For Mac users, officially known as Spinning Disc Pointer or the Spinning Wait Cursor and unofficially known as the Spinning Beachball or Spinning Beachball of Death, whatever be the name, the colorful pinwheel that replaces your mouse cursor is not a welcome sight.
According to Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, “the spinning wait cursor is displayed automatically by the window server when an application cannot handle all of the events it receives. If an application does not respond for about 2 to 4 seconds, the spinning wait cursor appears.” This means that whenever the spinning beachball appears, your Mac is too busy with a task to respond normally and quick enough. Usually, the pinwheel quickly reverts to the mouse pointer. When it doesn’t go away, it turns into what some call the Spinning Beach Ball of Death (also known as the SBBOD or the Marble of Doom).
Troubleshoot CPU or RAM
To find out if the CPU is a bottleneck on performance, use Activity Monitor (/Applications/Utilities) to monitor the CPU usage. Read the details of Mac Activity Monitor if you’d need more help with the Activity Monitor. You don’t have to keep an Activity Monitor window open all the time; there are less obtrusive ways to use it. For example, open Activity Monitor then Control-click on its Dock icon and select Dock Icon -> Show CPU Usage. That will turn the icon itself into a CPU usage graph; you can then close the main Activity Monitor window. You can also Control-click on the icon and select Monitors -> CPU Usage, or Monitors -> Floating CPU Window. That will place a small activity graph in the corner of your screen.
The beach ball may also appear if you don’t have enough RAM. If you do RAM intensive heavy duty work like graphics, games etc, it may be time that you need upgrade for your Mac. I purchased my Mac in 2009 and it came with a 2GB RAM, which Apple though is sufficient at that time. However I noticed that with Firefox and Safari running, my free RAM at ant given time used to be pretty much close to zero.
Upgrading your Mac’s RAM is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to improve its performance, and it might be more necessary than ever if you’re running OS X Lion. I upgraded my Mac RAM to 8GB in the last weekend and I’m yet to see the Mac Spinning Beachball since. Details on how to upgrade will be provided shortly.
Troubleshoot Startup Disk
If your startup disk is nearly full, lesser swap space is available for swap files. This leads to more CPU cycles devoted to swapping and more beach balls. When you computer is new, you have lot of free space on your disk because of which it is rare to see the Mac spinning beach ball. This space starts reducing and you see more of the spinning ball. For optimum performance, keep at least 10GB free on your startup disk. Again, you can use Activity Monitor to diagnose RAM and hard drive shortages; open the System Memory or Disk Usage tabs. In the pie charts shown in these panes, more green is better.
If the spinning wheel is infrequent, usually it is due to the software or application, which is inefficient or is hung in a loop at that particular time. It could also be that a background process is running amok, hogging CPU cycles. It happens in my Mac especially with Photoshop application. Open Activity Monitor’s CPU tab and sort by the % CPU column in descending order; the apps at the top are the ones using the most CPU cycles.
Also, check the 5 Easy Tricks to Speed your Mac for additional troubleshooting tricks.