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Monday, October 10, 2016

How to fix a slow Mac: painfully obvious, yet painfully obscure

After my Mac Mini's sluggishness wasted many hours of my time and cost me hundreds of dollars in missed consulting dollars over the last month, I was fed up.

I spent probably 10 hours over the last few weeks struggling to understand the problem, testing the mac, learning about the reasons it might be slow, comparing comments about possible solutions, running software... and now that I know all this nonsense, I think the correct path is actually super clear:

  • Problem: my Mac has physical hard drive, which is too slow (it was actually really hard to figure out how to read activity monitor to understand the HD was the constraining factor).
  • Solution: upgrade to SSD (solid state drive)
  • Any real need to actually replace my Mac? Ran benchmarks and compared to current place in Apple upgrade cycle, answer is upgrading Mac would be a huge waste of time and money compared to just upgrading to SSD.
  • Defrag? Repair permissions? Blah blah blah? None of that stuff really matters if it's just slow and not totally unusable
  • Which SSD? Actually really obvious, absolutely no doubt it's the Samsung 850 EVO 1TB right now, with this Inateck enclosure
  • Install it internally or externally? Lots of research showed me external should be totally fast enough to not be noticeably worse than internal; and if I change my mind I can always go internal later. (there's tons of whiny misinformation about external drive speeds.)
  • Boot setup? Should clone disk to SSD and boot from it.
  • How to clone? Here's how (I couldn't find these steps presented clearly anywhere, had to cobble them together):
    1. Use Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities folder) to format the SSD, erasing it and formatting as “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” with a single GUID partition.
    2. Use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone your hard drive to the SSD. If you are running Lion or Mountain Lion, choose the option to copy the Recovery Partition to the SSD.
    3. Restart your computer whilst holding down the option key and select the SSD as the boot drive. You’ll know in a few seconds if your clone was successful.
    4. Go to System Preferences > Startup Disk and select your new SSD as your startup drive.
    5. Use Trim Enabler to enable TRIM on your new SSD.

Now, maybe there is some tricky judgment call in there that I'm not appreciating, but I really don't think so. I really think all of this is the only reasonable course given my incredibly common situation.

Yet in the course of researching this, I had to step around countless debates. Do you need TRIM? Is an external SSD fast enough to boot from? How painful is the process of installing a new HD in your Mac Mini? Is it necessary? Is USB 3.0 fast enough? It's not that there aren't reasonable people who disagree on some of this, but the appropriate answers for most people should be very clear. (Respectively: yes, yes, doable but pretty dicey, no, yes)

Could I have just ordered a new mac and swallowed the money and saved myself time? Well, part of the problem was I didn't know what the source of the problem was at the start of this... not that I'm 100% positive of my new understanding, but it seems pretty clear what the problem is once I ran cpu benchmarks and learned how to read Activity Monitor right*. The other part is that Apple's upgrade cycle is way behind schedule, so if you assume you only get about 4 years out of a typical computer before it's too old to run current software, you're sort of paying double the cost (in both dollars and software install hours). A new Mac that would make me confident of its performance would be $1500-2000, or about $4000 in real cost for me considering the situation. I estimate that doing nothing for another year would cost me $2000 in lost time and business.

Instead, it turns out that $320 and an hour of your time can get you basically a new Mac, with all your same files and no need to reinstall apps, and the ability to make those files available to a new Mac in seconds (by plugging the drive into it).

This kind of info should be easier to get! My guess is that a large number of Mac users out there are in exactly the same boat. Yet each of these thousands of people either has to learn this diagnosis and solution on their own, or never know it and lose out.

How can this be better? Is there no on-demand hirable replacement for my judgment and expertise? How many people out there could have figured out what I need in 30 minutes on the phone? Even the right blog post would have helped me. But no one out there is incentivized to collect this advice and provide it to people at large. If someone wrote this and it worked for me, I might like upvote them on Stack Overflow, but that's it. Is that really the only incentive we can muster? Isn't there some way we could credibly make our expertise available for occasional hire?

(* I thought low HD usage meant low HD load, where it really means low HD throughput. The drive may be choking as fast as it can through a massive backlog of read and write requests, which are not shown at all. This makes the disk view in Activity Monitor totally different from CPU and RAM views, which basically show load and not performance, which is more or less constant for processors and memory. Often the variations you see in disk usage are due to the size and placement of the RW requests, so it might say 75 reads at 3MB/s, then 400 reads at 4MB/s, while the disk could be said to be running at 100% possible throughput the whole time. There may have been 300MB of requests, but only 4MB/s of them are actually getting delivered.)