MacBook Pro issues

I have a 15″ early 2011 MacBook Pro which I’ve had since mid-2011. It was the highest end model I could get at the time with a 512GB SSD in it from Apple.

This computer has been one of the best Macs I’ve ever had (rivals the SE/30 in relative speed). I’ve replaced the battery once but that’s the only service its ever had.

It’s running the latest version of Mac OS X: Mac OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks. It has been trouble free and with the SSD, plenty fast enough for what I use it for. There are times Lightroom gives me the color wheel but it’s more than tolerable.

Not that I don’t think this machine is getting old, it certainly is and while it continues to run fine I’ve been considering an upgrade, trying to decide if I want to continue with my run of MacBook Pros as sole machine or maybe move to an iMac and a MacBook Air. Last week I pretty much decided that I was going to stick with a 15″ MacBook Pro.

I back up my computer daily in two places: on an external portable hard disk with SuperDuper! and on a large desktop hard disk with Time Machine. I have two SuperDuper! backups, one in my basement in a fireproof box, the other on my desk and I swap them daily.

This computer has graphics support on the Intel Core i7 processor (Intel HD Graphics 3000 512 MB) and an added AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics card. On my Energy Saver preferences pane I’ve always had “Automatic Graphics Switching” checked which means the computer will use the Intel graphics engine most of the time to save battery and only switch to the AMD card when it needs to for heavier lifting. I think that’s how it all works although who knows?

The Problem

For the past year or so, some (many?) users of this particular model/year of the 15″ MacBook Pro have been complaining of video card failures: Owners of 2011 MacBook Pros report critical GPU failures, system crashes and while I’ve had the occasional system freeze, I never thought I was having a graphics card failure. In other words, I never had a system problem that looked like it was caused by a hardware failure (except for the battery).

Until today.

This morning (and I’m in LA at the moment, not home) I booted up to a black screen: it sounded like the boot process went fine (as much as you can hear this on an SSD) but after the Apple logo the screen went and stayed black.

I forced shut down (10 seconds on the power button) and then restarted, this time holding down the Option key to see if I could get to the screen that gives me the option to reinstall the system or start off my backup hard disk.

I did get to that screen but the computer’s LCD screen had vertical odd lines in it and was shaking in a way that led me to believe I had a graphics problem, either caused by the “problem” AMD card or something else.

I shut down, plugged in my Firewire backup drive, then restarted with Option key and chose the backup drive from the three startup options. The computer started up although it was slow as it was running from a hard disk now, not an SSD.

I got to the Finder, pulled out the Energy Saver Preferences pane to see how it was set and the checkmark was set for Automatic Graphics Switching. Not thinking too clearly (it was early) I unchecked it and I lost the screen immediately. I may be wrong, but this led me to believe that in fact, I was having the AMD Graphics card problem that so many others are having. Unchecking that checkbox forced the machine to immediately use the AMD card for everything, not use the more power efficient built-in Intel graphics processor.

I shut the machine down with the power button (10 seconds) again and wondered how the heck I was going to get that option checked again so I could get my screen back since I had no screen to see it on.

Luckily, I have both my iPhone and iPad with me here in LA and I was able to get my notes on this MacBook Pro up on the iPad: my AppleCare agreement ran out in March so I was on my own but I decided to call AppleCare anyway and see if I could get some help or options or something.

Aside: In the old days this kind of problem happened more often. Frankly, I can hardly remember having a a problem like this in the last bunch of years and never with this computer. Computers, even Apple computers aren’t without issues (yet) but things have certainly improved greatly over the years.

Still, that doesn’t make it easy when it does happen and like it or not, it was happening to me this morning and my stomach was churning. All of this knowing I have three totally up to date backups of my computer. If I had no backup (most people unfortunately) I’d be extremely upset.

The Apple support guy I talked with was fantastic and while he was no doubt trying to soften the blow of my problem with no AppleCare, he listened carefully and offered suggestions on how to get the machine back into a state where I could use it. We went through a few Power Manager resets and PRAM resets and somehow booted back up into the SSD with Automatic Graphics Switching switched on.

The upshot is we’re not sure if this is a hardware or a software problem or both and bringing the machine to Apple for diagnostics will cost some money. Given the age of the machine and the fact that I have it backed up, putting money into it seems like a bad idea.

Time for a new MacBook Pro

Even though I’m writing this on my “problem” computer and it seems to be working fine again, it makes me extremely uneasy to not know if/when it will freeze up again. So, it’s time to pull the trigger on a new machine.

I checked the MacRumors Buying Guide to see when the 15″ Retina MacBook Pro was last upgraded and it was in July of this year so the odds of it being upgraded before the end of the year are slim.

So, I bit the bullet and configured one at the Apple online store and bought it this morning. Big money. Oh my, takes my breath away. But, hopefully it’ll last a long time and be as trouble free as this machine has been.

  • 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
  • 2.8GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 4.0GHz
  • 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
  • 1TB PCIe-based Flash Storage

I also ordered the USB SuperDrive and a Thunderbolt to Firewire adaptor cable, and AppleCare (of course).

Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this machine will keep working well until the new one comes in a week or so.

Nothing like a problem forcing your hand at buying a new computer. In this case, I’m overdue for one but still, it’s a bit unnerving.

In all of this you might be wondering why I don’t consider my iPad Air an acceptable temporary alternative but in fact, I really don’t. As a matter of fact, one of the many things I was considering was getting a MacBook Air instead of the iPad Air because I prefer Mac OS for much of my work and I like a hardware keyboard.

One thing’s for sure, I’m a MacBook Pro guy, always have been, most probably will be for the foreseeable future.

Update: The problem is getting worse, a number of freezes and the MacBook Pro fan is on full blast. I think I placed the order just in time. Just backed up computer and will be careful what I do with it the next week. Sigh…

Update 2: The problem got worse throughout the day and I backed up again, then started up with the Option key down and reinstalled Mac OS X Mavericks from the Recovery partition of my computer. I got busy with guests and when I came back the computer had finished the install, rebooted and was calmly sleeping. I haven’t used it much since the reinstall but so far so good this morning. It will be interesting to see if the problem was system related and not the deed video card. I’m hoping it is and is fixed and I have no regrets on ordering the new machine which I will keep and migrate to even if I’ve fixed this problem.

4 comments

  1. Sorry to hear about the problems, Richard! At the same time I can say congrats for the new Pro! Sounds a very capable machine. I have been thinking for a long time to get a MacBook Air but I have to postpone that because I pre-ordered the iPhone 6 (64 Gb, silver). I have iPhone 4 now and I think it was time to upgrade.

    1. Jonne: I’m quite sure you’ll enjoy all of the new stuff on the new iPhone. Gary got that model and loves it.

      I’m limping through with this old machine now… it’s very fragile at the moment but I’ve found that if I turn off all power management, stay out of Lightroom (too bad I took nice image yesterday that will have to wait) and keep things simple and never sleep machine, it’s not crashing.

      So, I’ll keep it awake or shut down until I get new one, then hopefully the migration will go okay and I’ll be back in business.

      The screen on this MacBook Pro is what was called a high definition matte screen in the day. It’s an amazing screen and while it’s old, it has no glare and very accurate colors. I know the new Retina screen will be sharper but it does have a bit of gloss to it and I’m distracted by reflections. I think it will be much better than the older glossy screens though so I’m not concerned. Have to move on, onward and upward…

      Enjoy the new iPhone.

  2. You might be able to use the gfxCardStatus app (http://gfx.io) to force the system to use only the integrated graphics chipset and improve stability.

    Another possibility could be to remove the “AMD*.kext” files from /System/Library/Extensions, so that the OS can not use the AMD hardware at all. However, I do not know if the Intel hardware will still work if you do this – so be sure you can restore the files from another computer if necessary (target disk mode).

    Unfortunately, graphics failures seem to be too common – I had a G4 that suffered the Nvidia chipset failure while I was away travelling on business. Ultimately, the only option is unfortunately to repair or replace the laptop.

    — Mark

    1. Mark: Thanks so much for the suggestions. My computer died completely (could not get the screen up at all) yesterday and I’m home now working off my backup on my wife’s computer. I was thinking I could connect an HDMI cable I have to it and see if I could get it to start up on my TV set to make sure the system is intact, which I think it is. I was backing up a lot the day it failed so my backup is current, so, that may be the end for it, not sure. Have to get up on the Apple store to see how my new machine is coming along. Soonest it’ll be here is Friday but it may be later, not sure.

      I’ll keep your comment in mind if I need to try to get back into the machine.

      Just so you know, the machine boots up but the screen looks tinted on boot and the Apple logo is red and after it disappears the screen just stays white/tinted and that’s that. No finder. I’m guessing it’s all fine, just the video output that’s messed up.

      Drag. But, I got three solid and excellent years out of it so it’s not like it happened early on. And, I had AppleCare up until March so I’d have been covered had it happened earlier.

      Thanks again.

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