Slow Macs, iPhone. I'm stumped.
February 14, 2011 8:08 PM   Subscribe

All 3 of my primary Apple machines have sudden, inexplicable slowness. My Quad G5, my PowerBook G4, and now even my iPhone suddenly have serious performance problems for no reason I can determine. I know there are some Mac guys on MeFi, I thought I'd ask for additional angles to investigate.

My biggest computing problem is my PowerBook G4 is behaving strangely. I have a PowerBook G4 1.67, 1Gb RAM, 30Gb drive (12free) and an upgraded, faster video "card" with more RAM. it's not the fastest machine on the block, but plenty enough power for basic web surfing, youtube videos, etc. But suddenly, program windows take 10 or 15 seconds to switch, this used to be instant. I run a CPU/Disk meter and it isn't showing a high demand on the CPU (maybe 30%, like idle) or any disk activity (none) that would indicate virtual memory paging. As far as I can tell, the computer sits there hung for no reason, between almost any switch of display window (whether in the same app, or between apps). I run a terminal command of to look at active processes, and I check the MacOS console logs, nothing out of the ordinary seems to be occurring. And yet, the machine can't even switch windows quickly.

This is most frustrating. Now I know the PbG4 is no speed demon, but it has always performed well, until now. If anyone has ideas on what to examine on this OS, let me know. Otherwise I don't know any way to fix this sort of problem except an archive & reinstall. Hell, Macs (even the old PPCs) aren't supposed to get "Windows Rot" and require periodic OS reinstallation.

Now my Quad G5 (with an QuadroFX4500 video card woo hoo) is exhibiting strange slowness too. It's has enough brute force to deal with most of the tough jobs you can throw at it. But now, I can barely play the average routine YouTube, Flash video runs with freezes and stutters. I am baffled. I upgraded to all the latest PPC Flash, yeah, they suck compared to the PC Flash drivers. Still no improvement in performance. Any ideas?

Now worst of all, my 1st generation iPhone is now acting strange. Switching tasks, like opening native apps like the Timer or the Calendar can sometimes stall out and take 15 seconds. Then other times it's normally fast (considering it's the slowest iPhone model, the first). AFAIK there is nothing I can do about performance. What should I do, restore to factory defaults and reinstall? Jeez, no matter how crappy a cell phone I had, I never had to reformat and reinstall.

So this is my first AskMeFi, I hope this hasn't been covered (I searched) and that this is an adequate format for a question. Dammit I am just baffled, I've been agonizing for weeks, trying to diagnose and fix this slowness but I am just stumped. I would appreciate any suggestions.
posted by charlie don't surf to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Some of these sound network related. Have you done a bandwidth test? Or testing your ping times and loss rate using several different hosts? Your router could be going bad or your ISP could be having a bad day. The other stuff might just be coincidental.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:41 PM on February 14, 2011

Also you may want to post the output of 'top' from the command line.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:42 PM on February 14, 2011

I think you're going to need to run some more tests to pin down what is going on.

On either/both computers, if you reboot and then (without opening anything else up), open a browser window, is it slow? Or does the slowness develop over time? If you do a clean reboot and use Safari, are the results the same as a clean reboot into Firefox? Or are they the same?

In the Apple Menu / System Preferences / Accounts / [your account] / Login Items, what do you have set to run at startup? (E.g., I have Growl, Evernote, and Dropbox all starting at login on my Mac.)

In Terminal, I would run and pastebin the output from the following commands, at a time when you are actively experiencing the slowdowns: "top", "ps aux" and "syslog | tail".

While there could be some underlying network issue that is causing slowness on all three devices simultaneously, my guess is that the laptop and desktop may share the same issue but that the addition of the iPhone is coincidental and not related. (One test of this is whether the iPhone is slow when you are not on wifi; when you are using the carrier network you aren't connecting to the Internet the same way so it tends to argue against a network issue.)

Of course, if there are any pieces of software that you have recently installed on either the computers or all three devices recently, and perhaps just forgotten about, that's the obvious cause that needs to be ruled out first.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 PM on February 14, 2011

Well of course the iPhone slowness is coincidental, it's just adding insult to injury. Not much you can muck with in a 1st gen iPhone unless you jailbreak it. I don't want to muck it up so I run it stock. A couple of years ago it got scrambled and I had to reset it to the original factory firmware and reload my data, that's such a pain. The thing is, these delays are in app switching, even between apps that aren't networked, like the Timer or Calculator.

This PowerBook is a pain in the rear. This is the last model before they went to the Magsafe power socket, so of course I tripped on the cord and destroyed the DC power board. That's a $50 part with a $150 total disassembly to install. I bought a new MaxPower battery and at first, I was getting almost 4 hours on a charge. But now, it seems like normal usage maxes out the CPU and starts burning the batteries. The only thing I could identify with the top command is that my MobileMe sync of my mail, contacts, calendars, etc. runs the CPU at 100%, but only for about 30 seconds. That's pretty bad in itself but it's not the CPU eater I'm looking for. Man, I tried everything, I even tried Gruber's suggestions of removing Flash entirely. Flash would peg my CPU but now it's gone, performance is better but still hosed. Man, I've checked everything, even the hard disk SMART status is fine.
Now just for extra grief, since I wrote that message, I just woke my PowerBook and I got some message something like, "your clock is set to a date before 2001 (?) and may affect application performance." Yeah, once it connects to the net, it will download the time. But oh, it doesn't recognize my net, the same router I've used for years, I have to put in the password, it must have lost the Keychain somehow. Then an iCal alarm went off but locked up. Suddenly I'm getting copies of every iCal mail alert I ever sent myself. I went to Activity Monitor and looked for the rogue iCal process, it said "not responding" and I killed it. Then I notice the Spotlight icon has a blinking dot, I check it, it's reindexing my hard drive. I haven't seen that before, I would have noticed it. Hell, it looks like this OS install is hosed. Damn it I hate doing an archive and install, but it's looking like that's the only choice. We Mac users aren't supposed to have to reinstall over a hosed OS. Grr..

The Quad G5 is the puzzler. The symptoms are subtle, I just cannot identify why Flash stutters about every 10 to 20 seconds. These aren't videos compressed beyond what I can decode realtime, I've run 1080p videos without problems. But send a 360p YouTube and it stutters. I recall one tip to delete a Flash cache (I forgot which one), that seemed to help for a few minutes, but the problem returned. I went into startup items and deleted a couple of processes, I'm still monitoring performance.

Man, this stuff isn't supposed to happen to me. I'm the guy that fixes everyone else's computers. I just fixed my ex-girlfriend's computer, it's an ancient crappy HP Athlon, older than my G5, it runs Flash way better than my Quad G5 does.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:30 PM on February 14, 2011

I was running into a coincidental spate of Mac problems as well... machines that should have been behaving better (like an octo-core Mac Pro) being unresponsive.

- Clear your caches, run your periodics. Assuming that you've done this much at least, but worth mentioning.

- Take a look in your console log. I had some out of control launchd processes going on post 10.6.6 upgrade...

- Check your RAM? Turns out my Mac Pro had a bad bank and was running on half memory (and half memory bandwidth).

- A clean reinstall might not be a bad idea. I got rid of a lot of cruft the last time I did that. I also upgraded to a big SandForce SSD. Thumbs up there. If you don't want to do that, you might want to get familiar with 'sar' and see if you can track performance that way...
posted by lhl at 11:37 PM on February 14, 2011

Oh, my bad, I should have mentioned I'm still running MacOS X 10.5.8 since I don't have an Intel CPU. Damn I need a new Mac badly.

man sar ooh. Some of that stuff I can track in top or the X Resource Graph app but yeah that has some features that are pointed at my problems. Probably.

I forgot to mention in my previous comment that the Pb started with 4 hours battery life but with recent resource-hogging CPU overuse, it went down to 1 hour. And the battery checks out fine, it's like new.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:24 AM on February 15, 2011

I just had this problem, and it seems to have been due to the apple mail todos syncing from my IMAP account and mysteriously bloating, like becoming 1MB big (?!). Although I can't be sure this was it, repeatedly deleting them cleared up my issues on 2 machines running 10.5 and 10.6 respectively. Are you running Mail on all/any machines concerned?
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:06 AM on February 15, 2011

Potential causes:

1- The time dropping thing is going to be the CMOS battery. I have seen plenty of computers get really weird when the CMOS battery is low. Change that.

2- Run top and see which processes are actually taking up the CPU. You probably don't want to change very much about the config, since it worked fine before. But knowing which process is hogging will let you narrow down what is going on. You want to set top to show all processes and order them by CPU usage. Unless it is different from linux top in some way, it will show all processes. (might have to be root to do it though?) There shouldn't be anything it won't show, resource usage wise.

3- If NO process is hogging cpu while it is being slow, this leads me to believe something is causing interrupts. (Some i/o device is saying "hey, i've got data, wait for me" and then doesn't send data.) An external device freaking out, or a piece of software that is missing its external device, or network problems.

3.5- A failing hard drive can cause weirdness like this. It might narrow down to one particular file being on a bad spot on the drive. Reads to this file should be instantaneous, but are getting retried 1000 times before the drive gets a good read. Meanwhile your system is just sitting there waiting. Look at the drive activity light. If it is going nuts, especially if it is a repeating pattern, consider that a strong possibility.

4- If these problems really aren't coincidental, that leads to a messed up internet connection. Especially if the iphone is talking to your wireless. Even if the apps you are working with aren't network devices, a slow network will drag the whole thing down while it is doing hidden tasks like checking for mail or synching time or something.

When troubleshooting things like this, don't use "normal" logic. Don't overlook the disk because what you are doing isn't disk intensive. Don't overlook the network because your rated speed should be fast enough. Don't overlook a bad battery just because it is new. Etc. Only rule something out when it is positively ruled out through testing. If you bring the macbook to starbucks and its speed is fine, you know the problem isn't in the macbook. If it isn't fine, then you know the problem IS in the macbook.

Also don't discount that some of the problems might be related, and others are coincidental. The computers might be failing because of a funny software update, but the phone might be failing because its antenna has gotten loose. Approach the problems as separate until you prove that they aren't.
posted by gjc at 7:24 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing it's failing hard drives. SMART is not to be trusted. My suggestion would be to get an external FireWire (not USB) drive and clone your OS drive onto it and boot & work from that. If the problem goes away, transfer the FireWire drive into the box and move on.

On second thought, my advice is to sell both boxes and upgrade to an Intel MacBook Pro.
posted by chairface at 10:55 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just cannot identify why Flash stutters about every 10 to 20 seconds

I just ran a test on my Dual 2GHz G5, and I am not sure that the issue is on your end. I am experiencing it also.

Maybe YouTube changed their codec behind the scenes ... I'm not sure. But in Firefox I am getting a very obvious, multiple-second hiccup every 10s or so. Also, the YouTube Speed Test shows dropped frames even at the 320p size, and lots of dropped frames at 720p. I had not noticed this because I almost always watch YouTube from my Intel-based laptop or my Wintel PC, rather than the G5 ... but yeah, it is basically unwatchable on this machine using Firefox 3.6.13.

It seems to not happen in Safari. Unfortunately the test video doesn't load properly (other videos are fine) on Safari so I can't tell if it's dropping the same number of frames there or not.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:46 PM on February 15, 2011

These are some useful suggestions about the Powerbook. Yeah, I figure the clock battery died, but this machine isn't really old enough for that. I'll check it anyway. I also suspected the hard drive was failing, but it passes most basic tests, I'll have to get some heavy duty disk utility like TechTool that can verify every sector for bad blocks. If the drive is failing, it will show up there.
The most interesting theory so far is excessive interrupts. There really is nothing happening when these freezeups occur, the CPU monitor is low, like 25%, and no disk activity either.
I appreciate the link to the YouTube Speed Test, that will be very useful.

Oh hey, I just realized, I have a clone of an older system version (10.4 I think) on an external firewire drive. I have used it to boot my Powerbook. But it's a 1Tb backup drive and totally full. I will have to clear off some free space so it can run, I'll see if I can boot off that, although I'm not sure what good this will do or what it would tell me.

Oh hell, I was typing just now and I had another hangup on my Quad G5. I'm typing along and it freezes, 5 seconds later my typing appears in the Safari input window. Then I got a few little "stutters" as it accepted typing input and spit it out after a 1 second delay.

This is the kind of problems that are making me wish for a new Intel MacBook, but it just doesn't have the horsepower that my Quad G5 does. I have a RAID and unless I go SSD, laptop drives just can't come close. And I do lots of 3D design and animation, and video encoding, so a dinky dual core doesn't really cut it. Also I kind of got used to my 30 inch Cinema Display, I think you can run that off a laptop but it sure won't have the performance of my QuadroFX4500 card.

Oh well, I will run some more tests and come back and see what happens. I greatly appreciate your suggestions. Maybe I'll come back with more data and we can figure this damn thing out.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:52 PM on February 15, 2011

Argh, I did an archive and install on the Powerbook. Some errors are corrected, but now my keychains and MobileMe syncs are busted. This seems to be more messed up than can be corrected, it could be a bad drive or a bad install but it's just corrupted beyond the point of it being worth fixing. I will probably have to do an erase and install.

Oh well, I'll call it a day on this AskMe, this system is too broken to bother with, I'll just do it the hard way and reformat, see if the drives & new install holds up. Thanks to everyone who helped.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2011

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