Suddenly, your Mac has become unresponsive. You have a spinning wheel of death, or worse, no cursor at all. There is nothing you do to turn your computer back on. Here are a few things you can try.
Wait a Minute or Two
Wait a moment before you rush to shut down your Mac or try to control it again by pressing the keyboard. Many crashes are caused by very demanding tasks or problematic applications. Give your Mac time to troubleshoot before taking any action.
How long you wait depends on how patient you are, but we recommend a minute or two. Get up and stretch or make yourself a cup of coffee, and see if your Mac is back when you get back. If you are aware of the fact that a demanding process is causing slowdowns, such as video rendering, this will give it time to complete.
This may not be as fast as hard resetting your machine, but the risk is smaller. Once you’ve finally got control of your Mac again, save your work, close any applications you don’t need, and restart your computer.
Another possibility is that you’ll get enough control to kill any malicious app or process that’s causing the problem. Let’s see how you can do it.
Force Close Any Problem Apps
If your Mac is crawling, but you still have mouse pointer control, you can try to force stop (or “shut down”) any problematic apps that might be causing the slowdown. This can be a web browser with hundreds of tabs open, a demanding image editor, such as Photoshop, a game or other software that uses 3D graphics, or a large spreadsheet or word document.
To quickly kill an app, press Command + Option + Esc to bring up the macOS “Force Quit Application” dialog. In this window, you will see any applications that are currently running. You can highlight it with one click, then turn it off by clicking “Force Quit”.
All unresponsive apps will be listed as such, and these should be shut down, as they will likely require a restart for them to function normally. Kill as many apps as you need until your system feels stable again. Be aware that you may lose unsaved data.
You can also launch Activity Monitor to see a list of all running processes. Many applications, such as Safari or Chrome, use multiple processes that separate each tab into separate processes. You can launch Activity Monitor via Spotlight (or access it in Applications> Utilities) and search for any process using more than its fair share of your available CPU.
If you have cursor control, you can also right-click (or Control + Click) the app icon on the dock, press and hold Option, then click “Force Quit” to kill the app.
Force Your Mac to Shut Down
If you’ve been patient and forced problem apps to close without success, it may be time to admit defeat and force your Mac to shut down. You can do this by pressing and holding the Mac’s power button until it shuts down.
The power button is self-explanatory on most models. If your MacBook has a Touch ID sensor instead of a power button, press and hold the Touch ID button on the top right of the keyboard (see image below).
On desktop models, such as the iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro, press and hold the power button on the computer.
You will lose unsaved data in open apps when you do this. While it’s unlikely that this will cause any harm, there’s a reason Apple recommends you turn off via the Apple menu. To minimize the chance of errors occurring, only do this if you have no other choice.
Even if something goes wrong, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve backed up your Mac with Time Machine.
Does Your Mac Freeze During or Shortly After Booting Up?
If your freezing problem occurs a lot, it could be caused by a hardware glitch. To rule this out, make sure your Mac is running the latest version of macOS, and that you have installed the necessary firmware updates under System Preferences> Software Updates.
Unplug all external peripherals, including the mouse, keyboard, USB audio interface, storage device and webcam, then test the problem again. If you seem to have resolved the problem, also consider updating any software related to that peripheral.
If the problem is easy to replicate, you can try booting your Mac in Safe mode to see if the problem persists. Safe mode starts up your Mac with the minimum number of drivers required to run the system. It also scans your hard drive for problems booting up, which might help fix the problem.
To boot to Safe mode, shut down (or restart) your Mac, then press Shift while it boots up. Release the key when you see the login and log in window. “Safe Boot” will appear at the top right. With your Mac booted in Safe mode, test again for freezing issues.
If you no longer have the problem, try restarting and testing again. It’s possible that by checking your disk for errors the problem has been fixed.
If you are still having trouble, make sure all external peripheral devices are disconnected and try again. Trim your login items to remove any software that launched at startup and might be causing problems.
If you’re still having trouble freezing, it might be time to reinstall macOS from scratch. However, the problem can also be hardware related.
Diagnosing Hardware Problems
If the problem persists that you suspect it is hardware related, you can try to diagnose the problem using “Apple Diagnostics” (or “Apple Hardware Test” on machines older than June 2013).
To do this, shut down (or restart) your machine, then press and hold D while it boots up. A gray screen and a progress bar will appear indicating your Mac is being scanned for problems. If Apple Diagnostics doesn’t work, try restarting and pressing and holding Option + D while starting up. This will download the test from the internet.
Unfortunately, Apple Diagnostics can only tell you if there’s a problem. It won’t provide too much information about what the problem is. You should get an unclear picture of where the error was detected. However, you won’t get anything but error codes for Apple technicians to use.
If you want to dive deeper, you can download Memtest86 + to a USB stick. Then, press and hold Option while booting your Mac, then boot from the USB stick instead. This tests your RAM for errors without launching the operating system. In this way, some RAM is not used when the test is performed.
If it detects that faulty RAM is the cause, it’s possible to replace it. Unfortunately, the RAM in most modern MacBooks has been soldered to the logic board, which makes repair difficult, if not impossible.
How to Prevent Future Jams
While a stuck jam can be a sign that something isn’t quite right, it’s more often a sign of temporary problems that will go away when you restart. There are several things you can do to reduce the chances of freezing back up in the future.
The first is to make sure you’re running the latest version of macOS. Apple also issues firmware updates for certain components, which can make a big difference in terms of system stability. For best results, set your Mac to install updates automatically as they become available.
Not maintaining a proper buffer of free drive space can also cause performance issues and crashes. Apple doesn’t specify how much space macOS needs to “breathe”, but we recommend 10 percent of the total drive space. This will also give you a decent buffer to move the file before saving it elsewhere, if necessary.
Sometimes performance is directly tied to the age of your Mac. Some modern web pages can create crawling of old hardware, so it’s good to know the limitations of your machine. Avoid heavy browsers, like Chrome. Use Safari instead, and think twice about editing videos or playing demanding games.
More You Can Try
If your Mac isn’t completely frozen, you have a better chance of restoring unsaved work. Here are a few other things you can try to get an unresponsive Mac back from the brink.
We also have some tips for dealing with a frozen PC.