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Performance Issues

Over time, computers, like their human keepers, tend to slow down. Unlike the case with humans, this less-than-zippy performance isn't due to parts wearing out but to a computer that is overburdened in one way or another. If you've noticed that your Mac isn't the sprightly beast it once was, try these performance-enhancement tips.

Trim Extensions and Control Panels

In Mac OS 9 and earlier, try this experiment: Restart your Mac with nothing but the Mac OS Base set switched on in Extensions Manager. Does your Mac seem to be markedly faster? If so, the extensions and control panels that you regularly run are slowing you.

When you're seeking add-ons that are likely to affect performance, first look to those utilities that churn away in the background: antivirus applications, disk optimizers, and diagnostic tools. That background work can hobble your Mac's capability to get things done quickly. If such a utility offers you the option to switch off background processing, and you're concerned about performance, exercise that option.

Even if something isn't laboring in the background, a plethora of add-ons can grab vital processing cycles and affect performance. Again, if you don't really need something, switch it off.

Slow Email Applications

Does your Mac seem to be as fleet of foot as ever, yet your email client slogs along like it's treading through a glorpy mix of snow, tar, and molasses? There's a good reason: Its message database probably is bloated.

If you're like most Mac users, you swap a fair bit of email over the weeks: daily missives from Mom, tasteless jokes from Margo, mailing-list crud, and the usual tittle-tattle from your lodge brothers. In the process of creating, replying to, and deleting email, the databases in which these messages are kept tend to get flabby. A sure sign of overt flabbiness is an email application that opens slowly and slothlike responsiveness when it finally deigns to open.

Fortunately, you can put your email application on a swift diet by compressing its databases. Here's how.

In Microsoft's Outlook Express:

Hold down the Option key while launching the program.

You'll be asked whether you'd like to compact the database.

Click Yes (if indeed you want to).

A Fresh Outlook. Outlook Express's Compact Database window.

Wait a while until the program is done.

Get on with your life.

In Microsoft's Entourage:

Hold down the Option key just as you would in Outlook Express.

When you see the window that offers you the option to perform a Typical or Advanced rebuild, choose the Typical option.

A Typical rebuild simply smushes the database. An Advanced rebuild creates a new database—a process necessary only if Entourage's database file is corrupt.

Join My Entourage. Typically, you'll want to choose Entourage's Typical rebuild option.

In Qualcomm's Eudora:

In the bottom-left corner of each mailbox window (the In Box, for example), you'll see a small box that includes an entry like 256/3598K/219K; click this box to compact that mailbox.

The numbers in this box indicate the number of messages in the mailbox, the amount of space those messages take up, and the amount of wasted space in the mailbox, respectively.

To compact all of Eudora's mailboxes, Option-click this box.

A Waste of Space. Slim your Eudora mailboxes by Option-clicking this box.

Note: Before compacting an email client's databases, be sure to back up these database files. Rarely, these files will be corrupted during the compacting process, and if they are, you could lose not only your saved email but your address book as well.

You'll find Outlook Express and Eudora's database files in the Microsoft User Data folder inside the Documents folder at the root level of your startup drive. Recent versions of Eudora place the Eudora folder (the one you want to back up) in this same Documents folder. Older versions of Eudora place the Eudora folder in the System Folder.

This trick works in both Mac OS 9.2 and earlier and Mac OS X.

Use Real RAM Rather Than Virtual Memory

You may recall that earlier in the chapter, I mentioned that virtual memory is slower than RAM. I wasn't lying; it really is (except in Mac OS X where it's implemented more elegantly). If you can afford it, add more memory to your Mac and switch off virtual memory.

Disable the Mac's Startup Memory Test

When your Mac starts up, it checks the computer's RAM to make sure that all is well. The more RAM you have, the longer this check takes. Considering that RAM rarely fails, I switch this test off. You can, too. In Mac OS 9 and earlier, here's how:

Hold down the Command and Option keys while opening the Memory control panel.

A new option appears in the Memory window: Startup Memory Tests.

Choose the Off option.

When you next start up your Mac, it will do as you requested and skip the memory tests.

Pass This Test. Honestly, your Mac's RAM probably is fine. Kill the memory tests with confidence.

Increase the Disk Cache

The Mac can cache certain functions in RAM. When it does, these functions speed up. If the disk-cache setting in the Memory control panel is too low, your Mac may be slower than it could be. To adjust the disk cache:

Open the Memory control panel.

Check the disk-cache setting.

Normally, the Default option will be selected. In most circumstances, this setting is perfectly fine. If you want to try to tweak the setting for greater performance, click the Custom setting option and adjust the cache setting higher.

Earn More Cache! An enlarged disk cache can make for a faster Mac.

Note that you gain only so much benefit from increasing the amount of disk cache. After 8 MB or so of cache, you won't see any performance gains.

Decrease Color Depth

If you have an older Mac—and by this statement, I mean something made before the iMac—your Mac might be a bit perkier if you change the color depth from Millions to Thousands or 256 Colors. You can change color depth in the Monitors control panel or from the Control Strip.

Less Colorful. Older Macs may benefit from a decrease in color depth.

Newer Macs benefit very little from this trick, because these Macs have ultraspeedy graphics cards that can handle any color depth you throw at them with aplomb.

Choose a Startup Disk

If you haven't selected a startup disk in the Startup Disk control panel, the Mac has to waste time rummaging around at startup to locate a bootable volume.

Disk Determination. Selecting a disk in the Startup Disk control panel can goose the startup process.

Rebuild the Desktop

A confused Desktop database file can also slow a Mac running Mac OS 9.2 or earlier (this Desktop database stuff doesn't apply under Mac OS X). Hold down Command and Option at startup to put this file back in order.

Optimize Your Hard Drive

I realize that elsewhere in this book, I said that optimizing your hard drive is likely to assist your Mac's performance only when the hard drive is colossally fragmented. Well, maybe yours is.

Upgrade Your Mac

Adding a faster hard drive, graphics card, and processor certainly will goose the performance of your Mac. In Chapter 7, I show you how.

Buy a New Mac

Finally, some problems will go away only if you throw money at them. If the speed of the Power Macintosh 6100 at home is intolerable compared with the zestiness of the 733 MHz Power Mac G4 at the office, and you have the dough to do something about it, trade up. Mmmmmm, new-computer smell….

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