of the semester, spring cleaning, and the beginning of summer: Why is it that our computers get so slow and clunky after only a year or so of use?  I’ve made new Mac Care and Maintenance wiki page to compile resources to help prevent and alleviate this seemingly ubiquitous problem.

I think many problems are user-specific. That is, when I login to my “sluggish” computer in a new account, it’s zippy. Has anybody tried just setting up a new account every year?

Please share your mac system troubles and advice in the comments and, once I get funding to hire an AstroBetter intern (get your resumes ready), they’ll get incorporated onto the wiki page.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eilat May 30, 2012 at 9:02 am

This is a great idea! I just got a new MacBookPro and it is taking me *forever* to set it up properly. I don’t want it just transfer everything from my old Mac (I see this as a chance to de-clutter), and I feel like this is an opportunity to do a better job setting up the shell environment and other tools. But I am daunted! Are there any good ‘how to’ guides for setting up a new Mac for an astronomer?


2 Kelle May 30, 2012 at 9:28 am

oh Eilat! You should spend some time poking around on the wiki:

We have a setup guide, but it’s not great. Comments/Suggestions for missing content welcome:

I am particularly fond of the Mac Apps page:

Anybody else have good “setup” resources? There are a bunch of links here, but most seem dead.

3 Eilat May 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm

These links are very useful, but not totally up to date for Lion. So, after some time figuring things out, I took the liberty to edit the XCode section of the setup page to explain exactly how you get XCode to allow gcc and other developer tools to be usable on the command line — something that MacPorts needs too. Here is the text that I added:

“If you have OSX 10.7 Lion, XCode is available through the App store — this is the best way to install this software since everything gets put in the right places. In addition, you will need to enable optional components for command line developments (so that you can use gcc, etc. from the command line). To do this, you must launch XCode and select its “Preferences…”. Under Downloads, install the “Command Line Tools”. To get things to work properly, a restart is necessary.”

I hope this is helpful!

4 Lia May 30, 2012 at 9:24 am

I have a macbook that was bottom of the line when I bought it five years ago. I’ve reformatted and reinstalled the OS at least three times, just to give it a clean slate. Every time I do this, it’s as fast as if I had bought it off the shelf. It has almost become a yearly ritual, and I think it’s the only thing that has kept it in shape.

I don’t notice any difference in speed between my macbook and one year old iMac. But perhaps that’s saying something about this one-year rule of thumb. It will be nice to learn other ways of decluttering so I don’t feel the need to reformat as often.


5 Sarah May 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Repairing your permissions does a world of a good. It also helps fend off some of the issues that people sometimes have when they install OS updates. Applications ->Utilities-> Disk Utility. Click on the drive you want and under the first aid tab click repair permissions. I do this before and after every OS update and sometimes in between if my computer seems particularly cranky.


6 Marcos May 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but repairing permissions is well known by Mac nerds to be voodoo. You do *not* need to do it regularly. It is not part of regular maintenance, and any benefit is 99% likely to be a placebo effect. It sets a few permissions of certain files a certain way. It should *not* be part of what you do regularly on a Mac:

Those are older links, but still true.

Now, that said, sometimes my Macbook especially does/did get slow. I’m never quite sure if it’s a weird preferences file or what, but sometimes new users feel faster. Frankly, I have long thought that slowdowns were caused by too many added hacks/tweaks/etc or adding software background apps of dubious quality. My advice is to keep the number of things you install to a bare minimum, not in terms of apps you run and quit but things that alter your experience or run all the time. Take a look at your login items in the Users preference pane to start. I don’t think Lion or even Snow Leopard allows for so called “Input Manager” hacks but avoid those (i.e. things like Saft in the old days.)

I’m pretty sure I successfully migrated my Macbook’s user account to my new iMac 2 years ago without any problems, but it’s tempting to just copy over the Mail directory and a few other key things in ~/Library and start fresh with a new machine ,copying over just what’s needed as you notice you need it.

It really should not take a complete wipe and reinstall to speed a Mac back up, though I did end up doing this once on my MB. I wonder how much the amount of free space on the hard disk matters. I hear that getting ever 60-70% full on your boot disk can create problems, and with laptops this is easy to reach. My now almost 2 year old iMac has been singing since I upped it to 8GB of RAM and I haven’t had any need to do any major housecleaning on it, but of course I don’t do any real science or work on it.

I frequently will keep Activity Monitor open and sort all processes by memory usage, and keep an eye on how much “Free” memory I have and if any app is gobbling up memory, I quit it and relaunch it.

But the one thing I’ve done that has noticeably improved web performance was uninstalling Flash completely. I implemented this trick, along with a keyboard shortcut to an Applescript to open the front page in Chrome if I really needed it.

Works like a charm.


7 saurav June 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm

I second Marcos on the need to keep an eye on background apps and the amount of free hard drive space. A clean install should NOT be needed; I think that’s vestiges of Windows and, for a Mac, basically served to clear the background apps.

The number of Dashboard widgets can also be a memory hog. I use iStat Pro ( to keep an eye on active processes.

8 Ben May 31, 2012 at 8:13 pm

I think the only thing that actually gets slow on my computer is the web browser. Everything else runs ok, although when I stay logged in for weeks/months at a time eventually the window manager and Preview will get sluggish and a logout or reboot is indicated. The web browser needs to be quit and restarted more often because it leaks memory and gradually expands, causing the computer to thrash/swap. I don’t install a ton of Dashboard apps or other stuff that continually runs in the background and this may be one reason I don’t get a slowdown.

Blocking Flash is very helpful, and all-important for older/slower/less memory computers. Flashblock on Firefox works reasonably well, although occasionally things sneak through (?) It allows you to click on the flash video to play it if you really want to see it.

Sometimes, a computer will become extremely slow for a period, because it is updating or rebuilding some database – a “top” or activity monitor usually reveals this. Wait for it to finish. If you shut it down halfway through, it’s just going to happen again.


9 Jim May 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Though this is easier said than done, I find one of the biggest causes for my mac to slow down is hard drive space. I try to keep my laptop below 2/3 full if at all possible.

One great tool I used to run was Disk Inventory X

This would graphically show you the biggest offenders of disk usage on your computer. It was quite slow the first time, but very helpful in cleaning out cobwebs.


10 Marcos June 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Oh, here is a fairly good Macworld piece on speeding up your Mac. They also say you should “never ever” have to wipe & reinstall OS X. 🙂 Circa 2010, but you’ll notice a lot of things we mentioned here already.

1. Restart your Mac every so often.
2. Keep the desktop clean.
3. Slim down the contents of your hard drive.
4. Add RAM.
5. Restart your browser and clear its cache.
6. Check login items.
7. Check Activity Monitor.
8. Quit applications.
9. Speed up your wireless network.
10. Buy a faster (or different) drive.


11 Marcos June 2, 2012 at 12:39 pm

I’m full of ideas today, if you want to save some disk space you can use Monolingual to remove non-English language localizations. This might be familiar to readers of Macsingularity:

If you ever install OS X new on a machine you can, somewhere, explicitly tell the installer (in options somewhere I think) to not install the various foreign localizations for the built-in OS X programs.


12 anon June 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm

If you collect a lot of fonts on your computer (where a lot is >~500), that can slow things down too, especially Safari.


13 Invader Xan June 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm

See, I disagree about the voodoo permissions thing. Sure, you don’t need to do it regularly, but sometimes if your system’s behaving erratically, repairing permissions *will* fix the problem. Particularly when you need to frequently install third party software (like essentially any of the scientific software we all most likely use). Verifying your hard drive is a good idea every few months too. Any hard drive will pick up bad sectors over time. Disk Utility will repair that.

The obvious ones are to close stuff down (if you have more than 10 apps running, you should quite a couple), try and keep at least 1 gig free on your hard drive (to allow apps to effectively cache when they need to) and try not to install more than you need.

Also, there’s a nice little utility available called OnyX which will help keep your disk caches tidy.

Generally, I find running a few system diagnostics every couple of months helps no end. FYI, I’m running Snow Leopard, which suffers a lot less from slow down than my old Tiger install used to…


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