How many MacBooks?

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How do you people get through the day?

The little Inspector panel here in my word processor reports that this question is only 63% rhetorical (good God, is there anything that Scrivener [ ] can’t do?). I have a good half-dozen working computers in my office and there are times when bringing you a column is like getting a sack of mail from Plum Creek, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. I ride one computer until it collapses or shies up lame. Then I jump off, grab my mochilla from my exhausted mount, and jump onto the computer that’ll carry me for the next ten miles or so.

Generally I keep this up until my work is done, or I run out of working computers. Some days, I get to go to the movies at one in the afternoon.

So honestly, I have no idea how you folks manage with just the one computer. Maybe you have the iMac and a MacBook. Okay, two computers. If I only had two, I’d keep the second one mounted on the wall under a pane of glass and would only break it out in case of a zombie attack or something. I’d definitely want to have a guaranteed working computer in a situation like that; being attacked by the undead would suck even worse if I weren’t able to blog about it.

A few weeks ago, my black MacBook came down with Sudden Shutdown Syndrome. Thoush “SSS” sounds like a slow tire leak so let’s come up with something zippier and more dangerous: DEATHSPIKE (I leave the parsing of the acronym to the reader as an exercise). I’ll be bopping along on the keyboard, stringing together a sequence of flawless gems of perfect truth, beauty and wisdom as usual, when phhreeeowwwww…. The machine just up and dies.

This tends to interrupt the flow of my writing. There’s also a very good chance that when I press the Power key and restart, the first line I type when I get back to work will be “S#!%?*$#$@$#S*$ER#AL#SP!SS!!!!”

(I leave the parsing of this sequence of characters as a second exercise for the reader.)

It happens without any warnings or errors of any kind. It’s as though the MacBook suddenly thinks “Wait… what am I doing? I’m not a computer! I’m a napkin dispenser!” and promptly does its best to become a completely inert and non-interactive object before the other appliances get suspicious.

Fortunately, we all have a wonderful network of Apple Stores to call upon for service. But there are things you have to do before speaking with a Genius about a problem like this:

  1. Write down a list of all the curse words you used when it happened. It won’t help to diagnose the problem, but anyone in tech support likes to keep up-to-date on the latest gutter lingo;

  2. Launch the Console app and look for error and warning messages. If a certain app was flailing around mightily right before your Mac flew south, then there’s your Prime Suspect.

  3. Ask yourself “what did I do to this machine before all this started happening?” My iMac started freezing up last week, just after I installed a bunch of fonts. Sure enough, one of them was corrupt; “undoing” the install fixed the problem immediately. What hardware did you add? What upgrade did you perform? Is it something you can undo, even just as an experiment?

  4. Restart in “Safe” mode (restart the Mac, hold down the Shift key immediately after hearing the startup chime, let go when you see the Apple logo). The Mac will perform an extended hard drive diagnostic, do a whole bunch of housekeeping, and then start the OS with all but the most critical system extensions turned off. If your problem disappears, then you know that either an app crashed a while ago and left behind a tainted cache file that went on to cause some trouble, or you installed a piece of software that’s causing your machine to go all pouty on occasion. Best-case, the problem’s now fixed; middle case, you start working your way backwards, uninstalling apps and extensions until the problem goes away. Worst case, you back up all of your files, reinstall the OS, and start again. But the problem will almost certainly go away.

  5. If you make it to Step 5 without a positive result, read the Book of Job. Commonly referred to as “the slapstick section of the Old Testament,” Job cheers you up by making you think “God, however sad and pathetic I might be feeling right now, at least I’m not that guy.” If you don’t have a Bible handy, any episode of “Big Brother” will do.

  6. Reset the machine’s NVRAM. This will clear the machine’s nonvolatile startup-to-startup memory of any possible cruft. Switch on the Mac and hold down Command-Option-P-R keys immediately; let go when you hear a second restart chime.

  7. With any sort of a power problem—and yes, I think this could be termed a power problem, seeing as my MacBook suddenly behaving as though electrons were simply bouncing impotently off of its CPU instead of flowing freely through it—you can also try resetting the power manager. In my 2007 MacBook, you do that by disconnecting the battery and the power adapter, holding down the Power button for five seconds, and then putting everything back together and powering up as normal.

  8. And if you get to Step 8 and there’s still no joy, reflect that mankind is born unto trouble just as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7). No, I’m not religious. My familiarity with this particular section of the Bible just underscores how much of my life I’ve spent working with computers, that’s all.

Congratulations for leaving the whisky bottle wherever it was until now. Yes, bring it on out and pour yourself a few glasses; just try to spread them out some and hide the car keys, OK? Hit and look for tech notes describing your problem. Though at this stage you’ll probably get more out of, a mostly unmoderated message board where users vent, console each other, and offer hand-holding and practical solutions.

Or, which takes a rather partisan approach to problematic hardware, as the URL promises. Sure enough, plenty of people have been complaining about DEATHSPIKE (Hmm. No, that name isn’t going to catch on, I can already tell) shutdowns with this model. The handy bit is where people discuss their experiences in getting Apple to deal with it.

There was no help for me, sadly. So it’s time to take the MacBook to see a Genius. Sometimes all of those steps and tricks solve the problem (and that’s by no means a definitive list). Even when they don’t work, it still saves me time at the Apple Store because I and my MacBook get to skip over the Genius’ first half-dozen questions and a whole bunch of unsuccessful attempted fixes.

I’ve always had good experiences with Geniuses. Still, the fact there’s an active community at any site called bothers me.

Apple has a reputation for screwy hardware and even as a longtime Mac enthusiast, the only proper response is to sort of look at the ground and kick the dirt around with the toe of my shoe a little and mumble, “Yeah, I guess.”

The punch line to this whole story is that while my MacBook is sitting on the Disabled list, I’m using a MacBook Pro that I got for a different project. A week later, the mechanical latch that’s supposed to hold the screen shut somehow jammed. So the only way I can carry it in a bag without the Pro popping open, waking up, spinning up the hard drives, and putting my data in mortal danger is to strap the damned thing closed with rubber bands.


I’m starting to think that maybe Apple should sell portable Macs on a big roll, like paper towels.

This story, "How many MacBooks?" was originally published by Macworld U.K..

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