MacBook Pro

Apple is repairing MacBook Pros with video issues

Last fall my 2011 MacBook Pro died and I posted about it here: Update on MacBook Pro issues.

I pulled the SSD out of it, bought a cheap plastic USB 3 case for it and have been using it as a backup for travel (looks better to x-rays than a HDD).

Yesterday I learned that Apple is going to fix, at no cost, computers like mine: MacBook Pro Repair Extension Program for Video Issues.

Of course I already bought a new computer and in order to fix the old one I’ll need to make it whole by putting the SSD back into it. No problem doing this but:

1. I’ll lose the external 512GB SSD, worth about $300 to replace.

2. What will I do with a now 4 year old computer? It has no trade-in value and little sale value. Its value is probably less than the cost of its SSD.

So, I’m toying with the idea of simply ignoring the recall and keeping things as they are, even though I want Apple to make this situation right.

Update: I just spoke with Apple support about this. I told them the entire story, including the fact that I’d already pulled the SSD. What the person I spoke with zeroed in on was that I’d replaced the machine already and repairing the old one at this point was too late. I asked him if Apple might provide me with a credit or gift card instead of the repair and he thought that was a reasonable idea.

Mine was the first call he’d gotten about this today, but we were both sure it wouldn’t be the last. He said he’d talk my idea of a credit or gift card over with his manager and get back to me.

I’ve pretty much decided not to have the machine repaired: I already have a great replacement and everyone in my family has a newer computer. And, the SSD remains valuable.

Stay tuned…

AirPort issues with Yosemite

In the old days (a few years ago) I’d be among the first to do Mac OS system upgrades. And, over the years Apple has gotten a lot better at making the process easy and reliable. These days I take a bit more time because I depend on various applications that don’t always get upgraded with the system. Best to protect your core applications until you’re sure their various developers have versions that run with a new version of the OS.

All of that said, I upgraded to Yosemite a few days after the free update went live. The process was painless and easy and on the first day I upgraded my various printer drivers (HP LaserJet 1022n, Epson Stylus Pro 3880 and Dymo LabelWriter 450) and never missed a beat on printing.

I heard that some had problems keeping their wifi connections working but I never experienced that.

Today, however, I decided to go through both my applications and utilities folder and run everything to see if and then how Apple changed their core applications (they haven’t really updated the Keychain Utility, too bad). When I ran Airport Admin utility it showed that I was connected to the internet but would not bring up my AirPort Extreme base station. So, I was connected to it but could not see it in AirPort Admin.

I ran AirPort Admin on my iPad and the base station showed up, so, this was a problem with either my new MacBook Pro and/or, the Yosemite upgrade.

It seems others are having similar problems: OSX Yosemite Wifi issues.

My friend Edward (and others) sent me an article that contained numerous possible fixes, here’s the one that worked: Intel-based Macs: Resetting the System Management Controller (SMC).

The SMC controller is a chip that holds settings that sometimes needs to be reset. For new MacBook Pros with non-removable batteries, holding down: Shift + Control + Option (on the left side of the keyboard) and the power button at the same time for 10 seconds, then letting go, then powering up, will reset the SMC.

Once that was done Airport Admin recognized my AirPort Base Station.

This is less of an issue for me as I never had problems connecting to wifi, but if I had a Time Capsule (an AirPort Base Station with built in hard disk running Time Machine) I’d be out of luck for backups and many are having that problem.

I don’t know if this SMC reset will work for every instance of the problem, but it worked for me.

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.

MacBook Pro SSD sleep issue

As some of you know, almost a year ago I did an SSD upgrade on a MacBook Pro. And, if you’ve been following along, you know that I recently purchased a new MacBook Pro with Apple-supplied SSD.

I have two machines sitting here, one with an OWC SSD that I put in myself, one with an SSD that came from Apple.

On the older machine I had issues with sleep: the screen goes to sleep but the next phase of sleep where the motherboard, hard disk and radios go to sleep would not kick in unless I actively chose sleep from the Apple menu or closed the lid (screen). If I walk away from the machine, lid up the LED light by the latch is on but does not pulse. Close the lid, it pulses.

Pulsing = sleep.

On the brand new machine with Apple-supplied SSD the exact same thing happens: the machine does not go into deep sleep on its own without me doing one of many things to force it: Apple menu, power button, etc.

This makes sense, there is no spinning hard disk to spin down. One thing many considering SSD or talking about MacBook Airs don’t seem to realize is that an SSD (as opposed to the soldered on flash memory of a MacBook Air) is mimicking a hard disk: it’s in the same packaging and is a replacement for a hard disk in a computer. So, until the system knows the difference, there might be issues like this.

However, there are other things that get turned off when a machine goes to sleep and you can test this yourself if you have a wireless (bluetooth) mouse.

Leave the lid up but use the Apple menu to put the machine to sleep. Move a bluetooth mouse and the machine doesn’t wake up. This means the bluetooth radio is turned off. Same with wifi: deep sleep turns the radio off. Wake the machine up by hitting the keyboard and the wifi menu (the bars) may actually search for the network. You know the machine was sleeping if this happens.

On either of my machines: the old MacBook Pro with OWC SSD or new MacBook Pro with Apple-supplied SSD if the machine is left on its own, lid up, moving a bluetooth (magic) mouse will wake the screen up and the wifi menu is all lit up, it never turned off.

So, in case you’re thinking that it’s only third party SSD upgrades that are messing with the out of the box sleep modes on MacBook Pros, it’s not, Apple’s SSDs are doing it too.

And, “real” sleep is meaningful in that it turns the computer’s radios off and in so doing saves battery life.

I’m going to be calling AppleCare next week, less to complain, more to find out of they’re aware of this and what they’re doing about it. My guess is Lion will fix this although if enough people report about it maybe it will be fixed in a Snow Leopard update.

Anyone out there with a new MacBook Air who cares to comment I’d love to hear from you. The next time I’m in an Apple store I’ll test a MacBook Air to see about this, it’s an easy experiment to do.

This is definitely not a deal breaker on SSDs and it supports attempting to save money with SSD suppliers other than Apple. But, those using machines with SSDs and possibly MacBook Airs with soldered on flash memory, make sure your machine is really sleeping when you think its sleeping.

New MacBook Pro with SSD

I just bought a new 15″ MacBook Pro with 2.0GHz i7 quad-core processor, 8GB memory, 512GB SSD, Hi-Res Antiglare (matte) screen. I didn’t want to buy it but my granddaughter forced me to. (wink)

As some of you know I upgraded my 3 year old 2.5GHz MacBook Pro with the addition of an OWC 240GB SSD in December. It was the best upgrade I’ve ever done on any computer and to this day it has worked flawlessly.

In our house we subscribe to the “trickle down” rule when buying new computer hardware: I get the new computer, Anne (my wife) gets my old computer and if anyone “under” her needs her computer, they get it.

However, I’ve been so happy with my SSD-equipped computer that I was in no rush to get a new one and given that Apple didn’t upgrade the new 2011 MacBook Pro with as many solid state features of the new MacBook Air models as I wanted, I was hoping to wait for the next generation.

My granddaughter Erin’s ancient trickled-down iBook started to fail and my stepdaughter Bonnie’s old MacBook isn’t doing all that well so instead of push trickle down we decided to do “pull trickle down” with me getting a new computer, Anne getting my SSD-equipped MacBook Pro, Bonnie getting Anne’s unibody MacBook (a great computer, like a 13″ MBP sans Firewire) so that Erin could get Bonnie’s 13″ MacBook. I’ll take back Erin’s old iBook and recycle it with Apple.

What to get
There are two models of 15″ MacBook Pro with a small processor speed and graphics card speed and memory difference between them. I tend to buy the higher end of any particular model so it will last longer so I ordered the top end 15″ MacBook Pro with the “low res” standard glossy screen, 8GB of memory and a 500GB 7200 RPM hard disk. I knew I’d miss the SSD but figured the rest of the machine would be so fast that I’d miss it less than on older hardware.

The machine came, I set it up, migrated my stuff over and I knew I’d made a mistake within the first two hours of using it.

I’ve never been a fan of glossy screens but I also have a hard time seeing the smaller text on the glossy or matte HD screen. I thought given that I use a glossy screen on both iPhone and iPad I could get used to it. For an hour all I could focus on was my reflection in the screen. Not good.

Two things happened: the fan came on because of this now known graphics card hardware issue (fixed with the 10.6.7 system update) and no matter how fast the new MacBook Pros are with a fast hard disk, they’re not as fast as my old machine with an SSD in booting, running almost any application, and moving around in the system. In short, I really missed the SSD.

I swore that I would not get a machine with a glossy screen and a hard disk again if I could help it. I thought I’d sworn that before but Apple hasn’t made getting a solid state MacBook Pro very accessible or affordable and I have problems reading the high resolution matte screen.

One option I had with this machine was to replace the hard disk with an SSD myself as I’d done on my older machine. Had I not wanted a matte screen I might have considered this but I had to unload the machine to get a new screen. And, frankly, I feel odd about spending all this money and then doing my own upgrade. Ideally I wish Apple had folded more solid state options into these new MacBook Pros, but, they didn’t so there you have it. In the end SSD is still an expensive proposition, from Apple or from a third party like OWC.

So, I called Apple, told them what I’d decided and true to form they were amazing on the phone, saying they understood my indecision and that they’d send a pre-paid fedEx label and all I had to do was box it up and return it for a full refund. They cancelled the AppleCare and that was that. To be safe, I erased the hard disk and reinstalled the system on the new machine before boxing it.

What to get, part 2
In the process of buying the wrong machine I’d learned two things:

1. I wanted to get a matte screen although was concerned about readability of text on the higher resolution screen that would make text and all screen elements smaller. This is why I took a chance on the glossy screen. I knew from prior experience that changing screen resolution to something lower res for easier readability might adversely affect anti-aliasing making things not only tough to read but ugly. My feeling was that I needed to be able to read the screen in its native resolution.

2. I wanted to get an Apple-supplied SSD if possible.

I decided to make a visit to a local Apple store to see about the screen, which I did and in the process found that the 17″ MacBook Pro with matte HD screen was readable at its native resolution although tougher but that it had a lower resolution setting that didn’t kill the anti-aliasing on text.

The 15″ MacBook Pro was also readable at its native resolution although again, like the 17″ screen elements and text were smaller and a bit tougher to read.

However, the matte screens on both models were beautiful.

In the end, what tipped me toward going with the higher resolution matte screen was the fact that in a browser (Safari) and in each of the applications I use to deal with text I could easily bump text size up a bit to make things easier to read and if this would solve the readability issue then having more screen real estate would actually be a good thing in that I’d be able to see more of a web page or a document.

The 17″ model, while attractive with its large screen just seemed a bit too much like a cafeteria tray and while I now use an iPad on planes and wasn’t worried about size there, in the end I settled on the 15″ model because it’s a size I’ve had for many years and I’m comfortable with it.

As far as I can tell, Apple doesn’t stock SSD-equipped MacBook Pros in their retail stores so there’s no way to test one before buying. Using the 13″ MacBook Air is the closest you can come in a store to feeling what an SSD feels like to use. I highly recommend doing this for anyone who hasn’t. It will change the way you think about computing.

The two SSDs I was considering were the 256GB and the 512GB. The 250GB is what I had in my old machine and while I hadn’t quite outgrown it yet no doubt I’d have the drive more than 3/4 full in a year or so and even on an SSD things slow down as a storage device gets close to full. OS X needs some scratch space to do various tasks.

The 512GB SSD put the higher end MacBook Pro over my budget so in the end, I decided to go with the lower end 2.0GHz i7 15″ model with 8GB of memory and the 512GB SSD and matte HD screen.

I ordered it, it came today and I’ve migrated my information onto it which went very quickly from one SSD to another.

There have been a few bumps today as I dealt with a bluetooth mouse, mobile me, reconnecting apps to the new App Store and my iTunes account but those got ironed out and I seem to be up and running.

The 10.6.7 update must have solved the graphics processor hang/fan problem because this machine hasn’t hung at all and the fan hasn’t come on once. The machine is dead silent and cool as a cucumber.

And, most important, it’s as fast or faster than my old machine with its OWC SSD. The SSD in this new machine is labeled: APPLE SSD TS512C. I don’t know if anyone can discern brand from that, I’m thinking maybe Intel but I have no idea really.

I’ve not tested sleep yet but the machine boots almost instantaneously, applications run and quit instantaneously and web pages, even complex ones load as fast as I’ve ever seen them load on any computer. In short, this new machine is a dream and I have absolutely no reservations about having bought it.

I’ve also prepared my old computer for my wife, erasing the SSD and migrating her files onto it and have prepared her MacBook for my step daughter. This entire process went very smoothly thanks to a few external hard disk drives and SuperDuper.

I can now say with little doubt that an SSD rather than a hard disk (HD) is the single most important upgrade for an older computer or hardware decision when putting together a new computer. Many people focus on processor speed or how much memory the graphics co-processor has and these are no doubt important but the addition of an SSD will make everyday computing as silent and fast as a MacBook Air.

Solid state is the future, and if you can swing stepping into the future now you will not regret it.

MacBook Air as primary computer

Truly, it is made of unicorns

The Air is leaps and bounds faster than my Pro, despite having a less powerful processor and graphics card. The speed gains must therefore come from the SSD drive. All computers (especially Macs) feel fast when they’re fresh out of the box. Over the months things start to slow down though, so it’ll be interesting to see if that happens with SSD.

Note to Jon Hicks: I had my last SSD equipped MacBook Pro for close to a year and it never slowed down. I doubt your Air will slow down at all. Enjoy.

SSD may be a bridge between hard disks and some other format for packaging flash memory. Frankly, I didn’t know the MacBook Air had a “traditional” SSD, I thought its flash memory was soldered on directly but either way solid state is the future.

The journey is the reward

Patrick Rhone over at minimal mac led me to Frank Chimero’s writing on his digital tools: The Setup which got me thinking about my digital tool situation again.

Here’s a quote from Frank’s post:

I think tweaking the rig is a large part of being a nerd.

Agreed. As my friend Dale says as we hunt for the best camera/lens combinations: the chase (the process of hunting and considering) is part of the larger process of using, tweaking, and enjoying one’s gear. I generally take that a bit further as I rent and buy things, use them, then sell them as I figure out which gear doesn’t work for me. I can’t quite get it all figured out in my head; experience gives me the feedback I need. That’s my process with cameras and lenses. With computers I’ve stayed with the same type (PowerBook or MacBook Pro) for over ten years and this has served me well. I’m comfortable with the form factor and until recently I didn’t see a need to change things.

But, as the cloud has become a bigger part of my digital life (I use Gmail, Google Reader, and other cloud-based services) I have less need to have everything stored on a single computer, and because I’ve started using my iPhone and now iPad more, having multiple devices has become more comfortable. I thought it might be a good idea to have a larger desktop computer and a smaller portable computer for travel. I’m a touch typist so using an iPad for constructing a long piece of writing like this isn’t something I want to do, even with a bluetooth keyboard.

Minimalism is an idea, not an ideal
Frank is a professional designer who spends a lot of time in Adobe-land and now does this on a 13″ MacBook Air. This means he’s willing to make a tradeoff: horsepower and speed for simplicity and portability. Seems simple enough. Of course most people never consider this tradeoff yet they have little use for much of the horsepower they have in their computers. I’ve considered this tradeoff for most of my computing life (moving away from desktop computers over ten years ago) yet seem to have had a doubt about it recently.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to run one’s digital life off an iPhone (figuratively, the ultimate pare down) and as an exercise it might be fun (and frustrating for some) but minimalism is an idea, not a universal ideal.

The ideal ideal is whatever is right for you and you can only find out what that is by using your tools, paying attention, and “tweaking the rig” over time, not to fit someone else’s ideals of what constitutes the ultimate rig, but to fit your own life and style. There is no ideal or even an ideal direction, there is only the path and how you feel about your own walk (or run or stumble) down it. I know, very “zen” of me. I struggle with this in almost every domain I enter and reading Frank’s post was a nice kick in the butt for me to take stock and think out loud.

Here’s another quote from Frank’s post:

A person only flails around in regards to their rig when they don’t have a clear idea of what constitutes their work.

This is a bit harsh but its true and as we honestly look at what we do with our digital rigs over time the flailing slows down as we tweak the rig to fit the work. The problem is if you look at your work one day you’ll think you need a high end desktop computer, the next and you’ll be fine with a 13″ MacBook Air. How one constructs this overview of one’s work (personal sampling rate) is important because each task isn’t necessarily weighted the same. This is tough stuff with lots of room for flailing.

At times I use Lightroom to process 100 or more RAW photographs taken with my Canon 5D. The question is, is that “my work?” Well, no, not really, it’s a rare occurrence that happens a few times a year and my current 15″ MacBook Pro can handle it.

At times I use both Lightroom and Pages to put together a MagCloud project but I don’t do this very often and so far I’ve done it on this 15″ MacBook Pro. Is it ideal? No, but it does work.

The question is, if the 15″ MacBook Pro is working well for me in everything else I do and feels a bit constrained when I do these two tasks which I do infrequently, should I get another computer to do these two tasks (maybe then I’ll do them more) or do I live with what I have knowing that it’s right for me in every other respect?

Toward the end of last year I tipped into “get another computer land” and ordered a 27″ top of the line iMac and at the same time, a new 13″ low end MacBook Pro (to replace my 15″ MacBook Pro for travel), and an iPad. Yes, it was a huge splurge which I’d been saving up for for a while.

All the boxes arrived from Apple and before I opened any of them up I had a doubt about what I’d done. After all, this move was a rather large change in my digital setup and as I said above I’m not good doing these kinds of things in my head. It wasn’t the money that gave me pause, it was the change in tools and change in work process that would come with the new tools: having a huge computer on my desk that I might be pulled to do most of my work on because of it’s size and power.

Bigger isn’t always better
Frank got rid of a 27″ iMac and moved to a 13″ MacBook Air and one of his reasons was:

I’m the kind of guy who needs a clear focal point, so the vast expanse of 27” made me feel like I didn’t have full mastery over my tool.

I’ve never articulated this but I now know that this was one of the many things that bothered me about the move I’d made in ordering this big desktop computer. I’m ADD and while I like a bit of screen real estate too much and I’m swimming (more like drowning). Some people don’t feel comfortable unless they have a big screen (or two) to spread their stuff out on, some people, whether they know it or not, may think having more screen real estate is an ideal but in fact, they may get less done as they futz around with all the stuff on their big screen. Watching a Twitter feed crawl by while one is attempting to think and write a post gets in the way of thinking and writing the post, for me anyway. With a 27″ screen one can have a lot of things going on, potentially pulling one away from the focal point. I know, it’s useful to see a two page spread when laying out pages and useful to see one’s images on a big screen but how often one has this need varies from person to person and the fact is, I can live without it and have for many years. Somehow I thought I should have it but in the process overlooked my successful history with my current 15″ MacBook Pro.

The other thing I was pondering was an SSD upgrade to the MacBook Pro. I was very impressed by the solid state MacBook Air when it came out and knew Apple was moving in this direction (it’s now known that they’ve been buying futures in flash memory): solid state is definitely the future of computing storage.

The two computers and iPad stayed in their unopened boxes which sat on the floor of my office for a few days and I finally decided I’d made a mistake (a stumble in the path). I called Apple and returned the iMac and the MacBook Pro and kept the iPad. Apple was a pleasure to deal with and they even paid for the return shipping. I suddenly felt lighter although truth be told I was wondering how I’d explain all of this to my friend Dale who was discussing this buy with me and generally supports whatever I come up with (we’re both excellent rationalizers). We’ve discussed it since but I didn’t have the clarity reading Frank’s post has given me.

I love it when reading about someone else’s experience helps me explain my own.

What I have now
As those of you who follow this blog know I ordered and did an SSD upgrade on my MacBook Pro. Except for a single issue with sleep its been a terrific upgrade and I have no regrets to this day about having done it. It will give me plenty of time with this now three year old MacBook Pro to wait for Apple to come out with new MacBook Pros with more solid state options. My last MagCloud project was done on this SSD-equipped machine and it made a very big difference in the machine’s responsiveness working with large files. Of course an external monitor would have helped and like Frank I might go down that path in the future but given that most of my use of my MacBook Pro is doing things like this post I’m fine with it as it is.

I got the iPad less as a portable computer, more as a portable movie player for use on planes. I don’t travel like I used to but I do make a trip across country to Los Angeles every few months to visit my 95 year old mother and as I’ve seen more and more people on these cross country trips using iPads to watch movies and other video content it occurred to me that just getting one for this alone would make these trips bearable. So, this was my initial rationale for ordering and keeping the iPad and I’ve ripped numerous movies from my DVD collection and have them on the iPad and it’s great to watch them on flights. I wasn’t sure if I’d use the iPad for much more than this because it lacks a hardware keyboard and as a touch typist this is an important piece of a tool for me. However, there’s much one can do with an iPad sans typing as most of you already know and a little typing on the screen isn’t a problem.

Now that I’ve been using it for a few months, the killer app on my iPad hasn’t been the video player but a simple and elegant RSS reader called Reeder which syncs with a Google Reader account. Between Reeder and Instapaper I find using the iPad to read feeds and tuck things I’m interested in away a better experience than the same applications on the Mac (I’ve been using RSS newsreaders since NetNewsWire was in beta). I think I like the focus of full screen apps and even though Reeder on the Mac is still in beta, even after it’s done I think I’ll like the iPad experience better. Maybe Lion will bridge this with its full screen capabilities but for now the iPad as a tool for reading feeds and tucking the gems away in the cloud is fantastic. And, when I’m away from wifi I use the iPhone for this: same apps and they work fine over 3G.

This has been a surprise to me: I routinely carry both my MacBook Pro and iPad downstairs on winter mornings to drink my coffee by the wood stove and I use the iPad to read the news through Reeder rather than do the same on the MacBook Pro. If the iPad had a decent AIM/iChat like client I’d leave the MacBook Pro upstairs.

Another surprise: the iPad is so small and useful that it undoes my wanting a 13″ MacBook Pro as my main computer. I don’t pull my computer out on planes anymore and the iPad has killer battery life even watching movies so why not stick with a 15″ MacBook Pro which seems to have become an ideal size for me over many years.

Many years ago my friend David Clark pushed (pulled) me into using Gmail and that was the beginning of my move to the cloud. Gmail works flawlessly on computer/browser (or Apple’s Mail app), iPhone and iPad so I can get mail anywhere and not worry about syncing. Same with Google Reader (thanks Steve) and the Reeder client on iPhone, iPad, and Mac and I’m finding that Instapaper is a wonderful cloud container allowing me to toss things into it from any device knowing they’ll be there on the other devices. SimpleNote is the same thing for writing: do the writing on one device, find it on all devices.

So, my digital life is a 15″ SSD equipped MacBook Pro, an iPad, and an iPhone4, all connected via MobileMe (iCal and Address Book), Gmail, Google Reader, Instapaper, and SimpleNote. I back up the iPhone and iPad with iTunes a few times a week. I back up the Mac every day with SuperDuper! onto two different portable firewire 800 hard disks (rotated).

This setup is simple, powerful, elegant, and fits me like a glove. While I did some flailing on the way to it it feels quite comfortable to me now. As Steve Jobs (I wish him well) would say:

The journey is the reward.

Amen Steve. The process really is the product.

MacBook Pro SSD upgrade notes, a month in

About a month ago I put a 240 gig SSD drive in my 3 year old 2.5 ghz MacBook Pro and documented the installation process here. I thought I’d report on how it’s working and whether it’s a worthwhile upgrade to consider.

There are many factors that affect the speed of a computer and one of them is how full the hard disk is relative to its size. I’ve heard from many people who have hard disks with less than 10% free that their computers have slowed to a snail’s pace. OS X writes temporary files to the hard disk and you need to always have enough free space to accommodate these files.

I didn’t and don’t have this problem; I’m using about 170 gigs out of 240 so have enough extra space for the temporary files. But, this issue is something to keep in mind and just buying a new, larger hard disk (not an SSD) might solve the speed problem for many. Same installation as an SSD.

For me the SSD speeds up booting the computer, launching applications, and almost every process that used to slow me down. It has made working with this computer much like working with an iPad or an iPhone 4 with their fast A4 processors. While the speed increase is not earth shattering and some with unrealistic expectations might be disappointed, I notice it and it’s significant enough to make me feel the upgrade is worthwhile.

My friend Edward, who has a current generation 15″ MacBook Pro with i7 processor and plenty of memory and a 7200 rpm hard disk came down for a visit and we did some informal comparisons with our two computers side by side. My SSD equipped computer booted faster than his every time although booting applications was about as fast on his computer. No doubt the newer processor and graphics chips in his computer would run circles around mine given certain processes but in fact, my computer fared quite well running the kinds of things we both run: Pages, Lightroom, Safari, Reeder and other small and modern OS X applications. Both of us were amazed that a simple upgrade could boost performance that much but in fact it did and does.

There is only one issue I have with this upgrade and it may be a deal killer for some because it may affect battery life. It may be that I need to change something on my computer to make this work right but so far I’ve not found it.

Even with the Energy Saver system preference pane set to put the computer to sleep in 10 minutes and the “Put the hard disk(s) to sleep when possible” if I walk away from the computer with the screen up the display will sleep but the rest of the computer never goes into sleep mode. I can force it into sleep mode by closing the lid/screen or choosing “Sleep” from the Apple menu or hitting the power button and choosing “Sleep” but it will not sleep on its own with the lid up.

I’ve reset the power manager and the parameter ram and done about everything I can to wipe out whatever old settings were stored in the computer about sleep but so far nothing has helped here.

This may be of no significance anyway because, of course, there is no hard disk to spin down, but my guess is that the computer uses power differently in sleep/hibernation mode than it does when its awake.

I was curious about this early on and posted about it here. I got a comment from a MacBook Air user who said that his Energy Saver screen remained the same; talked about hard disks when in fact, there are no hard disks installed on the Air. Still, the Air is using flash memory differently and no doubt has hibernation/sleep routines built into its ROMs that a MacBook Pro with an SSD upgrade doesn’t have. I wonder if a MacBook Air has a fan? Anyone care to comment.

No doubt this issue has an affect on battery life if you walk away from a “running” machine with the lid up. Our house is dusty enough (wood stove) that I tend to close the lid on this computer when I’m not using it putting it to sleep properly (LED pulsing, etc.). The bottom line is that while it’s an issue, it’s not a deal killer for me because I’m starting to use an iPad to read my feeds with Reeder (excellent) and this computer, while still being used as a portable doesn’t have to have killer battery life on planes because I have an iPad for that.

Battery life
The ads say that an SSD improves battery life (other than this sleep issue) and while my report is only anecdotal, I do think its true. The battery life in my normal use of the computer is certainly better if I stay away from Flash sites, don’t watch video, and refrain from pushing the computer by running Lightroom and a few other applications simultaneously. These days normal use of a computer involves all sorts of things including running the occasional video. Even if battery life is the same for me its not a deal killer because I use my iPad on long distance flights and because I use this computer plugged in on my desk as much as I do unplugged away from it (as I am now). I’ve been sitting here in the living room for about 2 hours and I have 54% battery left. That’s not too bad actually and no doubt more than I’d have had left pre SSD upgrade.

Quiet and fans
Without a hard disk spinning the computer is a lot quieter and this is meaningful to me. However, my computer’s fans now seems to be running all the time (related no doubt to the sleep issue). The fans make almost no noise but you can hear them if you put your ear up to the keyboard. When I first heard this and wasn’t sure what it was I installed the iStat Pro dashboard widget to track what was happening and lo and behold, both right and left fans are running at between 1500 and 2000 rpm almost all the time. This is nothing compared with what they do when the machine is overloaded with processes and they make a lot of noise but it’s something and may be responsible for the sleep and battery issue I’m having.

While my friend Edward was here with his current i7 MacBook Pro we checked out the fan noise on his machine and in fact, his fans were running all the time too. His machine is newer so the bearings on the fans made less noise but iStat Pro (which I found out about from Edward) showed that both of his fans ran continuously.

This made me curious and I installed iStat Pro on my wife’s MacBook which seemed to be running silently at times and in fact her fans are running all the time too, more quietly than mine but they’re running.

Just to be clear, the fans don’t run during sleep but on my computer, since I have to put it to sleep manually the fans will continue to run as long as the lid is up and I’ve not forced it to sleep. This is no doubt the cause of battery drain and maybe the reason my computer won’t sleep properly.

Bottom line
Even if I never solve the fan/sleep issue I still think this SSD upgrade is very worthwhile. The performance increase from the SSD has allowed me to put off buying a new computer for a year and has made this machine fun to work with again. That’s worth the $500 price to me and I recommend the upgrade to anyone who’s in a similar position.

SSD and Energy Saver in Mac OS X


Now that I’ve installed a solid state drive (SSD) in my MacBook Pro I’m wondering if the checkbox about spinning down a hard disk to save energy has any meaning anymore.

Maybe a more interesting question is, does that checkbox even exist on a MacBook Air? How context sensitive is the Energy Saver System Preference pane?

This may sound like splitting hairs but given that an SSD mimics a hard disk (is installed instead of a hard disk in the same slot) while the solid state memory on a MacBook Air is soldered to the main system board, energy saver might treat an SSD differently from the MacBook Air’s solid state memory.

Anyone out there with an Air care to comment on this? Does that highlighted checkbox even exist on a MacBook Air?