My MacBook Pro was acting strangely last week: slow application launch times, incessant beach-balling, fans at full speed all the time, hot to the touch, and miserable battery life. The battery gave out on me in the middle of a Keynote presentation, after which I set aside all else that needed doing so I could figure out what was ailing my workhorse machine.

This group of symptoms screams software, not hardware. Excessive heat generation and fan activity can be a symptom of hardware abnormality, but it is most often caused by a runaway process. The additional symptom of abysmal battery life is the real clue. When a program on your computer encounters a situation it doesn’t know how to deal with, it can often consume a huge percentage of the computer’s processing power (and battery) to figure it out. This turned out the be the case in my situation.

If you find yourself with these symptoms, instead of fretting or just dealing with it, fire up Activity Monitor from your Utilities folder. You’ll see a list of all the processes running on your machine. This will show you not only the programs you use every day, like Safari and iPhoto, but also the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps Mac OS X running. There are several columns in the window, but this first installment of the Activity Monitor focuses on the CPU column. By clicking on the CPU column header you can view the processes by the amount of processor capacity they’re using, in ascending or descending order.

I sorted this column and noticed that SystemUIServer was pegged at 91%. This accounted for all the problems I was having. By clicking on SystemUIServer in this window, and then clicking on the big red Quit Process button on the top left of the window, this process is forced to restart itself. With this completed, and SystemUIServer hovering at a very reasonable 0.1%, the fans spun down, the laptop cooled off and the estimated battery life remaining jumped up almost an hour.

More next week on Activity Monitor!

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