Solving Mac OS X Yosemite Performance Issues

by Tony Gamble

yosemite-on-a-jester-macThis tech tip is a quick one, and rather specific. I had so much difficulty finding information on the Web about this issue that I felt it needed a voice, especially since I’ve nevertheless discovered a resolution. I’m talking about a serious performance hit when I upgraded my aging iMac to the latest iteration of Mac OS X, named Yosemite. Aging yes, but still comfortably within Apple’s minimum recommended specifications for running Yosemite: an iMac from 2007 or newer (mine is a 2009) and 2 GB of RAM (I’ve got mine maxed out at 8 GB).

Mac OS X Yosemite comes with some powerful new features and a new look and feel, drawing on the flat and frequently translucent visage of iOS 8. It looks absolutely gorgeous, but the one system requirement Apple fails to mention is that of the video card. This is the one component that seems to be preventing my cherished iMac from aging gracefully. For one, it’s not a discreet card. This means that the video processing is done on a somewhat less-capable chip which shares a small 256 MB chunk of that 8 GB of installed RAM.

Now don’t get me wrong. That wonderful little NVIDIA on-a-chip has performed rather well for me these past six years. My tasks here at Jester run the gamut of digital media, including animation and video production, jobs which can push the limits of any system configuration. I also have become accustomed to operating with dual 24” screens. But with the glossy new features of Yosemite having become a constant overhead, my daily experience has deteriorated from fluid motion to choppy movements and frequent pinwheel-of-death experiences.

I turned to the Web for a solution. I thought maybe there was a known issue with NVIDIA graphics, but alas, the only mention I found was a problem with their CUDA-based discreet cards. No joy there. But I did find some performance tips regarding that new-fangled transparency. Turning off this feature actually did improve things a bit. You can do this by simply checking the box “Reduce transparency” in the Accessibility options in System Preferences.

That was a good step in the right direction. Window movements became less Evil Dead demon spasm and more stop-motion animation. I continued my efforts to seek out more of such tweaks but found none. Then, in a moment of clarity, I thought to myself: if the transparency effects had such an impact on the aging NVIDIA graphics, perhaps my use of dual monitors on this flashy, modern OS is suspect as well. When you think about it, the 256 MB video memory available must certainly be slashed in half when you plug-in a second monitor of equal resolution. And I wouldn’t dare run the latest modern OS on a 128 MB video card with expectations of smooth performance.

I unplugged my second monitor, reboot the iMac (not necessary, but it placated my OCD) and lo and behold, the graceful motions of the OS X user interface returned! Mission Control immediately slides into view on command. Reveal Desktop brushes aside visible windows with ease. Minimize lures the Genie back into the Dock with fluidity. And my iMac suddenly doesn’t seem so old.

As I said, this is a rather specific scenario, but I suspect I’m not the only user at the bottom end of Yosemite’s minimum system requirements using multiple screens. In fact, MacBook users are very likely to extend their desktop experience to a larger second screen when at their desk. I do miss my second monitor, but the benefit of a smoother user interface experience certainly makes up for it.

Do you have a tip you’d like to pass along? Perhaps you have a vexing situation of your own that you’d like to see solved? Let me know in the comments below!

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