Enhancing Performance of your Mac

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There are certain things that would help Mac OS X perform well and be more responsive (you could say 'snappy'). Here are some ways to eliminate the typical bottlenecks.

Contents

More RAM

When it comes to better performance, apart from buying a new computer, increasing RAM is probably the best way to enhance the performance of your system. This minimizes the amount of time the computer has to use Virtual memory. Make sure you have as much RAM as you can afford (and need). Despite OS X only requiring 256MB of RAM, Apple has began to include 512MB of RAM with every single computer. You should, too, if your computer does not have 512MB of RAM. Of course, your requirement above this also depends on what you use your Mac for. While you use your Mac, observe the memory usage from the Activity Monitor application to get an idea of how much load your system is handling. A good way of determining whether you need more RAM is to follow this series of steps:

How to determine if you need more RAM

  1. Restart the computer
  2. Use the computer as you normally would for 10 to 15 minutes. Checking email, etc. Do not play intensive games-- they will disturb the results.
  3. Open Activity Monitor
  4. Click on the "System Memory" tab at the bottom
  5. One of the listings reads "Page ins/outs" and has numbers following it in the format of "1424/9547"
  6. The second number is the number of page outs, or number of times that the computer has had to use the internal hard drive as virtual memory. If this number is very high, above 3,500, then you probably could use more RAM.

Don't go overboard with Dashboard widgets

If you have Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and above, you may have given Dashboard a try. If you have a lot of Widgets on your Dashboard, be aware that they can use a lot of memory - they're written mostly in web-based languages and are not always as efficient as traditional languages (to see for yourself, open Activity Monitor and view the details for each widget). If you have a lot of RAM, this probably won't matter much, but in most cases, trimming the Dashboard and placing only a few widgets that you use on a daily basis would improve system performance. For widgets that are used occasionally, you may be better off visiting a web site for the information you seek, or only opening widgets when you are using them.

Routine maintenance

Any computer needs some amount of maintenance just to keep those pesky annoyances away, and your Mac is no exception. As you install more applications and use them, there will be a greater need to do some maintenance regularly. The simplest thing you could do is to run Disk Utility (in /Applications/Utilities/) and click on the Verify Disk and Verify Permissions buttons to make sure your file system is in good shape. If any errors are reported, click on the corresponding Repair ... button to fix things (alternatively, you can skip verification and repair straight away to save time). You can also perform additional maintenance tasks and clean potentially unneeded files from applications like CleanGenius, MainMenu or Onyx etc.

Don't install too many applications

While having too many applications is not generally a problem, there are several cases where it may slow down your computer. Firstly, you should open the Accounts Preference Pane and check the Login Items pane for your user account. If you have a lot of applications listed here, you may want to remove some to shorten login times as well as reduce RAM usage. The fewer login items, the better performance.

Secondly, installing a lot of "haxies" may cause system instability and/or increased resource usage. Although normal applications won't have any affect on the system, you should avoid having too many haxies installed (some even avoid them altogether).

Disk-related performance tunings

Leave free space on your startup drive

All modern operating systems use the hard disk as an extension of physical RAM (this is called Virtual memory) and many applications use the hard disk as a scratch area. The more the free space in your hard disk, the lesser the chance of your system struggling because of a lack of space. Although this is again dependent on the applications you use, having at least 10GB of free space (after a restart) would help for normal usage. If you use the pro apps like Final Cut or Adobe CS2, you would need a lot more free space.

Run your OS from a fast internal hard drive

The speed of your disk can be a major bottleneck. If you are shopping for a new hard drive, get a drive with a low seek time and a fast spindle speed. 5400 RPM drives are cheap - but are also slow. 7200 or greater RPM drives make good system drives. Certainly it is possible to run Mac OS X from an iPod (provided that it is a FireWire iPod) - but it will be slow. (The FireWire bus is not as fast as the internal IDE bus.)

Use intelligent partitioning

Using Mac OS X - you should generally try to keep your system volume as big as possible. Many applications (particularly ones from Apple - such as Final Cut Pro) require that you install them on the system volume. The file system that OS X uses (HFS+ or JHFS+) has some on-the-fly disk optimization that will help prevent massive fragmentation on that volume. This, in addition to optimizing your hard drive every so often, will help you get the best performance out of OS X. iDefrag from Coriolis Systems ($30 USD) is one good defragmentation/optimization tool.

Get an additional hard disk

If you use movie/photo editing software extensively, adding another hard disk to your system and setting it as the scratch disk for your editing app would help a lot in improving performance. These kind of applications create and delete a lot of large temporary files, which increases the 'fragmentation level' of files over time.

Having an additional hard disk helps in a number of ways

  1. The load between the primary hard disk and the second one is shared and it's like having a two lane highway instead of a single lane highway
  2. While you use your second hard disk as the scratch disk for your editing app, if you notice any performance degradation over time (due to fragmentation), you can always 're-initialize' your second hard disk without much trouble (this would be cumbersome on the primary hard disk since it would involve backing up and reinstalling the operating system and other applications) - just make sure that any 'long term' data you store on the second disk and the scratch area for the heavy-duty apps are on separate partitions (you can create partitions on your disk using Disk Utility).
  3. If you configure your drives to run in a RAID 0 array, you will effectively see close to double the sustained data transfer rate due to data striping between the drives. Running RAID 0 arrays as a secondary storage medium is a popular choice in professional editing studios because it allows for real time editing of HD footage in the time line with no quality adjustment or dropped frames. It is not suggested to run RAID 0 as a primary boot array because you effectively double your chances of data loss due to hard drive failure.

Better hardware

Other than RAM upgrades, upgrading your video card could help, depending on what applications you tend to use (those that make heavy use of your video card will obviously benefit from an upgrade, while others (for example, TextEdit) would not.

Clean-up your desktop

You can marginally speed up the performance of your Mac by cleaning up your desktop icons. Each icon has to be refreshed when you look at your desktop so this takes away from your performance.