How-To Geek

How to Troubleshoot Your Mac With Activity Monitor

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Not many casual users know about OS X’s Activity Monitor, and fewer still understand how it works and what it can really do. Here’s how to use Activity Monitor to manage your Mac’s memory, fix slow applications, and troubleshoot various other issues.

Launch the Activity Monitor app by going to “Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor,” or just type “Activity Monitor” into Spotlight. The main screen of Activity Monitor is divided into two sections:

1. The Processes Table

The main pane shows both a list of both open applications and system processes. Notice how many items appear in the Process list, even when you’re just staring at the desktop doing nothing. Some applications are easy to spot, while others are background system level operations you don’t normally see. All the processes are listed together with a more details in each column.

It’s possible to view additional columns by going to the “View > Columns” menu. Expand the “Columns” option, choose the ones you want to view, and they’ll appear in Activity Monitor. You can also sort the list of processes by any of the columns in ascending or descending order. Click the column title once or twice to change the order. On the top right there is a “Search Filter” box which lets you search for a specific process.

2. System Monitor Tabs

The five category tabs at the top of the Activity Monitor–“CPU,” “Memory,” “Energy,” “Disk,” and “Network”–focus the list of processes on a given resource. For example, if you want to see what processes are using up your RAM, you’d click the “Memory” tab. If you want to see what’s taking up so much network bandwidth, you’d click “Network”.

Each pane shows real-time stats for that resource, as well as graphs that show resource usage over time. The real-time statistics are updated every five seconds, but you can make that shorter or longer by going to “View > Update Frequency” and selecting the frequency level. These monitoring features are invaluable for troubleshooting.

The “View” menu also allows you to choose which processes you see: all processes,  system processes, active processes, applications used in the last 8 hours, and so on. You can read more about those options in Apple’s support documentation.

CPU

The CPU tab shows how the processes are using your computer’s processor. You’ll see what percentage of the total CPU a process is using, how long it’s been active, the name of the user or service that launched the process, and more.

If you look at the bottom of the window, you’ll see some more general statistics, including the percentage of your CPU currently used by “system” processes that belong to OS X, “user” processes, which are apps you opened, and how much of your CPU is currently not being used. You’ll also see a graph that shows how much of your CPU is being used in total. Blue shows the percentage used by user processes, while red shows the percentage used by system processes.

Sometimes, an app might use more CPU than it should, even when the app doesn’t seem to be doing anything. A busy CPU means shorter battery life and more heat. Also, when an app consumes too much CPU, it deprives other processes of their share, slowing down your computer and often resulting in frequent, and extended appearance of spinning beach ball in all applications.

Temporary spikes are normal when an app is working hard, especially if it’s something resource-intensive like video editing or 3D games. But CPU usage should decrease when the task is finished, and it should stop entirely when the app is no longer open. When you aren’t using your machine, that “Idle” number should be over 90%.

To see which apps are taking up the most CPU, open Activity Monitor, and choose “View > All Processes.” Click on the top of the “% CPU” column to sort your processes by CPU usage. If an app that isn’t doing anything shows up at the top with a high percentage of CPU, it may be misbehaving. You may also see problematic processes in red text with the phrase “Not Responding”.

Some processes may occasionally display high CPU usage, but this isn’t always a problem. For example:

  • Processes associated with Spotlight can show an extended spike in CPU usage during indexing. This is usually normal behavior (unless it’s all the time).
  • Occasionally, you will see a process named “kernel_task” using a large percentage of your CPU, often when your Mac’s fans are blowing. Kernel task helps manage your Mac’s temperature by making the CPU less available to processes that are using the CPU intensely.
  • A Web browser may show high CPU usage while rendering or displaying multimedia content, like videos.

If you look at Activity Monitor and an app is acting strangely–like using 100% of your CPU when it shouldn’t be–then something may be wrong. If the process is “Not Responding” then wait for few minutes to see if it either returns to a normal operation or crashes. Otherwise, terminate the process in question by clicking on it and going to “View > Quit Process”. You can also click the X button in the toolbar to force quit. Ignore processes which have “root” listed as the user and focus on those running from your user account.

Memory

The Memory pane shows information about how your RAM is being used. As with the CPU tab, you can sort by many different options, and see more information at the bottom of the Memory pane, including a live-updating graph of how much RAM is in use.

The “Memory Used” value is particularly useful here. This denotes the total amount of RAM used by apps and OS X processes, but is divided up into “App Memory”, “Wired”, and “Compressed”. In order to use RAM more efficiently, OS X will sometimes compress data in RAM that isn’t currently in use, or it will swap it to your hard drive for use later. Wired memory denotes data that can’t be compressed or swapped to your hard drive, usually because it’s necessary for your computer’s core functions.

Lastly, “Cached” tells you how much memory is currently used, but available for other apps to take. For example, if you quit Safari after browsing for awhile, its data will stay cached in your RAM. If you re-launch Safari later, it will launch faster thanks to those files. But, if another app needs that RAM, OS X will remove Safari’s data and let another app take its place. Cached is essentially RAM that is used, but not “tied up” by a process.

If your Mac is running slowly, there are a number of possible culprits. While you’re on the “Memory” tab, take a look at the graph of “Memory Pressure” usage. It tells you the current state of memory resources through different colors. Green means memory resources are available, and red means your Mac has run out of memory and is resorting to your hard drive (which is much slower).

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Full RAM isn’t always a bad thing. It could just mean that your Mac has a lot of cached files that are available for other apps if they need it. As long as “Memory Pressure” is green, don’t worry if it looks like all your memory is being used.

But if your RAM is very full and your Mac is acting slow, it might be because you don’t have enough RAM for everything that’s currently running. There are only two ways to fix this: either close apps that are eating up large amounts of memory, or buy more RAM for your computer.

Keep an eye on the Swap Used and Compressed statistics, too. A low number of swap usage is acceptable, but a high number of swap usage indicates the system does not have enough RAM to meet the application demands. The system only swaps to the hard drive when it does not have enough real memory, thus slowing system performance.

Energy

The Energy pane is extremely useful for laptop owners. It shows how much battery your apps are using, so you can make sure you’re getting as much life out of your laptop as possible.

As with the other tabs, you can sort by many different options and more information is available at the bottom of the Energy pane. You’ll see the energy impact of your running apps, the average energy impact of each app over the last eight hours, and even if an app is preventing your computer from going to sleep. You can also see which apps support “App Nap”, a feature in OS X that lets individual apps go to sleep when they’re open but not in use.

The more energy your computer uses, the lower battery life you’ll get. If the battery life of your portable Mac is shorter than than you’d like, check the “Average Energy Impact” column to learn which apps use the most energy over time. Quit those apps if you don’t need them.

You don’t always have to quit an entire app, though. You’ll often see web browsers, for example, with a high “Average Energy Impact”, but it’s not necessarily the entire browser that’s eating energy. Click the triangle next to the app name to display all child processes under the parent application. Find the child processes with the highest “Energy Impact” number, select it within Activity Monitor, then click the “X” button in Activity Monitor to force quit that process. In the case of a web browser, it might be a tab or window that had something like Flash, Java, or other plugins running within it. Be careful, though: quitting apps and processes can have unintended side effects, and you could lose data in that process. So always save your work before you force quit something.

Disk

The Disk pane shows the how much data your processes have read from and written to your hard drive, as well as the number of “reads in” and “writes out” (IO), which is the number of times that your Mac accesses the disk. You can switch the graph to show IO or data as a unit of measurement. The blue line shows data read or number of reads, while red shows data written or number of writes.

Having enough RAM is crucial for system stability, but your hard drive is almost important. Pay close attention to how often your system accesses the hard drive to read or write data. Pay special attention to “Data read/sec” and “Data written/sec.” What’s causing the disk usage? Sometimes it correlates with CPU usage, and some apps and processes are heavy on both, like when converting video, audio, or Spotlight’s mds and mdworker.

If your system is short on RAM, as discussed above, the excessive disk activity could be caused by swapping memory contents to the hard drive and back. If your hard drive is running out of space, it can get even worse: 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.

Also, if you’re short on hard drive space, it can cause other problems, like:

  • Being unable to burn DVDs
  • Being unable to update software through Software Update, or install new software
  • Being unable to enable or disabling FileVault
  • Losing application preferences
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These problems are even more likely to occur when your startup disk is nearly full, physical RAM is exhausted, and free disk space is consumed by swap files. So if the available space on your Mac startup disk is less than 10 GB (absolute minimum), it’s time to free up some disk space. 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.

Network

The Network pane shows how much data your Mac is sending or receiving over your network (and the internet). The information at the bottom shows network usage in packets and amount of data. You can switch the graph to show either, though data is probably the more useful of the two. Blue shows data received, and red shows data sent.

Your computer is probably connected to the Internet 24/7, and whether you’re using it or not, your Mac is constantly exchanging data with servers elsewhere. Every application that you use on your Mac sends or receives something, be it your email, RSS reader, and more. Most of these apps are ones you trust. If you’ll take a look at all the processes running in the Network pane of the Activity Monitor, half of them will probably not make any sense or are probably too complicated to understand. There are literally thousands of processes, and understanding which external resource each one is connecting to or what’s trying to connect to processes on your computer is a huge pain.

The network tab will display information on network traffic, regardless of whether it’s wired or wireless. It shows total network activity across all apps, and processes that are sending or receiving the most data. This is very useful if your internet subscription has a data cap–you can see which apps are using the network most, and use them less if you’re nearing your cap.

If you’re curious what kind of data an app is sending and receiving, the free app Little Snitch monitors network traffic on a per-application basis. It can clue you in to which of your running applications are accessing and sending data to the Internet when you might not be expecting and also help you to see if unexpected applications are sending data out when you don’t want them to. It also helps you to block apps from “phoning home” without your knowledge.


Activity Monitor is one of OS X’s hidden gems. It helps you gain insight into many hidden but invaluable facets of your computer–from CPU and RAM usage to disk usage. If you learn to use it now, it’ll be much easier to diagnose any issue your Mac is having.

Rahul Saigal is a writer and all-around computer geek. Born in Kolkata, India, he works from home with all the geeky stuff and gadgets. When not working he loves to read, listen podcasts, and try new software. You can follow him on Twitter if you'd like.

  • Published 01/8/16

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