Like Honda Civics and goldfish, Macs don’t require much maintenance. But there are a handful of worthwhile tricks to keep things running smoothly, inside and out.
Shortcut: If you want to to handle this the quick and dirty way, try an app like Cocktail. A friendly interface helps you handle some of these recommendations and more.
Back Up Your Mac!
First thing’s first. Before you do anything, back up your stuff.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of online backup services right now. They’re costly and have the potential to slow things down. But, they do work great.
If you’re only concerned about a few important files, copy them to your favorite cloud storage service (DropBox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.).
The most straightforward and inexpensive route tends to be Time Machine: backup software built into every Mac. You’ll need an external hard drive to store all that information in a second place and those things are incredibly affordable and portable ($60 for a USB-powered 1 TB hard drive), so don’t hesitate.
1. Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?
It’s an IT catch phrase for a reason. Too often, we sleep our computers and wake them up over and over, forgetting to ever actually turn the things off.
Restarting your computer essentially clears out the junk and tidies things up a bit, providing a clean slate for optimized operation. Just listen to how often Roy has to ask the same question over and over on The IT Crowd:
2. Update your software
Software is never perfect. That’s why there are always updates for your apps and operating system. Do those. They tend to improve performance and fix bugs more times than not.
If your Mac is business critical, double check the software update notes or do a quick search online before updating to avoid any surprises.
3. Make Sure You’re Not Running Out Of Room
Now on to the good stuff.
Let’s make sure your hard drive isn’t full. Not sure how to figure that out? Not to worry. Here’s my tried and true workflow.
For a bird’s eye view of what’s taking up all those gigabytes:
- Click on the in the top left of your screen
- Select About This Mac
- Click More Info…
- Select the Storage tab on the top of the window
Explore Your Mac’s Storage Don’t believe what you see? Can’t fathom where those 65GB of photos came from? Here’s how to go for a deeper dive into what’s taking up all the space on your Mac:
- Click on Finder (happy face icon on the bottom left of your Dock)
- Type Command-shift-C to reveal your hard drive (silver disk-looking icon hidden by default on most recent iterations of the Mac OS)
- Navigate to your home folder (the home icon). It’s inside the Users folder in Macintosh HD
The home folder (yours will have your computer’s name) contains all of your stuff. Use command I or right click and select Get Info to find out what’s taking up space. Don’t worry about kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB). Concentrate on the big stuff, which will all be gigabytes (GB).
4. Check your RAM usage
Not to be confused with a Dodge car or wild horned animal, RAM (short for Random Access Memory) is often misunderstood as having a direct impact on how fast your computer runs.
RAM is just your workspace. Think of it like your desk. If you don’t have one of those, then think of your kitchen counter – that is, the bigger your desk or kitchen counter, the more room you have to work and get stuff done.
Each operation on your computer – even idling – takes up RAM. Just like a cutting board on a kitchen counter, every individual task takes up a chunk of space. Once that counter is filled with cutting boards and mixing bowls, you’ll have to make room to get anything else done.
For those guilty of leaving open numerous browser tabs (guilty), applications and and never restarting, things can start to feel pretty sluggish after a while. Not sure what’s taking up that workspace on your machine?
- Open up Activity Monitor, a built-in utility on all Macs.
- Look at the Memory tab and sort by activities taking up the most amount of RAM. If you see something with “kernel” at the top of your list, that’s normal. The kernel is just the core of the operating system.
Once you’ve closed some memory hogs, you should see a drastic improvement. Still not satisfied? Free up more RAM by restarting – just don’t forget to uncheck the box that says “Reopen windows when logging back in.” This avoids the metaphorical shoving of everything into your closet just to have it all tumble out next time you open the door.
4.5. Upgrade your RAM
If you have a MacBook Air or MacBook with Retina display, feel free to ignore this step. The RAM in your Mac is soldered onto the motherboard, which means you won’t be upgrading it until you get a new computer.
If you’re using an iMac, Mac Mini, or Mac Pro, Apple offers some assistance in how to install or remove RAM, as it is the one part of your computer you’re allowed to tinker with. Crucial offers a free scanner and well-priced memory if you want to find out if you can upgrade your RAM. Remember: you’re just buying yourself a bigger desk, not a faster engine.
5. Clear caches
Sometimes I crave a way to get the effects of restarting without disrupting my workflow. This pro tip gives you that newly restarted computer feel without taking the time or trouble to actually restart.
Cache (pronounced like cash) is little bits of information a computer or web browser stores during your activities to better perform these actions in the future. Web browsers cache websites to load them faster, but your computer does the same thing for every other action you take.
Think of it like muscle memory. You’ve probably been typing long enough for your fingers to naturally land on just the right spot on the keyboard. Your computer is doing the same thing.
To clear your computer cache:
- Go to Spotlight, the magnifying glass on the top right of your screen
- Type in Terminal and open what is likely the top hit in your search (it’s a built-utility)
- On Mac OS X Mavericks and later: type in sudo purge and hit return (For Mac OS X Lion and earlier, you can just type purge. The rest of the steps are the same.)
- Type in your password (for security reasons, it won’t reveal the characters you type)
- Hit return.
The effect is a momentary stall in operations that eliminates some of that muscle memory built up over time. It speeds things up in the short term and not to worry, it comes back a lot faster than learning how to play the Clarinet again.
That’s it! Now you’re an expert at speeding up a Mac.
The principles are the same for Windows PCs.
Now next time your friend, family member, or coworker tells you their computer is running slowly, you can do more than ask them if they’ve turned it off and on again.
Do you have a trick or tip for speeding up your Mac or PC? Let us know in the comments.