Short answer: You don’t.

More interesting answer: You only think you want to do that, what are you, some kind of a Microsoft Windows user or something?

Actual answer: You probably don’t, but if you do, it is a rather fun and interesting thing to try. But really, mostly, don’t.

I recently discovered a nifty utility that is automatically installed in OS X. It is called “Activity Monitor.” Essentially this is a graphical version of “top” melded with a system monitoring utility. “top” is a command line cui-graphic based utility which is a souped up version of the command line utility “ps”.

“ps” and similar unix-like commands (and the Mac OS X runs on a Unix-like base) allows you to look at the files that your system has created to represent processes. Processes are roughly the same thing as programs, so if you open a terminal and you type

ps -A | grep bash

then you’ll get something like

21835 ttys000 0:00.06 -bash
22698 ttys000 0:00.00 grep bash

Which shows you that you are running bash (that is actually what your terminal is using) and that you are running an instance of grep that is looking for the word “bash” … which is funny, of course.

These things that look like files are only files because everything in unix is a file (even your keyboard and your monitor) but in this case a special set of files that represent processes.

“top” is a way of organizing what ps give you in a table form, and might look like this:

Activity Monitor is TOP but not in a terminal and with additional functionality. It looks like this:

The top part is just “top” but mouse-able, and the bottom part is a set of the usual system monitoring utilities.

I guess I was playing around with this stuff when it occurred to me that if I knew something, then I should fiddle with it. Otherwise, well, why even exist? So I started wondering what processes were running that should be turned off to save memory and processing cycles. Frankly, I did not expect that there would be many on a general use desktop. I don’t turn anything off on my Linux desktop. But, on laptops or on specialized desktops one might want to do this. Unless you designed the implementation of the system you are using, there is a pretty good chance that there is something running that you don’t need. On my laptop, for example, I turn off the bluetooth managing process because the machine does not have a functioning bluetooth thingie, so why bother with that?

I have a couple of Linux machines and I can fiddle with the all I want, and frankly I’m not that interested in fiddling much under the hood with a fairly new and capable and properly functioning iMac. But I did want to see what was there. So I googled it.

The answer that came up made me laugh, because they are so axiomatic of the Culture of Mac. Here’s a few examples:

A person asks on a forum:

OK, I am a windows dude… I need to turn off unnecessary processes on a Mac. … What do I do on a Mac? I need it to be permanent, not temporary (like I know how to shut off iTunes helper for a session- I want it off after restarts, too. .. Also, I want to pare this mac down to just the essentials- any advice for what to kill, and what I should not touch? … Thanks!

And among the answer we find:

Tallest says “You should let OS X do its thing. You don’t need to turn of those processes. OS X knows how to manage RAM and processing power.”

The person originally asking responds:

No— you do not understand. … I NEED to turn off iTunes Helper. I NEED to turn off Indexing. I NEED to turn off Software Updates, etc. etc.

A Mac experts chimes in with some advice of what can be removed easily and how to do it (I’ll get to that here later) but adds:

Mac OS X really does manage memory and processes much better than Windows does. Aside from those items, I’d leave everything else stock. Without going deep, there isn’t much to change.

Then the guy called “Tallest” chimes in:

I’m not trying to be condescending; I’m genuinely curious. Why do you need every last thousandth of a gigahertz and bit of RAM (yes, bit) on your machine?

And someone else throws in the helpful comment:

You could just install the Darwin subsystem on your Mac.

And someone else:

@Tallest : Just stick to the Question someone asked. if you can not answer straight, shut the **** up

and then someone else notes:

Tallest won’t be able to respond. The “banned” under his name indicates that he’s been, well, banned

So, that’s a pretty good example of what happens when someone who is not a dyed in the wool Mac user asks a question on a Mac forum. There was a good answer given (which we’ll get to shortly) but first the person had to learn that they should not be asking such questions!

There are two things you need to know about this, maybe three:

1) Most Unix bases systems are designed pretty well and the processes you’ve got going are optimized and you should mostly not worry about them.

2) Most of the processes that you don’t actually use and could thus turn off are not using much in the way of resources so turning them off does not do much.

3) You can’t easily look at the name of a process and tell if it is important unless you really know what you are doing. For instance, you might see processes that seem to be related to “paging” and you might think you don’t do that, but “paging” is basic memory management and taking that out of your system would be the equivalent in your head of taking out your hippocampus.

Having said all that, there is this really cool thing you can do.

First, go to the command line in a terminal. Then type in this:

ps -A > process.txt

ps with the paramater “-A” prints out a set of processes running on your computer that would include those you might want to consider disabling. The greater than sign sends the output of ps -A somewhere. The “process.txt” is the name of a file you just made up, and since it is to the right of the greater than sign, that is where the output of ps -A will go. So you just made a file with a list of candidate processes to eliminate.

Then go to this web site:

Know your Mac OS X processes

and upload your process.txt file (it will probably be in your “home” directory).

Then, you can look at a list of processes linked to version of each processes man file with a short description. If you click on “read more” you see the man file.

In case you are wondering what a “man” file is, I’ll tell you. In Unix World nothing is allowed to be longer than three letters long except the words “Unix”, “Linux” and “Emacs.” “Man” stands for “Manual.” Go to your terminal again and type in

man ps

You now see the “man” file for “ps” … use the space bar to “scroll” down, and type “q” to quit. The web site linked to above basically gives you the man files for the different processes.

Now you can go through all the esoteria such as “syslogd” and “kextd” and “ubd” and find out what all those things are.

So, what are you going to turn off and how?

For the most part there is a maximum of two processes you might want to turn off because they are mostly unnecessary to operating most things on your computer.

1) iTunes Helper. This process sits there and waits for you to plug in an iPod, then it runs iTunes. It may do a few other things, but nothing you need. You can start iTunes whenever you want and if there is an Pod plugged in it will find it. Turning off iTunes helper will probably save you almost nothing. There have been times in the past, though, where iTunes helper did bad things just sitting there, on some people’s machines, so a lot of people turned it off. You can remove iTunes Helper from Login Items under the Accounts preference pane in the System Preferences thingie. It will be replaced later when you restart your computer, which is annoying.

2) Spotlight. Spotlight may be one of the most brilliant, useful things ever invented on your computer. After all, your computer is all about having things, organizing thing, and finding things, and spotlight might be the best utility to do that ever invented. Also, it can be configured for specialized uses other than just being a super search tool. On the other hand, it could also be something you never, ever, use, and thus a true waste of resources, because in order for Spotlight to work it has to index the bejesus out of your hard drive. To prevent Spotlight from indexing your hard rive, add your hard drive to the Privacy tab of the Spotlight preference pane. That is also in the System Preferences thingie.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe the Stack
    United States
    January 14, 2013

    If there are a lot of files on your disks, Spotlight can pretty much consume most of your spare CPU cycles, but it isn’t at all clear that it gets in the way of your more important processes, when you are actually exercising them.

    But what about Mail? What about people with 10,000 to 100,000 messages, sometimes all in one mailbox? Spotlight wastes its life indexing them too, if you don’t tell it not to. If you have 100,000 messages, how do you back them up so that you could switch to a different Mac without losing access or continuity? I of course am opposed to the premise itself, but one must be practical when dealing with others.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    January 14, 2013

    But what about Mail? What about people with 10,000 to 100,000 messages, sometimes all in one mailbox? Spotlight wastes its life indexing them too, if you don’t tell it not to. If you have 100,000 messages, how do you back them up so that you could switch to a different Mac without losing access or continuity?

    Your mailboxes are under a certain directory (~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes on my Mac; presumably the same on your machine unless you have changed a default), so if you can exclude certain directories from Spotlight (as the original post implies), you can hide that directory from Spotlight.

    As for the second question, it depends on whether you need to enable account access to more than one machine, or you are migrating to a new machine. In the former case, you can tell the server not to delete the message for some period of time (I use 30 days, because I read my mail both at the office and on my home machine, and I sometimes use my iPhone for reading mail when I am on the road) after reading it–if you have retrieved the message before on one machine it won’t retrieve it again on that machine, but your other machine can still get it. For the latter scenario, there are lots of backup utilities available, including Time Machine, which is included with MacOS 10.5 and later.

  3. #3 Jonathan Thornburg
    January 15, 2013

    I often run large number-crunching simulations in the background on iMacs (which noone is using at the time) located in one of our teaching labs. I’d love to be able to disable unnecessary background processes which are eating CPU cycles…

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    January 15, 2013

    You can use top or the application I mention to turn off active processes that you “own.” (or become a superuser). Using the guide or man pages, you can decide which would be most risky to turn off.

  5. #5 Emma Lopaz
    Colombo
    January 19, 2013

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