Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

Dec 29 2015

The helplessness that you experience when your MacBook fails

Published by under Hardware,macOS

Dec 28, 2015. One of those days when the MacBook fails to function for unknown and inexplicable reasons.

I was using my (work) MacBook Pro at my desk, connected via HDMI to an external display, hooked up to a USB Ethernet adapter, a Microsoft Natural Keyboard and Mouse. Everything was normal, everything worked.

Then I shut down the MacBook, disconnected all peripherals and took it to my bed room where I wanted to watch a movie on it before calling it a day.

I powered the MacBook on, the boot sound chimed, the screen turned into a bright black – but stayed black.

No activity on the screen.

No OS X came up, at least not in a visible way.

I powered the thing down, powered it back on – the same.

Then I entered the “reset the PRAM, reset the SMC” loop. Multiple times. After the third time, OS X booted. But the as soon as the desktop was reached, the screen began to flicker and then went dark again.

Several reboots later, I tried to enter the recovery boot – which worked.  The only useful option there was to check the disk for errors, which I did, and of course everything was reported OK.

Rebooting the system then again led to a black screen.

I then went back to my office and hooked up the notebook to the external display and powered the MacBook back on again.

The internal display remained black – but on the external display I could see that Apple logo coming up and I could see that the progress bar got stuck after the first 20% or so.

I repeated the power down, reset PRAM, reset SMC cycle a couple of times with no change.

I did not want to waste the rest of the evening on the MacBook, so I powered it off, unplugged it and left it on my desk.

Instead, I took my now almost seven years old Dell XPS M1530 with me and watched a movie on that old friend of mine. In all those years, the Dell had not once let me down. It’s lived through several versions of Windows, beginning with Vista and up to Windows 10, at one time it even was a Hackintosh running OS X Snow Lepard, and currently it runs Xubuntu 14.04 TLS. It was always there for me.

The MacBook Pro is now only 14 months old and has been playing its little tricks on me since day one. I mean, I’m already used to it NOT accepting external USB devices that I plug in every Monday morning after an eight hours commute to my work place near Munich. It usually takes me something between 15 and 30 minutes of plug in, plug out, sometimes reboot until I get my USB mouse and keyboard and ThunderBolt Ethernet to work at my company office. It’s frustrating, but I got used to that.

The failure last night was something new, though. The MacBook entered a new stage of inexplicable behavioral weirdness.

But here comes the fascinating part: I’m typing this on the MacBook.

What changed? Did I find the source of the problem and how did I fix it?

That’s the thing: Nothing changed and I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t touch the notebook for more than twelve hours and when I turned it on half an hour ago, it decided to boot and work normally as if nothing had ever happened.

Now that’s life with Apple hard- and software for you: It magically fails and it magically works just as it sees fit. But you will never really know why it works or why it fails.

Since the MacBook Pro is a tightly nailed down system, there is no way to properly trouble shoot the machine. For example, you cannot simply replace the SSD with another one just to see if that will make a difference – because there is no SSD in the damn thing: It’s just memory chips soldered to the main board. There’s no proper BIOS to enter that might show you some diagnostics information. The list of things that you could do on most regular PCs but cannot do on a Mac just goes on.

Of the three “big” desktop platforms – Windows, OS X and the various Linux distributions – OS X is the one that leaves the user in the worst state of helplessness when it comes to trouble shooting. Linux, being a huge collection of Lego bricks by nature, gives the user the most tools to help himself. But even Windows offers more tools and help for finding your way out of the woods than OS X does.

I guess that’s the nature of OS X: Apple keeps advertising that Macs “just work”, so, by definition, trouble shooting tools, proper error messages and diagnostics information are something that you don’t need. You know, just like life boats on the Titanic were considered “a waste of space on a ship that cannot sink”.


UPDATE 2016-01-09:

I’ve received a comment which I did not publish because of a fake eMail address and a rather questionable subject line. However, the comment itself was something that otherwise could have been properly discussed.

The main points were that I’m an IT guy and hence not the target audience for a Mac, because Macs supposedly are consumer devices that are meant to be bought, thrown away and replaced with newer models. Also, OS X supposedly is a consumer OS and hence a comparison with Windows or Linux wouldn’t make any sense.

I understand too well where these arguments come from, and on my bad days I wholeheartedly agree with them. But even on my bad days I know that it’s not completely true.

However, when I see that a Mac Pro starts at EUR 3399 on Apple’s German online store, I wonder what kind of consumer product that’s supposed to be. The cheapest MacBook Pro starts at EUR 1449, which is anything but cheap, and definitely within the price range of professional equipment.

And let’s face it: When we’re talking about notebooks, it’s hard to find machines that can actually compete with Apple’s build quality. Apple’s hardware just feels great and is not made of cheap plastic. Their notebooks make it through a work day on battery, they have excellent displays and are really, really quiet (which is a killer argument for me). Yes, their German keyboards suck, at least when you need to spend a lot of time on Unix command lines and within program code. But all in all, you get some very nice hardware for your money.

Warranty and service are something else, though. Where’s Apple’s service that can compete with Dell’s “same business day on site” warranty? It’s not an option that I can choose on Apple’s online store, that’s for sure. Rumor has it that it exists somehow, somewhere. But it’s possible that it comes from third party vendors like Cyberport. In all honesty, I don’t know. I’ve only had some experience with the “traditional” Apple Care, and the quality of that service is nowhere near Dell’s Mission Critical support. No, Apple does not offer what I would call professional support. Full stop.

Now to the software side of things.

OS X is based upon FreeBSD and actually it is even a certified Unix operating system. So unlike Linux, it is allowed to call itself “Unix” and officially is the real deal. Now if I cannot compare a “true” Unix operating system with a “Unix-like” operating system like Linux, then I don’t know what could be compared to Linux.

OS X sucks on servers and even Apple themselves use Sun/Oracle Solaris on their server farms instead of their own OS X. By now I think everybody knows that.

On the other hand, Linux royally sucks on the desktop due to a gigantic lack of end-user-friendly desktop applications and OS X is the only Unix-system that provides a viable desktop “experience” and that comes with a third party application ecosystem that does not let the user starve in the wilderness.

The only platform that looks good on both the server and the desktop is, yes, Windows – love it or hate it, but even in the year 2016 that is still a hard fact of life.

On the server side, Linux is giving Windows a run for its money, and there are many, many areas where I rather install Linux servers instead of a Windows Server. But just as an example, if I need something like a directory service, Windows blows them all out of the water.

On the desktop, Apple has been eating on Microsoft’s market share for quite a while now and when you look at the amount of Apple logos on notebooks on a train, a plane or in any corporate meeting room, you know who’s slowly but surely taking over the client market – and we’re not even talking about mobile clients yet. Macs are no longer exotic, and it’s becoming harder and harder for software vendors to get away with not offering a Mac version of their software.

In closing, let’s remember for a second what user group was the very first to migrate to Apple notebooks in droves when OS X reached a certain level of maturity and came with Java and Python and some other development platforms pre-installed by default: It were the software developers who left Windows and Linux behind and ran to that new good-looking kid on the block that even had a real Unix at its core.

Two very famous names in this context are James Gosling, the “father of Java”, and Miguel de Icaza, the founder of the “Mono” project that brought Microsoft’s .NET and C# first to Linux and then to the Mac. Just visit Gosling’s blog “” and look at the Apple logo on some of his screen shots.

At Google, new hires get the choice between a Mac or a Chromebook for work. Almost everybody who does web development uses Macs – and I mean web development, not web design!

You might disagree with me, but I would say that software developers are a very professional audience, and most of them are buying Apple notebooks for a lot of professional reasons.

Comments Off on The helplessness that you experience when your MacBook fails

Jan 15 2015

What sucks about the MacBook Pro when you’re an IT guy

Published by under Hardware,macOS,Software

My company notebook is a mid 2014 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina display. For the money that it costs it is slightly under-powered and should at least have a real quad core CPU instead of a dual-core with hyper-threading, but otherwise it is a beautiful little machine.

What totally sucks about the Mac is the keyboard layout. I’m German and naturally I use a German layout. I think thousands of posts have already been written about Apple’s complete lack of interest in standard keyboard layouts and about the fact that Apple seems to be the only company in the world that just doesn’t care for proper localization.

It’s the year 2015, Apple, and for starters, you still have not labeled the keys with the braces and the pipe symbol. I am an IT guy, and every day I spend hours in the command line of the system. Using a German Apple keyboard for that job is a royal pain in the ass – and it could so easily be resolved if only Apple would adhere to the same standards as the entire rest of the IT industry. Being special doesn’t make you better in this case, Apple – in this case, it only makes your products worse than the competition.

A bunch of my next problems have to do with the fact that I run OS X on the MacBook Pro. OS X Yosemite, actually, but that really isn’t the point here. The point is that I work in an environment that is dominated by powerful VMware vSphere/ESXi, Microsoft Windows Server and Ubuntu Linux Server back-ends, along with Cisco and Mikrotik routers and switches and a magnitude of other communications equipment. It’s a very technical environment, and I’m not using my Mac sitting in Starbucks, designing webpages or blogging about whether Safari got snappier with the latest OS X update. I am also not burning my time on social networks while downloading the latest songs from iTunes and neither am I editing my last video selfies in iMovie.

Where I work, OS X still is a second class and sometimes even a third class citizen — even desktop Linux in many cases works better and is more compatible with all the administration tools that I need to use on a daily basis.

For example, one thing that is almost unusable with OS X is VMware vCenter. Yes, VMware provide an integration plugin for OS X, but what good is it when the mouse cursor disappears most of the time and you don’t know where you’re clicking? Yes, maybe that’s not Apple’s problem or fault, but nevertheless the end result is that using OS X for your job hurts you instead of making things better for you – because the available software for that platform is buggy, slow, lacks features (Office, Skype), obviously was only an afterthought (Skype again) or just sucks or doesn’t even exist (Mikrotik Winbox, VMware vSphere client or MS Project for example) and you have to fire up a Windows VM or use a remote desktop connection to a Windows machine in order to get your stuff done.

Ironically, another thing that causes a lot of discomfort when you’re using non-Apple software is the killer feature of the MacBook Pro: The Retina display. Everything that you run in a virtual machine on a Retina Mac just looks like crap, even if you adjust the scaling for Retina displays. While reading eBooks or watching photos on a Retina display is awesome, opening a bunch of terminal sessions is not — the net screen resolution of a Retina display for that purpose basically is 1280×800, which gives you not enough real estate to juggle multiple windows around. You’re better off scaling down the display resolution. The side effect is that everything becomes smaller and harder to read, but at least you gain some additional work space for using multiple windows. Optimal solutions look different.

One thing that also annoys the hell out of me is that Apple removed the “maximize window” button and replaced it with an entirely useless “go full screen” button. Who wants a full screen terminal session, for example? Or a full screen browser with a hidden menu bar? The only application where I ever wanted a full screen view of something was good old (and now discontinued) Aperture – and even there I only wanted the full screen view of my photos on the second monitor, and not on my primary display.

Having only one menu bar at the top of the screen is also a poor choice for usability, especially when you are using one or two big displays. The menu bar belongs into the application’s window, that’s the place where your mouse cursor actually is when you need to access the menu. When you have two 30″ displays hooked up to your system, you don’t want to move around 60 inches of screen real estate just to use the open file menu. At least make this an optional setting, similar to how Ubuntu does it.

The noise level of the notebook’s cooling fans also amazes me. Just open a web page with some Flash content and wait a bit – the MacBook Pro will quickly sound like a hair drier. Yes, I know. Steve Jobs said that Flush sucks. But, again, that’s not the point. The point is: This doesn’t happen while using Windows as the main operating system, and I doubt that Adobe don’t care about their rather large professional OS X customer base. It can also happen when using VLC, but VLC doesn’t behave like that either on Windows or Linux.

And then there is the frequent animated beach ball – you know, that annoying animation that is always shown when the operating system’s kernel is busy re-organizing itself and your notebook is entirely unusable for several seconds. This major software problem has been around since the very first version of OS X and considering what monstrous hardware we have nowadays, this is simply not tolerable anymore. Neither Windows nor Linux have these problems on Apple hardware, by the way. It seems they had kernel engineers who actually prevented or successfully fixed such performance issues.

Performance. Yes. You only know how slow OS X really is when you use Windows or Linux natively on the same Apple hardware. Except for the not correctly localized keyboards that do not comply with any industry standards, Apple generally builds very beautiful hardware. It really is their software that sucks, as even some of the more renowned software developers in the OS X community have recently posted. Just read the related article on Forbes or Michael Tsai’s blog.



No responses yet

« Prev - Next »