Trimming Mac Tech, a Snappier VoiceOver

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

"VoiceOver is On." Accessing Life with Adaptive Technology.

A Picky Old-School Techie.

Many options available on Mac and iOS can be processor intensive causing not only battery drain, but slowing down VoiceOver's response time over all. Choosing the ones that are best suited for my needs and turning off the ones that are not, can help. It can save battery life and give my device less to do, allowing it to pay quicker attention to me. :-)

Okay I admit it, I am a picky old-school techie. I am always trying to make my Mac a lean, clean, processing machine. I probably spend more time than I save, but constantly looking for areas to trim off a few milliseconds here or there is totally normal, right?

With that in mind, below find several places that I tweak to reduce unneeded items and allow a faster response from everything else. Keep in mind, I no longer have a need for the visual aspects of my interface. I tend to reduce or turn off everything I can for better response from VoiceOver. The response I am referring to is, press a key, how long does it take for VoiceOver to respond? How much lag is there between pressing and the resulting action? If you still use a portion of your eyesight however, you may wish to use some of the items that I do not. This main idea applies to more than just use of VoiceOver. It also applies to any open-ended interface, especially the processor heavy ones like audio or video engineering, gaming or any platform that involves a snappy response.

Additionally, many speed ups and slow downs can depend on one's system set up and average running situation; extra apps, extra hardware, extra processes running in the background, and of course any extra visual or other sense related info that it is putting out to the user. additions to the interface, visual or otherwise, can reduce the initial snappiness. A few milliseconds here, a few more there, they do start to add up.

A strange aside, while I now normally have my monitor set to 0 Brightness and I no longer use the visual screen, I did extensively in the past. I have some experience creating and editing multimedia libraries on a professional level. After working with all forms of multimedia and bringing several clients' extensive libraries through multiple upgrades in resolutions and bit-depths, I learned a lot about the drawing of the digital screen. In a very over-simplified manner, I like to think of it as two layers. One is the underneath layer where the physical space of the screen is being planned/constructed. This happens only in code. The other is the final physical display of the screen space on the surface of the monitor. Both layers use some processor time, more or less depending on visual aspects of what is being drawn. Things like shadows, anti-aliasing, transparencies and multiple layers of screen elements, temporary animations or indicators, auto-icon previews, and many other visual considerations can start to reduce the snappiness of other interface processes. The strange part is that, turning my screen brightness to zero does not speed things up, only the backlighting is being turned off. Turning screen brightness to zero may save a bit of battery life, but the code layer and the surface layer are both being figured and drawn as usual. I can start a screen recording in QuickTime with invert colors on and brightness set to zero, but the final recording is still normally lit and un-inverted. I am assuming it is similar on iOS, even with Screen Curtain turned on the cosmetic features of the OS are still being drawn. This can be a good thing, it means I can turn off some of the 'good looking' stuff and probably see some snappiness back.

Add to the cosmetic considerations any additional interface services that one may be using; VoiceOver, Zoom, Visual adaptations, Braille, switch devices, external keyboards, Dictation commands, or SIRI. Also things like midi devices, graphic tablets, audio/video bluetooth devices, printers, smart home devices, services like iCloud, Dropbox, home networks, ISPs, even spellcheck and suggestions, plus any others that I am not thinking of and it is a lot of processing to do. Its no wonder my poor little computer gets laggy and overheated. Come to think of it, so do I.

With all this in mind and being a picky old techie, below find some of the things I turn off or reduce to speed up the response time of everything else. Keep in mind, you could make all these same adjustments and see different results than I, every computer is different, every running situation is different. The main idea is to look and see what is going on and reduce things that are unimportant to you anyway.

The Quest for a Lean, Mean, Processing Machine.

In general, the automatic services that run continually in the background are the biggest lag instigators. Some of them can be set to manual, some can be turned off completely depending on your set up, others you may want to leave in place. Some of the OS services like Hand Off, AirDrop, Sharing and others may depend on some of the main services like Bluetooth or Wifi. It is astounding how entwined everything can become with each feature affecting multiple areas and services. I have gotten myself in trouble before, turning off things I didn't fully understand the breadth of, then found out the hard way later. I started making notes of changes I make so later on I will know which ones to turn back on again, if needed. So the hunt to trim the milliseconds goes on, a few here and a few there, each giving a mini-boost to everything else on my Mac. Or at least that is what I have myself convinced of, but that' is totally normal. Right?

It's Trimming Time. Ding!

Hey, hey! you, you! Get off of my iCloud.

One of the biggies I look at for numerous reasons is iCloud. In System Preferences>iCloud>Services table, click the iCloud Drive 'Options' button. In the resulting Applications Table, I uncheck the Documents and Desktop folders. I often have more than ten gig of stuff on my Desktop at any one time. I do not want everything loading up to iCloud. I also uncheck every app that I don't normally use. No point in having a folder for them in iCloud when I do not use them anyway. Back on the main iCloud Services list, I do the same with Photos, follow the Options button. These changes can greatly speed up things when it may otherwise be uploading in the background. A few milliseconds saved here and there. Ding!

Also, below the Applications Table I leave, "Optimize Mac Storage," unchecked. While I can see many uses for this feature, I do not need it myself. Having a complete back up of iCloud Drive on my Mac is over kill for my needs. I have plenty of space, I simply don't want the background activity happening. A few more milliseconds, Ding!

Dropbox is another one, depending on its use. It does a pretty good job at trickle syncing, but it can sometimes slow down the Mac's startup time. It can also cause a slight lag if actively syncing something. At one point this was messing with my current working process. So I temporarily changed Dropbox to a more manual mode. In System Preferences>Users & Groups, I select myself in the list of Users. Then I click the Login Items tab. In the resulting Applications Table, I check the box for Dropbox. This will 'Hide' the app and prevent it from loading up with the system. Then I restart. It will not sync in this condition, but will let the OS start up normally. If I had a need for it, I can always run the app from the Applications folder. It will immediately start syncing at this point. To return it to normal, I return to my User account and unhide the app again. Then restart. Selective use of the app can save more of those valuable milliseconds, Ding!

Hay Computer!

If Dictation is listening all the time it will slow down the response time of the Mac. In System Preferences>Accessibility>Dictation, where it says "Enable the dictation keyword phrase:" I keep this unchecked. It is a handy feature if you have a need. It is also very processor intensive and can slow the response time of everything else. Quite a few saved here, Ding!

For use of Dictation I set the shortcut key to "left Command key twice," in System Preferences>Keyboard>Dictation Tab. Its easy to find with my left thumb and it is easy to use from inside an AppleScript. The important part is, Dictation isn't listening for a keyword all the time.

Opening the Vault.

Another culprit can be FileVault, which encrypts everything on the internal drive. This can add extra layers of security, but also extra steps involved in your every day usage. Not to mention a few milliseconds for un-encryption/re-encryption. I do not use this feature, and so in System Preferences>Security & Privacy>FileVault Tab, I make sure FileVault is Off. While it was probably off by default, I like to ring my little bell anyway, a few more saved. Ding!

Stop Giving Me That Look.

Next I go through most of my system settings and decide if I really need certain items, especially the cosmetic ones. I turn off those that I do not need. It is amazing how many I find that are mostly cosmetic. This can come with drawbacks in rare cases, turning off anti-aliasing or transparencies can affect the quality of screen-shots, or screen recordings, among other possible issues. For my own general use which is now only audible, I have no need for a pretty Mac. I would rather have a slight speed boost and less cosmetic features.

Starting with Accessibility features.

In System Preferences>Accessibility>Display:

Reduce Motion checked. Think of everything that is refigured each time any element on the screen moves position. This includes opening and closing of windows and apps, scrolling areas, menus and dialogs. All the anti-aliasing, shadows and transparent layers that are showing what is underneath, all need to be refigured/redrawn with each screen refresh. Moving the mouse or VoiceOver cursor over top of it all causes even more changes. I can not see the fancy animations anyway. A few milliseconds, Ding!

Reduce transparency checked. Same idea as above, no need to blend the background into each element on the screen. I will not notice. Ding!

0% Cursor size. Increasing the mouse cursor size is a very nice feature that I have used myself in the past. It also requires more anti-aliasing and shadowing and figuring compared to the default size. I do not use it anyway. Ding!

Shake mouse pointer to locate, unchecked. A more recent and very handy feature. For my use however, see ya! Ding!

In System Preferences>Accessibility>Zoom:

At one time I used Zoom heavily. Now I turn everything off. If I were still using it, for general use I would turn off Smooth Images. They will look a little pixelated, but the zoom will function smoother instead.

The remainder of Accessibility Features I tend to leave at default, which for most of them is turned off. If you use Braille or a switch device you may find settings that are on by default. If they are unneeded one might save a few more milliseconds. Ding!

In VoiceOver Utility:

A Compact Voice:

In theory, using one of the compact voices like Alex or Samantha can boost snappiness because it is a less complex version for the processor to handle. Supposedly speeding things up a bit, after some personal testing, I don't notice a significant improvement. At least, not enough to deal with the lesser quality of the voice. If however, speed is what you need, even temporarily, switching from Alex to Alex Compact may give you a mini-boost.

In VoiceOver Utility>Speech>Voices Tab: In the Activities scroll area, in the Default category, moving once with the right arrow key lands one on the Customized language list table. Interacting with this and moving to the Voices pop-up button allows one to choose a 'compact' voice. Oh yeah, Ding!

A Visual VoiceOver:

Some of the Visual options are great for training or screen recordings. They even help when demonstrating something to a visual onlooker. For my every day use however, I usually turn off all visual bells and whistles related to VoiceOver. I can even make an Activity with the visuals turned on, for those demo situations.

In VoiceOver Utility>Visuals>Cursor tab: Show VoiceOver cursor unchecked. When this item is checked, it outlines the entire VoiceOver cursor with a thin line. Below that are several options for displaying the VoiceOver cursor. It can be magnified and the auto-read function can be set to word or sentence. For every day use, I leave it turned off. Ding! :-)

In VoiceOver Utility>Visuals>Panels and Menus tab: Show caption panel unchecked. I have no need for this feature, though I could see using it myself for demos or training. It may be usable for many others though. If I don't have a need however, a few more saved, Ding!

Back in System Preferences.

In General:

Use dark menu bar and Dock unchecked. For my own use, my screen brightness is already set to zero. I am not sure if this saves any milliseconds or not. Maybe a muted bell ring for this one. Tink!

Automatically hide and show the menu bar, unchecked. I use the Menu bar heavily on a daily basis. There is no point in drawing the animation to put it it in place repeatedly. It is thin and uses very little screen real estate. Over time, a few more saved. Ding! Note, this one is a conundrum. It may take more milliseconds to draw it constantly, as opposed to drawing the animation to put it on the screen. I can not decide, but worrying about it is totally normal. Right?.

Show scroll bars: Automatically based on mouse or trackpad, selected. This one is a personal choice. No need to show them all the time, since I never use the mouse or trackpad, it should leave the scrollbars off the screen most of the time. I don't know which would be of more benefit, so maybe a muted ring for this one also. Tink!

Allow Handoff between this Mac and your iCloud devices, checked. While turning this off might save a millisecond or two of processing, the benefits out-weigh the possible delays. Ding!

Use LCD font smoothing when available, unchecked. Though one might want to be careful with this, I keep it turned off most of the time. Not having to smooth the edges of screen fonts all the time may make a slight lag difference. I can not see them anyway. However, it could affect things like print-outs and screen shots or recordings. For my general use, Ding!

In Desktop & Screen Saver:

In the Desktop Tab: I use a solid color as a Desktop background. It offers much less to do for the processor, what with all the anti-aliasing, shadows and transparencies going on. Especially when compared to a photo or drawing. Quite a few saved here. Ding!

I also leave, Change picture: unchecked. Having your desktop picture change automatically every so often, will definitely slow things down a bit, particularly when it changes at an inopportune moment. A sporadic savings every once in a while. Tink!

In the Screen Saver Tab: I have mine set to start: Never. I do not want it coming on simply because I was messing with another device for a moment. I do not use the screen saver any more with my screen brightness set to zero. When I did use the screen saver, I would always set up a hot corner and turn it on manually, when needed. Push the mouse cursor into the top right corner and the screen saver would come on. No need for auto-stuff happening. More of those sporadic savings. Tink!

In Dock:

I leave the "Minimize windows into application icon," unchecked. I will not notice if a window minimizes into its own Dock icon. No need for the processor to spend cycles figuring custom pathways for each application's window, just for a half of a split-second animation. Ding!

Animate opening applications, unchecked. For my own reasons, same as above. Ding!

Automatically hide and show the Dock checked. This keeps the Dock off of the screen until needed. Less to process and draw on the screen and more free space on the Desktop. I do not use the Dock as often, probably better off being hidden most of the time. Ding!

Show indicators for open applications, unchecked. VoiceOver does a nice job of telling me that a Dock Icon application is open. No need for a small indicator light on my Dock icons. I usually press Command-Tab to see what is running. Hold down Command with a thumb, then tap on Tab while you do. In the Application Switcher Menu that appears, each tap on Tab while holding down Command will move to the next running app, including the Finder. Let go of Command on the app you want to bring to the front. So, having a small light on the Dock icons is not very efficient for a screen reader. A few processor cycles saved. Ding!

In Notifications:

As a matter of course, I trim down Notifications to the bare minimum. Not much interface lag here, but for me it is a matter of not being interrupted all the time. Maybe half a ring for this one. Tink.

In EnergySaver:

For my MacBook Pro, when it is plugged in to the Power Adapter, I have all settings turned off. I don't let the monitor or drives sleep. I handle that manually with a Screen Saver Hot Corner. For running on Battery, I leave all settings at default. The only savings here are from not having to wake up the screen or a sleepy drive. A muted bell ring for this one, Tink!

In App Store:

I have this one checking for updates automatically, but "Download newly available updates in the background," is unchecked. I will go get them when I am ready. All other auto features are turned off here. Since uploading and downloading can cause a bit of lag, Ding!

In Bluetooth:

Check here for old devices that you do not use any more. Unlink or delete them from the list, if needed. No point in constantly checking to see if an old device is still around. Especially if you know that it isn't. A few more saved. Ding!

In Sharing:

I have all sharing items turned off for normal use. Sharing anything on a local network like your home Wifi can cause extra processor cycles. No point in negotiating network addresses and protocols when it is just me sitting here. Ding!

The Finder.

From the Finder, with no windows open, I move to the View Menu and choose Show View Options. In the window that appears, I leave "Show item info," unchecked. This saves a few more cycles. Ding!

Also "Show icon preview," unchecked. This one can save considerable lag time, but will remove the custom icon preview on all Finder items. It does not remove the icons themselves, it just stops live previewing. When previewing, if only a few icons are showing the lag is almost unnoticeable. When there are many icons in view, the lag increases. Back when I used a lot of media, this was a nice feature. For my current use it is better turned off, this one saves quite a bit and gets a double-ring. Ding, Ding!

Then I open a Finder window and show view options again. Near the bottom of the View Options dialog, I leave "Calculate all sizes," unchecked. Icon Previews are also unchecked here. Then I click the Use as Default button. More savings. Ding!

In conclusion.

The above list is getting long, but suffice it to say exploring your Mac and turning off unneeded items can actually produce a snappier system over all. Searching for those hidden bells and whistles can help one learn much about their system as well. I did not include iOS, as there are probably others here better versed in its details. I assume there are some areas that can be tweaked also. With this in mind, I invite you to comment with your own time/system saving techniques. There are many I did not include, or even know about. Besides, being overly picky about our devices and systems is completely normal. Right? :-)

Just smile and nod, and remember...

All of our cool digital stuff that we work with, play with and enjoy, is all about "Living." Live well!

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Submitted by sockhopsinger on Monday, February 5, 2018

I enjoyed reading your article, but I think you should make a note at the beginning letting people know that this is basically for Mac users. :) People with just an iPhone may not really benefit from this currently. Still, a very good article.

Submitted by Morgan Watkins on Monday, February 5, 2018

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team


Thank you for another practical and enjoyable blog. Your focus on saving processor cycles on a multi-gigahertz machine would have sounded wildly unnecessary in the early days of personal computing. I remember the old TRS-80 was a sub-one-megahertz machine and we used to fret about which machine code instructions we could change to trim just a bit more time out for the apps we were writing. But, in those days, we could not even illuminate individual pixels and multi-tasking only had meaning if we allowed ourselves time to run downstairs for another cup of coffee.
Our computers had so much less to do.

Even after having experienced the microcomputer revolution in person, and remembering the sluggish pace of those antique processors, I still find myself trying to tweak just a bit more out of each new machine generation. Like you, in my heart of hearts, I am convinced that it must make a difference in performance. Or, at least, I choose to believe it.

I'm glad to know there are other older computer geeks still hunting the elusive nanosecond.

That was a fun article,


Submitted by Ekaj on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Thanks for this helpful post. I knew about most but not all of these. Another thing I've done is to turn off the VoiceOver sounds, because I read elsewhere on this site that the sounds can slow down a Mac a bit. Regarding the automatic updates, mine used to work but for some reason, they stopped working last year. I've not as yet been able to get a satisfactory answer about this, so I recently turned them off and just update everything manually whenever I read that there is an update to this or that.

Submitted by Nicholas on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

hello sockhopsinger,
Thank you for the great comment! I am glad you enjoyed the read. As for making it labeled as Mac, I attempted this with the following: "I am always trying to make my Mac a lean, clean, processing machine. I probably spend more time than I save, but constantly looking for areas to trim off a few milliseconds here or there is totally normal, right?"...
However, Maybe I should have been more straight forward. I did kind of bury it in there. :-)
You make a good point though, there are a lot of iOS-only users in the AppleVis community. I was hoping that a lot of the ideas presented would also apply to iOS. Maybe I need to do an iOS version for March? I'll be more clear about it, if so.
Thanks again for the comments! it was a long production and I am glad it is a pleasant read.
By the way, just curious, is your handle based on a hobby? I haven't heard the term Sock Hop since the last Sadie Hawkins dance i attended in high school in the (gulp) seventies. :-)
Best regards.

Note: Title edited for better clarity. Thanks again for the great comment.

Submitted by Nicholas on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Morgan,
Thank you for the great comments! I also had a trash 80 machine. I think it had one of those green screen monitors that could only display text. It was a great system though. It seems like another age now.
Thanks again for the great comments. Us old computer nerds need to stick together. :-)
Awaiting your next blog.
PS. Every nano-second counts. I'm sure of it!

Submitted by Nicholas on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Ekaj,
Thank you for the wonderful comments and tips. The sounds probably slow things down a bit. I wish I could pick and choose which sounds to hear while navigating. I like and use the wrap-around sound. I think I use the beginning and end sounds, but everything else likely goes ignored. Also like you, I do all updates manually and usually leave it alone during the process. Some nice tips!
Best wishes.