Dear Aunt TUAW,
Think you should discuss how to speed up a mac that is bogging down with long beach ball spins, etc. I have been having this problem with a 3 year old iMac, and I know others are too....
What can I do to get it back to the way it should run?
Your loving nephew,
Auntie's answer is...it depends. Your problems are most likely due to software issues, but they can be caused by hardware ones as well.
The standard answers may include reinstalling the OS to remove some of the cruft, fixing permissions, remove fonts, etc. Google around for any number of lists on these.
Another thing you might try is rebooting into safe mode, which performs some basic maintenance as a side effect. Just hold down shift after you hear the chime until the Apple logo appears. After entering safe mode, reboot and see if your computer begins acting better.
Sometimes the issues aren't just software. Long beach ball spins and a slowed down system may be due to a failing hard drive. Many Apple systems ship with SMART drives, which can self-monitor and report reliability issues.
Volitans Software makes a GUI utility that can analyze your disk and let you know if you're approaching disk failure; it has a short trial period before you buy. The same underlying software can be downloaded and compiled for the command line as well -- albeit without the friendly interface.
When Auntie faced a recent system slow-down, it turned out that her 3 year old Mini was experiencing drive failure. Yikes. Fortunately, Josh Carr of the Denver-based MacWorks was able to update her mini with a brand new SSD.
SSDs are a bit pricey, so if you go that route, be prepared to work out some strategies for moving data off your main drive onto secondary units. Auntie used application prefs to place her Safari download folder onto a USB data drive, along with her iTunes library, and all her e-mail. Auntie ensured that these items are still all backed up using Time Machine even though they don't live on the primary drive any more.
MacPaw's Clean My Mac offers a tour-de-force of OS X tuning tools that allow you to streamline your system by removing extraneous cache files, logs, unused languages, and so forth. It can greatly decrease the space the OS occupies, so you can use more of that SSD for personal files and less, for example, for French, German, and Japanese translations. Clean My Mac also slims down universal binaries (which won't ever be needed on Lion, now that Auntie thinks of it), scrubs iPhoto's separate built-in trash folder, and more.
On Josh's advice, Auntie enabled 10.6.8 TRIM support for her new SSD. TRIM allows SSD drives to proactively scrub deleted files to enhance performance over time.
So how is Auntie's mini? It reboots like a dream, even though the somewhat limited drive size does make her a bit nervous.
Even with a new drive and tuning tools to keep things running smoothly, Lion lurks on the horizon. Auntie is unsure how performance tuning will work under 10.6 although she suspects a lot of the approaches will remain the same: safe mode, cleaning up extraneous files, checking for hardware failures.
Got any suggestions for how to keep your Mac running fast and smooth under Lion? Let Auntie know in the comments.