Reviving a 2012 iMac i5?

My sister has an iMac 13,2, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD (spinner), i5 3.2GHz.

It was running Sierra, but has now been upgraded to Mojave.

It felt sluggish after startup under Sierra already: you click and nothing happens for a couple of seconds. Could be related to all sorts of startup items such as Team Viewer, Dropbox and Office software update.

She uses it for web browsing, email, MS Office, Apple Photos, nothing particularly taxing.

I’m wondering whether it’s worth spending the money on a memory upgrade 2x8GB taking the total RAM to 24GB. But perhaps the actual bottlenecks are the spinning HD and the lowly i5 processor?

Many report that updating the disk to an SSD is most worthwhile. For instance something like https://www.amazon.com/OWC-2012-2017-Enclosure-Installation-OWCK21IM12HE1TB/dp/B076L2L536/ref=sr_1_3
though you will be able to find a place that does this for you.

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More memory will always help, but I’d definitely look into getting it running from a SSD. I ran my old 2011 iMac for many years from an external Thunderbolt-connected Lacie SSD, definitely money well spent. (Quite why Apple still set their base Mac models at 8GB of RAM is a mystery to me, bump the price up a little and make it 16GB.)

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From anecdotal observations 16GB is plenty for the kind of light work you described; SSD upgrade definitely delivers much greater value for money. I think it is worthwhile for a machine of this age to undergo internal cleaning and thermal paste replacement, which may improve thermal dissipation thus performance.

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My old Mac (a 2011 mini) ran Sierra very well with 16GB of RAM and its internal 7200 RPM hard drives. Boot time and the first load of a new app after log-in would take a while, but subsequent loads and operation was plenty fast, because macOS used a huge amount of RAM for disk cache.

Since I was the only user on that computer, and I rarely rebooted or even logged off, that meant pretty good performance, since most storage access was via a mostly-populated cache.

So upgrading to 24 or 32GB of RAM will definitely help and it’s not a very expensive upgrade. (Crucual lists $65 for a 16GB kit.) Maybe enough to make overall system performance acceptable again.

That having been said, your real bottleneck is definitely the HDD. Replacing it with an SSD will dramatically improve performance. Either an internal SATA drive (consider an independent repair shop if you think it may be too difficult to install yourself) or an external Thunderbolt drive.

The external TB drive may even perform better than an internal SATA drive. But either one will be much faster than your current HDD.

If you choose an external drive, you can leave the old drive where it is. Either erase it, use it for a data drive, or just ignore it. Whatever you prefer. But note that when it fails in the future, it could cause macOS to hang or crash, even if you’re not using it. So you might want to consider an internal upgrade, even if it costs more to have someone do the upgrade.

Frankly…I would not spend any money to upgrade a 10 year old machine unless budget was the primary consideration…and even then the only real improvement would be an SSD…but the processor and RAM are all slow enough that you wouldn’t see the full benefit of the faster SSD. I’m still limping along with my 2013 mini attached to the TV…but it’s sole use is as one of my two CCC based network Time Machine equivalents since Apples TM to a network drive is terribly unreliable. If it died…would replace with a current mini but until then nothing will get spent on it.

A new M1 iMac is more money but lightyears ahead in everything else.

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The processor should be adequate although the i7 was a bit better back then which is what my 2012 Mac Mini has. The problem is the spinning drive first of all. The simplest solution would would be to try an external USB model like a Samsung T5 or T7. Depending on how much is used on the 1TB drive, you might only need a 500GB one or the 1TB. Clone the contents of the internal drive to the SSD and boot from that and you will see a difference assuming your USB ports are 3.0 not 2. My 2012 Mac Mini i7 was getting sluggish when Mojave came out and I purchased a Toshiba USB SSD at the time and it made all the difference. Updating to Catalina made the system even faster. It boots up in about a minute or a bit less. More memory might help as I have 16GB on mine but the SSD made all the difference for me. Thunderbolt drives are faster as others have suggested.

I am running an iMac 13,2 2012 I5 maxed at 32GB memory. I have a cheap Micron 1TB SSD internally and make sure the only things on it are apps & OS for the most part. I have approx 60+TB of external storage in 5, 4 drive enclosures and another 4 single drive enclosures of 1TB each, all USB 3. I typical have 21 to 25 apps open simultaneously. The SSD and the capacious 32gb RAM allow it to perform very very well. I also NEVER shut down or power off except for a restart or maintenance. So I think the two best things to do are replace the internal drive with an SSD and add as much memory as possible or affordable.

I just upgraded from Mojave to Catalina and I think it runs even better than before.

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Thanks everyone for their input. Adding an external SSD sound like the easiest option with the most benefit, so she might go for that.