Mac Troubleshooting FAQ

Mac troubleshooting FAQ: slow-downs and passwords

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After start-up problems, the most common questions I get at the Mac 911 blog are about speed—or lack thereof—and passwords. If your Mac is slow, if the spinning rainbow cursor appears more often than you'd like, or if you're forever being locked out of your accounts, here's what you need to do.

Why does my Mac run so slowly?

When describing a “slow” Mac, it helps to focus on exactly what it is about your Mac that’s sluggish. If the Finder is poky, for example, and your Mac’s desktop is packed with nongeneric icons, all those icons are slowing down the Finder because it’s drawing each icon as a separate window, which takes time. You also want to keep the Mac from performing needless Finder calculations: Open a window in the Finder in List or Cover Flow view, choose View -> Show View Options, and ensure that the Calculate All Sizes option is unchecked.

If your Mac plods along when it’s performing Internet-related work, it’s likely that your broadband connection is the bottleneck. Go to a Website such as Ookla’s to see how fast your connection is. If your Web browser specifically performs slowly, quit and relaunch it. Memory leaks that seem to be part and parcel of today’s Web browsers can slow down these applications. If the browser remains sluggish, empty its cache. (In Safari, choose Safari -> Empty Cache. In Firefox, choose Firefox -> Preferences, select the Network tab of the Advanced preference, and click the Clear Now button in the Offline Storage area.)

It’s also possible that a particular application is chewing up a lot of your Mac’s attention. Launch Activity Monitor (/Applications/Utilities), click the CPU heading, and see what floats to the top. If an application takes up a large chunk of the CPU and won’t let it go, it could be dragging down your Mac’s performance. (Note that some processes can hog a lot of your CPU cycles, but they do so for only a brief time. You’re looking for processes that routinely devour major portions of your CPU.) If it’s a process or application you can do without, quit it by clicking the Quit Process button at the top of the Activity Monitor window. (If it’s an application, first save your work.)

A Mac can also be slow when you have too little RAM or free hard-drive space. Today’s Macs want a minimum of 2GB of RAM but will perform better with more. And a nearly full hard drive can slow down your Mac because the Mac has to work harder to find places to store virtual memory. If your Mac shipped with a slow hard drive (5400 rpm, for example)—as does the Mac mini—consider replacing the drive with a faster one, or boot from a faster external drive.

I keep seeing the spinning rainbow cursor in an application. I can’t do anything with that app until it goes away. How can I get rid of it?

Commonly known as the Spinning Beachball of Death (SBBOD), this cursor is the bane of Mac users everywhere. The Mac displays it to signal “I haven’t crashed, I’m busy. Keep your shirt on, please.” Regrettably, you may have to remain clothed for minutes at a time before the cursor disappears.

Sometimes the SBBOD appears for a very good reason—when the Mac correctly needs to spend a fair amount of time accomplishing a particular task. For example, you might see it when your Mac is retrieving and indexing six months’ worth of old e-mail or pulling together a massive iTunes library. In such cases, give the Mac the time it needs to finish its job.

The Spinning Beachball of Death

If you see the SBBOD frequently and you haven’t restarted your Mac in a while, now’s the time. Doing so can set things right. If, however, you continue to see the SBBOD after restarting your Mac, launch Activity Monitor to see if a particular application or process is eating up your processor. If so, again, update or do without.

The SBBOD can also appear when you have too little RAM or free hard-drive space. In such cases you may see the SBBOD anywhere—even in the Finder. And, of course, if an application is completely hung up, it can display this loathsome ball. Force-quitting the application will take care of a hung-up app. (You can force-quit applications from within Activity Monitor by selecting the application and clicking the Quit Process button at the top of the window. Or simply press Command-Option-Escape; select the misbehaving application in the Force Quit Applications window, displayed in red; and then click the Force Quit button.)

My hard drive is almost out of space. What’s taking up all that room?

Start with the usual suspects. If you’ve installed iLife but you’ll never use GarageBand, go to /Library/Application Support and toss out the GarageBand folder; it contains nearly 5GB of audio files. Move to the Audio folder in that same Library folder and you’ll discover an Apple Loops folder that may have another gigabyte of audio files. You can toss that too. Similarly, the iDVD folder, within the Application Support folder, weighs in at just over 2GB. If you don’t use iDVD, out it goes.

Next, locate your iPhoto Library file, or Aperture Library file if you use Aperture (found by default in youruserfolder/Photos), and Control-click on it. Select the iPod Photo Cache folder and press Command-I to get the Info window. You may be surprised at how much data it holds. Inside this folder are images you’ve converted for display on an iPod or iOS device—even those files that you no longer sync with your device. Toss out the images to free up a lot of space. When you later sync images to your device, iTunes will create new converted copies.

GarageBand files
You can free up space on your Mac’s drive by deleting GarageBand audio files you never use.

To locate very large files (rather than folders brimming with files), move to the Finder and press Command-F to bring up the Search window. Click the plus-sign (+) button and configure the pop-up menus near the top of the window to read Size Is Greater Than 1GB. All the individual files that exceed 1GB will appear in the list. Find any you don’t need and toss them out. Save this search in the sidebar by clicking the Save button near the top of the window so you can easily pull it up later.

I’ve forgotten my administrator password and can’t log in to my account.

Insert either the installation disc that came with your Mac or a compatible OS X disc, and start up the Mac while holding down the C key. When the Mac eventually starts up, choose Utilities -> Reset Password. In the Reset Password window that appears, choose the user account for which you want to reset the password, enter and verify a new password for that user account, and click Save. Restart your Mac, and you’ll be able to use the new password to log in and access your files.

Keychain Access

Note that changing this password does not change the password of the login keychain—the file where personal information such as Website and e-mail account names and passwords are stored. To unlock the keychain and use this stored information, you must have the original password you assigned to the administrator account.

If you can’t use this keychain (because you can’t recall its password), go to youruserfolder/Library/Keychains and move the login.keychain file out of the Keychains folder. Log out of your account and log back in. A fresh login keychain will be created for you—one tied to your current password that you can start using.

As for the old keychain, keep it around in case you suddenly recall your old password. If you do, you can remove the current login.keychain file and replace it with the old one containing your old accounts and passwords. Log out and then back in. You can now update the old password to the new one by launching Keychain Access and choosing Edit -> Change Password For Keychain Login. You’ll be prompted for your old password and a new password.

I routinely forget passwords for e-mail accounts and Websites. Where can I find them?

Launch Keychain Access (in /Applications/Utilities), locate the entry for the e-mail account or Website for which you’ve forgotten the password, and double-click on it. In the window that appears next, select the Show Password option. You’ll be prompted for your administrator password. Enter it and click Allow. The password you’re looking for will appear in the Password field.

Keychain Access is a really useful tool and a worthy part of the Mac OS. But if you create and store a lot of passwords, you should consider investing in Agile Web Solutions’ $40 1Password ( ). It not only easily stores all the passwords you need for Websites, but can also generate, store, and recall complex passwords—the kind of passwords that, although they’re darned near impossible to crack, are also impractical because it’s so hard to memorize them.

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