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]

10 comments on “MacBook Pro Slowdown Attack

  1. Alex,
    Very happy to see Chaos Manor Reviews again. Has always been my favorite since I began reading your father’s column in Byte magazine.
    Even though I use Windows, I do find it helpful to read about Macs.
    As to your laptop taking a dive, I would like to point everyone to a Seattle bag company – Tom Bihn.
    On the high end of price, but worth every penny in thoughtful design and care in manufacturing. Plus a USA company. Their “brain cell” product is the ultimate for laptop protection.

    Bud Pritchard

  2. Alex –

    Ditto the delight to see the Reviews alive again. I’ve been a fan since the Users’ Column days and am delighted to let the Pournelles père et fils do some of my dirty work.

    I grabbed a later 2011 MacBook Pro (11″) almost wholly for the solid hardware rather expecting to install my accustomed OS of late (Debian) but as of today it’s still running OS X. I installed a SSD a few years back and that has made a huge difference.

    My biggest frustration with the spinning beach ball has been iTunes, which seems to be Apple’s way of telling us laptop folks who won’t get with the wearable program what they think of us, but maybe not.

    Looking forward to the next installment, and wish you the best with the upgrade.


  3. As a teenage computer enthusiast I was a fan of Jerry’s columns in Byte, good to see the family tradition endure.

    I doubt this is your issue, but I had manually revoked trust for Comodo root certificated in my keychain after they wer hacked by the Iranians. Unfortunately it seems Apple uses them for SSL, and this was what was interfering with Software Updates (and presumably nowadays with App Store):

    The Retina MacBook Pro us an amazing machine. Its USB3 ports are significantly faster than those on my Mac Pro, and the new NVMe SSDs in the latest refresh just scream, even on my lower-spec Retina MacBook. I recommend the neoprene sleevecases by Waterfield Designs:

  4. Alex, regarding your full-throated endorsement of the MacBook Pro “to everyone—even for Windows,” I’m curious as to how many people actually are using Windows on Bootcamp as their primary machine.

    I have a Late 2013 rMBP running Windows 8.1 on Bootcamp and have been plagued with trackpad problems. I’ve reinstalled OSX, reinstalled Windows and reinstalled the Bootcamp drivers multiple times, spent hours talking with Apple and Microsoft technical support and even had the whole keyboard/trackpad assembly replaced but no joy.

    I’m about to give up and get a real Windows machine, unless somebody can assure me they have the same equipment and it works fine. Since the trackpad works fine in OSX and Windows works fine on other machines, I’m guessing Apple did a shitty job with their Windows drivers.

    • My wife runs bootcamp on a fairly recent Macbook Air and finds the trackpad unusable too. Her solution is an external mouse, which she prefers anyway. I did find this site, but have not dared to try it for her yet

      • I did try try the driver on that site (TrackPad++). It does offer some additional bells and whistles–nothing that I would use, though, and it did not solve the problem. Nor did an external mouse. The problem I have is that a left click frequently does not register under Windows unless I hit the trackpad really hard. This is not a problem with OSX and, like I said, also occurs with an external mouse, so it must be a driver problem.

        P.S. Why does this system require me to include my email–and then publish it–while everybody else’s comments do not include their email?

        • Requiring an email address is common for all blog comments; helps a bit with comment spammers.

          But, the email should not be displayed for all users. Do you only see your email, or other commenter’s emails?

          Please use the Contact page if you want to continue this off-line. Or here; your choice.

          • It is displayed on my first post (7/19/15), although not on my subsequent post. Can you remove it, please? Thanks.

  5. AND on a 11 year old Mac BookPro I lost printing capability near the 1st of this year, along with an Apple update.

    iWork apps i.e. PAGES prints fine.

    For all 3rd party apps the printer dialog won’t open up.
    Even for TextEdit – no printing to the HP wifi printer.

    Printing system reset done.


    Joe O’Laughlin

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