4 tips and hidden settings that will speed up macOS

Get your Mac laptop or desktop running at a new level.
A middle-aged man wearing a green plaid collared shirt with a silver Macbook on his lap. He is grinning as he adjusts some hidden settings to speed up his macOS laptop.
The face of a person who has optimized their Mac's performance. Jud Mackrill / Unsplash

After a few years of use, even the best machines just don’t run as smoothly or quickly as they used to. Luckily, a few tweaks under the hood can speed up your MacBook, iMac, or Mac Mini. These performance-revving adjustments aren’t immediately obvious, but they can give macOS a new spring in its step.

1. Tone down the visual effects

There’s no doubt macOS is a gorgeous-looking operating system. But all those fancy animations and transparency effects take up resources that could be going towards actual applications. If you want to make sure your machine runs as lean and as mean as possible, you can turn these extra visual flourishes off. This trick is especially useful for those who tend to leave a lot of applications, windows, and browser tabs open at one time.

To cut down on the extraneous eye candy, open up System Settings from the Apple menu, then go to Accessibility and click Display. Activate the toggle switches next to Reduce motion and Reduce transparency, and you’ll have a faster, albeit plainer, interface. On Apple machines that haven’t moved to macOS Ventura, you’ll find these options and the others in this section under System Preferences.

[Related: 23 useful Mac settings hiding in plain sight]

While you have System Settings open, you can adjust more visual settings. From the Desktop & Dock tab (Dock & Menu Bar on older versions), you can switch off the animation for opening applications. For another tiny speed boost, use this menu to activate the switch next to Automatically hide and show the Dock. This will lock it in place at the bottom of your desktop rather than having it constantly disappear and reappear.

Beyond System Settings, you can adjust visuals with an application called TinkerTool. Free to download and use, it’ll give you access to a few extra settings that Apple’s built-in settings don’t cover. For example, you’ll be able to disable animation effects in Finder, as well as the fade-in and fade-out images in Launchpad. For more options, click through the various panes of TinkerTool and try turning effects on and off.

2. Check your system’s memory usage

When your computer is crawling along, you need to figure out just what might be slowing it down. To find out where your system resources are going, check out a hidden, but useful program called Activity Monitor.

Open Spotlight with Cmd+Space or by clicking on the magnifying glass in the menu bar. Then type “activity monitor” into the box. Select the first suggestion that appears, and it will show you all the applications and background processes currently running on your Mac.

Within Activity Monitor, you’ll see a barrage of constantly changing numbers and app names, but don’t panic. These screens are actually pretty simple to navigate. The first tab, CPU, shows how much processing power each active program requires. (CPU stands for central processing unit; this component acts as the brains of the computer and performs most of its calculations.) You’ll see all open programs in the column on the left, along with the percentage of processor time they’re currently taking up. The bottom of this tab will show you the overall CPU usage with a constantly updating graph.

Switch to the Memory tab, and you’ll find similar readings, but this time for RAM. (A computer’s RAM, or random access memory, stores information.) Keep your eye on the Memory Used entry down at the bottom of your window—this shows how much RAM macOS is currently eating up. If it’s somewhere near the maximum amount of RAM installed on your machine, that might explain any system slowdowns or crashes you’ve been experiencing.

Within Activity Monitor, you may encounter unfamiliar programs or processes. Select the unknown item, then click the “i” button at the top of the window for more information about what that application does. To stop it in its tracks, click the “x” button—just be sure you know what the process does first.

Once you’re comfortable navigating within Activity Monitor, you can use this knowledge to speed up your Mac. First, identify the applications that are consuming more than their fair share of resources. If they don’t need to be open, you can shut them down. If you’d like to keep running one of the programs in question, open its settings to see if you can get it to work more efficiently. For example, if one of your memory hogs is a browser, you might try disabling any extensions.

3. Free up storage space

Your macOS machine relies on having a decent chunk of free hard disk space where it can store temporary files. It also needs this room because it will store information on the hard drive if it runs out of RAM. Without that space, you’ll probably notice sluggish system performance when your laptop or desktop starts to run low on hard drive room.

Thankfully, Apple has provided some built-in storage options that will, if used correctly, help you speed up macOS. Open the Apple menu, hit System Settings, General, and Storage to see which types of files are using up your disk space. To tidy them up and gain some extra room, click the “i” icon next to any of the categories listed at the bottom of the window, select what the application or file want to kill, and hit Delete. Just make sure to back up files somewhere else before trashing them. On older versions of macOS, you’ll find these options by navigating through Apple menu > About this Mac > Storage > Manage.

From the main Storage tab, you can click Store in iCloud to get macOS to move some of your photos and videos to the cloud so you can delete the local copies. If you click Optimize next to Optimize Storage, on the other hand, macOS will hunt through your iTunes and Mail folders for files that can be safely deleted. For example, it might remove downloaded movies that you’ve already watched, because they’re always available in the cloud anyway.

4. Prevent programs from launching at startup

Many applications want to load at least part of themselves into memory as soon as macOS starts. This automatic launch gives them a head start over other programs and ensures they’ll always be available to you. This can often be useful—something like Dropbox, for example, needs to be up and running all the time to keep your files synced and ready. The problem strikes when too many software programs and utilities load themselves into memory, which makes the computer’s startup last longer and limits the amount of CPU and RAM available for the applications you actually want to use. Taking more control over which programs launch at startup can claw back some of the performance you’ve lost.

Open System Settings from the Apple menu, click General, and hit Login Items to see—and change—the programs that get to start automatically. Use the toggle switches to add and remove programs to the list. If you don’t recognize any of the applications, a quick web search should tell you what they are and why they want to launch with macOS. On older versions of macOS, go to System Preference, Users & Groups, select your account, and switch to the Login Items tab.

[Related: 38 advanced Mac keyboard shortcuts to supercharge your workflow]

It’s important to note that you’re not actually deleting any programs from your system when you flip these switches—you’re just stopping them from starting automatically. If you need them later, you can always open them the normal way, and you can even add them back to the Login Items list. Ultimately, you’ll need a bit of trial and error to work out the best balance between having certain applications and utilities always available, and having macOS boot up as quickly as possible.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on August 22, 2017.