Cleaning out the cobwebs

Thanks to my home built Lion install flash drive (I purchased Mac OS X through the App Store and created a bootable install drive), I am performing a nuke-and-pave on my late-2008 MacBook. As you might have read before here, I haven’t qualms about performing a reinstall. While the install is progressing, I am reading David Levy’s Love+Sex with Robots. I believe that this is the missing component to my Asimov chapter. Ah, a reboot . . .

Poor Man’s MacBook to MacBook Air Hack

Since I lug my late-2008, aluminum MacBook wherever I go, I decided to reduce its weight while I was making some upgrades.

First, I never carry my power adapter with the extension cord. Granted, the extension cord can be mighty useful in certain circumstances, I find that I don’t need it 90% of the time. Copper wire adds weight, so I decided to only carry the power brick with the removable wall adapter nub.

Second, there isn’t much that you can do without a milling machine and a lot of confidence to reduce the weight of a MacBook. However, you can pull out the optical drive to reduce the overall weight footprint of the MacBook, and in doing so, you make it more like an optical drive-less MacBook Air.

I had planned to go into the guts of my MacBook, because I needed to upgrade its hard drive and its memory. My photo and media collection necessitated a larger hard drive, so I had to replace the 120 GB SSD with a 500 GB Western Digital Scorpio HDD.

I originally purchased the maximum amount of RAM that the MacBook could hold: 4 GB PC3-8500 memory. However, the earlier maximum was dictated by Apple implementing software addressing limitations on the MacBook line, which they removed with Snow Leopard and Lion. I had read about folks installing 8 GB of DDR3 RAM in this MacBook model without any trouble, so I decided to do that, too, because it is an inexpensive upgrade that yields great rewards in system performance.

Replacing a hard drive in this MacBook is relatively painless. You open the battery cover, pull out the battery, remove a screw, pull the hard drive and unplug the SATA cable, using a torx driver you place the drive guides on the new hard drive, replace, plug in the SATA cable, put back the drive holding rail and screw, and replace the battery and cover.

Replacing the RAM in this MacBook is more involved, but it exposes the motherboard and optical drive. Due to going to the trouble to get to the RAM, I decided to add an additional mission to this project: remove the little used optical drive or Superdrive.

New Corsair memory:

To replace the RAM, you have to remove the screws holding the bottom plate with a jeweler’s Philips head screwdriver, pull up the plate, and then you will see everything exposed. The RAM is held in by plastic clamps that can be bent out of the way to release the SODIMMs. You pull the SODIMMs up about 45 degrees and then pull them out of the memory slots. To put in the new RAM, in this case Corsair PC3-8500 4 GB x 2, 8 GB paired memory kit, you slide the RAM in at about a 45 degree angle and push down until the SODIMM clicks into place. You do this for both SODIMMs.

Before removing the optical drive:

To remove the optical drive, you have to remove four tiny Philips head screws, with one of them being under the LCD panel’s data connector, which snakes around the case to the motherboard. To expose that last screw, you have to carefully remove the video feed cable from the motherboard. Remember to plug it back in after you pull the optical drive out. Also, the optical drive is plugged into the motherboard. It is easy to use your fingernail to pop the connector off at the motherboard, but you do have to be careful, because there is a component on the motherboard close to where you put your fingernail. You lift the optical drive from underneath the speaker assembly, and then slide it out all of the way. It is possible to accidentally disconnect the hard drive’s SATA connection to the motherboard when you do this, so remember to check all the connectors before you replace the cover. Also, keep your screws’ locations straight, because they are of different lengths.

After removing the optical drive:

The optical drive, or what Apple calls the Superdrive:

Now, I am less one optical drive, but I have significantly more storage space and application work space. The computer feels slightly lighter, too, which makes my back happy.

13″ MacBook Pro specs leaked, reveal “Thunderbolt” I/O port, from ArsTechnica

Ars Technica posted leaked specs for the next iteration of the Apple MacBook Pro line. It seems that they are switching over to the Intel Sandy Bridge platform. This could be a problem, because Intel recalled their Sandy Bridge chipsets at the beginning of the month [read about it here]. However, the new platform will provide substantial speed and horsepower over my current Core2Duo MacBook. Even if they are shipping the crippled Sandy Bridge chipsets, it should only affect higher SATA ports above 0 and 1. My aluminum unibody MacBook is a bit long in the tooth, so this is exciting news.

13″ MacBook Pro specs leaked, reveal “Thunderbolt” I/O port.

Another Fantastic Apple Genius Bar Experience

I have had many experiences with Apple’s Genius Bar over the years since Apple first launched its chain of stores nationwide. I took my PowerMac G5 to the Northpoint Mall Apple Store in Alpharetta, Georgia, because I had to ‘pump’ the power switch three times to get it to boot after installing an nVidia 6800 Ultra video card to drive my 30″ Apple Cinema Display (this was not the best experience, but they did make things better–I will write about this in the future and link back). I had the Shadyside Apple Store in Pittsburgh replace the top plate on my 15″ MacBook Pro after the trackpad died (at least it survived the year in Liverpool). And most recently, the Legacy Village Apple Store in Cleveland replaced my 13″ Aluminum MacBook’s power brick after it developed an unacceptably loud electrical cycle hum. In all of these cases, I had AppleCare, which was particularly useful because I have found technical issues usually occur after one year if the device makes it past the first 30 days problem free.

On Saturday, Y and I drove to Fairlawn to visit the new Apple Store in Summit Mall so that I could visit the Genius Bar about my MacBook (5,1, 13-inch, Aluminum, Late 2008). For a few months, my MacBook had developed a nasty habit of shutting itself down hard when the battery reported it still had about 15% power left. I had reset the SMC (System Management Controller), which controls power and temperature regulation, twice. I had also run the Apple Hardware Test on the Applications disc that came with my MacBook, but it reported everything was okay.

I made a late appointment with the Genius Bar so that Y and I could stock up for the current storm at Sam’s Club and grub on sushi and teriyaki shrimp at Sakura. When we arrived at the mall, the Apple Store was hopping with The Beatles playing over the PA and many, many people trying out this season’s sexy technogadgets.

After a waiting about 10 minutes past my appointment time at the Genius Bar, precipitated by an apparently busy repair night, a Genius called my name and we got started on my MacBook. After telling him the things that I had already tried and saying that the battery had over 260 cycles yet it still reported ‘Normal’ in the System Profiler, he used netboot to launch my MacBook from a remote disc that autoloaded a proprietary Apple tech tool that could diagnose different hardware maladies. In my case, he loaded a battery tester that reported everything was okay. Luckily, this Genius was paying attention to something that I had not noticed: the full charge capacity in mAh. My battery was reporting that its maximum capacity was only 3400 mAh, but it should be 4500 mAh. It only had 75% of its normal capacity left, but it was miscalculating how much that amount actually was. This meant that the battery was completely discharged earlier than its on-board microchip was determining, and the computer would slam down in a jolt when there was no more juice to run.

He happily replaced my battery, had me sign a repair form since I’m still covered under AppleCare, and Y and I were on our way home. However, we did have to stop by Williams and Sonoma so that I could get Y a cute soup bowl with handle to replace some bowls that we recently threw out after Y discovered through research that they had unacceptable levels of lead and other heavy metals.

Now, my MacBook works, and Y safely enjoys a bowl of soup–a very good day indeed!

Early 2008 MacBook, CPU Load, Loud Fans, and Adobe Flash

Yufang has since my previous post on this problem continued to have problems with anything related to Adobe Flash on her Early 2008 MacBook. Today, I decided to test out a hypothesis that I had regarding Flash. On many forums, Windows users with Flash don’t report the heavy CPU usage and subsequent fan cooling reported by some Mac users (including Mac users with a MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac Pro). This and Adobe’s lack of transitional support for Creative Suite into Cocoa (until CS5) led me to believe that Flash for Mac OS X was not optimized for the Mac OS X platform. The underlying hardware on both Macs and PCs are essentially the same now, so the differences are now between the OS architecture and the way Flash is built to run on the two different OSes. Considering that both Windows XP SP3 (Yufang owns a copy of this) and Mac OS X Leopard (what I last installed on her machine as a test to solve this problem) use roughly the same amount of CPU power according to process monitors and neither under normal operating circumstances cause the fan activity to spike with increasing CPU utilization, it seems that Flash is the independent variable.

With this in mind, I ran Boot Camp in Mac OS X 10.5, and installed Windows XP SP2, setup the wireless connection, upgraded to SP3, installed 73 critical updates, installed AVG Anti-Virus, installed Firefox, and installed Adobe Flash. Before trying out web Flash problems, I thought I would try it with one of her Big Fish Games, which immediately drives up CPU use and activates fan activity on Mac OS X. On Windows XP SP3, the same Flash game–one version compiled as a Universal Binary for Mac OS X and the other compiled for the Windows platform–runs more efficiently on Windows than it does on Mac OS X. I define efficiency as requiring less CPU activity to perform the same amount of work. On Mac OS X, that game requires more CPU cycles and more operations to run the same game that requires less CPU cycles and less operations on Windows.

My suspicion is that Adobe didn’t optimize Flash for Mac OS X. Flash has always been a pain on Mac, even in the old days, but it would seem like a company like Adobe that launched itself on the Mac platform would have done more to make their software work well on Mac. It seems like all that money Adobe makes on their overpriced software could have trickled down to end user software that didn’t waste CPU power and drain batteries unnecessarily.

A more thorough analysis of this would be necessary to pin this on Adobe unequivocally. Windows XP handles threading differently on a Core 2 Duo processor than does Mac OS X, which could cause a problem for certain software, particularly non-optimized software, on each OS. I don’t know to what extent that Vista or Windows 7 would change the results. I didn’t try Windows 7, because I didn’t want to use my unopened copy yet. Yufang has Windows XP, which has a smaller code base than Windows 7, so I figured it shouldn’t have as much overhead as Windows 7 would despite the supposed architectural improvements to the newer OS.

The bottom line is that I’m saying that the ball is in Adobe’s court. As it now stands, I wholeheartedly agree with Steve Jobs that Flash is a big mess on the Mac platform. When Jobs went on the record saying that recently, he wasn’t saying anything new. All of us Mac users have known that for a long time, and it’s been a problem that we’ve been waiting for Adobe to address for a very long time. Though, I’m glad that Apple has the clout to potentially swing things to HTML5 and H264, at least for online video.  It’s up to Adobe if they want to make an insanely great product that can compete with a (more–patent issues aside) open alternative.

In the meantime, Yufang will use Boot Camp to switch between Windows and Mac so that she can use her software without it overheating her computer and creating fan activity that detracts from her ability to use her MacBook altogether.

Loud Fans and Adobe Flash on Early 2008 MacBook

Yufang has an Early 2008 white Macbook, which we upgraded to Snow Leopard last year. Since adding 64bit software to her daily processing, she’s had to deal with a lot of loud fan revving and droning while using Safari and Adobe Flash Player. Tonight, I finally thought of a solution that, so far, seems to have done the trick. Up to this point, I have tried everything short of a nuke-and-pave reinstall of MacOS X, including: installing all Apple updates, continually updating Flash, repairing disk permissions, and resetting the SMC. Tonight, I was watching what was going on in Activity Monitor, and I thought about the fact that Safari runs in 64bit mode by default and Adobe Flash is still 32bit software on MacOS X. I wondered what would happen if I launched Safari in 32bit mode and tried loading up some Flash videos. Eureka! Now, Flash isn’t identified as running in Activity Monitor, and I assume is running within the Safari process (or via some kind of process reporting magic). Whatever the case, it seems that if you are experiencing this same problem on a MacBook (probably due to its lack of a real GPU), you can resolve this problem by running Safari 4 in 32bit mode: Select the Safari icon in the Applications folder > File > Get Info > Check “Open in 32bit Mode” > Close window > Relaunch Safari. Good luck, and please comment if you have other ideas or if this doesn’t fix your problem.

Increasing Your Battery Life on a MacBook

Laptop batteries are a fascinating work of engineering. They live, they die, and then they are resurrected. I have always struggled with prolonging each brief recharged life in my laptop batteries ever since my first Powerbook 145B back in 1993.

Now I have a late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook (MacBook5,1). I am a little displeased with my battery life, which usually tops out between 4-5 hours (I believe I was promised at least 6 hours when I purchased it). However, I have figured out a few things on my own and read others on the net that may lead to longer battery life for your MacBook or MacBook Pro.

  • Power cycle your battery. I do this each time that I use my Macbook. What this means is to run your MacBook off its battery until it goes into deep sleep. Then, plug your power cord in and let it recharge completely. This keeps the battery properly calibrated.
  • Turn off your radios. When I’m on the go, I always turn off Bluetooth, because I don’t carry my wireless Mighty Mouse with me. Also, I only turn on Airport when I plan on surfing the web.
  • Reduce your screen brightness. I lower my screen brightness to the lowest level, which works fine in good indoor lighting.
  • Run fewer concurrent apps. This means not only running fewer apps that you directly interact with, but also keep background running apps to a minimum. If something is eating up processor cycles, then it is eating power from your battery.
  • Streamline your browser. During the school day, I usually only leave Safari open as I go from class to class teaching. Flash is terribly inefficient on MacOS X (I say this, because it is hard to imagine how Flash ads can cause Flash to take upwards of 100% processor use, leading to more heat expenditure, and increased fan use). Make sure Flash is up to date, and install Safari AdBlocker (64-bit) and ClickToFlash to reduce ad trash and invoke Flash when you want it. Also, I only use one tab/window with Safari 4 to reduce its memory footprint and hopefully processor time.
  • Try other browsers. In this article, AnandTech demonstrated that your choice of browser and the things that you browsing will affect your battery life. However, they tested a number of browsers on PCs, and not Macs. Obviously, the underlying hardware on the newer Macs and PCs are similar, but the applications themselves on the two platforms will be affected by the OS, APIs, different library builds, etc. So, I don’t know which browser works best on Macs to increase battery life, but I do hope that someone out there will run a methodical test to determine which browser at the moment saves the most juice. If you do this, please post a comment with a link to your results.
  • Leopard vs. Snow Leopard. I am currently running Snow Leopard, and I do not find an appreciable difference in run time between the two OSs. However, there is a tremendous amount of debate over this issue online. This is something else that requires methodical testing to determine, and I have not found anyone to have done so on a baseline piece of hardware.
  • Be radical. Some folks online have removed their optical drives in order to save a little power, and others swear by SSDs at saving more power than traditional HDDs. My MacBook has an Apple supplied SSD, but I do not have another MacBook identical to mine to compare run times.
  • What did I miss? Leave a comment below.

Solution to 64bit Kernel on Late-2008 MacBooks

Jake pointed me to this excellent guide to permanently enabling 64bit kernel booting on the Late-2008 MacBooks and other officially unsupported Macs. If you scroll down to comment #21 on the guide, Jake offers a tip for other Late-2008 MacBook folks about how to get the fix to work after a reboot.

It goes without saying that if you follow the guide linked above, you do so at your own risk.

Snow Leopard Still Running Strong

Screen shot 2009-08-29 at 9.35.32 PM

This is my second day with MacOS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and all is running well! As you can see in the picture above, the DICOM viewer OsiriX is displaying my brain beautifully (how science fictional is that?!). My other apps including InDesign CS4 and NetNewsWire have been working perfectly as well. I did run into a problem launching NeoOffice 3.0, because I negligently forgot to update it to Patch 7, which opens without a hitch.

One of the features that I really dig in Snow Leopard is the ability to increase Finder previews up to 512×512 resolution, and as I’ve mentioned before, the previews are lightning fast on my SSD equipped unibody MacBook. I have been lusting for this seemingly simple feature since my first color Mac (a PowerMac 8500/120–my first Mac was a Powerbook 145B, which had a monochrome LCD display). Now that I have it, I have found some of the mundane locating a particular file version significantly faster, because I can quickly spy inside each file within a folder packed with an overabundance of files.

Regarding my post yesterday where I mentioned that the fans were revving. Luckily, that behavior has subsided. My guess is that the indexing service was reindexing my external hard drive, because the fans returned to normal after I ejected the drive and briefly returned when I reattached it today. However, the excessive fan use has subsided and my Macbook is as quiet as ever.

There is one thing that bothers me about the 64bit kernel of Snow Leopard. As I mentioned previously, I had to manually enable the 64bit kernel on my MacBook (13-inch, Aluminum, Late 2008). After Yufang installed her copy of Snow Leopard on her MacBook (Early 2008), she too had the 32bit kernel running by default. However, the 64bit enabler application reports that the 64bit kernel is unsupported on her MacBook. This seems odd, because the Intel Core 2 Duo is a 64bit CPU which leads me to believe that it can run the 64bit kernel of MacOS X 10.6. I wonder if this has something to do with the memory controller (her MacBook uses DDR2 memory and mine uses DDR3). I’m not sure, but I will do more research on this topic and report back.