Best way to speed up my MacBook Air?
November 9, 2018 12:13 PM   Subscribe

My relatively new MacBook Air is super-slow when I'm operating ... the way I usually operate. What's the best next step? Add RAM (if that's a possibility), upgrade my OS, buy a more powerful laptop?

I bought my 13" MacBook Air last November as I was getting ready to go out on my own as freelancer/consultant. Because I didn't know how my business would go, I bought the cheapest version available (even cheaper due to a Black Friday sale), with 8 gigs of RAM and a 1.8 GHz Intel Core i5 processer.

It is really sluggish when I have lots of tabs open, which is usually the case (I work in digital marketing, so that's an occupational hazard) and when I'm actively working in Chrome at the same time as other apps. Some webapps like Google Hangout or the CRM one of my clients uses can make it so slow I have to restart it.

What I've tried so far:

- Looked at the Activity Monitor, and Chrome seems to use the most memory of any app I use - but it's also what I use the most - I do most of my written work in Google Docs, my data analysis in Google Sheets, my design work in Canva, my video conferencing in Hangout, wow I am really reliant on Google! I also use several CRMs which can slow things down.
- Updated Chrome, since that was the biggest culprit
- Tried limiting my tabs (honestly a fool's errand, I'm always going to have a million tabs open)

What I haven't done/am thinking about doing:
- Looked into installing more RAM, which seems ill-advised in the MacBook Air
- Updated OSX to Mojave (am currently in Sierra 10.12.16)
- Go to the Apple Store (it's become hellish, at least in my area - you always have to wait 45 minutes even if you have an appointment)

Alternatively, I'm wondering if I should just upgrade? I use this for my business, which is going pretty well, so maybe it makes sense to have a machine that supports my work better (and it would be nice to have a better display since I do some design-adjacent work) - but I'm just not sure what the problem is so I'm not sure where I should spend more money if I did this. And it seems ridiculous to buy a new computer after just one year.

Thoughts on my best next step?
posted by lunasol to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Could you switch over to Safari for some or all of your internet tabs? I've found Chrome and Firefox use up a lot of memory, but I can have a huge number of tabs open in Safari without it being an issue.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:31 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


If you go to the Apple Store they're going to steer you toward upgrading. At this moment there are a number of previous-gen models of higher-spec Mac laptops on sale. Take the opportunity to upgrade to the most robust thing you can stretch your budget to afford ... that will give you the longest expected life expectancy of the machine.

Life's too short and work is too hard to waste time and energy on limiting your tabs and worrying about this or that. Upgrade and tab freely!!
posted by mccxxiii at 12:31 PM on November 9, 2018


Chrome has its own task manager (Window > Task Manager) that will show which tabs are eating stuff up. You can install an extension like The Great Suspender to, um, suspend tabs after a period of time.

You could do some diagnostics on the SSD -- how much free space you have available, if there any errors showing up in the Console. You could do the standard voodoo of resetting the PRAM and SMC. You could try creating a new Chrome user, or seeing whether you could move at least some of your activity to Safari. But if it's really just your Chrome use pushing the hardware, you might as well make the jump to something that accommodates your workflow and will do so for the next few years.

Apple has a 14 day "no questions asked" return policy which gives you enough time to compare, and older Apple laptops hold their value pretty well so someone with light usage needs would probably take it off your hands (in-person, Craigslist) for a decent amount.
posted by holgate at 12:50 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Greast Suspender (see link in above comment) helps a lot. You can whitelist sites and various other things.
posted by zeek321 at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


Keep your OS up-to-date. There is no need to be running Sierra now.

If I were you I'd get a 15 inch MBP. Those come with 6-core i7 CPUs these days, and 16GB of RAM minimum, which should give you plenty of bandwidth for your Chrome tab processes for years to come.

It's a legit business expense too.
posted by w0mbat at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2018


You need more RAM.

Having "too much" RAM is like having "too much" health. Feed that beast. Your computing life will be immeasurably improved by curtailing the time you spend looking at spinning cursors and patience bars.

From the sounds of your needs I would recommend a minimum of 16 GB but, in this case, more is more. If you opt for a machine that can handle 32 GB, do so opt.

...Which brings me to my second recommendation: upgrade. The (prior to recent update) Air machine is somewhat underpowered for what you're doing. I'm pretty sure the older Air is optimized for visiting a few webpages one or two tabs at a time, with maybe iTunes open in the background. Beyond that everything is just gasping for oxygen.

A new air is roundabouts $1.5K. A refurbished MacBook with more RAM might be had for a $1K, if you're lucky enough to see a good listing before it's gone.

These are not small amounts of money.

But, if you're not making enough money from your job to afford the tools required to do your job efficiently, you're not charging enough.
posted by Construction Concern at 2:25 PM on November 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


This is not a hardware issue.

I have a much, much, older MacBook Air from 2012—also with 8GB ram—and can have a hundred tabs, easily, open with no noticeable performance depreciation. I frequently do this, with Spotify, DevonThink, Word, Pages, Mail—and a couple dozen preview documents—also open, with no issue whatsoever. On a six and a half year old MBA. I do not think you need a new machine.

I suspect this is software based. How 'clean' is your machine? i.e. are there many non-proprietary background processes running (e.g. virus scanner). A poorly configured adblocker can really slow things down, as well. uBlock with all the filters on can really grind things to a halt.

Like others have suggested, I'd also consider switching to Safari and see how that works for you.
posted by standardasparagus at 8:55 PM on November 9, 2018


1.) Is the machine plugged into power? The processor will ramp up when not running on battery.

2.) What sort of network connection does it have? Always in the same location, or multiple different rooms / buildings?
posted by nickggully at 9:27 PM on November 9, 2018


I have a much, much, older MacBook Air from 2012—also with 8GB ram—and can have a hundred tabs, easily, open with no noticeable performance depreciation.

Yeah, I have a MacBook Pro from 2011 running Sierra, and although it has a more powerful CPU than the Air and I've maxed it out (SSD and 16GB RAM) I don't have noticeable slowdowns even when using Chrome with a whole lotta tabs. My thinking is that if the Genius Bar can't pinpoint the sluggishness, the time and effort and potentially money that'll be needed to do so might not be worth it, especially for a work machine.
posted by holgate at 6:51 AM on November 10, 2018


I've got to concur with the above that you need to treat this as a software issue. Upgrading hardware is not really going to help you. 8 gigs of RAM is already plenty, and the difference in CPU performance between your MacBook Air and the fastest MacBook Pro money can buy is much smaller than you'd think. You might hit the wall slightly later with a faster Mac, but you'll still likely hit the same wall.

Have you tried using Safari? It's more aggressive about freezing background tabs than Chrome is. If Safari isn't an option, there are probably Chrome settings and/or plugins that do similar things.

The other thing to do is look in the CPU tab of Activity Monitor as that usually shows what's slowing down your computer more clearly than the memory tab. One advantage Safari has here is it shows up as separate processes for groups of tabs, and shows which sites they are in the Activity Monitor listing.

I'll second the suggestion about disabling adblockers and virus scanners if you have these - some of them are very bad for performance.

(one random suggestion: if you're going to spend money on hardware, think about buying a second machine - maybe a Chromebook or an iPad - to quarantine your work away from the dodgy CRM apps)
posted by grahamparks at 2:11 PM on November 10, 2018


Thanks everyone!

Chrome has its own task manager (Window > Task Manager) that will show which tabs are eating stuff up. You can install an extension like The Great Suspender to, um, suspend tabs after a period of time.

I didn't realize this, and it's really interesting to look at. I do almost everything in Chrome. And not really interested in using Safari - I just don't like it (I don't even use it on my phone).

8 gigs of RAM is already plenty

I did just look at the Activity Monitor - on a quiet Saturday afternoon, when I have a moderate number of tabs open (for me, at least), I'm using 7.24 GB of my 8 GB of memory. Which kind of blows my mind! But my computer is also running fine right now, so I can't tell if it's an issue that I'm using so much of my available RAM.
posted by lunasol at 3:34 PM on November 10, 2018


I have a much, much, older MacBook Air from 2012—also with 8GB ram—and can have a hundred tabs, easily, open with no noticeable performance depreciation. I frequently do this, with Spotify, DevonThink, Word, Pages, Mail—and a couple dozen preview documents—also open, with no issue whatsoever. On a six and a half year old MBA. I do not think you need a new machine.

But you might need the one you have repaired. Are the fans running hard?
posted by flabdablet at 7:29 PM on November 10, 2018


I have about thirty tabs open right now in two browsers and combined they're maybe taking up two Gigs of memory.

If it's actually Chrome taking up that memory, you may have a problem (or if you have like, hundreds of tabs open, it might be worth, you know, bookmarking things?).
posted by aspersioncast at 11:36 AM on November 11, 2018


I'm using 7.24 GB of my 8 GB of memory

Memory "used" tends to expand to match what's available. It's full of random cached stuff that can be easily thrown away as soon as anything more important needs it. The little Memory Pressure graph on the left is more telling - the colour tells you whether the OS is struggling to find memory for things that really need it. Green is good, yellow or red are bad.
posted by grahamparks at 2:16 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well, I've certainly learned a lot about RAM! Also, I installed The Great Suspender and that seems to be helping a lot.
posted by lunasol at 12:48 PM on November 12, 2018


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