MacBook Pro Slowdown Attack

[Chaos Manor Reviews returns after another long hiatus with this series from guest columnist Alex Pournelle, who continues his father’s tradition of ‘Doing things so you don’t have to’.

In this first of four installments, Alex digs into the reason for a slowdown of his MacBook Pro. It turns out there are many culprits, and therein lies the tale. Alex has provided many links to external resources about the problems, in case you are in a similar boat. – Editor]

I’ve carried an early – 2011 15” MacBook Pro (MBP) for several years. It’s my main computer, practically my only one since my 17” MBP died. While I miss the larger screen, I like the greater speed, the glass screen cover, the longer battery life, the quieter operation. (Apple stopped making the 17” MBP, as it had become a niche product—less than 2% of MBP sales, say some.)

I use the heck out of the Mac. The first day it was mine, it ended up corner-down onto the airport tarmac, a dent it carries to this day. There was no damage beyond the cosmetic, other than to my ego, and it didn’t even need a reboot. It’s no ToughBook, but I’d call it semi-rugged. (I do make sure my computer bag is zipped before racing to planes, lest I repeat the kinetic experiment.) As a sole computer, if you’re apt to move around a lot, I recommend MacBook Pros to everyone—even for Windows.

While this model lacks USB 3—a real limitation, when it’s time to run Time Machine backups—it does quite well in every other aspect. It charges via MagSafe 1, not MagSafe 2, which is good, as I have four old (MagSafe 1) adapters. It’s about to get a Solid State Disk (SSD) upgrade, but first I needed to make sure that the OS was in good shape.

But: there are issues. Why was it suddenly slowing down? Why was battery life unpredictable? Was there old software – carryovers from previous upgrades – present?

And I noticed the App Store (and also the portal to system updates) would lock up when started—to the point where nothing but the spinning wait cursor would appear. It would, after a few minutes, list as “App not responding”, at which time nothing but a mercy killing would suffice. A reboot didn’t repair it—I don’t restart the Mac very often, but I tried this time to no avail.

I knew the MacOS 10.10.4 system update had been out for a few weeks, certainly time enough for others to find most of the major gotchas; time to install it, before I started the SSD migration. While I could download an update manually, it seemed smarter to fix the actual problem.

A quick search suggested resetting Safari was the usual solution, but therein lies another tale.

You Can’t Get There From Here

Much as Internet Explorer is inextricably linked to Windows core processes, Safari is intrinsic to MacOS. The most prominent web suggestions were to reset Apple’s Safari browser—not that Safari was having a problem itself, but this would fix App Store and therefore the updates pane.

Incidentally, Safari version 8 does away with the formal “reset Safari” command, standard in version 7 and earlier. The new “Clear History and Web Data” option isn’t at all the same, Apple. Please, could we have the old way back?

Shift – Launch (Launch Safari while holding down the shift key): No change, App Store still hangs. Delete App Store caches and plists? Still a never – ending spinning beachball when App Store is invoked.

Manual check for Safari Add-ons — Extensions in Apple Parlance: Safari menu | Preferences | Extensions tab. Nope, nothing but AdBlock running, so that doesn’t look to be a problem. Manual check for Trovi or Conduit (a notorious adware nuisance for the Mac): None of the usual signs. (I didn’t expect any, as I don’t click on links, but…)

A Virus? And more “Google-Fu”

Time to install an anti-virus and run a complete scan; Avast seems well regarded, so on it goes. Scanning is going to take a while, so let’s try other things.

What about the App Store Debug Menu? Multiple sites suggested enabling it; I learned how here. Load App Store, quickly hit “Reset app”, before App Store hung—still not fixed. Hmm.

At this point, I turned my Google-Fu up another notch and dug deeper. Several other authors suggested resetting the Mac’s NVRAM as a cure for a zombie App Store—possibly, important version data are squirreled away there, but that’s a guess. Astute readers will remember “zapping the PRAM” (Parameter RAM) on PowerPC – based Macs in the past; resetting the NVRAM is the modern equivalent.

Reboot, hold down Command, Option, P and R, listen for a first startup tone (weaker – sounding, to my ear), then another reboot, let go the keys, then a second (normal) startup tone, and a reboot.

[And the results? Stay tuned for the next installment.  And we are enabling comments pertaining to this installment, for now, but will monitor for abuse. Note that any questions in comments may not be responded to; use the Contact Us page instead.  – Editor]