Troubleshooting MacBooks

Apple’s latest laptops, the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, are among the company’s more controversial hardware releases. When Apple put them on the market, both were justly lauded for their superb performance but just as loudly criticized for flawed batteries, overheating, and other glitches. If you’ve been having problems with either model, we have tips for working around the worst of them.

Energy alternatives

The MacBook and the MacBook Pro pack much better performance than their predecessors into roughly the same svelte, one-inch-thick case design. But faster processors—even energy-efficient ones like Intel’s—require more power to operate, and that means more heat. Those power requirements and that heat have inspired complaints about subpar battery life and overheating. Some tried-and-true battery-management tricks should help with both.

While Apple claims that the 15-inch MacBook Pro can get 4.5 hours of use per battery charge, real-world battery life can be much shorter. To extend that life, open the Energy Saver preference pane, choose Battery from the Settings For pop-up menu, and change the Optimization setting to Better Battery Life. That will enable several options at once, such as Put The Display To Sleep When It Is Inactive For 1 Minute and Reduced Processor Performance. Everyday tasks may run a bit more slowly, but you probably won’t notice it much. If you’ve opted to show the battery status in the menu bar, you can click on that icon and select the power setting you want.

While you’re poking around in the Energy Saver pane, enable the Put The Hard Disk(s) To Sleep When Possible option; spinning those platters burns power, too. You can also dim the screen: use the F1 key, or open the Displays preference pane and adjust the Brightness slider. You can also disable the Displays pane option that automatically adjusts the screen’s brightness depending on ambient light. And if you don’t need them, turn off AirPort (click on the menu bar’s AirPort icon and select Turn AirPort Off) or Bluetooth (via the Bluetooth preference pane).

To get the most out of your battery, you should condition it at least once a month. To do so, run your laptop until the machine puts itself to sleep, and then plug in the power adapter and recharge the battery to its fullest. This is an especially good idea if you usually work with your laptop plugged into an outlet.

Unfortunately, even pampered batteries lose capacity over time. To find out if yours is waning, periodically check it with a utility like Christoph Sinai’s coconutBattery (payment requested), which can track battery capacity over time (see “How Much Juice?”). If you notice that your battery is holding less and less juice, you might need to replace it.

Turn down the heat

The Second Rule of Laptop Thermodynamics says that your fingers will never go numb with cold while you’re working, because today’s portables get almost too hot to touch. MacBooks and MacBook Pros, especially, seem to heat up when the processor is very active and when you’re charging the battery. But before you reach for asbestos gloves, there are a couple of things you can do to try to keep the heat down.

If you haven’t done so already in an effort to prolong your battery’s life, try reducing the processor speed in the Energy Saver preference pane. Also, be judicious about running processor-intensive applications when you’re using your laptop on your lap.

If you think your portable is getting hotter than it should, you can easily take its temperature. Marcel Bresink’s free Temperature Monitor reports what the internal temperature sensors are reading. Another free option is Macbricol’s CoreDuoTemp, which monitors just the temperature of the Intel Core Duo processor. There are ways to hack your laptop so its fans run faster, but I’m not prepared to endorse them just yet.

To avoid charring your legs, look into purchasing a laptop stand or a riser such as Road Tools’ Podium CoolPad ($30), which lifts the computer and allows air to flow underneath. A wooden board or a paper notebook works well when you just need a surface while sitting on the couch or in bed.

Error messages

No matter how much you tweak and accessorize your MacBook or MacBook Pro, you may still have one of the problems that have been plaguing both laptops since they were introduced. Some have been solved; a few, unfortunately, have not.

Defective Batteries (MacBook Pro) When reports about problems with the MacBook Pro’s batteries began to surface, safety risks weren’t to blame; instead, some batteries simply weren’t performing well. Apple has set up a replacement program. (Don’t confuse the MacBook Pro battery issue with the problem that afflicted some PowerBook G4 and iBook G4 portables: Apple has recalled millions of lithium-ion batteries manufactured by Sony and used in those machines, due to the danger of overheating and possible combustion. Click here for details.)

Random Shutdowns (MacBook) There were widely reported incidents of MacBooks spontaneously turning themselves off. At first, the problem appeared to have something to do with the logic board—an issue Apple was aware of. But online reports indicate that swapping out the logic board doesn’t always solve the problem. Other users reported that it happened primarily when running Windows (using Boot Camp or Parallels). In any case, if this is happening to you, be sure to download the latest SMC firmware —an update in October 2006 addressed the shutdown problem.

ExpressCard Prevents Sleep (MacBook Pro) Sometimes, the laptop won’t go to sleep if you’ve inserted a card into the ExpressCard slot. ExpressCard Update 1.0 solves this problem.

Yellowing Palmrest (MacBook) Soon after they began shipping, some white MacBooks started exhibiting an odd yellowness on either side of the trackpad. Apple said it was caused by a manufacturing defect and offered to replace affected cases. ( Click here for more details.)

[ Jeff Carlson is the author of iMovie HD 6 and iDVD 6 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]

How Much Juice? Christoph Sinai’s coconutBattery not only checks to see how much battery power you have left, but also checks to see how much charge it can hold.
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