graphics card

Update on MacBook Pro issues

While I was in Los Angeles earlier in the week my 2011 MacBook Pro started showing signs that it was suffering from a well-documented video card failure and I wrote about it here: MacBook Pro issues.

The best description of the problem can be found here: Owners of 2011 MacBook Pros report critical GPU failures, system crashes.

Just as the AppleInsider report states that others have done, I reset the Power Manager, reset the PRAM, reinstalled the system via Safe Mode and the problem continued intermittently and then as things got bad there was no way to get an image on my screen. It seemed like the SSD was fine although I had no way to know that without a screen.

When I returned home I used an Apple HDMI cable to connect my computer to our HD television, thinking this would show me if the problem was my LCD screen. Our TV showed video noise when the machine booted which told me that in fact, I had/have a video card problem in my computer. I then used Target Disk Mode to boot my wife’s 2011 13″ MacBook Pro with my computer (using my computer’s SSD) and the SSD was and is intact.

I’m religious about doing backups and so I’m covered and am running off a hard disk backup I made in LA just before I couldn’t use my machine anymore. I’ve booted my wife’s 13″ 2011 MacBook Pro off my backup hard disk and while it’s not the same experience as using my own machine, it’s a good stopgap until my new machine arrives on Monday (from China).

My plan is to use the instructions on iFixit to take my machine apart and get the SSD out of it, then put it in an old FireWire enclosure I have and make sure the few things I’ve updated on my backup hard disk are updated on the SSD, then boot this machine with the SSD. At least I’ll have a bit more speed here until Monday.

I’ve learned a lot of things in this process, I’ll list a few below.

The importance of a bootable backup

Having a backup is important and I have three: two SuperDuper clones, and one Time Machine. I know it’s possible to use a Time Machine backup to migrate data onto a new computer, but in fact, you can’t boot from a Time Machine backup so anyone reading this who relies solely on such a backup may want to consider another method in addition or instead. I rarely dig back into my Time Machine backup and frankly I’m not sure I need to use it since I’m very disciplined in my other backup method.

I’ve always wanted bootable backups so I can do what I’m doing now: run another machine as if it was my own from the backup in case something happens.

It’s been a bit bumpy with Keychain and 1Password because they use machine IDs as well as usernames and passwords so I’m having to sign into things again. But, at least I have that option running from a backup.

Once you go SSD there’s no going back

In 2010 I put an SSD in an older MacBook Pro MacBook Pro SSD upgrade and it made such an amazing difference that I swore I’d never go back to using a hard disk to run a computer.

The MacBook Pro that just died has an Apple-supplied 512GB SSD in it and it was a joy to use and would still be a joy to use if the video card hadn’t died. In other words, while the entire machine was slower than what I am getting on Monday, it was fast enough for almost everything I do on it. A three year run on storage is pretty amazing and my recommendation for anyone reading this is to not balk at spending the extra money to get a large SSD in a new computer, it’s a worthwhile investment and will make a huge difference in performance. The Retina MacBook Pro coming on Monday has a 1TB SSD in it and that large SSD was a substantial extra cost. For me, that extra cost is well worth it and once you experience running on an SSD my guess is you’ll agree.

Note: Apple only makes one portable Mac with a hard disk anymore, a low end 13″ model.

I have no problem with hard disks for backup and if I ever buy an iMac I’d consider an Apple Fusion drive (SSD and HDD combined) but in fact, I’d rather go all solid state.

13″ vs 15″

I thought I might be able to run my life on a 13″ MacBook Pro and was considering downsizing to it, but after spending last night and this morning using my wife’s older 13″ screen, I can say without a doubt that I could never do it, even with the higher resolution on the newer Retina models. If I had a larger monitor I’d consider it but in fact, the 15″ models of MacBook Pro come with higher end processor and RAM options and these things are important to me. Portability is less important to me. The 15″ model is a sweet spot for me: I can carry it around the house or back and forth to LA in my pack and it has enough screen real estate to do real work on. I like multiple windows showing on screen and 13″ just isn’t enough for me.

Mac OS vs iOS

I cannot use an iPad Air or any iOS device as a complete or even partial substitute for a computer. This is a big thing and I’ve sort of known it all along but this recent experience underscores it because the iPad Air is such a capable iPad.

It isn’t just the differences between Mac OS and iOS (which are huge) but it’s text editing, the use of a mouse, and frankly, familiarity. Some serious Mac users have tried to use the iPad as a complete substitute for a laptop and some with great success but for the mix of things I do, and the fact that I touch type, by the time you’ve bought and connected a bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, you might as well have a MacBook Air.

Even though I do have Pages, Numbers, and Keynote on my Mac and on my iPad, I tend not to use them on the iPad. The things I do on the iPad are reading, a bit of research, reading RSS feeds, and watching ripped movies. I could do most of what I do on the iPad on a MacBook Air and at some point, maybe that’s the way I’ll go. The rumored 12″ model is attractive to me (in addition to a 15″ MacBook Pro).

But, what I’ve noticed over time is that for me, the integration of all of my various applications and identities works better on my Mac than it does on my iPad, even though I have iCloud Keychain and 1Password running everywhere, I find my MacBook Pro easier to use to do what I do than my iPad Air.

What’s coming

The new Retina MacBook Pro that’s coming will not have a Firewire port on it, Thunderbolt replaced Firewire a while ago so I ordered a Thunderbolt to Firewire adaptor from Apple so I can continue to use my backup drives until I get newer Thunderbolt drives at some point.

Apple has taken the CD/DVD player out of the chassis of newer machines and so I ordered their USB CD/DVD drive so I can continue to rip movies and music as I need to.

No doubt there will be some bumps although I’m hoping migration goes smoothly and it should be fast if I can get the SSD set up in an external enclosure.

Dark Sky (on my iPhone) just told me it’s going to start raining soon, the perfect day to take my old computer apart and salvage its SSD and get it set up in a case.

I’ll get that done in the next hour or so and I’ll get some new images posted here and do a few other things.

But, the bottom line is, I feel bad that I don’t have my computer in front of me to work with. My computer is such an important element in my life that losing it is more than just a small inconvenience, it’s like I’ve had an “insult” to part of my brain.

Monday can’t come soon enough.

Update: I’ve taken the SSD out of my old 15″ MacBook Pro, put it in a Firewire enclosure and booted this 13″ MacBook Pro from it. Working quite well and while it’s not as fast as it was on the internal bus of my older (faster) machine, it’s a heck of a lot faster than the built in hard disk. When all the dust has settled on this I’ll put the SSD in this computer for Anne.

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.