How Not to Speed Up Your Mac!

December 10th, 2008

One thing we can all agree on: However fast your computer is now, you wouldn’t mind if it was just a little faster, maybe even a lot faster.

The promise of Snow Leopard is that Apple will be concentrating mostly on performance and not on loads of new features, some of which are, to be blunt, not always so new or so useful. Indeed, there are unconfirmed published reports that the Finder itself is being recast in Apple’s Cocoa programming language, which holds out the hope that some of its long-standing performance and interface  inconsistencies might be dealt with at the same time.

Of course it’s also reasonably certain that Snow Leopard will be an Intel-only release. If you’re still using a PowerPC Mac, you’ll either want to take the opportunity to seek out a newer model, or stick with Leopard. You see, 10.5 isn’t going away in the wake of Snow Leopard. I expect that Apple will continue to support that system for a year or two at the very least. Or until the sheer numbers of Intel Macs have so eclipsed the PowerPC that it won’t make too much of a difference to them — or it’ll just be time for you to upgrade anyway.

In any case, with lots of you stuck with Leopard as your last latest and greatest Mac OS, no doubt you’ll want to find ways to soup up performance. Indeed that was the subject of a somewhat misleading article from Ryan Faas in Computerworld.

Entitled “Don’t wait for Snow Leopard: 10 ways to slim down and speed up your Mac now,” you start reading with the expectation that the advice will bring your Mac closer to 10.6 in significant ways. Just don’t raise your expectations.

The first five suggestions and the ninth concentrate on putting your Mac’s hard drive on a diet. You see, Snow Leopard is supposed to be slimmer, partly through more efficient coding and eliminating unused bloat from Mac OS X. If it will be Intel-only, PowerPC-related data could be zapped from the system without hurting anything.

If you have an older Mac, of course, you’ll want to get rid of the Intel code. But in either case, there are utilities that will trim an application of unneeded files without changing anything in terms of the way it works on your Mac. You can also remove unused language files and the applications and document files you no longer want.

But that’s just a fairly normal sort of housecleaning you might want to pursue, particularly if your Mac’s hard drive is running out of empty space. I suppose owners of the first-generation MacBook Air, with its miniscule 80GB hard drive — and imagine when that storage capacity was simply huge — would really appreciate such dietary advice.

But none of this will actually speed up your Mac. So Faas devotes four of the remaining five tips to that part of the equation with mixed results. Eliminating login items, the stuff your Mac launches in the final stages of the startup process, might shave a few seconds off boot time. But to what benefit? It doesn’t make your Mac run any applications faster, and if you happen to remove the wrong login application, you might find that software you depend on no longer works. Not all those items are always clearly labeled as to what they actually do or convey of the message of why they’re needed.

Removing unneeded fonts isn’t much of an issue either, unless you’ve install a large number of them, which might impact launch times on some applications. But not so much nowadays with even the cheapest Macs sporting multicore processors. I would also question the wisdom of using a system hack utility such as TinkerTool to remove 3D effects and animation, because the only benefit is to make a slower Mac seem a mite snappier. It’s not a real performance boost.

In fact, the only real suggestion that makes sense to me is the last one, “Increase RAM.” Assuming your Mac has the capacity, additional RAM has the effect of allowing more programs to load into memory and use less hard drive virtual memory or swap space. That indeed can produce a measurable performance improvement. This is one reason why I always suggest to my clients that they max out the RAM on their new Macs right from the starting gate, as step number one towards hitting the ground running.

Indeed, at the and of the day, this entire article can be summarized with two short phrases. Get rid of unneeded files and boost RAM. To that I might add one suggestion not mentioned at all in the article, which is to get a faster hard drive if you can. The ones Apple provides as standard equipment aren’t always top drawer, although they often offer faster ones as a built-to-order option. Either way, a faster drive can also offer more storage capacity, which will also eliminate the need to follow any of those suggestions about trimming applications and trashing unneeded documents.

But none of these steps will really allow your Mac to match the promise of Snow Leopard.


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11 Responses to “How Not to Speed Up Your Mac!”

  1. hmurchison says:

    Leopard is a bit of a pig for storage space. I’ve reclaimed gigabytes by doing this.

    1. Getting rid of extranneous language files.
    2. Deleting designable.nib files (only developers need them during development)
    3. Getting rid of unecessary printer drivers
    4. Avoiding Adobe or Microsoft programs (I’m halfway joking here but hey it’s true)
    5. Deleting PPC portions of fat binary apps.

    Hopefully Snow Leopard or at least 10.7 will move to installing more of a lean and mean
    system rather than just giving you a truckload of stuff you don’t need.

  2. That article said as much. Certainly culling your extraneous files can knock off a few gigabytes. These days, however, I think most Macs have sufficient storage space not to make this worth the effort.


  3. Bill Burkholder says:

    Max out the RAM? Yes. Install a faster hard drive? Sure. Make that a bigger hard drive? Of course. You can do all of those with almost any Mac.

    Beyond that, I’d go for a faster video card if you have a desktop Mac (G4, G5, Mac Pro). Get one that supports Core Image and Quartz Extreme. This makes the most difference on PPC Macs.

    If you’re like me, and keep a couple older G4s around for the kids, swapping out the old Combo drives for faster CD/DVD burners is a no-brainer. So is upgrading to USB 2.0 with a cheap add-in card. Maximizing hard drive speed may involve adding a SATA adapter card and a SATA drive.

    Finally, if you still have an older G4 around, there are several G4 accelerator cards around that will add a couple more years’ tolerable life to those machines. Whether you can justify their prices is probably best answered by asking whether you need to run Tiger with Classic mode, or even OS 9.2.2, for some time-honored app that never was re-written for OS X.

    All of this can get expensive, however. A new(er) Mac makes a lot more sense if you’re going to need the equivalent of doing all of the above. But if you need Classic apps, or your budget won’t allow it all at once, incremental upgrades can be attractive.

  4. hmurchison says:

    I don’t know Gene. Houskeeping of your computer is no different than your home. You may have the space but clutter is clutter.

    I’d rather the extra gigabytes be filled with good data I like like music, movies and podcasts.

  5. Dave says:

    I’m with hmurchison.

    If there are items that I don’t need taking up hard drive space, I’m going to trash them even though I have plenty of disk space.

  6. auramac says:

    Best bet- configure your new Mac for more than you think you’ll need when you first buy it- max RAM, biggest, fastest hard drive, and learn proper maintenance. That Compterworld article sounds like more of the same from that author- pontificating without any real world understanding of the subject.

  7. steveH says:

    Minor nit pick on the article:

    Cocoa is not a programming language, it’s a set of APIs; you can write Cocoa applications using a number of different programming languages.

  8. Restart it once every three months or so.

  9. Dave Barnes says:

    I thought the entire CW article was a waste of electrons.

    1. If you use Adobe software, then deleting any language files entails a huge risk. In fact, with Adobe CS, you don’t dare delete anything as it is all intertwined.

    2. So what if you gain 10 GB of space. I have a 320 (nominal) GB drive. What is 10 gig?

  10. Dave Barnes wrote:

    I thought the entire CW article was a waste of electrons.

    1. If you use Adobe software, then deleting any language files entails a huge risk. In fact, with Adobe CS, you don’t dare delete anything as it is all intertwined.

    2. So what if you gain 10 GB of space. I have a 320 (nominal) GB drive. What is 10 gig?

    Another singular issue is how much is your time worth to save 5 or 10GB of storage space. I can see where the drive is on the small side, but all this stuff may cost you more in billable time than a larger hard drive.


  11. Ilgaz says:

    It is perfectly hidden from usual non technical home user (in Apple fashion) but Leopard is a sandboxed/application signed operating system.

    Just like you don’t mess with binaries on tripwire running Unix systems, you just don’t mess with binaries (PPC/x86 code) in Leopard OS. Especially the /System part.

    Languages is a very different thing. They are “Resources” and FOR NOW, Apple doesn’t check for languages while validating app signature (nor the icons). There is no guarantee Snow Leopard won’t change it.

    If Computerworld tested their hints on a DTP software running (Adobe, Quark) OS X Leopard Mac, they would have trouble publishing the paper mag 😉 If you have any Adobe professional Application or MS Office etc. application installed, don’t clean your languages.

    There is no way that additional languages or binaries will effect OS performance. Snow Leopard’s PPC issue is way different than the advertised/misinformed Universal binary. There is no meaning or reason to ship “pure 64bit OS” to PPC64 CPUs, that is all and the OpenCL and GPU stuff work was all done on x86 systems, it would be a gigantic effort for nothing to convert them to PPC.

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