The helplessness that you experience when your MacBook fails

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.