Decruft a 2009-era Mac Pro
November 18, 2023 5:56 AM   Subscribe

I have an old Mac Pro which is still plenty powerful for the applications I use it for -- plenty of memory, disk space, and processor power. However, the operating system responsiveness has slowed down a lot. Can I de-cruft or otherwise restore it to its old snappy responsiveness?

It's a 2009 Mac Pro. The operating system is upgraded to the latest version that runs on this hardware (OS X 10.9.5).
Purely processor-intensive stuff like running a big parallel computation on all four cores is fine.
But opening or closing an application is SLOW. Click on a menu bar, it takes perceptible time for the menu to appear. Stuff like that.
posted by Wolfdog to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you have activity monitor open, what shows as taking the most time? Has this machine been upgraded with an SSD instead of spinning disks for the primary OS drive? Many parts of OSX now rely on faster disk access an SSD provides, so the UI can feel sluggish on older machines.
posted by nickggully at 6:42 AM on November 18

Response by poster: Activity Monitor doesn't show anything taking up an abnormal share of cpu power. The sluggishness is noticeable even when no apps are running.

The drives are old ones, not SSD. But then again, this is a version of OS X from 2014. The degradation in performance has happened over a period of time when I didn't not update the OS at all.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:53 AM on November 18

Can you check for and remove any items that may be getting launched on startup (System Preferences > Users & Groups > your user > Login Items is the modern location, not sure offhand if it was the same under Mavericks)? There may be utilities that are running invisibly in the background and bogging things down.
posted by staggernation at 7:08 AM on November 18

The drives are old ones, not SSD.

I cannot overemphasize enough what an enormous difference in performance there will be on a circa-2009 Mac if you switch your boot drive from a spinning hard drive to an SSD.

Just at a quick glance (without checking for exact compatibility or anything), you can get a 1tb SSD (a decent, older model) from OWC with the right adapter and tools to fit in one of the Pro's drive slots for like $65 all-in; IMO it's definitely worth trying out for that little of an investment.

You can use a backup app like Carbon Copy Cloner (scroll down to v4) to clone the drive to the SSD and do the physical swap relatively easily if you are even a tiny bit handy (especially in that model of Mac Pro, where everything is easily accessible inside the case).
posted by bcwinters at 7:36 AM on November 18 [9 favorites]

Have you run a system diagnostic?
Do you have antivirus? Run a scam for malware or spyware.
Do you have too much antivirus? If you have more than one running it can dramatically slow down activities like opening a file or program.
You'll get an idea on those last two if you check task monitor for what is spiking in activity during this time
posted by Lady Li at 7:42 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Seconding getting an SSD - it makes a big difference.

Otherwise my only suggestion would be to duplicate the drive to an external disk, reinstall the OS and then… if you can use Migration Assistant to "migrate" your "old Mac" (now on the external drive) to the new one, do that, but I'm not sure if that works, especially on a Mac that old (anyone?). Or else manually copy across all your documents, photos, settings, etc from the external drive (but that can get fiddly and it's easy to miss some more hidden things).
posted by fabius at 8:21 AM on November 18

* EveryMac says you can run 10.11 on this machine
* make sure you have “show all processes” set in Activity Monitor
* get a SSD
* think about energy usage. This old Mac may use 100 W or more. A new MacBook may use about 3W
posted by soylent00FF00 at 8:31 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

If you also have a modern computer that you use for most things, you may also just be applying current expectations of how long it takes to load an app to a 14 year old computer.
posted by rockindata at 10:00 AM on November 18 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone who until not very long ago used a 2009 Mac Pro daily…

Upgrade to SSD. It is literally the difference between walking barefoot and driving in a car.

I would also upgrade the OS to 10.11.6. (And if you’ve done a CPU upgrade that required tricking the machine into believing it’s a 2010, you can all the way to 10.14, though you can’t go past 10.13 if you have an Nvidia graphics card.)
posted by tubedogg at 4:44 PM on November 18

Until I picked up my M2 Air a few months ago, my daily driver was a 2012 MBP. I am a fairly demanding user of my systems for what might be obvious reasons, yet I was pretty content with the thing for anything but CPU-intensive workloads (which shouldn't be on the laptop anyway). It was the most recent in a long line of obsolete Macs I have used as daily drivers going back to PowerBook G4s.

The keys to success when using an ancient Mac are:
  • An SSD
  • As much memory as is reasonable (in your case, that's probably 32GB of ECC DDR3 1066 as four 8GB sticks ; 48GB is possible but not worth the trouble)
  • No, seriously, an SSD
Mechanical hard drives are unfit for use in interactive computing, especially in Macs, unless you are a major retrocomputing enthusiast. Even then, many of us have swapped out old ST-506, SCSI, and IDE hard drives with flash storage.

Mechanical hard drives make desktop end users miserable. Macs in particular really suffer from this, because they hit the disk a lot harder to do things like launch applications. Apple also bundles a royal fuckton of weird, useless daemons which hammer on the disk randomly for few good reasons, and the logging subsystem is hot garbage. Old versions of the operating system are weirdly reluctant to page this trash out, so the memory available for the end user is reduced, causing the wrong kind of pageout at the wrong time. Anything you can do to eliminate seek times will make your life a lot better.
posted by majick at 10:05 AM on November 19 [2 favorites]

what you are describing sounds like disk IO (loading an app, closing it) is the bottleneck. and this is part of the overall demands of running an app, so I would disagree that your computer is powerful enough for the applications you are running (even if the CPU is powerful enough on its own).

the biggest bang, as others have said, will be to upgrade your machine to SSD.

But a 2009 machine is in much slower than a modern machine and will likely not satisfy the assumptions and needs of most desktop apps sold in the past 5 years (with the exception of ones with very little IO, including the size of the app on disk and any use of virtual memory)

recommendations from $0 to ~$750

1) run apple's disc utility to identify and fix any disk errors

2) upgrade hard drive to SSD

3) buy a refurbished M1 Mac Air
posted by zippy at 1:41 PM on November 19

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