How We Perceive Performance Degradation Over Time

After I acquire a new computer — typically a MacBook Pro — over the course of its lifetime — typically three years — it starts to feel sluggish. Somewhere between the first time I use my MacBook and the day I decommission it, I would have upgraded the operating system and installed a boatload of new apps. I don’t do much upgrading to my MacBook since I typically buy the highest spec machine at the time of purchase. The rationale behind this decision is that the fastest fully spec’d out machine will last the longest — something that still holds true today for me.

During the first three years of use, at some point a major new version of OS X would have been released. Historically I have always upgraded within the first week of its release, with nary an issue. I’ve been fortunate that the core group of apps that I use tend to be responsively updated well in advance of a new OS release. Great software companies who care about their customers experiences will always try and push out compatibility updates in time for the shipping of a new version of OS X. In fact, this is one of the best things about being an Apple user — getting compatible software updates in time is the bare minimum expectation, however the good developers release major updates to take full advantage of new APIs introduced by Apple.

With operating system upgrades, ongoing patches, app upgrades, and of course app removals, none of these regular tasks should affect the performance of your Mac. Well-written software can and should behave itself. Unlike the utter mess that is the Windows Registry, it’s next to impossible for a poorly written Mac app to completely destroy your system. This isn’t to say that problems never arise, because they occasionally do, however it’s far easier to deal with problems when they do happen. There is another problem that we all seem to experience at some point during the lifetime of using our Macs — creeping performance degradation over time.

There is the notion that at some point — perhaps after a couple years of day-to-day use — your Mac will start to feel sluggish. It just won’t feel the same as it did the first time you brought your shiny new Mac home from the Apple store. There has to be a rational explanation for this though. So what is it exactly? We all perceive an inherent slowdown in our computers over time, as if there’s this gremlin inside slowly gnawing away at the bits and bytes. I don’t think there’s a simple and clear cut explanation for this, however I do believe there is a multipart answer to this conundrum.

As it is with your living quarters, if you never do any house keeping on your Mac, things won’t clean themselves. Over time you install apps — some stable and others not so much — and continue to slowly fill your boot drive to its limits. Filling your boot drive until it can’t store any more data is not a good thing, however this just another factor that can cause performance problems over time. To many tech savvy geeks out there like yourselves, you and I are already in the regular habit of removing unnecessary cruft from our systems. Disk Utility is always handy for performing a “Repair Disk” once every 6 months, but all of these things don’t necessarily make our systems feel faster do they?

The only major factor that I can think of that may cause noticeable performance degradation over time is a dying magnetic storage disk drive. When things start to go south for spinning disks, OS X won’t necessarily be able to tell what’s wrong. Sure you could run diagnostic utilities on your hard drive in order to get an idea if there are bad sectors, but you won’t know until you do that. Magnetic storage disks are not the only drives susceptible to slow failure. Sold State Storage drives also fail, however they have their own set of unique problems.

There is a major psychological factor involved as well that contributes to perceived slowness over time. After three years of using the same machine on a daily basis, you have become acclimatized to the environment. The initial wow factor when you first brought home that new Mac has long since evaporated. The reality is that you no longer notice the speed boost from your old Mac because it’s been so damn long since you used it. I posit that if you were to go back and use your old Mac for one month, then went back to using your current one, that you would notice how awesome your current Mac truly is.