Opinion: One user's MacBook shutdown struggles

From time to time, I’ve blogged at PC World about my black MacBook laptop, which I bought on the day that Apple introduced the line back in May. You could say I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it—I love it when it’s working properly, and I hate it when it isn’t.

Quick recap of my adventures with this machine to date:

May 16: I buy it! I like it! I install Parallels and Windows XP on it!

A few weeks later: The MacBook begins shutting down without warning—a sort of Blue Screen of Death without the blue screen. At first, I blame myself—I assume that the dirt-cheap third-party RAM upgrade I’d bought is acting up, and replace it with pricier memory, then go back to the original Apple RAM when the shutdowns persist. And even with the Apple RAM, they do. Eventually, I figure out that they’re always preceded by severe overheating.

Shortly thereafter: I take the MacBook to my local Apple Store’s Genius Bar. A courteous Genius seems puzzled by the problem and takes it in for repair. Turnaround takes a couple of weeks; when the MacBook comes home, it’s with a new motherboard (or logic board in Macspeak). It no longer shuts down, and seems to run cool. I’m relieved and happy.

A few weeks after that: The MacBook… starts to shut down without warning again. This time, it’s even more mysterious, since it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with its running temperature. I take it back to the Apple Store and, while waiting for a Genius, blog about my woes via the store’s free Wi-Fi. Eventually, a courteous Genius checks out the MacBook; he’s puzzled by the random shutdowns. He takes in the MacBook for repair and tells me it’ll take a week to 10 days.

The next day: The Apple Store calls back and tells me it turns out that I’m entitled to get a replacement machine. Which they give to me (after swapping in my old hard drive), making my current MacBook the second one I’ve owned, although I keep forgetting that and thinking it’s the same one I bought back in May.

A day after that: I learn that someone in Apple PR had read my blog item about the shutdowns and intervened to resolve my problem quickly. Which doesn’t thrill me, since I try to live by a policy of suffering just as much as any other computer user. But the new machine isn’t shutting down, so I’m relieved and happy.

A few weeks later: By now, it’s pretty clear that my shutdowns aren’t a totally weird and isolated incident. Sites such as AppleDefects.com report on the experiences of others who have identically-flaky MacBooks, other bloggers squawk, and Apple acknowledges shutdowns as a known issue. A class action lawsuit is organized. And I’m no longer happy and relieved, because… repeat with me, now… my replacement MacBook is inexplicably shutting down without warning.

Saturday of last week: I’m back at the Apple Store, where there’s no wait for service, so I speak to a courteous Genius immediately. In fact, for the first time, I say I’m tired of hoofing it to the store and leaving the machine for repair, so I ask for another replacement. Unlike earlier Geniuses, he’s not puzzled about the shutdowns. But he says my earlier failed repair was due to Apple not having diagnosed the problem at that point. Rather than giving me a new system, he takes mine back for repair, assuring me that the required part (a heat sink) is in stock, and that Apple knows how to fix my MacBook.

He also tells me it may be a week to 10 days before I get it back, though they’ll try to do it faster. I wince. And then he notices the e-mail address on my repair record is at PC World, and says something again about turning it around quickly.

Last Monday: I get a phone call; my system is ready for pickup. The courteous Genius who gives it back to me provides more details on the defect: Some MacBooks have a heat sink sensor that malfunctions, thinks the system is overheating when it isn’t, and shuts down the machine thinking it’s preventing potential damage.

This very moment: My MacBook is working fine. And a MacBook that’s working fine is a beautiful thing—possibly the most pleasing portable I’ve ever owned, in fact. But rather than being relieved and happy, I’m paranoid and suspicious—and probably will be until I get through, oh, about 60 days without a shutdown. Here’s hopin’.

And if it does begin doing the random shutdown thing again, I just may track down the guy I sold my rock-solid old 12-inch PowerBook to and beg him to sell it back to me…

Subscribe to the MacWeek Newsletter

Comments