How to Fix a Spinning Pinwheel of Death on Mac

Force quit a troublesome app or expand RAM and storage

Once in a while, you may encounter the Spinning Pinwheel of Death (SPOD) on your Mac. It's that multicolored pinwheel that signifies a temporary or never-ending delay while the Mac tries to figure something out. The Mac is trying to function, but nothing is happening, so the pinwheel keeps spinning and spinning.

This issue could relate to an errant app, storage capacity limits, or even hardware conflicts. Whether you rarely encounter it or you've seen too much of it, these approaches could resolve the problem.

The instructions in this article apply to macOS Catalina (10.15) through OS X Lion (10.7), except as indicated.

Spinning pinwheel of death on a laptop screen

Causes of the Spinning Pinwheel of Death

If you experience SPOD, it's likely that a single frozen app is the cause. It appears when an app exceeds the Mac's processing capability. The application could need to be updated or removed and reinstalled.

When the Spinning Wheel of Death frequently appears with more than one app, the available storage space and RAM become suspects. You may find luck making more space on your hard drive or upgrading storage internally or externally.

How to Fix a Spinning Wheel of Death on a Mac

You can stop the spinning wheel and get back to a smooth Mac experience using one of these fixes.

  1. Force quit the active app. Determine whether the spinning wheel of death is the result of a single app by force quitting it. Restart it again, and there may be no problem. If you see the spinning pinwheel again with that app, it could be a culprit. Check for an update to the app or delete and reinstall it.

  2. Shut down the Mac. If you can't force quit the app or get control of the Mac, shut down the computer by holding down the power button. Then restart it and resume your work.

    Forcing the Mac to shut down doesn't give you a chance to save unsaved work. This means you will most likely lose your progress.

  3. Repair permissions. In OS X Yosemite or earlier, this is one of the first things to do when you experience issues with an application. This step can also help with the spinning wheel if it relates to an application that requires corrected permissions.

    Starting with OS X El Capitan, Apple included automatic file permissions repairs during software updates. If your Mac operates on OS X El Capitan or later, make sure your software is up to date and move on to the next fix.

  4. Upgrade the RAM. If you run demanding or memory-hungry applications or if your Mac is getting old, it may need additional RAM or storage space. If needed, add RAM to the Mac and expand the storage space with an external drive or a larger internal drive.

  5. Wait for Spotlight indexing to end. This process can bring a Mac to its knees while it creates or rebuilds the spotlight index. Wait for the process to end, although it can take a long time if Spotlight is indexing a new drive, a clone you just made, or some other event that caused a significant change in the Mac's data storage.

    How can you tell if Spotlight indexing is in progress? Check the Activity Monitor CPU tab. Look for processes with the names mds, mdworker, or mdimport. These are part of the MetaData Server process used by the Spotlight app. If any of these have a high percentage of CPU activity—more than 20 percent—it's likely Spotlight is updating its database.

  6. Clear the Dynamic Link Editor cache. The Dynamic Link Editor is a way for the Mac to load and link programs to shared libraries. If the application delivering the spinning wheel uses a shared library of routines—many applications use shared libraries—the Dynamic Link Editor keeps the application and shared library on speaking terms. If the cache of data in the Dynamic Link Editor becomes corrupt, it causes the SPOD. Clearing the cache usually eliminates the SPOD.

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