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How to force-quit a stubborn app in MacOS

There are two different ways to kill stubborn applications in MacOS.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Open MacBook Pro on surface.
Image: James Martin/CNET

For many, MacOS is the most user-friendly operating system on the planet. Along with that user-friendliness come rock-solid applications that will never let you down.

In theory.

The reality can be a bit different. Apps crash. I have it happen with some regularity. 

This is especially so with Apple Mail. It might seem to be working fine, but out of nowhere it'll stop syncing with my IMAP accounts, and the usual method of closing the app does no good. 

What do you do? Restart the machine? That's one way of taking care of the situation. It's also not the most efficient method. Not only do you lose your flow, but you could accidentally lose work. I've had this very thing happen when I'd forgotten that a particular document was opened and not saved. Reboot, and blammo! Document lost.

That's not an option anyone wants to deal with.  

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And so, we're back to that question, what do you do?

Fortunately, Apple has made it very simple to close stubborn applications. And for those really stubborn applications, there's also the command line. I'm going to show you both ways.

How to force-quit a stubborn app in MacOS

First, the easy route. The first method we'll discuss is the GUI tool, aptly called Force Quit. 

1. Open the Force Quit app

If you have an application that is no longer responding, click the Apple menu at the top left corner of the desktop, and select Force Quit. 

2. Close the offending app

In the resulting pop-up, you'll see a list of all your currently running applications. Locate the app you want to force-quit, select it, and then click Force Quit. That should close the app in question. You can then reopen it and it should return to its regularly scheduled reliability.

The MacOS Force Quit tool.

You can force-quit any user-facing app in MacOS with the Force Quit tool.

Image: Jack Wallen

Also: How to delete apps on your MacBook in 3 steps

The command line method

You might not know this, but MacOS is very much in line with Linux on many levels. For instance, MacOS includes a powerful command line tool that can simplify a lot of tasks… even killing rogue applications.

If you find the Force Quit tool doesn't work for the app you want to kill, or maybe you're interested in getting familiar with the command line interface, let me show you how easy it is to kill an app. I'm going to show you the simplest method (because there is a more challenging way to do this from the terminal, but I don't want to frighten you away from the terminal).

Also: How to install Linux applications from the command line

When you have a stubborn application, open the Launch Pad, search for terminal, and then open the terminal app. Let's say Apple Mail isn't responding and you want to close it from the terminal. For that, you'd use the killall command like so:

killall Mail

What happens if you don't know the actual name of an app (or, better yet, the command used to start the app)? For that, you can turn to the top command. If you issue the command top, you'll see a list of all running applications. In the COMMAND column, you'll see the names that are to be used with the killall command.

iTerm is an alternative for the MacOS Terminal app.

The top command running in the MacOS terminal alternative, iTerm.

Image: Jack Wallen

Do be careful with the killall command and only use it to kill applications that are not part of the system. A good rule of thumb is if you don't know what it does, don't kill it.

And that, my friends, is how you can close stubborn applications on MacOS. To be clear, you should always use the Force Quit app as the default, and only turn to the terminal window when Force Quit doesn't work.

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