How to Fix a Slow Mac: Your Chrome Browser Might Be the Problem

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Over the last couple of weeks, you may have noticed my social media posts about how to speed up your Mac if it starts running slow. That's because my laptop, a 13-inch mid-2014 MacBook Pro running OS X El Capitan, has been slow, and I don't mean just sluggish. This thing has had its fan on high at least 95% of the time and I can go start a load of laundry while I wait for new tabs to load.

My Mac was doing a bang on impression of a sloth, and my work was suffering.

MacBook Pro

I managed to work, but it was slow going. I swore. I kicked my desk. I clenched my fists. I ate a sandwich while I watched little circles go around and around over blank white space where websites and my work were supposed to be happening. I had a dream that I made a sandwich out of my laptop and ate it. It was crunchy. I claimed to hate Photoshop, Google, kernel_task, my internet provider, and whatever else I thought might be standing between me and a sane work environment.

I have spent hours over the last couple of weeks researching fixes that only took care of smaller portions of the problem without making my normal work pace even remotely possible.

The internet suggested the following things to speed up my laptop:

  • I shut down and restarted Photoshop several times. Nothing.
  • I restarted my computer. I restarted it again. I did this a lot. Nothing.
  • I ran CCleaner to free up some space and decluttered two-thirds of my old work files, culling over 60GB of unnecessary detritus, to see if too little memory was the issue. It wasn't.
  • I read articles (examples 1 , 2, and 3) about how changing your settings in the Google Chrome browser can help, because its Google Chrome Helper process tends to overhelp a lot. It turned out that Google Chrome Helper was eating up 98% of my CPU, so I did what the internet said and disabled plugins. This seemed to help for a short while, but then my system slowed back down again, and I realized that I must have another enemy to hunt down.
  • I read more articles (examples 12, and 3) about something called "kernel_task" that sometimes goes into overdrive because of battery and/or fan issues, or sometimes just because. When I checked my Activity Monitor, it turned out that kernel_task was using upwards of 300% of my CPU, but since kernel_task pretty much runs the computer, and I wasn't comfortable playing around with something called "kext files", it didn't seem like there was much I could do in the short term. I watched the ridiculous numbers continue to soar on Activity Monitor while my fan roared.
  • I read that leaving your laptop plugged in all the time can overheat it if there are battery issues, so I unplugged it. Nope, that wasn't it, either.
  • I checked to make sure that all of the laptop's ports were free and clear and that the laptop stand was letting it breathe. Then, I folded myself a paper fan to cool the whole thing down manually. I actually did this, because times were desperate, but the laptop fan just wanted to run. And run and run and run and run.
  • We don't have an official Apple store in Saskatchewan, believe it or not, so making a Genius Bar appointment was not in my near future. I fell into hopelessness. I considered walking away from everything to build myself a shack in the forest where I could live off local wildlife and stolen vegetables. "WHO NEEDS TO WORK? APPARENTLY, NOT ME" was the general tenor of my life.

And then I figured it all out, and the fix was simple.

What turned out to be the most crazy-making thing about this whole trial-and-error process wasn't that I hunted through hundreds of articles which all offered the same list of fixes. It wasn't the incessant fan noise or slow internet. It wasn't even that this seemed like something that just didn't need to be happening to a relatively young Mac that's been treated like a dear pet.

The most crazy-making thing about this whole process is that what fixed all of my laptop's problems — the perpetually running fan, Google Chrome Helper's overhelping, kernel_task's insane CPU usage, and the slow internet — was so damn simple.

I fixed my slow MacBook Pro by quitting the Google Chrome browser.

Yes, that's all I did.

Within moments of clicking "Quit Google Chrome", Google Chrome Helper was no more, kernel_text dropped from using 300% of my CPU to less than 5%, the internet sped right up, and my fan stopped running. Seriously, that's it. Since yesterday, my laptop and internet have been running beautifully for the first time in weeks.

All the hours I spent reading tech articles and forum threads, all that time spent watching my Activity Monitor with dread and stressing about work, could all have been skipped if I had just switched browser at the beginning.

This might all be Google Chrome Helper's fault.

My theory, which is based on next to no actual hardware/software knowledge, so don't quote me, is that Google Chrome Helper's overhelping overtaxed the CPU, which triggered kernel_task to throttle activities and turn up the fan to deal with an overwhelmed system. As long as I run Google Chrome, I will have to deal with Google Chrome Helper, and that makes everything go, to use a more technical term, kablooey. As to why this doesn't affect every Mac, I have no idea, but this seems to be what affected mine.

It's too bad, because I liked using Chrome as my default browser. I like its extensions. I like how it looks. I liked how it functioned. I've been using it long enough that I don't have to think about how I do things; I just do them. It was my dream browser, but like that one suitor who read his love poetry to me out loud on a crowded bus, it was just too much.

So, if your Mac is barely crawling along, its fan won't quit, and you don't want to mess with your computer's deeper systems, try quitting Chrome. I hear the Safari browser does a decent job of things these days.

And now it's back to work for me. Huzzah!

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