The Broken Mac Saga aka Format Your Damn Computer

WD-2011MBPAFTER A LONG period in the wilderness as an anti-Apple person, I got an iPod, an iPhone, and then a MacBook Pro (MBP). After that, life was good. I was more productive with OSX than I’d ever been with Windows, iOS made Blackberry OS look like something from the Victorian era, and of course the original iPod Classic is a thing of wonder. The hardware was super-reliable too – my 13-inch MBP ran flawlessly for years, as did its replacement, a 15-inch MBP bought when my brother was looking for a Mac for home use – he took over my 13-inch, I got the shiny new bigger version.

Just under three years after I got the 15-inch, the keyboard started playing the fool. Certain keys were intermittent, then they packed a total sad and died. I was on Whidbey Island north of Seattle at this point, so I braced myself for a big bill from the Apple store over on “The Mainland” i.e. a ferry trip away.

My brother had actually ordered the 15-inch on my behalf, and unbeknownst to me, he’d paid for the outrageously expensive three-year Apple Care warranty (what a nice guy!). At the time, I’d have said that was an act of madness but with less than three weeks left on that warranty, I was glad to have it.

I hopped on the ferry, and drove down to the Apple Store in Alderwood Mall, where staff proved to be exceedingly helpful. The 15-inch went in for repair, all covered by the warranty. A week later, I got it back with a new logic board, a new lower case and a new MagSafe charger. All good in the hood, as they might say round here.

But no, things weren’t rosy. Apple had kindly swapped out my once-reliable logic board for one blessed with the notorious “Shitty AMD GPU Problem”.  It started running hot. As in HOT! So much so that I couldn’t keep it my lap unless I wanted more heat and thrills than I was comfortable with. I assumed this was because of the recent upgrade to Yosemite rather than a hardware issue but I should have known better. We were leaving for Asia soon, it was the middle of the holiday season and we were mega-busy, so I just let it ride instead of taking it back.

I was living a long, long way from any Apple Stores (Bang Tao Beach, Phuket, Thailand) when the Mac started seriously playing up. Random crashes, failures to reboot and display glitches became a fact of life.

Apple Support Thailand transferred me to The Philippines, where I was given the runaround. The problem was apparently in the software, so I needed to format the drive and reinstall OSX. I was leery about this because it seemed to be a known hardware issue based on a brief Google search. Eventually they told me that I had to take the Mac to an Apple Store. How many of those are in Thailand? Zero!

Then after I pushed a bit, the support guy put me on hold, chatted to someone more senior and came back with good news – the Mac was covered by a global repair program. After years of denials, Apple had finally admitted that there was a problem with the GPU in certain MacBook Pro models, as evidenced by this enormous 800+ page thread on the Apple Support site. I’d never heard of this issue before, but I became intimately acquainted with it in the months to follow.

I could apparently take my Mac to any Apple approved repairer, and they’d sort it out for me at no charge. The nearest facility was in Phuket Town. I could get there by bus because there was no way I way going to cough up the crazy prices for the local taxis. But I had visions of having to do the back and forth shuffle from Bang Tao to Phuket Town if they didn’t get it right first time. Also I called the repairer and they told me that it’d take a couple of weeks to get parts. We were leaving for Chiang Mai in two weeks, so the idea of having my Mac in pieces in Phuket Town while we climbed on the plane wasn’t exactly attractive.

I elected to wait. I had an Acer Netbook as a backup (the same god-awful, should never have been released to the public, designed by a sadist thing I mentioned in this post) so at least I could write.

Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, I was thrilled to learn that we’d picked an apartment that was only a few minutes bike ride away from the local Apple repairer. I popped in with my Mac, navigated the language barrier and they went to work. They knew all about the GPU issue, the Mac immediately failed Apple’s graphics test, and the serial number was in the repair program’s range. So off the Mac went into the back of the store.

A week later, I got a call to collect it. It had a brand new logic board – allegedly with a new spec or non-faulty or resoldered GPU – no one seems to know because Apple is being about as transparent as a 10-meter thick brick wall on this subject. A day later, the graphics went crazy again, so I rode back up to the repairer. This time, it passed the graphics test, so they were adamant that it was software related and wanted to format the drive and reinstall the OS. I was ready for this, and all my data was backed up.

The next day – I got it back with a brand new OSX Yosemite install and many assurances that things were now sweet. I spent two days reinstalling everything and setting it all up, only to have the display do its usual thing the minute I fired up Photoshop to do some actual work. All my previous testing hadn’t revealed a problem but the GPU hated work, much like me I guess. I shot videos of the problem and took photos in case the Mac was perfectly behaved when I took it in again.

This time, I was told by the ever-helpful staff that they needed to liaise with Singapore, or that the Mac needed to go to Singapore, or perhaps that Singapore was coming here. The language barrier didn’t make things easy but whatever was happening, it’d take one to two weeks. Back to the snail-like Acer I went.

Two weeks later, I called them and was told I could collect the Mac, complete with yet another new logic board – this time it was absolutely fixed (apparently). With some trepidation, I took it home and fired it up. I tried to push the GPU by hammering Photoshop but all seemed well. It’s been a week now, and there have been no hassles at all, so I’m slowly getting hopeful that this logic board is going to do the job. I could download some program to beat the GPU within an inch of its life to see if it’s prone to failure but all I need this computer to do is to run properly.

Format That Sucker
One benefit of this debacle was getting the drive wiped and the OS reinstalled. When I got the 15-inch, it was hyper-quick by the standards of 2011. Over the years, it became a slug, spinning the stupid beach ball of doom all the damn time. My lady’s cheap Dell laptop of similar vintage was like a Bugatti Veyron compared to my four times more expensive Mac.

I knew I needed to redo the OS but kept putting it off because I was busy and didn’t have my software with me. Being forced to put in a fresh install of the OS has given the 15-inch a new lease on life. Holy heck, this thing is quick when it’s running properly. When I get to Australia in June, I’ll drop in an SSD drive and maybe push the RAM up to 8 or 16Gb, assuming of course that the logic board is still reliably chugging away, and that’ll take it to another level entirely.

The moral of the story? There are a few:

1.    If your computer is more than a few years old, you may as well do a fresh install of the OS. Back in the Stone Ages, a PC Magazine writer named John C Dvorak suggested that it was a good idea to reinstall Windows every six months to maintain the best possible performance. That might be a bit over the top these days, but even OSX isn’t immune to years of OS updates, dozens of programs being installed and removed and the general degradation of just being in use for so long. My Mac is an entirely different beast with a clean install, your computer might be too.

2.    Apple’s products aren’t the ultra-reliable bastions of extended service that Apple fanboys (i.e. the old me) make them out to be. So don’t be fooled that all the loot that you’re spending is buying you peace of mind at a hardware level. Yes the OS gets updated regularly, which is a good thing, and OSX is so much better than Microsoft’s feeble offerings but look at it this way – would I buy a new NZ$3099 MacBook Pro, or would I be better off with a couple of PC notebooks (one as a backup) and enough change in my pocket to buy an airfare to Thailand? Hmmm, is that a silly question? I can learn to love Windows, can’t I?

3.    Apple could seriously learn to be more transparent, and maybe to react to extensive and outraged customer complaints in good time, perhaps before the class action suits are looming.

4. Acer can go right to hell because as hard as I try to appreciate them and be grateful for just having one available, those netbooks are and were a disgrace. I’ve used three over the years and they were all different shades of too bloody slow to be truly useful. I really have been happy to have one here (delivered to Thailand for me by family) but even running a pared down word processor and a single browser window is too hard for it – maybe a reinstall of Windows Starter (ugh) would get this one back to scratch but I’ve used two from brand new – they’re not fast no matter what happens. You sure do get to appreciate a real computer like the Mac (when it works), so that’s been a good lesson. ASHLEY KRAMER

4 Comments

  1. Nice article Ashley. Having experienced a similar level of frustration over an extended period of time with exceedingly poor quality control [right Cambridge Audio?], I know the mind numbing level of frustration you will feel.

    Interesting to observe-that much like myself-your reaction to such untenable levels of customer service was to inform anyone who would listen by whatever means possible. Apple clearly deserves the damage your article will create, as much as Cambridge Audio deserves any fall out my foot stamping created.

    To both companies: I would say that the very worst thing you can do is sit on the sidelines waiting for the dust to settle. Once exposed, your exceedingly poor customer complaint should engaged to the point of customer satisfaction rather than blaming the customer or ignoring the complaint. Not actively managing the complaint is to leave the frustration festering for ever more.The effect on the individual-however quiet, or mild mannered-is the same. And that is to continue to tell whoever will listen [for ever more] that Apple like Cambridge Audio treat their customers very badly.

    I hope Ashley that this puts a new spin on my foot stamping on this very forum. As a pseudo Buddhist I cannot help feel you-and the forum-have suffered a clear case of Kahrma. Not to fret, Apple and Cambridge Audio will also get a well deserved serving at some point.

  2. Sort of hilarious article in a away. No one has ever said a mechanical product (an Apple laptop in this case) is immune to ever having issues. Apple products offer better value as they tend to have a longer useful lifespan. I could write a 100 page dissertation on the frustration, lack of support, general crappiness of all the PC based products I have used over the years, but I don’t because such is the nature of hugely mass produced consumer products. They work 99% of the time, but there will always be that one person that has issues. This does not make a brand or product shit at all. You do realise how many millions of these things are churned out? It’s a wonder they work at all.
    I have never had a negative experience with an Apple product in over 15 years of using them, and I have used and owned many of them. I could not say the same for the Windows based systems I have been forced to use, constant crashing, slowness, obtuse architecture, mostly on brand new machines! But I am not going to go online and vent about it, because life is too short, and shit happens. Millions of people love Microsoft products, and good on them, but they’re not for me.
    From my own experience Apple products are ridiculously good value. You don’t have to agree, but seeing as my current iMac is 7 years old and as fast as the day I got it speaks volumes to me.

    Andrew, you obviously have issues. You were given the best back up from the distributor and you know it. Get over yourself.

  3. Swallowed the cool aid huh Neil. Pity retailers like yourself believe whatever distributors and manufacturers tell them, and choose to ignore suffering consumers.
    Pesky schmucks those customers huh?

  4. You’re an idiot if you really think that. My experiences and views are just as valid as anyone elses.
    Suffering consumers!? FFS we’re talking about stereos and computers, not heart/lung machines. You were helped and given so many upgrades by the distributor in a timely fashion! What more do you want?
    Victim mentality comes to mind…

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