Help me make my Mac desktop feel like new again!
March 26, 2015 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I have a 3ish year old iMac desktop, and it's starting to feel sluggish. What can I do to spruce it up and make it run (more) like new again?

I have a big old iMac desktop (24 incher, 2.5 GHz Intel i5, 4GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory) that I love and use constantly, mostly for web browsing and word processing, but also for Skype, watching movies, and other general computer tasks.

Lately, though, the old fella is losing his vigor. Simple tasks require a few moments for him to ponder--shutting down Chrome, for example, can take up to 30 seconds or so, when it used to be instant. I feel like in particular it struggles with large imgur galleries. Sometimes, plugging in or unplugging my headphones into the rear headphone jack makes it crawl for a minute.

I'm certain that the damn thing is bogged down, and if this was 12 years ago and I still used a Windows PC, I would be defragging and reformatting things until it was back to a like-nearly-new state. But I don't know how or what to do for a Mac!

Some particulars: I have a fair bit of music, documents, and photos on my HD that I don't want to lose, but I'm not opposed to coughing up some cash for a decent external HD just to back everything up on (might be a good idea either way, no?). I don't really use any special software so there's none that I'm terrified of losing, although I do have a copy of Photoshop on here that I'd like to retain if possible. Sometimes, I notice that the vent area on the top of the screen is pretty warm, and I feel like it must be pretty dusty in there (poor Mac lived in a smoking house for most of his life, although not anymore). Can I clean that out somehow, and will that make any difference?

If there's things I need to or should spend some money on for this project, I will, but obviously would rather not. I also have a like-new Macbook Air that runs a treat, so if the solution involves a few days without the big 'un working, so be it.

Any help from any tech-inclined mefites? I love this computer and don't want him to not feel well!
posted by still bill to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
SSD. I put one in my mid-2007 imac and it's very useable for the kinds of tasks you're describing.
posted by doctord at 8:55 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Most likely the Hard Drive in your older 24" iMac is getting tired. Its best to replace it with a fresh new drive that is faster and has more storage capacity than the original drive. You can also gain a huge improvement by installing a SSD drive.

If you don't want to replace the drive you can try this first.

1 Back-Up your data
2 Verify your back-up
3 Update all software
4 Reboot in the recovery partition by holding down the "Option" key and repair your disk and permissions with Disk Utility
5 Download and install ONYX and run all the cleanup and repair tools (Skip the restart at each step, do this once at the end)
6 Download and install "Caffeine" and keep the Mac awake for lets say 5 hours so it can rebuild the spotlight index (during this process the Mac will be slow)

If that doesn't work you can "Nuke & Pave":
1 Reformat the Drive
2 Reinstall the OSX
3 Install the Apps you really want
4 Create user account(s)
4 Manually reimport your personal data

Frankly I would not make all that effort and put a new drive in. (Thats what I recommend my clients)
posted by Mac-Expert at 9:00 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: SSD and bump your ram to 8 or 16 GB. Anecdotally, it also may help to create a new user account.
posted by The Michael The at 9:01 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: I should be more clear, sorry: I'm more interested in wiping this thing clean than I am dropping more hardware into it (especially $400 worth of hardware). I'm more after the sort of solution that involves making a backup of what I want to retain and then nuking the rest back to its fresh-out-of-the-box state.
posted by still bill at 9:01 AM on March 26, 2015

Also, if you're running with 4gb of ram, increasing that will do wonders. Go to at least 8, 16 if your machine will accept it.
posted by topher74 at 9:01 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Mac-Expert! That looks like a nice few options.

Any suggestions for SSD drives, if I go that route? I don't mind spending some money, but $300-400 is a bit painful!

On preview: is adding RAM a relatively simple affair? I'm okay with doing some stuff in there myself, but big jobs are a bit scary--for example, the SSD addition detailed in doctord's link above looks doable, but would likely stress me out massively.
posted by still bill at 9:04 AM on March 26, 2015

You need more RAM. How much space do you have on your current HD?
posted by barnone at 9:05 AM on March 26, 2015

80% chance you will experience a severe slow down followed by a HD crash within one year of doing all the work.... Adding the new drive and more memory will rejuvenate your iMac and make it enjoyable for an other 3-5 years.
posted by Mac-Expert at 9:07 AM on March 26, 2015

Best answer: is adding RAM a relatively simple affair?

In an iMac of that vintage, it's super easy. I've been happy with the RAM I ordered from Crucial.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:07 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Which specific iMac model do you have? (It should be written on the back somewhere)?
posted by pharm at 9:08 AM on March 26, 2015

There's no machine listed in the iMac specs that's 24" i5. Make sure if you do put in more memory (which you should absolutely do, even before an SSD), that you get the right kind.  -> About This Mac will show you.

To see whether you can do it yourself, look for the iFixit guide, such as this one. Your generation iMac has trivially easy RAM swapping. Chrome is a real memory hog (and has gotten worse), 8GB will help a lot. 16 GB is often only marginally more expensive, depending on if you have lots of layers, etc. in your photoshop.
posted by wnissen at 9:09 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: Sorry, should have said! Current HD is 500gb, with 276 available. It's a mid-2011 21.5 inch, not 24.

Ok, so I'm sold on the RAM upgrade. Going to order another 8 or 12 GB shortly (from Crucial, thanks uncleozzy). So if I do the SSD, where is a good source for the drive and instruction, install kits, etc.?
posted by still bill at 9:14 AM on March 26, 2015

Amazon has great deals on the Samsung SSD drives. Don't forget to order the bracket to adapt the 2.5" drive to the 3.5" slot.
posted by Mac-Expert at 9:17 AM on March 26, 2015

This one? Upgrading the memory is clearly trivial, but upgrading the internal HD looks like it’s for the adventurous: you could consider using an external thunderbolt-connected HD instead. I would totally go for the internal HD upgrade personally, but that’s me, not you!
posted by pharm at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: That's the one! And yes, the RAM is obviously no biggie, but these SSD installs look scary to me.

Clearly, I'm not terribly computer inclined: tell me more about this thunderbolt option?

Sorry for threadsitting. I'm out for now but will keep reading, of course, so keep giving me options.
posted by still bill at 9:27 AM on March 26, 2015

Best answer: I've never needed to reformat and reinstall the OS on my Mac to fix vague slowness.

My advice is similar to others, but with an addition:
  1. Stop using Chrome, start using Safari. Chrome on OSX isn't good, and it keeps getting worse. It is a major RAM hog.
  2. RAM, 4GB is not enough these days.
  3. SSD. An SSD is kind of a miracle upgrade, but I'd do the RAM first. You might save the SSD until the next time you are annoyed with the performance of your computer.

posted by Good Brain at 9:29 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I cannot recommend an SSD highly enough. Get one from Crucial. Find the build of your machine by following these instructions then doing a reverse lookup of the serial number.

I've only installed new harddrives and RAM on MacBook Pros, but the process is much less daunting that it looks in the tutorials.
posted by slogger at 9:40 AM on March 26, 2015

Nthing getting more RAM, and nthing getting it from Crucial. I just got more RAM for my iMac last month from them, and it was reasonably-priced, shipped really quickly, and they were awesome.
posted by culfinglin at 9:42 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can plug an external hard drive (with an SSD instead of spinning rust) into the thunderbolt port on your Mac and boot from that instead of the internal drive. This is definitely the expensive option though - much cheaper to open your Mac up and slot a standard SSD inside.
posted by pharm at 9:48 AM on March 26, 2015

Best answer: Create a new user account. Depending on the file-cruft in your current user account, you could see a significant difference in snappiness. And it takes all of a couple of minutes to do for $0.
posted by homesickness at 9:49 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: Ok, breaking my promise to not threadsit, because I feel like you fine folks have nudged me pretty close to a solution, but I have a few things to clarify.

1.) If I do the SSD, which one should I buy? I'm in the UK, and would like to buy on if possible.
2.) Should I still go ahead and drop the money on an external drive, just for peace of mind?
3.) What extras (brackets, tools, etc.) might I need that wouldn't be obvious?

I'm leaning towards taking the plunge here. In the interim, I'm going to follow the basic advice and axe Chrome, add RAM, and create a new user account.

You people are the bee's knees!
posted by still bill at 9:56 AM on March 26, 2015

Don't reformat.
Run USER permissions check/repair. Note this is different than using disk util and can only be accessed by booting from your recovery mode and opening the terminal and running the passowrd reset utility..Yes weird, but the USER permissions is hidden there. It is amazing how much faster things will be. While you are booted into recovery mode run disk utilities and do a permissions repair on your OS drive and a disk repair.
posted by Gungho at 11:58 AM on March 26, 2015

1.) If I do the SSD, which one should I buy? I'm in the UK, and would like to buy on if possible.

Samsung EVO is the safe choice at this point in time. The Wire Cutter says it’s a toss up between the Samsung EVO and the Crucial MX100 - the Crucial is a bit slower, the EVO is a tad more expensive.
posted by pharm at 1:08 PM on March 26, 2015

Also, yeah I’d pick up an external HD to use as a Time Machine backup. £44 gets you 1Tb.
posted by pharm at 1:14 PM on March 26, 2015

I've jumped around among Safari (which lets me see tabs from my iPhone and iPad), Firefox, and Chrome. Right now Chrome feels memory-heavy, and I prefer Firefox. This shifts every now and then...

Elsewhere, I like the recommendations of more memory and SSD drives. I also like the DIY Fusion Drive, which combines a hard drive and an SSD drive, and looks like it has great speed and capacity. (No links right now; I'm on mobile.)

Also, I've heard that the filesystem is a bit slower when it has over 80-90% full. Do you know where you stand?
posted by Pronoiac at 2:04 PM on March 26, 2015

Before spending any money, try a fresh install. Also if you can install Snow Leopard on it, do that. If not, try Mountain Lion.

You didn't specify what OS you are on, but Yosemite made my 2013 i7 slow. I went back to Mountain Lion and am much happier.

Your symptoms aren't from older hardware. Your machine should run just fine as it is.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:10 PM on March 26, 2015

You may be getting towards a failing hard drive. Hard drives (non SSD anyway) are like tires; they eventually wear out. Make sure you're regularly backing up the data if you choose to wait on swapping the drive. I would NOT recommend doing it yourself. iMac drives are much trickier than swapping the drive on a Macbook Pro, and its much easier to bungle/tear a cable/have the incorrect temp sensor for the new drive and overheat it. Plus you'll probably end up with dust under the glass, as its tough to clean off without specialized equipment. You're better off taking it somewhere (preferably an Apple Authorized Service Provider, who are actually trained and certified to work on Macs, you can find one near you here).
posted by bluloo at 2:53 PM on March 26, 2015

Before spending any money, try a fresh install. Also if you can install Snow Leopard on it, do that. If not, try Mountain Lion.

This is a terrible idea: Apple has stopped issuing security updates for Snow Leopard altogether & will probably do likewise for Mountain Lion fairly soon now that Yosemite is a free upgrade. The problems with Yosemite are a) the initial indexing after install takes ages & b) its developers no longer care very much about users with spinning rust storage.

have the incorrect temp sensor for the new drive and overheat it.

This really isn’t a problem for SSDs.
posted by pharm at 3:14 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't bash Yosemite for reindexing spotlight. Its a normal procedure. Its best to keep the Mac awake for a few hours (Caffeine app) to allow Finder complete the indexing.
Yes SSD's are amazing. But a good HD with ample of Memory will do very nicely to.

Speaking of I just installed a 250GB Ssd in a 4 year old 21.5" iMac with 4 GB of memory. The unit now very fast and snappy. Good for many more years of good service.
posted by Mac-Expert at 10:06 PM on March 26, 2015

I installed an SSD in my late 2011 MacBook pro yesterday and it is like having a brand new computer. It now boots in 1/4 the time that it did before. Apps launch nearly instantly, etc. I upgraded to Yosemite as part of the process and it's super fast. Going to 8gb ram would be good, but I wouldn't bother with more for your usage. An external thunderbolt enclosure and an ssd drive may be fast enough. is a great resource for all of this including ram. Their drives are reliable for mac's somewhat quirky requirements and they have lots of install instructions.
posted by pkingdesign at 2:28 AM on March 27, 2015

Response by poster: Update:

I'm on OS X 10.6.8 (snow leopard, I think?). Should I upgrade that?

I've ordered 8 more GB of RAM (from Crucial, via Amazon) which will arrive tomorrow. I also grabbed a 250GB external drive, just to have a place to backup music/photos/docs.

I went ahead and created a new user account, which instantly made a HUGE difference. I'm also now using Safari, which is also much much better, speed-wise, in very noticeable ways.

So, once the new RAM arrives and is installed, I think I will do the following:

1) Transfer most of my personal files to the external HD
2) Uninstall all unused and unnecessary apps
3) See how it runs, and then consider the SSD as a more long-term solution to be done in the next 4 months or so

When I undertake the cleaning/file moving, is there a good way to do that that is less laborious than just slogging through everything on the internal HD and copying stuff I want to the external one chunk/file at a time?

You guys are geniuses, BTW.
posted by still bill at 4:51 AM on March 27, 2015

Best answer: I'm on OS X 10.6.8 (snow leopard, I think?). Should I upgrade that?

You should at the very least upgrade to a version of OSX which is getting security updates, especially if you’re going to be using Safari as your browser.
posted by pharm at 5:22 AM on March 27, 2015

Response by poster: Update:

RAM arrived today, along with the external HD (500GB). I popped the new RAM in--very easy and painless--and now am running with 12GB, up from 4. Then, I hooked up the external HD and transferred all of my personal files over to it, which was really only music since most of my other stuff is in my dropbox.

All of that done, I logged in under my new user account and deleted the old user account along with its 'home' folder. Then I waded through the apps folder and killed any old and unused apps. Last but not least, I took the plunge and upgraded to Yosemite (after reading a lot, it seems to me like I'm the kind of light user who Yosemite will be great for). 50 minutes of install time later, and it's like a whole new world!

Loving Yosemite, and really really like the way Safari runs in this environment. It's also nice to have so much free disk space (I've not transferred any music or anything back over from the external yet, and depending on how I feel I might not ever, since I almost never listen to music on the computer anyway). I think I will update to Yosemite on my Air tomorrow, also, just to have a unified experience.

My last niggling concern is about duplicate files among the things on the external. Is there a reliable and free tool to help find and kill duplicates? If so, I'll just run the external through it, kill the dupes, and then transfer the personal stuff back onto the internal.

I think I will probably do the SSD thing in another couple months; just messing with it today makes me remember how much I love having a fast and reliable desktop, and the SSD seems to be the best way to ensure that. Plus, I love the idea of SSDs and thing it'd be cool to have one!

Thanks again for all the advice! I couldn't be happier!
posted by still bill at 3:41 PM on March 28, 2015

Is there a reliable and free tool to help find and kill duplicates?

I usually use DupeGuru, which is ugly and a little clunky but it’s free. I don’t actually use any of its automatic deletion tools, I just use it to find the dupes and then I delete the ones I don’t want manually.
posted by bcwinters at 12:46 PM on March 29, 2015

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