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.


I’ve written about AppleCare and related issues before at this site and no doubt some think I’m an insurance salesman. I’m not. I just think AppleCare a good idea. Here’s why.

I have a 2.5 GHz, Intel Core 2 Duo, 15″ MacBook Pro that I bought in 2008. At the time, this machine was near the top of the line on 15″ models (there was a 2.6 GHz option I didn’t go for). I bought it with 4 gigs of memory installed and a 250 gig 5400 RPM hard disk. I also bought AppleCare which I’ve bought on each of my Macs since Apple first started offering it.

Apple has a one year warranty on their computers and they’re quite good about fixing things at no cost within that year. They also have a 14 day store return policy: if you think you got a lemon you can return it to the store (including the online store) and exchange it for another computer. AppleCare extends the one year warranty to two years. Here’s what they say about it in their online store:

AppleCare Protection Plan
For up to three years from your computer’s original purchase date, the AppleCare Protection Plan gives you direct, one-stop access to Apple’s award-winning telephone technical support for questions about Apple hardware, Mac OS X, iLife, and iWork. And you get global repair coverage for your Mac — both parts and labor — through convenient service options.

When you purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan and your computer at the same time, you’ll be automatically registered in the plan.

Currently, for all flavors of 15″ MacBook Pro AppleCare costs $350 and I’m pretty sure it was about that price when I bought it for this computer in 2008. Portables have the highest AppleCare cost, probably because they get the most abuse. AppleCare on a current 27″ iMac is $169.

Here’s a tidbit many people don’t know: when you buy AppleCare for a computer, it covers everything connected to that computer purchased with that computer including displays, AirPort base stations, Time Capsules, etc. And, it covers all Apple software installed on the computer (you can call and get tech support for software issues).

Buying AppleCare (or not) is sort of like backing up your computer (or not): people who buy AppleCare know what it’s like to have something go wrong out of warranty and not have it. People who back up their computers know what it’s like to have something go wrong and not have a backup. I realize that I’m thinking about this and posting it during the great health insurance re-think (or just plain think) where many of us, whether we have health insurance or not might be thinking about what might happen if we got really sick without any insurance.

Case #1: Texas
Many years ago when I did a lot of travel and presentations for a living, I found myself on one of my many extended trips to Texas. in Governor Ann Richards’ day Texas was at the leading edge of assistive technology integration in classrooms and because they had dozens of well connected and financed educational service centers, if I did something in one part of the state another part of the state heard about it fast and wanted me to do something over there. Unlike Connecticut Texas is a big state so it was easy to spend a week there.

I had an early model of PowerBook back then, no doubt running the incredible new System 7.

Even back then I was a fanatic about backing up which in those days was a simple matter of drag/copying the contents of one hard disk to another. As a presenter, I always carried an external hard disk which was a complete clone of my computer (not just a backup of my presentation materials). I’m not sure when I started this but I’ve been doing it for a long time and continue it to this day.

During my first presentation something happened to the PowerBook’s video card and the machine’s screen went blank and it lost video output to the projector. This was rather embarrassing in front of 500 teachers, especially since part of my message to them was that Macs were the best machines for education in part because of their reliability.

The folks at the service center brought out another computer and I started it from my hard disk and continued the presentation. During lunch I called AppleCare, even back then there was a single phone number which if memory serves was something like 800-SOS-APPL.

I told the folks at AppleCare what my situation and itinerary was (they did not know that I was a consultant for Apple corporate and on their education advisory board).

Amazingly, there was a FedEx box at my hotel that night and the FedEx person waited while I packed up the PowerBook. I had my external backup hard disk and had called ahead to my next stop to make sure they had a computer I could use with it. All was well although if the backup hard disk failed I was in trouble; I had no backup of my backup (I do now, by the way).

The next morning I got on a plane for another part of the state, arrived there and checked into the hotel. That evening the local tech person and I set up their computer with my external hard disk and got things working. I went to sleep that night not knowing when my PowerBook might make it back although AppleCare had said it would be no more than 36 hours (which was a rush).

The next morning when I woke up I had a message on the hotel’s phone and FedEx had delivered the repaired computer early that morning.

I swapped out the service center’s computer, got mine set up and I was back in business for the rest of the trip.

That single incident made me a believer. AppleCare saved my bacon and I’ve never bought a Macintosh computer for myself or my wife without it. Had that not happened I might have eventually stopped buying it for lack of use. Why buy insurance if you never use it?

Case #2, the present
About a year ago my current computer started acting a bit odd: I was getting double key strokes at times and occasionally a key seemed to get stuck and I’d get a whole bunch of the last letter typedddddddddddd.

This problem was intermittent and I was worried that if I sent the machine to Apple they might not be able to reproduce it. However, I did call AppleCare and we went through everything I could do short of sending it in: clear PRAM, clear the power manager, new user, clean install of the system, etc.

Because the problem was intermittent when I tried a fix and it seemed to go away I thought it was solved but then, a while later it would reappear. This went on for close to a year.

Also in the last year the fan on this machine has been running a lot and the hard disk didn’t seem to be spinning down when it should have been. I thought the problem might be Safari and Flash but making a new user and keeping flash out of the mix didn’t solve it. Then I thought the problem might be Snow Leopard although I wasn’t about to go back to Leopard.

I back my computer up onto two small, portable external drives usingSuperDuper. My drives have lots of ports on them: USB 2, Firewire 400, Firewire 800, eSATA so in theory I could connect my backups to any current or even older Macs that would boot an Intel system. I do it this way so that in case my machine is stolen or fails I can connect to a new one and be back in business immediately (shades of my Texas experience).

Given that this is my only computer and these days, while I don’t travel and present for a living anymore (thank god) this computer is the center of my life. I feel even more protective about sending it off to AppleCare than I did ten years ago. However, the problem wasn’t going away and was making everyday work near impossible.

I decided to attempt to boot my wife’s unibody MacBook with one of my backups. For those of you who don’t know, the MacBook lacks Firewire so I had to boot the machine with the backup drive and a USB cable. Note, the drive comes with an AC brick and it’s needed when connecting via USB so the combination of MacBook and external is not completely portable as it would be with Firewire.

I did some tests booting my wife’s computer and things worked surprisingly well so I decided to do the AppleCare repair while she was visiting her father in Indiana during her spring break from school so as not to get in her way with her computer.

I called AppleCare, arranged for my MacBook Pro to go in for repair, they sent a box which arrived on a Tuesday. I backed my computer up on Wednesday night (on two different drives), deleted the documents folder on my user account, made a new user account for apple (admin, password 0) and packed up the machine. I included a note with a history of the problem including everything I’d done to solve it although I knew AppleCare had my case number and would refer to their notes as well.

I dropped the boxed computer off at a FedEx pickup point on Thursday as I was driving my wife to the airport. While she was gone I used her machine, booting off my backup extensively and I have to say it worked fine. I even got sort of used to the glossy screen (that’s another post).

I tracked my computer’s progress on Apple’s repair web site and I don’t think it got to the repair facility until Sunday. On Monday the repair tracking page showed that my computer had finally made it to repair. The next time I checked later Monday it was on its way back to me. I had it in hand at 9:30 am on Tuesday morning, the day my wife came home.

The included repair report said that they’d replaced the keypad, the entire top deck including trackpad, the fan and the thermostat. The computer booted perfectly, the keypad worked perfectly, the fan stays off, and all was and is well.

I disconnected the backup drive from my wife’s computer and started this computer up from it, then completely erased this computer’s internal hard disk and used SuperDuper to copy my backup drive onto this drive. I booted this computer and was back in business.

My wife’s MacBook was back on her desk like it was never used (I cleaned the keypad and screen) and this computer was back in my hands completely repaired in a reasonable amount of time.

The only hiccup which I noticed while running from the backup is that iChat/AIM isn’t holding onto my password between restarts but I know I’ll get that sorted at some point.

Is AppleCare worth it? It is to me. I’ve only used it maybe four times in the many years I’ve had it but the alternative in Texas was disaster, the alternative last week was an out of warranty repair which if done by either TekServe, The PowerBook Guy, or Apple would have cost a lot more than the $350 AppleCare cost me.

These days, many of us rely on our computers for a lot more than we did five or ten years ago and as computers and phones merge into iPads and netBooks I think having an extended warranty will be even more important.

Or, you can roll the dice and hope for the best.

I don’t gamble.

AirPort Express dies, AppleCare makes good

We have a wireless network in our house. An older (flying saucer) AirPort Extreme base station covers most of the house but in the days of the titanium PowerBook with it’s weak wifi capabilities, I wanted a stronger signal at the far end of the house so I bought an AirPort Express and used it to extend the network wirelessly with WDS. It has worked flawlessly for many years, not only giving us better wifi reception but also allowing us to play music from iTunes on our stereo system downstairs through AirTunes.

Yesterday I noticed that the AirPort Express wasn’t lit up and seemed to be dead. I moved it to another power outlet, reset it with a paper clip but could not get it to start up. No lights, no power.

I posted my predicament on flickr in a Macintosh group there and it seems there others have had similar problems.

I was about to order a new AirPort Express when a woman with username *Karo* posted that she had had a similar problem and the AppleCare service plan she had on her MacBook Pro covered a replacement. Wow, this was great news.

This morning I called AppleCare (which I have on my MacBook Pro) and a new AirPort Express is on its way to me now, no charge. Wow, now this is the way to do business.

I don’t think many people know this but when you have AppleCare on a Macintosh computer of any kind, all Apple network and peripheral equipment is covered under the same policy. I’m not sure what the limits of this are but certainly my two AirPort routers are fully covered, no matter how old they are. The serial number on my AirPort Express clearly shows that it was bought long before my current MacBook Pro but it did not matter, it’s covered.

This is great news and one more reason to consider AppleCare for those of you who never buy it.

MacBook Pro survives fall, sort of

Two mornings ago while carrying a cup of coffee and my relatively new 15″ MacBook Pro, I tripped over a box and went flying. I wish someone had been there to take a picture as I know it was a spectacular fall. The sound of the computer hitting the wooden floor was so loud that Anne thought a bookshelf had fallen over. I’m pretty sure I was completely airborne and parallel to the floor before I crashed down.

We drink our morning (Peet’s) coffee out of large Starbucks tumblers with closed tops so only a bit of coffee spilled but the computer hit hard. Very hard. Worse than a mere drop from 4 feet, it had much of my weight attached to it. Oh god.

I survived physically although my 55 year old psyche is definitely battered. “Old people fall down but you’re not an old person… uh… you fell down…”

Right, let’s not go there. The computer, which was sleeping (HD heads park in sleep) got some dings and the case is warped but the screen did not shatter and when I opened it it woke up like nothing had happened. Lucky me, or so I thought.

Portable Computing
I’ve had PowerBooks as long as Apple has made them and one or another has traveled all over the world with me and until two mornings ago I’d never dropped one, spilled coffee on a keyboard, or done a thing to cause these important parts of my life any distress. Since I got involved with computers in the late 1970s, whatever computer I’ve had has been the center of my life and once I moved from desktops to laptops the computer has become even more entwined in my life. I like it this way and my wife likes it this way. With a desktop computer I’d be in the office most of the time; with this computer I can sit in the living room with her reading Salon or google news while she reads or knits. This computer is not a second, portable computer, it is my only computer, and as such, the absolute center of many aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is, I treat it well and back it up and love it “up one side and down the other.”

Fit and Finish
Another complicating factor in this situation is that the case on this MacBook Pro has been slowly coming apart at the seams. Nothing huge but the fit and finish on the top edges/corners where the sides intersect with the top of the keypad area has been a problem ever since I got it and it was getting worse. This is the second MacBook Pro I’ve had; the first one was returned in less than a week and exchanged for this one for the same reason: the fit and finish on the case was just not right. I decided to live with this one as exchanges and data movement is a drag and there had been a “bump” in dealing with our local retail store that Apple corporate had to step in and make right (they did and they were wonderful).

So, now that I’ve dropped the computer whatever issue I had with the case is pretty much blown as there is now a lot more case damage than there was “naturally” before. I repeat, it amazes me that the entire thing didn’t shatter so while I am less than enthused about the fit and finish of the case, I am delighted that it withstood this fall.

Given that this is my only computer, it’s not like I can just send it off for repair. And, I have AppleCare which I love as it’s been very useful to me over the years, but, a fall like this is not something they cover so a repair is gonna cost me. However, the case is just cosmetic so what the heck, I can live with a beat up case. Continue reading