July 20, 2010

Huge Hardware Problem Solved (I Think)

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 2:00 am

My Macbook Pro needed an exorcism. There was something just not right with it. It’s not like my first Mac, which was a 2002 PowerMac that to this day just spontaneously freezes and kernel panics with no provocation, despite passing every hardware test known to man. It was thankfully more subtle and less disruptive than that.

Let me tell you about how it began. This machine came with 4GB of RAM. My previous machine also had 4GB of (third-party) RAM, of an inferior kind (DDR2 as opposed to DDR3). Knowing how advanced the i7 chip is compared to my 2007 Core2Duo, I expected that with an equal amount of RAM, and literally the same hard drive, this machine would be the same, only faster. Well in real-world use, it wasn’t noticeably faster. In fact sometimes it almost seemed slower. Things that are heavily RAM-dependent (such as boot-up time) were slower. I’ve never sat there with a stopwatch, and I couldn’t actually do a side-by-side comparison, because the hard drive had moved and now I can’t test the original speed of the old computer, but when I originally got the 4GB of RAM in the old machine, I was amazed how fast it booted. This machine was not as impressive.


Parallels is a virtualization software that allows you to run Windows (or whatever you want) while booted in Mac OS. It ran terribly on this machine. I mean so bad — so embarrassingly bad — that if there were some incompatibility with i7 MBPs there would be a huge outcry and people would be demanding an immediate patch or their money back. Even when I reduced the RAM and video RAM assigned to the virtual machine to pathetic levels, it was still slow as hell. At a reasonable level (say half the actual hardware capacity) it completely consumed all resources and the computer was totally useless in both OSes. And yet the Parallels user help forums don’t say anything about the current version running particularly badly, or having a problem with the new Macs. So I’d started to become convinced maybe it’s just me.

Quitting Programs

Lately I’ve had a few programs that have been spontaneously quitting upon launch. DVD Player and the text editor WriteRoom seemed to be the most common. Eventually I got WriteRoom running after what I think was a corrupted text file that it kept trying to re-open on launch. But DVD Player still quit on launch sometimes, and then 5 seconds later worked fine. Because of these problems I’ve been looking at Activity Monitor to see if anything looks odd. What I’ve noticed (sometimes connected to the quitting, sometimes not) is an obvious memory leak.

Memory Leak

There was a huge memory leak somewhere. Because of it (and rebooting into Windows for gaming) I have been rebooting my computer usually once a day, so I knew it wasn’t taking very long for the leak to grow to be a GB or more. Of course there are any number of things that could be causing it. Safari and associated plugins can cause problems, or some 3rd-party app could be buggy, but as it’s gotten worse I’ve been using less and less of my apps to try to eliminate possible suspects. I’ve been on Apple’s support forums looking for a large number of complaints of a memory leak, but I didn’t see much that points to a flaw affecting all users of 10.6.4 or anything like that. In one case, a user mentioned that it could be caused by faulty memory, and in light of the history listed above, that’s the first time I started seriously considering a hardware problem.

If I’m having software problems, and not anything really disturbing like kernel panics, I will always blame it on software, but the fact is, I’ve been very disappointed with the performance of this machine since I got it. It’s not worse than my old one, but it’s not better, and lately I’ve been on the verge of looking into getting 8GB of RAM. I almost blogged something about it last week — “since when is 8GB of RAM necessary for a computer to feel fast? ” — but I stopped when I couldn’t find the exact quote from Bill Gates about “640k is enough memory for any computer forever,” and moreover discovered that he probably never even said it, which crushed my ideas for an opening line for the post. The point is, I stopped just shy of going to Crucial and finding out just how much 8GB costs these days, since obviously 4GB is yesterday’s news.

I ran Apple’s extended hardware test and it came out fine. My experience and understanding about the way the universe works is that Apple’s hardware test has never identified a hardware failure on anybody’s computer ever, and is generally considered only a first step to save you time in the case that your hardware is extremely messed up (in which case you probably didn’t need a test to tell you something was wrong), otherwise you need to use more advanced third-party solutions. Which are complicated and if you do it properly, involve booting into single user mode and using the console.

I went back to the Apple forums looking for anything else, and somebody’s post said something like “sounds like bad RAM, make sure it’s properly seated.” Now that sounds really obvious, and in all my experience of bad-RAM-like symptoms in 20 years of using computers, that has never been the problem, but of course it’s one thing to check, sort of like if your toaster won’t work and the first step is “is it plugged in?” And I suddenly realized that I have never reseated the RAM since getting this computer. I opened it up to change the hard drive when I got it, but I never had any reason to touch the RAM. So I figured it couldn’t hurt to pop them out and put them back.

On Mac laptops the two sticks of RAM are one on top of the other. The first one looked pretty normal, but I held out hope that maybe there was some tiny gap not perceptible to the human eye, but that on reseating would make a better connection. I popped it up, and as I pulled it out I couldn’t believe what I saw below it: the second stick was not just maybe-kinda-sorta-not-all-the-way-in. It was sticking up! Generally you put the stick in at about a 30-degree angle and then push it down until it clicks into place on both sides. The stick was at that 30-degree angle, or as far up as it could go with the other stick properly seated on top of it. It was amazing, and explained everything. I have always felt like the computer was performing like it had half the RAM it should, and within a day or two of owning it, I had gone into System Profiler to check, because I suspected that one stick might not be detected. Obviously the connection was made enough that the system reported the 4GB, but in practical use only one stick was doing most of the work.

It’s rather early to say, but the first boot-up was at least as snappy as my old MBP. I assigned 2GB of RAM to Parallels and started it up, and it’s happily and quickly booting Windows XP in the background as I type. I mean easily 20 times faster than it did before — in a few seconds, compared to minutes of freezing the whole computer before I could even get it to abort the whole pathetic attempt at computing. I feel like Parallels is responding faster than Boot Camp does. Which is actually possible, considering that Boot Camp must have been running off roughly 2GB this whole time anyway.

I’m really shocked that the system ran as well as it did for so many months with a problem like that. I have been satisfied with it, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t a noticeable performance improvement compared to a 3-year-old machine, and the particular difficulty it seemed to have with RAM-intensive tasks confused the hell out of me. Now I’m excited to find out just how good of a machine I really have had all along. I’m sure I will need to revisit my review, which was kind of lackluster and unfinished, because I kept waiting for something to be able to point to to say, “Look, this is faster!”

Take for example this summary:

I’ve now had the machine for almost three months, and my assessment is that it’s good but not incredibly noticeable during normal use. Maybe the bottleneck is still the hard drive, and that’s why it feels exactly the same as before. My hope when I bought it was that maybe a year or so later, an SSD drive of respectable size would be available for a reasonable price. And I’m sure sometime around then, 8GB of ram would be really cheap. I haven’t quite mentally grasped the situation of 8GB being a “normal” amount of RAM yet, but when it’s cheap enough, I’ll buy it just because, and maybe I’ll see why. When I bought my last MBP I bought 4GB of RAM (which was relatively expensive at the time) because I was using the machine to run full-motion-video-with-audio projections for Singin’ in the Rain, and it made an enormous difference overnight — just before we opened we increased the resolution of all the videos, and they looked much better, and played much more smoothly. So I’m sure with the quad core and everything else, this thing has more power under the hood that I would find if I was doing more video and other demanding activities.

It’s pretty much all right there: the fact that it’s not faster, the fact that the 4GB of RAM and 7,200rpm hard drive inexplicably doesn’t seem to be enough. It didn’t make sense. And if the solution is that simple, I look forward to changing that review very soon!

And one final thought: I mentioned in my review how I don’t read about benchmarks, don’t perform benchmarks on my own machines, and in general don’t care about more details than “slow,” “fast,” or “OMG really fast!” Well the funny thing is, if I had run some benchmarks on the machine for my review, I probably would have realized right away that it was scoring far worse than published reviews. That’ll teach me.

April 3, 2010

Son-of-a-Bitch: The PC Edition

I call this: computers,gaming,pc,tech — Posted by KP @ 5:40 am

So you know, I’m home on vacation for five lovely days.

What’s the one thing I want to do on the rare occasions that I’m home? Why, play on my gaming PC, of course. It’s big and heavy and can’t go anywhere, but I’ve put a lot of money into it over the years, and sometimes I’d like to play it a little before it’s obsolete.

Well when I got home, I noticed that it was making a strange sound. It sounded to me like there was something wrong with one of the fans in the back. Upon further investigation, I realized the noise was coming out of the power supply. This got me nervous.

First of all, the PSU is one of the only original parts from when I first built it in January of 2005. I was going to replace it at the same time as the motherboard, CPU, video card, and RAM, back in 2008, but I ran out of money. It’s a 600W, which was really good at the time it was new, and when I discovered it could just barely run the more power-hungry components I was adding, I decided to stick with it until I had more time and money for an upgrade.

Sometimes it does weird things. Sometimes when the computer is off, the lights on my joystick and headset flicker. Sometimes all the case lights don’t come on. A lot of times, the light on the power button doesn’t come on. Sometimes peripherals would light up when the computer was off when they never have before. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it.

My basic assessment of it has been, “yeah it’s sketchy, and I’d feel better with a PSU that’s really designed to handle newer parts.” But I’ve been on the road ever since the upgrade in 2008, and naturally I haven’t felt it was wise to invest in any upgrades since then, since computer parts lose their value so quickly.

So today I started to really worry about the noise. It rises and falls with the activity level of the PC (i.e. it starts or gets louder when opening or saving large files). I did some research online, and it seems like it’s fairly common in old or cheap PSUs. Something to do with the transistors getting loose. Apparently it’s not a sign that your PSU is going to explode, although the general consensus seems to be that it’s a good sign you should get a new one.

There’s also the strange fact that my TrackIR receiver for some reason stopped working while I was gone (like has no reaction at all to being plugged in, like it’s totally dead). It was one of the things that would light up for no reason when the PC was off. The other strange new behavior is that the computer will not turn on right after the switch on the back of the PSU is turned on. Based on the flickering of the lights on my peripherals (which luckily pretty much all have lights), I can see that it’s as if it’s summoning up the power to turn on over the course of a minute or so. First my headphones will flicker, then get stronger, and finally light up fully, then one side of my X52 joystick, then the other, then once both of those are lit, or at least starting to flicker, then the power button will actually succeed in turning on the computer. Scaaaary!

Oh, and also when saving the BIOS settings, instead of a restart, the computer suddenly shuts down, and again has to go through this building up of power before it will turn on.

I am beginning to seriously worry about what this unstable power might be doing to my peripherals, and if it has indeed killed my TrackIR, I don’t want to lose anything else!

While the expense of a new PSU is an inconvenience, if the damn thing does blow up in the next day-and-a-half, I can’t replace the whole computer. So as much as I want to play while I’m home, the fact is, ordering a $100 part from Newegg after the tour is over is the smarter thing to do, rather than trying to squeeze a few hours of fun out of it and frying $2000 worth of parts that I wouldn’t be able to replace for years. It would all be over — that’s it, kaput — gaming on a Macbook Pro till the end of time.

Speaking of which, those new Macbook Pros rumored to have the i7 chips still aren’t out yet. Mine is behaving lately, so I’m actually OK with the delay. I really still love this machine, although on this last leg of the tour I had some more time for gaming, and couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be with a faster CPU and more video memory.

Anyway, perhaps this unfortunate situation will cause me to spend a little less time gaming, and more time doing productive projects, like working on the database, and some expansions of the site that I’ve had in mind.

January 18, 2010

Another Amazing Genius Bar Experience

I call this: mac — Posted by KP @ 2:58 pm

As someone of a geeky persuasion, I have an inherent dislike of seeking technical support. Under no circumstances will I do so except in a case of obvious hardware failure where I have no choice. And then I fear the series of questions from the technician, who expects (or his employer expects him to ask) that what ails my hardware can be solved by rebooting it, and that I haven’t tried that, and every other possible solution already before seeking help.

I have had a rather unfortunate number of opportunities to visit Apple’s Genius Bar in Apple Stores all over the country, and at this point have had so many pleasant experiences that rather than thinking of it as a dreaded last resort, when I reach the moment of acceptance that my hardware is broken, I’m comforted knowing that as soon as I’m somewhere with access to an Apple Store they’ll make it all better.

So my battery in my Macbook Pro (the one I got as a replacement when we were in Pennsylvania on tour last year) has been showing defective performance for at least 3 months. But when I gathered my paperwork to take it in, I realized it only came with a 90 day warranty. Which is pretty lame for a battery, even if it was free. So I held off doing anything about it, but took the receipt with me on tour, in case I wanted it when the battery inevitably decided to become completely useless.

That day came last week when I was in an informal meeting in the cafe at the Guthrie, and right in the middle of editing our Google calendar, my computer spontaneously shut down after about a half hour off the charger, while still showing a 50% charge. With the meeting at a temporary stand-still, I closed the lid and said, “well, I know what I’m doing on the day off.”

I thought about just buying another battery, since I knew I was out of warranty, but $130 for something that is obviously defective, and my non-fear of the Genius Bar, was enough that I was willing to take my chances and make an appointment. Maybe they could give me a discount at least.

So today I went, and the genius’ eyes popped out of his head when he saw how bad the battery’s stats were. Then he ran the diagnostic, which I blogged about last time, and if possible, it showed even more red commentary on just how bad it thought my battery was.

So the genius went to the back to discuss the situation, and came back and said they would replace it for free because of how many bad batteries I’ve had, and because I paid for one of them (plus the one the computer came with). I was very pleased that they were able to be flexible in their policy based on the circumstances.

So then I brought up my secondary question, which is that a couple days ago (after making my Genius Bar appointment) my iPhone cable broke — the cable split, exposing the wires right where the cable meets the plug that goes into the phone. I have a general awareness that that’s usually something they consider wear-and-tear (though those cables wear out way too easily), but I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that my iPhone is pretty much the only piece of hardware I own that’s under warranty, and bring the cable along in the hopes they would cover it. They did.

So I spent nothing and got about $150 in new accessories that technically they weren’t required to give me. It was a very worthwhile day.

And now yet again my trusty Macbook Pro gets a new lease on life, and between that and the new hard drive, should be running like a spring chicken until I can afford to replace it. We just won’t talk about the video problem it had on the night of the first preview. It must have been a solar flare or something…

Tech Details

For those who track things like battery failure stats… I did some research before taking my computer in, since I know (from personal experience!) that these batteries fail at a higher-than-normal rate (this is the original MBP 15″ battery). What I found from perusing the Apple support forums is that the batteries made by Sony seem most prone to failure, and those by SMP are apparently better. My old one was a Sony, and I’m glad to find that the new one is SMP.

I didn’t bother recording the exact stats of the battery, because they were so awful there was no question it wasn’t normal degradation of a rechargeable battery, but it was at 8% health after 80-something charge cycles, which is FRIGGIN TERRIBLE if you’re looking for comparisons.

And while I am fully aware that this particular model of Macbook Pro suffers from battery issues, most models of computers have one common flaw where they are most likely to fail, and the battery isn’t such a bad one. That being said, the whole issue is moot as this model is obsolete, and Apple has been employing new battery technology for a while now, so it doesn’t make me nervous about future purchases. I’m actually really looking forward to getting an upgrade in six months or so, mostly because of the more reliable, higher-capacity battery. There’s not much else in the unibody MBPs that excites me, although there are rumors that there may be a quad-core model coming soonish, which would be worth waiting for (although I expect it will be out before I was ready to purchase).

April 23, 2009

My Week in Computing

I call this: computers,mac,phones — Posted by KP @ 10:17 pm

The biggest event of my week was yesterday when we visited the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. As befitting a giant mall, of course there is an Apple Store. I decided to take my chances on a walk-in visit to the Genius Bar to see if anything could be done about my Macbook Pro battery.

A little background, because I don’t bitch about my battery nearly enough for you to have known it was going on: my computer is not quite two years old, and its second battery has withered and died. The first battery lasted pretty much a year exactly, before the battery life got to a point where it was really negating the purpose of having a laptop (somewhere around a half hour). I probably had a case for premature failure, but I just bought a new one, and was happy.

Cut to ten months later. While the battery life on the second one had not become quite so brief (maybe an hour to an hour and a half), the battery was all confused. Diagnostic programs reported the battery health at 40% after 90-something charge cycles, which based on my perusal of the Apple Support forums, is way worse than a lot of people who were able to get their batteries replaced. Worst of all, instead of simply dying quickly, it was misreporting its charge, so that the computer would show it maybe 30% full, and instead of showing a low battery warning or forcing the computer to sleep, it would completely shut off without warning, which is, um, terrible, in so many ways. It had just started doing this before the logic board failure, so when the computer died I thought maybe the battery was not to blame after all, but the problem continued after the repair.

While my computer is sadly without Apple Care, the battery is less than a year old, and thus has its own warranty. It’s clearly indicated on the receipt, which I made sure to have on my iPhone in PDF format before going to the store.

So I walked into the store and was able to get an appointment right away, and within 5 minutes was talking to the genius. He booted my computer from an old iPod nano which had some diagnostic software on it (as I tried to stifle my excitement at this idea of using my old nano as an 8GB flash drive), and after a few seconds, the screen popped up with this big red box with the word “BAD” in it in huge letters (artist’s rendering above). It was really comical. Well that settled that! I showed him the PDF including the warranty date, signed some papers and walked away with a brand new battery. Between the logic board and the battery I feel like I have a brand new Mac.

Right now I’m using my days off to be a good little girl and train the battery properly. It’s probably going to want to be shut down soon — oops, there goes the warning — so bye!

April 3, 2009

On Apple Repair

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 3:29 pm

I am typing this from my Macbook Pro. If you’ve been following my continuing adventures, you will know that last Friday, a week ago, a day that will live in infamy, I opened my computer at the theatre and found that the graphics had crapped out. This was in Phoenix. Since we were leaving Phoenix Sunday, I decided to wait until we arrived in Tucson on Monday (which also has an Apple Store) before taking my poor electronic friend to the Genius Bar to see just how screwed I was.

Monday morning at 11AM, I went in, and was saddened to be told the logic board needed to be replaced, and inconveniently, this graphics failure doesn’t happen to be the same Nvidia graphics failure that would have offered me a free out-of-warranty repair, it’s just one that looks exactly like it. Now I’ve heard horror stories of logic board replacements that cost more than a new computer. I was really surprised to be quoted about $350 for said repair. Considering I don’t even like the current version of the MBP (mostly due to the glossy screen) I was far happier to pay a relatively small amount to get my current computer back rather than have to buy a newer one. So I counted myself lucky, and bid farewell to my friend for a while. Because we’re only in Tucson for a week, and the repair was estimated at 4-6 days turnaround, I felt it unwise to have it sent back to Tucson, so reluctantly I gave the Acting Company’s office as the return address. I expected it to arrive today (Friday) or maybe Monday, and then I would pick it up first thing Tuesday morning when I got home on vacation.

Then yesterday morning I awoke around 9AM, and grabbed my now-incredibly-important iPhone off the nightstand to check my email. I had an email from our office manager in New York, saying my computer had arrived, and did I want it shipped out to me, or would I pick it up? Well I had every intention of keeping it simple and picking it up when I got to New York, but I never imagined it would be there Thursday morning. I counted, “Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday…” and made a quick calculation that perhaps the cost of overnighting an object of such value, while excessive if it were anything else in the box, might be worth the benefits of having my computer for four and a half days when I otherwise wouldn’t have it. So I asked for it to be sent to our hotel, and it arrived during our morning matinee. So far everything appears to be fine, although it’s hard to tell because the internet here at the Hotel Arizona is an embarrassment to the entire hospitality industry.

Anyway, I have never had a computer so utterly crap out on me in my life (well once, in 1993, and it was a Packard Bell, and it sucked). It has always been my absolute nightmare to have such a catastrophic failure while out on the road. And I am so impressed at how smoothly the process went to get it fixed, at every step of the way. Like most things Apple, it just works. Make an online appointment at the Genius Bar, show up, they tested it on site, took some basic information, and sent it off for me. I see now from my receipt that came back with the machine, the repair center in Texas received it the following day, and repaired it that same day. Two days later it was in New York first thing in the morning. For a computer out of warranty to need the replacement of its most essential part, and to be processed so quickly, and have it only cost about $350 including tax, is pretty amazing. I hope never to have to go through it again, and I know there are horror stories out there, but I feel really good about how it all went, and God forbid I should ever have something like this happen again in my computing life, I will at least feel like Apple will make the process go as easily as such a huge inconvenience can be.

So now I’m back, and can get about the business of catching up on my tour blog, and my big review of my new computer bag.

Oh, and P.S. — bravo to the iPhone. I can’t believe a person as geeky as myself could survive for a week without a computer and not go completely insane. This was only made possible by the fact that the iPhone provides so much of the essential connectivity that a person such as myself relies on. It can’t do everything, of course. There were things that I had to borrow Nick’s computer for, such as doing the show report, blogging, and other things like paying my credit card bill, that I just felt better about doing on a full computer. But for email, calendar, Facebook, keeping my Flickr photos updated with my traveling adventures, reading emails and documents, podcasts, my phone was sometimes a little more cumbersome, but it allowed me to continue doing most of the things I needed to do. The quality of Safari on the iPhone is also pretty amazing. Although it doesn’t support all the more advanced functions of certain web pages, and can be unwieldy to use with pages of unconventional layouts, I was surprised at how many pages I was able to use that I figured would just not work. It wasn’t always pretty, but when I had no other option, I was glad just to be able to keep running my life at all.

March 31, 2009

The Ongoing Adventures of a Geek Without a Computer

I call this: computers,mac,On the Road Again — Posted by KP @ 10:24 am

Day 5 without computer. The 4″ iPhone screen is feeling extremely claustrophobic. I don’t mind it so much for reading web pages, but for any page that requires input and typing (blogs, forums, etc.) it can be really frustrating to use, and usually doesn’t render properly.

I’m currently using Nick’s Macbook. It’s load-in day, and we’re basically done after an hour, as usual. So I’m grabbing this opportunity to bogart his computer once again. It’s kind of comical how many copies I have of my “TAC” folder with all the show stuff in it. It’s still on my computer somewhere out there in the bowels of Apple repair world, it’s on my backup drive, on Nick’s computer, and on two thumb drives. The only thing left for me to do would be to hide the two thumb drives in different places — like put one of them in my suitcase. Which is probably a good idea since normally all three of my thumb drives live side-by-side in my computer bag (which I suppose should now be referred to as “bag”).

We’re loading in in Tucson, where the Arizona Theatre Company has another venue. A lot of the department heads are the same folks we worked with in Phoenix, so it’s been very easy. The theatre is not quite as fancy, but it seems very nice so far. I took some video of our truck driver, Scotty D., backing the trailer at a crazy angle to their loading dock.

Well I must move on and do all the other things that one does while one has a computer.

March 29, 2009

Technical Difficulties

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 11:56 am

Greetings from Phoenix. My beloved Macbook Pro has had a graphics failure and is pretty much out of commission (I think and hope it might be the known failure of the 8600M which would mean it’s still covered under warranty). This has happened before.  Last time it magically fixed itself on the morning I was to bring it in to the Genius Bar.  We shall see.  I have an appointment at the Apple Store in Tuscon tomorrow.

The computer is completely functional except that the internal and external displays don’t work.  I’m actually typing this on it now, by screen sharing from Nick’s laptop.  Like an idiot I had turned screen sharing off about a week ago, and had to do some Terminal hackery to enable it through SSH.  I don’t know much about unix, so that made me feel pretty damn cool.

Anyway, as the only way I can access my computer is by borrowing someone else’s, I’m pretty much restricted to necessary purposes, so I may not be blogging much for a while.  We are home in a week, so whatever happens, I’ll have my PC and my poor Powerbook, which surely can’t withstand another tour.  Or can it?