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Evaluating Mountain Lion Performance Problems with Activity Monitor

What is Activity Monitor?

Activity Monitor is an application provided with all versions of Mac OS X since MacOS 10.3 (Panther) that allows a user to view, among other things, CPU usage, memory usage, disk activity, disk usage, and network activity. Activity Monitor can, in many cases, be used to help isolate applications that are consuming too many of these resources. It typically cannot, however, help identify hardware problems. The goal of this article is to introduce users to Activity Monitor and illustrate the basics of using it and how to identify performance problems with a system.

Activity Monitor is a process monitor. Every time a user turns on their system and allows it to boot up, it is, at a given instance, running dozens, if not hundreds, and in some cases even thousands of processes. Some processes are started by the system at boot time and run continually while the system is operating. Some processes may be launched periodically, typically at fixed intervals, to perform a specific task. Other processes are launched by the user themselves. Activity Monitor will sample these processes at fixed time increments and all the user to obtain a "snapshot" of activity each time Activity Monitor does its sampling. A process, or application must be running in order for Activity Monitor to detect it.

What is a Process?

A process is, in a nutshell, a running program. All processes are assigned a process identification number, or PID. When a process is running it will consume CPU resources and memory, and may additionally use disk and network resources. Most people don't need to monitor processes unless there seems to be something going wrong with their systems. The terms process and application may be used to mean the same thing.

One special process, called the kernel, is the first process started by a system and always has a process ID of 0 and a process name of kernel_task. Once the kernel is started, it in turn launches another process named launchd which is responsible for launching virtually every other system process that will be run on the system. Processes launched by launchd may directly or indirectly run other processes as well. Once all of these boot sequence and start up processes are running, your system is ready to be used. Most people are unaware of any of these processes unless they use a tool like Activity Monitor to obtain information about them.

When you double click on an application icon to launch it, you are indirectly starting at least one process. The icon that you double click on to start the typical application is not really an application, it's a special folder that contains not only the code to launch one or more processes, but also resources that the processes may use, such as icons, help files, fonts, etc. An application process may itself run other processes if needed.

Processes running on a system may or may not have names that appear to make sense to the user. For example, when you launch Safari, its process name will likewise be named Safari. Newer versions of  Safari will also launch another process named Safari Web Content. Other processes have more obscure names, such as mds (the meta data server used by Spotlight) or usbmuxd (the process that handles USB activity.)

Link to Scannerz Mobile Web

Scannerz for Mac OS X

Why Use Activity Monitor?

The most common reason Activity Monitor is used is to try to determine why a system that was once functioning properly has become exceptionally slow. Performance losses are typically due to excessive CPU use by a process and its siblings, excessive memory consumption, excessive disk activity, or excessive  network activity. In many cases, particularly on laptop computers, if the system starts overheating and the cooling fans are turning on too frequently, it's likely that the CPU is being overloaded. Hardware problems, such as a failing hard drive may also produce similar symptoms, and this will be dealt with a little later.

Starting Activity Monitor

Activity Monitor is located in the Utilities folder contained in the Applications folder. Newer versions of OS X will have give direct access to the Utilities folder by clicking on the "Go" menu bar item in Finder and then clicking "Utilities" which will open up the Utilities folder directly. Older versions of OS X will require that you open up Applications first, and then open up the Utilities folder. Once the Utilities folder is open, simply double click on the Activity Monitor application icon, and it should start.

Becoming Familiar with Activity Monitor

Once Activity Monitor has been started, the user interface should appear and be similar in appearance the the screen shot below.

Activity Monitor on MDS

We've observed that some versions of Activity Monitor will require the user to click on the "Window" option of the Activity Monitor menu bar to bring the user interface up.

To best appreciate this tutorial, open up Activity Monitor now and follow along.

The top section of Activity Monitor allows you to quit a selected process, inspect a process, sample a process, and select which processes to observe. The middle and main section of the interface reports on the activity going on in the system. The bottom of the interface allows you monitor CPU usage, memory consumption, disk activity, disk usage, and network activity.  We will describe these in detail from the top to the bottom of the user interface.

Going from left to right in the top section of the user interface, you'll see four buttons labeled Quit Process, Inspect Process, Sample Process, all bundled in the left section of the interface, and a process selection button on the right half of the user interface. The process selection button typically says "My Processes" on it the first time Activity Monitor is invoked by a user. All the buttons on the left will only become active when a process is selected from the list of processes displayed in the mid section of the user interface.

The Quit Process button will allow you to terminate a process. Any of the processes in the mid section displaying the list of running processes can be highlighted by clicking on them, and after doing so the normally grayed out Quit Process button will become active. If you click on it, a dialog will appear asking if you wish to Quit the process, Force Quit the process, or Cancel the operation. This is a potentially dangerous button because it can terminate system processes which may render the system dysfunctional, or in some cases even shut it down. Quitting a process should only be done on processes that are not system processes.

The Inspect button allows you to open up a dialog window with more details on the process. This button will be of more use to developers than the average user, and generally shouldn't be needed.

The Sample Process button will sample the selected process and show the amount of time the process spends in various methods and libraries. It's typically only of use to developers.

The process selection button on the right hand of the top portion of the user interface will allow you to select which processes are being displayed. Its label will typically read one of the following:

All Processes: If this is selected, the every process that's running on the system is being displayed. This is typically what most users will want use.

All Processes, Hierarchically: All processes are displayed with respect to the processes that launched them. If you select this option, you will notice that the kernel_task stands by itself, with launchd, the launch daemon, parenting virtually everything other process running on the system. For most people, this won't be of much value unless a running application has launched another process that's become problematic. In this case, viewing the hierarchy can indicate whether or not the offending process was launched directly or by another process or application.

My Processes: This will display all processes that have been launched either directly by you, or on your behalf by the operating system.

System Processes: This option will display all processes started by the operating system. Generally, none of these should be terminated using the Quit Process option previously described because they it may render the system or some system features dysfunctional, and possibly crash the system.

Other User Processes: Some of the processes started by the system are done using a system ID unique to that process. Any process launched using such an ID will use that ID and fall into this category. This is generally only of use to developers and system administrators.

Active Processes: This option will list all the active processes each time Activity Monitor samples activity. The operating system, as well as applications, may start and stop a number of processes for a host of minor tasks. Additionally, during a process sampling, some applications may go from an active to an inactive state. For these reasons, the list will expand and contract frequently. This option won't be of much use to us for this article, but it's interesting to watch for a few minutes to get a feel for how the operating system is constantly launching and terminating processes, and some applications go from an inactive to active state with the user is unaware of it.

Inactive Processes: This option is the exact opposite of Active Processes in that it shows those that currently aren't active at the time of sampling. This list of processes will also expand and contract. This won't be of much use to us for this article.

Windowed Processes: This will list all the applications that are active on the desktop, including Finder. This can be of some use if problems are associated with a specific application that runs on the desktop because it can cut down on some of the clutter presented by other processes. However, many windowed (or desktop) applications can also launch other processes that may not show up in this list.

Selected Processes: You can select a number of processes from the process table by command-clicking on each one that you want to monitor and then selecting this option. Activity Monitor will display activity for only the selected processes. This option is extremely useful, especially if you want to see if you can duplicate the behavior of  a poorly behaving application. For example, if you thought Safari was eating up too much memory, you could command-click on Safari, Safari Web Content, and other applications Safari may launch, such as Flash Player and then select this option, and it will display only the activity associated with these applications. However, if any of the selected processes launch other processes, they won't show up in the list, so this option should only be selected if you want to observe specific processes and aren't concerned with anything else they may launch.

The following two screen captures of Activity Monitor illustrate the process of highlighting and then selected processes associated with Safari.

Activty Monitor Multiple Processes Selected

In the screen shot above the processes currently associated with Safari while watching  a YouTube video have been selected. This was done by viewing all the processes with Safari active, clicking on the %CPU column, to order them by the amount of activity, and then command-clicking on each one to select them.

Activity Monitor with selected items only

Once the processes are selected, in the upper right corner, change the process list from All Processes to Selected Processes. After doing so, the Activity Monitor changes to display only the targeted processes, and the process list now says Custom.

The mid section of the user interface, which occupies the majority of the application, is the list of processes being monitored. This is fully configurable from the Activity Monitor menu bar by selecting the View option followed by Columns. The screen shot below shows this menu item selected.

Configuring Activity Monitor

The columns that you choose to display can be moved around in the user interface in any order you want to present them by clicking on the column head and dragging it into the location you desire. The width of the columns can also be adjusted.
For the purposes of this article we'll use the following:

PID: The process ID number

%CPU: This indicates the percentage of CPU usage used for each process during Activity Monitor's sampling snapshot.

CPU Time: This is the total amount of CPU time the process has used since being launched, This is not the amount of time the application has been running.

Real Mem: This is the amount of real memory the process is actually using, and it often changes between Activity Monitor samplings.

Private Mem: This is memory private to the process.

Shared Mem: This is memory shared by the application and other threads or processes running on the system.

Threads: A thread is called "lightweight process" in that it acts like another process launched by the application, but still shares resources with the application that started it. Threads can terminate on their own or be terminated by the process that started them.

Ports: This is the number of ports the process is using. Ports can be associated with network connections, devices, and files, to name a few.

User: This is the short (Unix) name of the user that's associated with launching the process.

The order of the processes may be rearranged by parameter by clicking on one of the column headers. For example, if you want to view the processes in alphabetical order, click on the column header Process Name. To arrange the processes in order of real memory consumption, click on the header Real Mem. To determine which processes are currently using the CPU the most, click on the  header %CPU. The order may be reversed by clicking on the column a second time. Remember to adjust the scroll bars on the side of Activity Monitor to position the list of processes at the top. As you'll see later on, this feature can help us find problematic applications.

Along the bottom of the user interface is a tabbed selector with the titles CPU, System Memory, Disk Activity, Disk Usage, and Network. Each of these presents data in a graphical manner, instead of being tied to a specific process or processes, it's reporting on the system as a whole. Details regarding each option are as follows:

CPU:  The dynamic graph shows the amount of CPU resources being dedicated to user and system processes, as well the the idle state, which is an indication of how busy the CPU is. During levels of intense CPU activity, these figures will often peg up to the top of the graph. There will be one graph for each processor core. Most systems currently have 2 processor cores, so they'll have 2 graphs.

System Memory: This is probably the most important graph that you'll need if you're system is having memory problems of some type. The Free memory is just what it says it is: memory that's not in use and is available to be used. The Wired memory is the memory that's in use and can't be swapped out because it's critical to the operation of the system. The Active memory is memory that's in use, but can be swapped out because the process associated with it is not critical to the operation of the operating system. The Inactive memory is RAM that was in use by a now terminated process, but the operating system is hanging onto it to speed up the re-launch of the application if it's started again. Inactive memory is essentially free memory and can be reclaimed if the operating system or other applications need it. To the right of these are the VM size, which can generally be ignored, the Page ins, which can also often be ignored, the Page outs, which is an indication of pages being read from disk and restored to RAM, and the Swap used.

Disk Activity: Disk activity displays how much the drive is being accessed for reading and writing. Excessive disk activity can indicate that the system is low on memory and is swapping memory contents from RAM to disk, and back again, as needed to keep applications running. High activity is also associated with disk intensive applications, such as Spotlight indexing. Notice that the "peak" indicator at the top of this graph may change with activity, so at times it might be somewhat tricky to interpret.

Disk Usage: This illustrates how much of your bootable volume is used.

Network: This illustrated the amount of network activity going on in the system. Like the Disk Activity graph, the indicated peak on the top of the graph can change with load, so it can be tricky to monitor.

Link to Scannerz Mobile Web

Scannerz for Mac OS X

What Are the Signs of Performance Problems?

From a user standpoint, performance problems will exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

Slow Loading Times: Slow loading times occur when an application that used to load within a certain time frame, such as a few seconds or less, is now taking much longer to load - tens of seconds or perhaps even minutes.

Slow Response Times: Slow response times occur when an application that used to respond to user input in a fairly timely manner is now taking much longer to respond.

Application Lockup: Application lockup indicates that the application appears, for all purposes to have locked up completely and is no longer responding to any input. In some cases, if you click on the apple icon in the far left of the Finder menu bar and select the Force Quit… option, the dialog that comes up may or may not indicate that the application in question is no longer responding. In the event the application may be waiting for input from another source, such as a file on a hard drive that no longer exists or a network connection that has closed, the Force Quit… dialog will likely indicate that the process is still active.

Application Crashes: Application crashes can occur when they start or during execution. If an application is started and it soon exits, often for no apparent reason, the operating system will often, but not always, report that the application crashed. In other cases, the crash may resemble that described above as an application lockup, but in this case the Force Quit… option should be able to identify the application as no longer running.

If any of these problems are consistent across all applications, meaning all applications are having the same symptoms all the time, then the problem is likely a system resource problem (insufficient RAM or too little space left on the drive), a lack of computing power,  or possibly a hardware problem. If the problems seem to exist erratically or only when certain other applications are running, it's likely that there is one or more application that's consuming too many system resources or demanding too much from the system. Remember that the system can launch processes without your being aware of it.

What Are The Causes Performance Problems?

Performance problems can be caused by hardware problems (such as a problematic hard drive,) insufficient resources such as a lack of memory or free disk space, excessive load on the system, or a CPU that can't really handle the load. Activity Monitor typically can't help identify hardware problems, and these will be addressed at the end of this article. We will focus primarily on problems that Activity Monitor can help you identify.

Operating System Upgrade: Unfortunately, when a new version of an operating system is released, it's often being targeted at current hardware, not older hardware. The reality may simply be that the system you own, even though it may be identified as being "supported" may in fact not have the CPU power to run the newer version of the OS efficiently, or with the response times that you might have been used to on previous operating system releases. If Activity Monitor is showing no signs of problems, such as too much memory consumption, excessive swapping, or too much disk activity, the reality may be that the your system isn't really capable of operating at the performance levels you might have been used to with previous operating system versions. It is not uncommon for a new operating system release to require the use of more memory to run effectively.

Insufficient Memory: If there's insufficient memory in the system, Activity Monitor will display it with page-outs and swap file sizes being greater that 0 when the system is put under only a moderate load. Although Mountain Lion states that it can run on 2GB of RAM, it doesn't necessarily claim it will run well with 2GB of RAM.

Tests at the SCSC lab on a MacBook with 2GB, and then 4GB of RAM made this point clear. With 2GB of RAM, if several, typical applications were launched simultaneously, such as Safari, iTunes, Mail, and App Store, after using the system for about 30 minutes, the page-outs went from 0 to roughly 400MB, and the swap file size went from 0 to 2GB. When the memory was increased to 4GB and the same experiment was performed, the page-outs and swap file size remained at 0.

Paging out and swapping occur when memory runs short in the system. To compensate for the shortage of memory, the system writes inactive processes to the drive, and when they're needed again, it reads them from the drive and loads them back into memory, often swapping out some other process at the same time. This process is time consuming and will bog the system down.

A quick overview of the memory being used by the system can be found in the lower section of the Activity Monitor user interface by clicking on the System Memory button. If there is very little free memory available in the memory pie chart, and the Page outs and Swap used fields are greater than zero, memory problems should be considered a viable performance problem suspect.

Insufficient Free Hard Drive Space: This is a problem that most people are unaware of. If the free space on their hard drive is insufficient, it will radically cut down on the performance of the system, and can eventually make it unstable. The operating system is constantly writing data files to the drive without your knowledge. For example, when you put the unit to sleep, the OS writes the entire contents of RAM to a file named "sleepimage" (for those of you familiar with Unix file operations, it's located in the /private/var/vm/sleepimage file) and it is always the size of your memory, thus if you have 4GB of RAM, this file will be 4GB in size. Additionally, other files, such as swap files, and Time Machine "snapshot" files can eat easily eat up gigabytes of data as well. During an operating system update, there needs to be free space available to download the update files, which can often be over a gigabyte in size.

At SCSC, for normally configured systems, the bare minimum allowed free drive space is calculated using the following formula:

2 X [System Memory Size] + 0.05 X [Volume Size]

For example, using the MacBook described in the experiment above with a system memory of 4GB and a volume size of 80GB, this is:

2 X [4GB] + 0.05 X 80GB = 12GB

Note that this is the bare minimum drive space that should be allowed for a volume and it's not set in concrete. The more free space you have available on a drive, the better the performance will be.

A quick overview of the amount of free space on the currently active volume can be obtained using Activity Monitor by clicking on the Disk Usage button in the lower section of the user interface.

Excessive Drive Activity: Excessive drive activity can be a side effect of a system with too little RAM, too little free disk space, or it might be a process that's extremely drive intensive. If there is too little memory in the system, the excessive disk activity is caused by swapping memory contents to the drive and back into memory because of the shortage of memory. In the event a system has too little free space left on the volume, the system must go through a process of hunting for free blocks on the drive while simultaneously deleting any temporary files it can in the process. In the event a disk intensive application is running, which may be a system process or a user added application, such as a database, the activity will vary along with the activity of the offending process.

A quick overview of disk activity can be obtained by clicking on the Disk Activity button in the lower portion of the Activity Monitor user interface. This will display a sampled graph of both data read and written between the drive and the system.

Excessive CPU Activity: Excessive CPU activity typically occurs when one or more processes are demanding so much from the CPUs that they interfere with other processes that need CPU  access as well. Another factor, that Activity Monitor doesn't provide is called the priority of a process. Processes with a higher priority, such as mds in Mountain Lion, are given a very high priority and can thus effectively hog CPU cycles away from other running processes.

CPU activity may be viewed for each CPU core on a system by clicking on the CPU button in the lower section of Activity Monitor. There will be a small, graphical window for each active CPU core in the system. When the CPU activity is excessive, each window can be virtually filled with user and system activity. Each CPU core can contribute up to 100% processing power, thus the number of CPU cores determines the total percentage of power. A system with 2 CPU cores can thus equal 200%, or 100% per core.

Excessive Network Activity: Excessive network activity can be misleading, because in some cases, particularly during web browsing, it may vary radically based on the web site being visited as well as how much traffic is on the network. Examples of other applications or activities that may cause system slow downs based on high network activity can be networked backup applications, database client applications, and file downloading operations, to name a few.

Network activity may be monitored using Activity Monitor by clicking on the Network button found in the lower section of the user interface.

Too Many Applications Running: Unfortunately, computers can't handle an infinite number of running processes. The user needs to be aware of how much of a load an application is putting on the system if performance problems start to exist. The more memory and free disk space available, the more applications you'll be able to run with fewer problems.

Insufficient CPU Power: Insufficient CPU power can occur if the applications or system processes are putting such an extreme load on the system that the CPUs are constantly running at very high usage levels.

CPU activity may be monitored using Activity Monitor by clicking on the CPU button found in the lower section of the user interface.

Bugs: Software bugs can exist in both processes acquired from a third party, and those coming with the operating system itself. Bugs can often be difficult to trace or obvious. In many cases bugs will become obvious because the application will crash. In other cases, they may become "resource hogs" and start consuming abnormally high amounts of RAM, start using abnormal amounts of drive space, or make excessive use of the CPU.

Hardware Problems: Hardware problems, such as a hard drive with bad sectors on it can cause serious performance problems. Such problems typically can't be addressed using Activity Monitor and will be dealt with at the end of this article.

Using Activity Monitor

Now that you're somewhat familiar with Activity Monitor, we'll go ahead and use it to monitor a process. In this case, we'll use a process that's frequently problematic, mds.  On Mountain Lion, if Spotlight is in full indexing mode, it can cause the system to slow to a crawl, or even appear to lock up a unit. For example, if we take the MacBook used in the previous example and open a session, it normally starts in less than a second. With Spotlight running in full indexing mode, we've seen take up to 20 seconds to start. The tell tale sign of Spotlight indexing can be found by clicking on the Spotlight icon (magnifying glass) in the upper right hand corner of the display.

The mds process frequently launches other processes that are either named, or start with the name mdworker. To find these, do the following:

1. Click on the column named Process Name.
2. Scroll down to find mds.
3. Command click on the mds process and all others beginning with or named mdworker.
4. Monitor these both when Spotlight indexing is occurring and when it isn't.

The most important columns you need to pay attention to are those labeled %CPU and Real Mem, and secondarily CPU Time, Private Mem, Shared Mem, and Threads. When Spotlight is in full indexing mode, CPU use will skyrocket, disk activity will go very high, and the amount of memory in mds will go from tens of megabytes to hundreds of megabytes.

The following two images illustrate  Spotlight in its initial and full stages of indexing:

Activity Monitor Monitoring MDS
In the image above, Spotlight is in its initial indexing phase. We've highlighted most of the mdworker threads, but another popped up in the middle of the group as the screen shot was taken. Notice at this time, the %CPU column shows 0.0 for mds and mdworker elements, but that the disk activity shown at the bottom of the display is relatively high.

Collecting MDS Processes in Activity Monitro

In the screen shot above, mds is now in full indexing mode. Notice that the drive activity is still high, but now the CPU consumption is increasing as well. When this occurs, many applications will come to a complete crawl. On laptops, the fans will kick on, and the battery consumption will increase.

Multipe Activity Monitor Partials

In the three partial screen shots of Activity Monitor above we can observe how intensive mds is when Spotlight indexing is occurring. In the first two, we've selected the %CPU column, which illustrates the highest CPU consumption going on in the system. Notice that in the first shot, we see three mds related processes, and in the second we see two. Notice also that in the second, the percentage of the consumption for mds and mdworker is a total of 126.3%. Remember, this system has two cores, thus the total percentage can reach 200%. Over 60% of the total processing power (126.3/200) is being spent doing Spotlight indexing. The number of mdworker threads can vary from zero to many at any given instance during Spotlight indexing.

In the third screen capture, we see the CPU processing that's going on in the CPU Usage graph. Although not pegged, it's quite high.

Activity Monitor montioring mds and mdworker

In the screen capture of Activity Monitor above, Spotlight indexing is complete. Looking at the highlighted items, which were located by clicking on the Process Name column header, the CPU consumption has fallen to 0%, and there is only one mdworker thread "hanging around," but the real memory being held onto by mds is not over 222MB. Notice also that the CPU Usage graph in the bottom section of the user interface is showing very little CPU activity. Over time, it's not uncommon for the amount of real memory in mds to reduce considerably when Spotlight isn't in a full indexing mode.

In our opinion, when using Activity Monitor to identify a performance problem, the most important items will be those shown in the %CPU and Real Mem columns. Additionally, the graphs located at the bottom of the Activity Monitor user interface, particularly CPU, System Memory, and Disk Activity graphs should give a good indication of how heavily loaded the system is. The information in the  Private Mem, Shared Mem, Threads, and Ports, may be of use to you if you're looking at an "application gone wild." Get a feel for how much processes use by clicking on each one of these column headers in Activity Monitor to see what processes typically use.

The CPU Time column can be simultaneously useful and misleading because it tracks the total amount of time that the CPU has dedicated to a process since started. If you terminate an application, and then restart it, then the column entry will only indicate the amount of CPU time spent on the most recent launch of the application. Processes such as kernel_task that are running all the time will almost always be at or near the top of the list if this column is selected. If you launch an application, its CPU TIme entry will always initially be 0. If, in a matter of minutes it's accelerated its way to the top of the list, then it indicates that the CPU is spending an incredible amount of time hogging CPU resources. The mds process will do this when it's in full indexing mode.

The best way to learn to use Activity Monitor is to simply use it and get used to how it monitors processes. If you're not inclined to wait for a Spotlight indexing session to begin, another route would be to bring up Safari and start watching a high def video on something like YouTube. In this case, you would want to focus on Safari, Safari Web Content, and the Flash Player.

Link to Scannerz Mobile Web

Scannerz for Mac OS X

Common Problems

Some of the common problems we've observed are described below. In some cases, these aren't operating system, process, or even system problems. Some of the problems we've seen people encounter are caused by external problems or even user error or unawareness. Here is a list of some of the more common problems we've encountered:

Web sites and ad servers: Many websites that display ads, especially lots of ads, are feeding a web browser not only information from their own web site, but also piping in web data from ad servers. Ad servers may be located anywhere in the world, and in most cases they're not hosted on the web site being visited. If network traffic to one or more ad servers is heavy, the overall response of the browser may be slow. If the page being visited won't complete loading until the ad server completes its loading, this can mislead the user into thinking that the browser or the system are at fault, when in fact it's the site being visited.

This problem will obviously only occur when web sites are being visited. In some cases, the ads themselves may be playing video and launching a Flash Player, and these things take CPU, memory, and network resources. The most obvious cure for this problem is to, if possible, go to another web site that has the same information but fewer ads. If evaluating it using Activity Monitor, you would want to monitor the Safari and Safari Web Content processes, and possibly the Flash Player (or another media player if applicable) for resource consumption. You would also want to monitor the Network graph in the lower section of Activity Monitor's user interface to see if the network is being tied up or saturated. Pay attention to the "peak" level on top of the network graph, because it will change with loading.

Unawareness of relaunched applications: With the release of both Lion and Mountain Lion, one problem that we've observed is that some people are unaware of the fact that when they shut their system down, unless told not to do so, the operating system will open up and start all the applications they had running in the previous session. If they're using multiple work spaces and the applications are assigned to specific work spaces, the user is oblivious to the fact that they may inadvertently and unknowingly launching numerous applications. They find the start up times and login process abysmally slow. They then start opening up other applications which simply exacerbates the problem.

Activity Monitor will make this clear, but it shouldn't really be needed, since switching from desktop to desktop usually makes the user aware of the problem. Activity Monitor output might be useful, however, if one of the applications is problematic or the problem is being dealt with from a remote location.

Spotlight and mds: This was described in the previous section. If applications suddenly come to a crawl, they're taking seconds or tens of seconds to open or react to input, there's a good chance Spotlight indexing is taking place. As described previously, this can be detected using Activity Monitor.

Safari Web Content (Mountain Lion): Safari Web Content appears to have some strange bugs that seize a considerable amount of memory for no apparent reason. In one instance, we've observed it eating up nearly 100% of the free memory on a system forcing the system to a crawl. This bug is difficult to replicate. If we could replicate it we'd send a report to Apple, but it seems to occur erratically and not frequently, but we've seen it reported on other systems as well. In this case, application loading and response times will be slow. Activity Monitor will present this to the user with an extremely high amount of memory being consumed by the process as seen in the Real Mem column of the process table. The System Memory graph in the lower section of Activity Monitor will display little, if any free memory. The solution is to terminate Safari and if needed, use the purge command to reclaim memory (using purge is described later.)

Flash Player Safari Plugin: Depending on the video being viewed within Safari, this process can consume considerable amounts of memory and show high levels of network traffic, disk activity, and CPU cycles. This is more or less dependent on the video being viewed because low bandwidth video won't consume very many resources, but high def video will. This will can be a potential problem if you have a lot of other applications running and a system with weaker processing capabilities, less than optimal RAM, or a lack of free disk space.

Memory Consumption and the Purge Command

When you click on the System Memory button of Activity Monitor, you'll be presented with a pie chart showing the amount of memory in the system, and how it's allocated. It will look similar to the following:

Activity Monitor showing light memory use

Some people become alarmed, when instead of seeing a graph as shown above, with a reasonable amount of free memory available, they're greeted with the following:

Activity Monitor showing high inactive memory

People become (unnecessarily) alarmed by this because it appears there's virtually no free memory on the system. This isn't true, it's just a characteristic of the operating system. The memory above shown in blue, which is called Inactive Memory is free memory. When a process launches, gets used, and then ends, the original memory is not automatically put back into the free memory, but often the Inactive Memory. The system does this so that if the application is launched again, instead of having to reload everything all over again, it simply uses what was there from the original launch of the process. If other processes are launched by the system and they need that memory, the system will turn it over to them.

If you find this troublesome, there's a system command named "purge" that will completely free up all the "blue memory" shown above. purge must be run from a command line (Terminal) window, which can be accomplished as follows:

        1. From the Finder menu bar, click on "Go"
        2. From the pull down menu, select Utilities.
        3. From the Utilities folder that comes up, double click on
        4. A terminal application will open up.
        5. Type the word purge and hit the return key.

If you have an Activity Monitor session up and running you will see that the "blue memory" disappears and becomes free memory.

Hardware Problems

If you've analyzed your system using Activity Monitor and can find no problems with the operating system or any running applications, there may be hardware problems with the unit. If the problems are characterized by delays, "spinning beach balls," and occasionally a message from the operating system indicating that it can't read or write to the drive, the odds are that the hard drive has problems. In some cases, system parameters can become corrupt over time and cause the system to behave erratically.

Here at SCSC, we offer a product named Scannerz for Mac OS X that performs hard drive and system fault tests on Apple computers. If you suspect you're having drive or drive related system problem, click HERE for information on Scannerz.

If you think your system might need to be reset, the following links to Apple's support site might be of use to you:

Resetting NVRAM and PRAM
Resetting the System Management Controller

Generally speaking, there are very few items on a contemporary system that can fail without being obvious to the end user. If a logic board fails, the system won't start, or if it does, it won't stay active long. If a video, network, keyboard, or other attached peripheral or card fails, that too is usually obvious. If drive tests and system resets can't isolate the problem, we would recommend having the unit checked out by a professional.

Mac Universal Binary Icon

Scannerz, Scannerz Lite, FSE, FSE-Lite, Performance Probe 2, Phoenix, SpotOff, and Spot-O-Meter are Mac OS X universal binaries and support both Intel and PowerPC G4 and G5 based systems using Mac OS X versions 10.5 (Leopard), 10.6 (Snow Leopard), 10.7 (Lion), 10.8 (Mountain Lion), 10.9 (Mavericks), and 10.10 (Yosemite). PowerPC based systems must use Mac OS X 10.5

Supported Intel based systems include all variants of the MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac Pro, and Mac Mini. Supported PowerPC based systems must be running MacOS 10.5 (Leopard) and include the iBook, Power Mac, eMac, iMac, Mac Mini, and PowerBook G4 Series.