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Start your Mac faster, get more memory and speed

Anyone that has had an computer for a few years will be increasingly frustrated by its slow speed and lack of memory. Of course, this isn't because it's a poor design and it probably seemed very fast when it was purchased and the memory, disk and processor it came with was perfectly adequate at the time. Two or three years later and it doesn't seem so fast and the RAM is never enough. Why do computers slow down and lose free memory as they get older?

It is partly because operating system upgrades and service packs place greater demands on the processor, hard disk drive and memory. It is also because software loads with the operating system in the background without your knowledge and this slows down the boot process, uses processor time and consumes memory. This means that it takes longer to get to the desktop than it used to and once there, you have less memory in which to run any applications. This isn't just a Windows PC problem and Apple Macs suffer too. What can be done about this and how do you speed up your Mac and get back this lost memory and performance?

The solution is to stop unnecessary programs and tasks from being run on startup. As with other things on the Mac, such as uninstalling software, on the surface it looks very simple and straightforward, but it's not. Although there is a very simply way to remove startup items on the Mac, it only does half a job and the reality is that it is much more complicated than it seems at first sight. Let's look at the ways in which OS X loads programs and runs tasks every time it starts up. Once you know how it does this, you can then set about removing the unnecessary ones. This will reduce the time taken to start the Mac and it will result in more memory for running the applications you are interested in.

Startup items
Go to the Apple menu in the top left corner and select System Preferences. Select Accounts and then your account in the list. Click Login Items and you will see a list of programs that are automatically started when you log in to your account. This is not a complete list by the way and as we will see later it is just the tip of the iceberg and programs and services are loaded from other less obvious locations too. However, it's the first place to look for auto-running software.

Items in the list can be selected and then removed by clicking the minus button below. This does not delete the application from the computer and it simply tells OS X not to run it when you log in. (You can easily add items if you change you mind about running them at startup by clicking the plus button.)

When you have a nice clean startup list with no unwanted applications and utilities loading when you log on you might think that this is the end of the story, but Apple often hides complex things away from the user in an effort to make everything look simple and easy to use. Underneath it is more complex than you might imagine.

OS X startup items

Launch agents
Open a Finder window and go to your home folder then Preferences and LaunchAgents. Here you will find a collection of plist files and these tell the system what to do when you log in. Obviously items like com.apple.MobileMeSyncClientAgent.plist and com.apple.SafariBookmarksSyncer.plist are essential, but there may be some others that are not important. Every item here has to be processed on startup and they will add to the time taken to reach the desktop and may use a little processing power and memory.

OS X startup items

What's in these plist files? Just double click one to view it (you may need to have the developer tools from the OS X DVD installed - it's an optional extra you can add to the system).

You can see that zimbra desktop is set to run at load. It's obviously doing some task on startup and it may be useful or even essential if you use the software. I installed it just to see what it was like and I don't actually use it. I've never bothered to remove it, but as you can see, it's a bad idea because it's contributing to the memory usage and longer startup time.

OS X startup items

You could delete the app if you don't need it and then delete the plist file from the LaunchAgents folder. If you need the app, you could try clearing that tick against RunAtStartup or even move the plist file out of the folder and put it somewhere else.It then won't run. What effect will this have on the app? Well that depends on what the app is and what it is doing on startup. Always have a backup and make sure you can undo any action you take just in case of problems. You can try deleting a plist file for an app if you think it's doing nothing important, but drag it back from the Trash folder if you later discover that it is really needed.

This isn't the only place where you will find launch agents and it's simply your personal one. Each user has there own personal LaunchAgents folder and there are system ones that apply to everyone. Open a Finder window and go to /Library/LaunchAgents and /System/Library/LaunchAgents. This last one contains a lot of OS X items that are essential and it's best not to touch them.

Launch daemons
Launch agents are items that are processed when a user logs on to an account, /Library/LaunchAgents apply to everyone and home/Library/LaunchAgents are your personal ones. Some startup items are loaded before anyone even logs on and they work at a lower level. Go to /System/Library/LaunchDaemons if you want to have a look at them. Look, don't touch! The folder contains a ot of essential OS X items that shouldn't be messed with.

Go to /Library/LaunchDaemons and you'll see items installed by applications and it shouldn't be a problem deleting items here. If you no longer have an application and there is still an entry then that could be the cause of a problem. Delete the entry if the software has been removed.

Undo your actions It is unlikely that you will cause any problems removing startup items, but just to be safe you should always have a backup and be able to undo your actions. It is best to make one change to the system at a time rather than a dozen. Drag a startup item to the desktop for example, then restart your Mac and make sure it works OK. You can always drag the item back if there is a problem or drag it to the Trash if your Mac runs fine without it.

Now that you know where all the startup items are stored on the Mac and have removed any you don't need, you should find that it starts up a bit faster and there is slightly more memory available afterwards. It's not going to make a huge difference, but every little helps.

Related articles * Disable login items
* Solve memory fragmentation problems
* Find files fast, without Spotlight!

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