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User Problems That May Emulate Hard Disk and Solid State Drive Problems

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In this article, we will be describing user problems that can exhibit symptoms similar to those associated with problematic hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). User problems, as we call them, are not always caused by a user per se, and are often caused by a given user's unawareness of some type of change that occurred, often without their knowledge. The nice thing about user problems is that most of the problems we'll discuss here are easy to remedy.

This page is one page in a series of five pages dealing with HDD and SSD problems and their associated symptoms. If you haven't read the main page of this article, we recommend clicking on the link to the left titled "Article Main Page" before proceeding. This article will focus solely on user related problems and it will not directly address any of the problems that genuinely originate from a bad drive.

Symptoms of User Problems

This article will address the list of symptoms that are defined in the main page of this article associated with user problems. Each of the following subsections will describe the symptom, its possible causes, and how to correct it if possible. For the sake of review and clarity, the symptoms we identified in the main page of this article were in the classification titled User problems and are as follows:

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Periodic delays when using the system

User's may themselves be having problems because they're not fully aware of what's going on with the system, or they may simply be overloading the system. Some typical examples of user unawareness might be the following:

If the drive is running low on free space, the system will have problems writing data to the drive. The operating system itself is frequently writing and updating things like cache files that the user may be unaware of, and if free space is insufficient, the operating system may have to go through phases of "cleaning up" some files to make room for the newly updated files, which of course takes time. In some cases, if the space is too limited, some write operations may fail completely, leading the user to think the drive has bad sectors or other problems. As a general rule of thumb, operating systems using MacOS 10.5 (Leopard) or later should have, as an absolute bare minimum, 10GB of free space available on the boot drive. The more memory that's actually in use may cause this number to go up considerably because the operating system may need to swap out some of the memory to the hard drive if the memory load is high.

You will need to determine your actual drive needs. In some cases you may have old files on the drive that can be deleted, or perhaps the trash has never been emptied (some new Mac users think that once they put something in the trash it's automatically deleted when it isn't). The other solution is to install a bigger drive.

If the user is running so many applications simultaneously that the system can't handle them, they may easily be unaware of it. This can also be influenced by the amount of memory being used by the system. 

One of the features present in MacOS since version 10.7 (Lion) is the ability of the operating system and some applications to reload and re-launch where they left off when the system is re-booted or restarted. This option can be disabled in System Preferences and when shutting the system down by disabling the option to re-open running applications. If a user is unaware of this and they shut their system down with numerous applications running, during a reboot or restart, the system will not only need to start the operating system and all its processes, but everything that was running when the system was shut down. If, in addition,  the system memory was fairly heavily loaded, the problem will be exacerbated, making the user, once again, think they may have a disk problem. The solution is to learn how to use this feature and be aware of what is running and what will be restarted when a system is rebooted or restarted.

Another culprit can be what we consider to be abusive web sites. An "abusive" web site is one that often starts loading video content and dynamic advertisements when the site is visited. This often causes web browsers to launch a number of video plugins and start playing videos or other dynamic content. Oddly, in some cases the system may have plenty of memory to handle this, but the CPUs get hit so hard that loading other applications once again starts making the user start thinking there's a drive problem. It may also appear to the user that they're not running an excessive number of applications because the plugin processes are background processes that are hidden from them.

Other hidden processes may be running in the background as well that can be both CPU and disk intensive.The best known of these processes is called the meta data server, or mds process. The mds process is used by both Time Machine and Spotlight to perform periodic indexing of the drives connected to the system. It is disk, memory, and drive intensive, which can sometimes lead a user to believe their drive has problems. Depending on the size of the drive and the number of files, some indexing sessions may last hours. The mds process was most problematic on earlier releases of the operating system (10.5 and earlier), but can present itself as problematic on newer operating system releases if the user is constantly connecting and disconnecting different drives to their system.


Close applications that aren't in use and be aware of all applications running at a given instance.

If the system doesn't have enough memory available to handle the operating system and applications Insufficient memory can cause considerable delays. On systems using MacOS 10.8 (Mountain Lion) or earlier, as the system needs RAM, the operating system will take less used or inactive applications and "swap" them out of RAM and store them in swap files on the hard drive. In MacOS 10.9 (Mavericks) less used or inactive applications are first compressed in memory and only swapped out to the hard drive if free memory becomes sparse. In either case, both are requiring extra CPU and drive resources because the swapping process is slow and relatively time consuming. Once again, this may delude a user into believing that their hard drive is having problems when it isn't.


Either more memory needs to be added to the system (if possible) or the user needs to learn how to tax the system less.

If the user has applications running in the background they aren't aware of will normally be items identified in the Software Problems article linked at the top of this page, however if the problem is something the user themselves launched, that application may be running background processes the user isn't aware of that can be very CPU and/or memory intensive. Some video processing and conversion applications can do this.

The system will need to be monitored using Activity Monitor or by using Performance Probe which is included in the Scannerz package or may be obtained as a stand alone product. Performance Probe information may be obtained HERE.

If an external drive, such as a backup drive, frequently needs to "wake up" slowing system access and a user is unaware of it, it can cause delays that may lead one to think they have drive problems. Typically this occurs when someone tries to save or open a file and the Finder dialog stays blank for a while (it may be as little as a few seconds to nearly a minute, depending on the type of drive). Finder often waits for all drives to spin up and become active before it allows some file activity to take place. If an external backup drive is connected and it has no activity lights or it's hidden from the user's sight, it may leave them with the impression their system has problem.


The user needs to be aware of the external drive, how long it takes to spin up from a sleeping state, and if needed adjust the drive's setting (if possible) to prevent the drive from sleeping, if so desired.

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Running applications lock up for no apparent reason

Running applications can lock up if some components have been deleted or changed by a user. Many Mac applications load dynamically, meaning that they only load the binary information they need when they need it. Often some of the information is in loadable modules. If these have been deleted the application may lock up or crash. Another possibility is that a user has entered inappropriate configuration information into an application.


To be classified as a "user problem" the user would have needed to accidentally deleted files or configured an application incorrectly.

Failure to successfully read or write data to the drive

This can occur if a given user doesn't have administrative access or they do not have access to another user's files and folders. This is actually a permissions problem. If there is only one user on the system or the user has permission, possibly some of the system setting have become corrupt.


Grant or obtain access for the user, or inform them they can't have access to that information. If needed, repair the permissions of the file system using Disk Utility.

A boot drive will no longer boot

Unfortunately, to qualify as a "user problem" it often means a user has accidentally reformatted the drive or inadvertently deleted or modified critical system files. In some cases this can be a permissions problem.


Restore the OS as needed. Use Disk Utility to correct system permissions if needed.

An external drive is no longer seen by the system or won't boot (if bootable)

Unfortunately, to qualify as a "user problem" it often means a user has accidentally reformatted the drive or inadvertently deleted or modified critical system files. In some cases this can be a permissions problem. Another option is that the user has failed to turn on the drive or the I/O cable connecting the drive to the system has disconnected


Restore the drive if needed. If the drive isn't powered on or properly connected to the system, turn it on and/or plug in the I/O cable.

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