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I had a similar problems with my Mac slowing down to a crawl with certain instances of disk access.

I tried turning off spotlight (which was taking a very long time to complete) but it did not help.

For me, the problem turned out to be a failing hard drive. After replacing my system hard drive, things returned to normal speed.

I'm just posting this in case it might help someone else.

I concur. I've seen this exact behavior on two different systems when the hard drive was beginning to fail. Swapping the drive fixed the problem.

My friend had installed a new larger drive that was causing the problem, whereas there were no beach balls while booting off the original drive via USB.

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