What's wrong with my Powerbook?
May 2, 2006 11:12 PM   Subscribe

Mac gurus: the last couple of days my 867 TiPowerbook has been behaving erratically. The transfer rate of the harddrive seems to have slowed right down, so even though the drive sounds normal, it's accessing all the time. Lots and lots of drive activity and pinwheeling, but barely any results.

Simple tasks are taking a loooong time. Complex tasks like World of Warcraft will freeze for up to ten minutes while the drive hums away, then the application quits. Sometimes the system won't shut down, or if it does it won't restart and I have to use DiskUtil to repair the drive.

So what do you think's going on? Is it the drive, or is it something else related? I have a GB of RAM in this thing and about 4GB spare HD space (it has run smoothly with a lot less) and OSX 10.4.5. Everything's backed up all proper-like so I have no fear of losing data. I just need some answers so I can take action. Is it time for a new HDD?
posted by BorgLove to Computers & Internet (13 answers total)
It may be that one of your RAM sticks has died, and therefore your Mac is swapping out to disk a lot more often. I think there's some kind of Apple diagnostic you can run to determine how your RAM is doing.
posted by evariste at 11:26 PM on May 2, 2006

Apple Hardware Test
posted by evariste at 11:28 PM on May 2, 2006

Before you start running tests, open up Console.app and see what it has to tell you. There might be useful log messages.
posted by majick at 11:34 PM on May 2, 2006

What do you see when you open a terminal window and run "top"?
posted by flabdablet at 11:34 PM on May 2, 2006

You mention that you let the hard drive space get down fairly low.

I've had personal experience with my own powerbook, and my sister's, and several friends, who let the space dip below 10% free.

The computer just never seems the same after. A clean install of both system and applications has been the answer.

I read a tech article about this problem once upon a time, but ten seconds worth of searching didn't turn it up. If you find it, post a link =)
posted by mmdei at 11:41 PM on May 2, 2006

Re: what mmdei said. I've had experiences with my own Powerbook, and while when the hard drive is especially low I get a lot of what you (the original poster) described, deleting a bunch of stuff returns the computer back to its normal state without a need to reformat.
posted by teem at 11:49 PM on May 2, 2006

OS X grows its swapfile in 2^n increments and can be seen in /var/vm/ like so:
$ ls -lh /var/vm
total 524288
drwx--x--x   14 root  wheel       476B Apr 27 10:55 app_profile
-rw------T    1 root  wheel        64M Apr 12 13:12 swapfile0
-rw------T    1 root  wheel        64M Apr 24 09:35 swapfile1
-rw------T    1 root  wheel       128M Apr 27 12:21 swapfile2
If you have little space left on your disk then it's likely a new swapfile would be fragmented on the disk and be very slow swapping to and from.
posted by gi_wrighty at 2:55 AM on May 3, 2006

In my experience, 4 GB is probably enough free space. My guess would be either failing/loose memory (you could try reseating it), or possibly a dying/corrupt hard drive. Use the Hardware Test disk asap.
posted by sluggo at 3:28 AM on May 3, 2006

Ditto what gi_wrighty said. Also, you haven't set up an application like Quicksilver to constantly index your hard drive, have you? Its indexing renders my machines unresponsive even at its most basic setting.
posted by kimota at 3:57 AM on May 3, 2006

One other thing you might try is watching which applications are hitting the disk at any given time. Pop a terminal and enter "sudo fs_usage". It'll ask for your password, and then proceed to spew tons of data all over your screen. What you care about is the right most column which shows which application is reading/writing the disk in real time. Usually, each open application will do something every second or so, services like httpd/mysqld/sshd will occasionally do something, and there will be system level events that hit the disk from time to time. Also, you might see "mds" which is OSX's spotlight engine (aka metadata services) updating its indexes.

So now, see if you can figure out which app is hitting the disk all the time. If it's a RAM problem, it'll be the kernel doing stuff with swap files. If it's some other plugin/background process, it'll show up here too.
posted by heresiarch at 6:20 AM on May 3, 2006

I'll third gi_wrighty's suggestion. I doubt Quicksilver is the culprit myself, although paring down its catalog makes QS itself more responsive. Also, fwiw, I've found that Safari is a real processor pig.

Although defrag utilities are supposedly no longer important with OS X, they do still exist (see tech tool), and I wouldn't be surprised if this were one of those situations where you really do want to defrag. Clear out all your old cache files while you're at it—those can add up.
posted by adamrice at 7:46 AM on May 3, 2006

This just happened to me last week. (15" AluBook) My drive was dying. After a couple days of VERY erratic behavior, I went to re-boot and got the gray startup screen and nothing else. Suuuuck!

I was able to put it into target disk mode to get my data off of it, but could not clone it or make a bootable disk image. Even while dragging data off of it, I was getting freezes about every 15 minutes. I just dropped in a new hard drive and am in the process of re-installing all my apps and data this week. It's been a 7-day headache.

Clone your current drive and then install a brand new drive. You'll sleep better.

Once I get this thing back up and running, I'm going to get on a nightly back-up schedule. Urgh.
posted by evoo at 8:54 AM on May 3, 2006

Great! Thanks for the excellent answers and tips everyone. I will try your suggestions and see if I can discover what the hell is going on.
posted by BorgLove at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2006

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