taming OS X lion

herding cats

I have been fighting with Lion ever since I upgraded from Snow Leopard, an all too common experience. I have made significant progress in my campaign which I gather is rather less common. What I find most interesting, however, is that the emerging configuration is cleaner and leaner than any I have previously had.

I thought I would share what I have sorted out.

lion: a painful transition with a purpose

“Apple appears tired of dragging people kicking and screaming into the future; with Lion, it has simply decided to leave without us.”
John Siracusa Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: the Ars Technica review

With Lion, Apple ended support for PowerPC applications as well as 32-bit processors. The transition enabled Apple to focus on the future, not on supporting companies who continue to think of Apple as an also-ran. Given Apple’s ongoing dominance in the tech sector, refusing to develop for Macs as a niche platform is a nonsensical stance at best. Even though, as a long-time Quicken user, I got caught in the crunch, I was glad to see Apple take the step. Side-note: Quicken Essentials for Mac is ghastly, just don’t do it.

tools you will need

(Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with these tools. I am planning a separate article about them.)

  • Terminal
  • Console
  • nano
  • Activity Monitor


OS X is beginning to suffer from what we might call kitchen-sink syndrome:

  • engineer 1: “Do you think our users might need X?”
  • engineer 2: “Probably not, but we better include it just in case. Besides, since it [will be running as a background process / will just be sitting there on disk] it won’t hurt to include it. Better safe than sorry.”

Lather, rinse, repeat fifty, sixty times… Taken one at a time, each of these oh-so-helpful extras is low impact, but taken as a whole they are little short of disaster. The Center for Internet Security is clear about the presence of software you don’t use on your computer being a bad thing. Looking back over what I did, disabling and deleting unwanted software was the largest part of it. As I did it became possible to diagnose and solve the problems associated with the software that was important to me.

switch from iStat Menus to atMonitor

iStat Menus is a popular OS X system monitor which went from freeware to shareware ($16) as of version 3. Developers have to eat, too, and $16 is a perfectly reasonable price for a useful piece of code, so I bought a license back in the day. On the other hand, when a developer decides to take a package commercial they are making a certain level of commitment to quality. System monitoring software really needs to follow the old maxim of first: do no harm. In the case of iStat Menus, it turned out to be what was flooding my windowserver log with Core Graphic engine errors. So out it went.

I looked around a bit at alternatives and came across atMonitor: which does not flood the logs with errors, actually provides better monitoring information that iStat does and is free! Score!

switch to Homebrew

If you are using MacPorts or Fink, convert to Homebrew. I kept careful notes on the process and have an article on that experience in the works.

candidates for disabling

Disable the open window animation. It does not add anything and is a potential drag on the system. Open terminal and enter:

defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindowAnimationsEnabled -bool NO

Disable the netbios protocol daemon if you are running Lion on a laptop and connect from coffee shops, etc. Open terminal and enter:

sudo nano /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.netbiosd.plist

close to the top you should see:


change the second and fourth lines (the ones in red) to read:


save your changes and exit. The netbios protocol daemon will be disabled on your next reboot. If you are feeling impatient you can stop it immediately (without rebooting) by opening terminal and entering

sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.netbiosd.plist

only enable Cloud print on demand

If you are running Google’s Chrome web browser, disable Google Cloud Print except for those times when you are actually using the printer.

take active control of Dropbox

Dropbox is an invaluable tool, however the way that Dropbox thinks you should interact with their service presumes a very particular use case that did not fit my situation at all and was a huge drag on my resources. Fortunately, Dropbox provides a rich set of options for managing their service, you just need to sort out what it looks like when you don’t fit in to their expected scenario.

and more…

…to come

but what about?

I have steadily updated this post as I have sorted through Lion, to provide a useful tool for readers. This section is for questions that came up along the way and aren’t in the main stream of the current version. It can be safely skipped 🙂

A tool I found very useful as a temporary solution to gain some control was to disable virtual memory in Lion. I have 8 Gb of RAM, so had the option. As noted by a number of others, this step resulted in a noticeable speed-up; a speed-up I would not have expected to see in a healthy system. Once my system was running reasonably cleanly I re-enabled virtual memory, resulting in another speed-up; what one would expect to see when enabling virtual memory in a healthy system.


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