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How to breathe life into an old Mac

Christopher Phin | Sept. 8, 2015
Here are a few things you can do before you put that old Mac out to pasture.

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Your Mac gets a bit slow and creaky as it gets older, and we can probably all identify with that. Unlike with our stupid, weak-willed bodies, though, we don’t have to accept our Macs’ slowing down and eventual obsolescence as a crashing inevitability. There is a lot you can do to breathe new life into your aging computer to extend its useful life, and though some cost money—albeit vastly less money than it would take to buy a new Mac—many are free.

This isn’t about those wacky, cutesy projects to turn your iMac G3 into a fish tank or a Cube into a tissue dispenser, and nor is it about celebrating the zen of using an old, slow Mac that’s cut off from the Internet as a distraction-free writing tool, though there’s nothing wrong with any of that. What follows is tried-and-tested pragmatic advice to keep your Mac happily and gainfully employed for many years to come.

Understand Activity Monitor

Like a doctor, you need to understand why your Mac is sluggish before blundering in with treatments. So your first diagnostic step is to launch Activity Monitor (/Applications/Utilities) and see where the pinch points are. This will show you what applications are demanding the most from your main processor (CPU); click the %CPU column header to sort by this, and ensure you’ve selected All Processes from the View menu. If you don’t recognize a process, Google it; it might be a background app that’s run rogue.

refresh an old mac understand activity monitor
Activity Monitor

Activity Monitor will also show you pressure on your memory (RAM). If you’re trying to run many, complex apps at once, your Mac might struggle. Start using your Mac as you would typically, and if the Memory Pressure graph on recent OSs isn’t looking full, you don’t need more RAM; on earlier systems, if the pie chart of RAM use shows mostly green and blue, the amount of RAM you have is “cool”; if it’s mostly red and yellow, you’re in hot water, and need to add more. Again, you can sort the RAM chart by Memory to see what apps are demanding RAM; consider quitting RAM-hogs if you’re not actively using them. (And don’t ever bother with “RAM cleaning” or flushing apps; OS X takes care of that for you.)

A little housekeeping

In the early days of OS X, we regularly repaired permissions and ran apps such as Cocktail or OnyX to clear caches and more to keep the system trim and tidy. These days there’s less need for that, but there’s usually no harm.


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