Why is my MacBook so slow and will downgrading to Snow Leopard help?
August 16, 2013 11:38 AM   Subscribe

(Late 2008 Aluminum Unibody MacBook. Currently running Mountain Lion. 2GHz C2D, 2GB 1067 DDR3.) Over the past year or so, it's been slowing down significantly. I'm getting lockups, especially with web browsers (I use Chrome most of the time, Safari on occasion) where I get the pinwheel for quite a while. It takes a decently long time to boot up. And when I open it up, it usually takes a minute or so to fully exit sleep mode and become usable again.

The only part of the problem I know for sure is that my 2GB of RAM is not quite enough. But it was not this bad in the past. I'm wondering if the HDD is failing but I'm not sure how to check if that's the issue. I'm also wondering if going back to Snow Leopard would help performance but I've gotten some mixed information, folks saying Snow Leopard is about the same, in terms of snappiness and performance, as Mountain Lion.

It also runs very hot a lot of the time, even when I'm not doing much. When reading PDFs in Preview, the fans will kick way up and the computer will become way too hot to use comfortably on a lap. I don't know what that means.

What say you!
posted by Modica to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
the 2GB thing is probably the issue.

Harddisk - look in /var/log/system.log for error messages. tail -f.
posted by rr at 11:40 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The MO of hard drive failure isn't usually slowing down. Usually they're working and then suddenly not working.

- More RAM would definitely help.
- Doing a fresh install of the OS (backup your documents!) would probably help too.
- Replacing the hard drive with a solid state drive would probably get you some more life too.
posted by bluecore at 11:43 AM on August 16, 2013

It also runs very hot a lot of the time, even when I'm not doing much.

I think this is your key. A lot of computers respond to excessive heat by cranking back the CPU clock rate. It may be time to take the computer in and pay someone who knows what they're doing to open it up and blow out all the dust. And to make sure all the cooling fans are working properly.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:45 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A HD issue can definitely slow things down if it's an intermittent failure. This was one of the primary symptoms when my MacBook Pro HD died a year ago. It would eventually boot, but it took 5x as long. Other various apps would randomly freeze.

Fortunately I didn't lose any data. But if you ignore it long enough (and this is the problem) then you could.

I'm a power user so reading through the system.log was easy for me. But if you don't know what you're looking for then you'll see a lot of harmless messages that look serious. If you see anything about "disk0" failing to read/write then you've got a HD failure.
posted by sbutler at 11:49 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

How full and/or fragmented is the HD?

Without sufficient RAM, you're constantly paging data in and out of the swap file on the HD. So you're working the processor harder to do the swapping and constantly reading and writing to the hard drive which is generating heat as well (although I don't know if it is a significant amount.)

More RAM means the processor will do less work and less access to the HD. An SSD on top of that would make things run even smoother.
posted by griphus at 11:49 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Late 2008 Aluminum Unibody MacBook ... also runs very hot a lot of the time, even when I'm not doing much. When reading PDFs in Preview, the fans will kick way up and the computer will become way too hot to use comfortably on a lap. I don't know what that means.

It probably means that the internal cooling fins look like this.
posted by flabdablet at 11:50 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

2GB of RAM is not nearly enough for Mountain Lion, and probably bare minimum for Snow Leopard, as well.
posted by destructive cactus at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

sbutler: "A HD issue can definitely slow things down if it's an intermittent failure."

That's why I said usually. In my experience, if a hard drive is failing the time between slowing down and outright failure is usually quite short and accompanied by the click of death. A SSD would kill two birds with one stone if it is failing, but I'm betting more RAM + a reinstall would put them in a better position (and an easier step 1 & 2 for a novice at repair.)
posted by bluecore at 11:58 AM on August 16, 2013

Response by poster: The HDD isn't that full. 70GB left of a 160GB HDD.

As far as the fans, how difficult is it to open it up and clean them myself? I'm not an expert with laptops, but I've built tons of computers, done lots of computer repair, etc.

I've thought about buying RAM but I work for AmeriCorps right now, so RAM and/or an SSD are pretty far out of my budget at the moment.

I haven't had any big problems with the HDD, just intermittent program lockups and the occasional crashes from Chrome or Preview.
posted by Modica at 12:01 PM on August 16, 2013

I just had the same problem on an old 27" iMac. Lots of little glitches and bumps and permissions issues and sloooowdowns and endless pinwheels, and nothing but nothing seemed to help. I was doing dire things with Disk Util and third party apps and the command line, and it only got incrementally worse and worse. I spent months trying to fix it before saying "screw it," and nuked it from orbit.

I wound up having to backup my data to an external drive (Time Machine won't help you here, and may eat your backup if you have it on an attached disk rather than a time capsule), booting to the restore screen (command-r on restart), erasing the main HD completely, reformatting, and installing fresh. An OS re-install is not enough, you gotta clean up the disk. This means re-installing all of your apps, and migrating your data back in by hand, or using a third party restore. Do NOT chose to restore from a Time Machine image, and do NOT re-import your libraries and do NOT recover your applications from the backup - those are corrupt and gone now. You'll have to reconfigure all of your prefs by hand, too.

Once that was done, it was a new machine, all of the applications are right zippy and rock-solid stable. Better than Lion, at anyrate.

I believe there was a bug in a later rev of Lion that introduced data corruption, which was worsened by something on Mountain Lion, tho I can prove nothing.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:03 PM on August 16, 2013

Response by poster: Hmm. I haven't done a reformat in a couple years. I can back up my documents and music and such and give that a whirl and see if it helps. Should I stick with Lion/Mountain Lion over Snow Leopard, though? I haven't messed around much with Snow Leopard since I upgraded long ago, but I do remember how much I preferred Spaces. There isn't much about ML that I've found to be that essential, with the exception of the Full Screen mode (which is lovely).
posted by Modica at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2013

As far as the fans, how difficult is it to open it up and clean them myself?

Not particularly. You just have to be a little more gentle/exacting with the components than you would with a desktop. Just pull up the appropriate guide at iFixit and make sure you have the right tools.
posted by griphus at 12:08 PM on August 16, 2013

I read this article last year after noticing serious slowdown similar to what you're describing on my Mac from 2007ish.

I cleaned up the desktop as they suggested, rebooted and the difference was magical. Give it a shot, at least.
posted by Tevin at 12:12 PM on August 16, 2013

Response by poster: Oh, there's nothing on my desktop. There's never anything on my desktop. Icons on the desktop gross me out.
posted by Modica at 12:13 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Depending on how you use your computer, and especially Chrome, 2 GB of RAM is going to hold you back. The "lockups" and spinning beach ball point to that. I get the same problem on my 2006 MacBook with 2 GB RAM, and I'm constantly monitoring the memory usage. Chrome eats up a lot of memory, especially if you keep lots of tabs open, or sites with infinite scrolling (e.g. Tumblr), or flash (Youtube, a lot of others), and even more if you don't use AdBlock to block all the little flash ads and such.

The lockups and waiting and spinning beach ball are symptoms of having to wait for virtual memory to swap around - writing something not-recently-used in RAM to the hard drive, then reading the memory for the thing you're trying to access back into RAM from the hard disk.

Do what others suggest here with regards to internal dust and redoing your OS installation, but also consider upgrading your RAM to at least 4 GB.
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:15 PM on August 16, 2013

I have an early 2009 alum Macbook Pro w/ 2GB RAM. It started to slow waaaay down. I went into device info (or whatever it's called) and found that it only detected 1GB of RAM. One of my RAM slots had gone bad. I just replaced the 1GB stick in the working slot with a 4GB stick, and I'm back in business. Worth a look.
posted by reverend cuttle at 12:23 PM on August 16, 2013

Should I stick with Lion/Mountain Lion over Snow Leopard, though?

I actually found it to be a little snappier than Snow Leopard, but Snow Leopard is fast becoming the System 6.0.7 of the OS X World - fully featured, reliable, fast, and lightweight compared to the clunkers that came after, and attracting tech-savvy die-hards who refuse to upgrade.

Lion and Mountain Lion are in some ways steps backward, but of the two, Mountain Lion is the OS Apple should have released to begin with.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:28 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

As an experiment, you might try creating a new user and log in as that new user. That way you may eliminate some sources of slowdown tied to your existing user account (plugins, desktop, all sorts of other things).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:58 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and try disabling local Time Machine backups. For me that was a big problem.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:59 PM on August 16, 2013

I've had two slowdown problems recently on my 2009 white Macbook with Snow Leopard and 4 GB Ram. The first time, it turned out that the printer driver trying to tell me that it was low on ink or something was chewing up 90% of system resources, and I had not been printing anything but ignoring the little bouncing printer icon in the dock. Easily fixed.

The second time, I took it into the shop and they ran a hard drive scan and found lots of bad blocks. IOW disk drive was failing. Perhaps slowing down because it had to hunt around for blocks. For $150 bucks they replaced the failing 160 GB drive with new 750 GB drive. Also they told me I qualified for a keyboard and upper case replacement (aside: Apple has a 5 year replacement warrantee on these on white Macbooks if the edges crack).
posted by beagle at 1:11 PM on August 16, 2013

The printer driver thing is sage knowledge. I've solved this exact problem including the heat on a friends system with that, and cleaning out the fans did nothing.

I'd clean the fans, check for the printer driver issue by launching activity monitor and seeing if something is pegging the CPU, then back up your stuff and do a clean install of snow leopard.

Snow leopard really is markedly faster. Mountain lion is a bit better than lion was, but nothing has felt as fast on my 2009 macbook pro as SL did. I've convinced several friends with machines of a similar vintage to ours that they should just downgrade.

If i still wasn't happy, i'd get 8gb of ram and the thing would feel fast forever(because fuck it, ram is cheap now. Compare 4gb to 8gb in price. it's almost-$40 vs $60). I honestly feel like 4gb of ram isn't quite enough on my macbook, but then again i do serious work on it still in pro apps...

Also beagle and others, note that Modica is talking about this macbook, not this.

To clean the fans you just remove the bottom "plate", hold the fan in place(ignore the extraneous shit on the image, best shot i could find), and blast into the heatsink above the fan from the hinge side with an air compressor in a few short pulses. A compressor is better than canned air or a small say, airbrush pump because of the amount of flow and the power of it to really knock the dirt off. You're holding the fan to avoid damaging it by over-spinning it in reverse with the compressed air. That's it, no fancy teardown. Maybe rotate the fan a couple times and pulse air in again to make sure you cleared all the blades of dust.

Throw on some sunglasses or something, and maybe even a cheap painting mask while doing this. I've had a sore throat for an entire day before from getting a facefull of dust from a machine...
posted by emptythought at 1:40 PM on August 16, 2013

Running hot is a specific sign that something is chewing CPU on your laptop. Do you have some processes that start at login and crank away? Those, coupled with only 2 GB RAM, will kill you. And as others mentioned upthread, my top suspect is Chrome.

Are you handy with a terminal window? When your fan is running, open a Terminal window and type in (without the quotes)

"top -o cpu"

which will give you a running display of all regular processes in order of how much CPU each is consuming. It should start with top itself consuming about 5% of your CPU. If your fan is running, something else is very probably consuming more. (Could be a printer driver, sure. Or maybe iTunes. But I bet its Chrome.) Kill it. Does that help?
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:04 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing the fact that it has 2GB of RAM is the problem. I don't use Macs (I think are a huge ripoff) but for comparison, my computer has 8GB of RAM. It's 2013, not 2003. 2GB is not enough. Period, end of story. Every day that passes, 2GB will become worse and worse. Stuff you do today uses more RAM than it did a couple years ago. Of course it wasn't this bad in the past.

You could consider backing up all the stuff you really need, wiping everything out with a reformat and reinstalling your OS to see if that gets rid of background process and leftover crap you don't need. Maybe that would help? If you had Windows, I'd tell you how to do it without wiping everything out, but it's not a bad think to do when your computer gets bogged down with crap.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:07 PM on August 16, 2013

Download Onyx (free) and run all the utilities/cleaning options.
posted by mikeand1 at 4:48 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can use Actuvty Monitor in the Applications/Utilities folder to see the processes and CPU load in the GUI. No need to go poking around in terminal.
posted by spitbull at 7:45 PM on August 16, 2013

There may be multiple issues with your computer, but I'm quite certain that the majority of the general slowness and the lockups when using a browser are due to the fact that you only have 2GB. The only thing that will make a real difference, other than only having one or two browser tabs/windows open at a time, is upgrading your memory to 4GB, but ideally, 8GB. If your computer was any older, that would be an unreasonably expensive proposition, but you can go to 4GB for ~35, or 8GB for $65. If that is still outside of your budget, you might try asking around to see if any friends have upgraded to 8GB from 4GB and still have the old memory.

As I recall, Lion required a good chunk more RAM than Slow Leopard (while Mountain Lion didn't use significantly more than Lion), but nothing compared to what Chrome uses these days. Other maintenance, like running Onyx's cleanup-options, reinstalling the OS, reformatting, etc, aren't likely to have much or any impact.

The heat and fan issue is pretty much entirely separate. Being short on RAM could conceivably result in the computer running warmer, but it is harder to conceive that it would be enough to make it hot. The first thing I would do is blow the dust out, as suggested above, which you could do at the same time you have the case open for a RAM upgrade. Definitely check the Activity Monitor to see if anything is eating much CPU when your computer is running hot. An app that steadily uses 25% or more can be enough to heat things up considerably.

Also, check the Energy Saver section in system preferences to see if Automatic Graphics switching is disabled for some reason. If it is, your computer will end up running the more energy hungry GPU all the time, which could definitely make things hotter. If none of the things above bear fruit, it is conceivable that using Preview causes the OS to switch to use the power hungry GPU unnecessarily. There is a free utility called gfxCardStatus that can tell you which GPU is currently in use. If the discrete GPU is in use, it will also show which app triggered it.

If your computer is using the discrete GPU unnecessarily, that might be the sort of thing that Onyx, a permissions fix, or an OS re-install could fix, but I couldn't tell you why and I wouldn't bet on it.

Given what you've described, I doubt your hard disk is the cause of any of these problems. You have plenty of free space, and the disk was exhibiting intermittent, recoverable failures, the SMART diagnostics would probably pick it up, and the OS would warn you about it.

Disabling local time-machine backups might help with some sources of slowness, but nowhere near as much as a RAM upgrade.
posted by Good Brain at 1:29 AM on August 17, 2013

I have almost your exact computer—late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook, although with a slightly faster processor (2.4 Ghz). I also had your exact same problem—gradual slowdown with constant beachballs until it got to the point that it was barely useable and I couldn't deny it any longer. Upgrading my RAM a few months ago from 2 GB to 4 GB (which is the maximum for your machine) has made my computer delightful to use again, and I'm running Mountain Lion on it. Not half-bad for a five-year-old computer!

It doesn't have to be an expensive upgrade at all. I bought my RAM upgrade from Crucial.com, where you can get 4 GB for $42 right now. You can follow the step-by-step installation instructions yourself or see if any of your friends will do you a favor if you don't feel comfortable handling relatively delicate computer innards. While you (or your friend) are in there, you might as well use some compressed air to remove the dust bunnies that will have accumulated on your fan, but I'm guessing the RAM is going to be your magic bullet.

(Fun story: when we put my RAM in the first time, the fan actually accidentally came unplugged, so my computer just overheated until it mysteriously shut down. After this happened a couple of times, I finally realized that the fan wasn't coming on at all and I chilled my computer with bags of ice and monitored the temperature with iStat pro until we opened it up again and reconnected the fan. After that, though, I swear it's been great!)
posted by mayhap at 2:04 AM on August 17, 2013

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