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What are the pros and cons, performance-wise, of enabling and using FileVault? Is there any at all, or does it slow a computer down significantly or on the contrary speed it up? Also, what effect will it have on Time Machine-backups (performance-wise)?

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Are you referring to the new FileVault "2" included in OS X Lion, where the entire disk is encrypted, or the almost-completely-different earlier FileVault from a prior edition of OS X? –  Chris W. Rea Mar 18 '12 at 23:45
    
Updated the question, Lion-FileVault is what I'm referring to :) –  Emil Mar 19 '12 at 6:58
    

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

(I'm assuming you are referring to FileVault 2 found in OS X Lion)

The folks at AnandTech have run some performance benchmarks on the new FileVault. Quote:

... [described are several I/O tests with and without FileVault enabled, including some charts you might want to have a look at] ...

Overall the hit on pure I/O performance is in the 20 - 30% range. It's noticeable but not big enough to outweigh the benefits of full disk encryption. [...]

[emphasis above is mine]

So to answer your question:

  • FileVault slows I/O down, and it is a measurable decrease in performance. However, I agree with the earlier quoted statement – in that the added security is beneficial, and I use FileVault on my Macbook Air.

  • The answer on the second question is "it depends". The TimeMachine backup process must certainly read a lot of data from the FileVault-encrypted disk, so the reading portion of the backup will be slower.

    However, whether or not the overall backup performance suffers considerably depends on where the bottleneck is in the system – e.g. is it a very fast backup drive, or a very slow backup drive? Is it connected by USB (slower), or Thunderbolt (faster)? If the write speed is terrible, that will govern the overall speed of the backup, not so much the read speed having been reduced a bit. Ergo, it depends.

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For incremental backups by Time Machine, there may be more reading of metadata than of data. I shouldn't assume that reading will be slower. –  Graham Perrin Jul 29 '12 at 12:26

This depends to a large extent on your hardware. Filevault essentially encompasses 2 major elements:

Encryption

CPU bound, the faster your CPU, the quicker the OS can encrypt and decrypt the data on the disk. Filevault uses 256 bit encryption, so it's a fairly meaty process

I/O

Once stuff is encrypted (or before it can be decrypted) is needs to be read from or written to disk. The difference between an SSD and traditional spinning platter media is enormous. What might be a slow decryption process could be made up for using lightening fast access.

So, really it depends on all sorts of things, and how they can affect the above. You don't list hardware, so that makes it near impossible to gauge.

Anecdotally, as it's the only measure I have to hand, I have had Lion installed on a 1.6Ghz Macbook Air with SSD both with and without Filevault. In use it booted marginally slower, but I had to time it (I forget the timings, but it was of the 15% slower mark or so) but in use I could see no discernible difference.

Assuming you have a USB Time Machine disk, I would say the impact will be non-existant, as it's highly unlikely that any affect on performance would take it down to below your normal USB performance.

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CPU load

Filevault 2 supports Intel® Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). It's important to know if your Mac has an Intel processor which supports this, as it significantly reduces the CPU overhead. Search for you CPU here an look if is supports the New AES instructions.

My Macbook Pro 2011 got this feature enabled via a firmware update (Apple did not enable this with the newly shipped MBP). With AES encryption acceleration, the performance drop with Filevault 2 enabled is almost unnoticeable during normal usage. The maximum read speeds of my SSD only dropped from 510MB/s to 490MB/s.

Ars Technica, published an extended review on Filvault 2 in Lion. They say:

Apple also leverages the special-purpose AES instructions and hardware on Intel's newest CPUs, further reducing the CPU overhead. The end result is that regular users will be hard-pressed to notice any reduction in performance with encryption enabled.

As the overall CPU load is nearly unchanged, the battery life is not affected significantly.

Time Machine Backups

If you backup up wirelessly (unencrypted) or locally (encrypted, USB) the performance of Time Machine will not be affected significantly.

  • First, because the of the AES acceleration mentioned earlier.
  • Secondly because Time Machine creates local backups (snapshots). OS X Lion compensates for the potentially unavailable external disk by keeping an additional backup locally on the primary hard drive. This has its obvious advantages, since you can restore to past Time Machine backups right away from anywhere.

I've been using Filevault 2 encryption on a MBP 8,2 for three months.

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