macbook air log.
(part of brett's logjam.)
Entries about my Macbook Air, Vinyamar.
12 April 2008
Several folks contacted me this morning to let me know about more MacBook Air users who have discovered that underclocking their CPUs keeps the processors cool enough to avoid the core shutdown.
The author suggests an application called ‘Coolbook’ which purports to underclock the laptops CPU by lowering the voltage supplied to the processor and by more agressively throttling the speed of the CPU.
Knowing what the Santa Rosa platform is up to, this now makes a certain amount of sense: Rob under
clockspowers the CPU by 20%, and further limits the CPU to 75% of max speed (1.2GHZ) while on battery, which in turn has a dramatic cooling effect while only minimally affecting performance. The cooler CPU avoids the shutdown threshold and therefore the UI is more stable.
It appears to be better to suffer 25% degradation all the time on battery, instead of 50% (or more) some of the time. The OS requires a certain minimum processing threshold, but it’s really the CPU threshold that’s of concern. Underclocking appears to keep the load and temperatures under that threshold.
At least one person who emailed me asked if I thought underclocking is a good idea. I honestly have no clue; I’d like to say no, always stick with the manufacturer’s specs. But in this case those specs suck, and if you can do something about it (and undo the underclocking if anything goes wrong), it may very well be worth it.
11 April 2008
I started writing about the computers under my care really for just one reason: so that I would have some record of what I’d done, so I could stop making the same mistakes over and over again.
I don’t know if I’ve accomplished that, exactly, but at least it’s been entertaining watching me try.
Since many of you are new around here, and this is an admittedly quirky personal site, let me point you towards some other computer logs that may interest you:
The following computers are currently in service.
- Eöl, my new Black MacBook running OS X 10.5.2 (Leopard).
Eöl replaced Vinyamar.
- Tsiolkovsky, my wife’s Toughbook W2, continues to crunch numbers and hang in there, despite losing the “B” key to a toddler-related accident a few weeks ago. The lower left hand side keyboard is also starting to have some problems, but there are no new issues to report with Ubuntu Dapper Drake.
Tsiolkovsky is slated for replacement in the next few weeks.
- Hithlum, my 17” PowerBook G4, is as lovely and elegant as ever, even if her PPC chip is getting a little long in the tooth. She still does great work, however, and is running Mac OS X 10.4.11 (Tiger).
- An unnamed Thinkpad T43, my work computer, runs Windows XP and is completely uninteresting to me as a computer. My company gave it to me to work with, I work with it. End of story.
- Tigana, a Sony Vaio 505-TR running Red Hat 7.2, has a busted power supply and no battery power. I will need to wipe the hard drive before I can consider her decommissioned.
Speaking of which…
These computers have left the building:
- Vinyamar, my Macbook Air, went through two revisions before being sent back to Apple.
- Al-Rassan / Ithilien, a Thinkpad 1400 running SuSE 9.x.
- Arbonne (I) / Sarantium / Atlantis / Lórien, a beige 750MHz Pentium III tower I picked up from CompUSA which ran Windows 98, Windows 2000, and more Linux distributions than I really care to remember.
- Arbonne (II) and Gorhaut, two identical Linux towers who ran Red Hat 9.
You will no doubt notice certain themes in the names.
Each computer has its own category, some with more information than others. Hopefully you’ll find something you like.
Thanks again for visiting!
9 April 2008
The Santa Rosa platform comes with dynamic acceleration technology. It allows single threaded applications to execute faster. When a single threaded application is running the CPU can turn off one of the CPU cores and overclock the active core. In this way the CPU maintains the same Thermal Profile as it would when both cores are active.
So, by design, the Santa Rosa platform will throttle itself to keep the heat down.
I kicked myself for missing this while researching the problem. I should have looked at the CPU specs once I knew the core shutdown was responsible for the performance degradation, but I didn’t. Mea culpa. I was thinking as a consumer, not as an IT professional.
Please note: I do not think this excuses the problem. The UI freezes, stuttering, and slowdowns remain unacceptable. The CPU ruins the user experience, which is a bug. A feature that acts like a bug is a bug.
But it does explain it, and therefore allows us — consumers and Apple alike — to address it.
If the Santa Rosa platform is the problem, which I now believe it is, there are very few options available for MacBook Air owners. Either you live with the performance hits, and hope that it is fixed at a later date, or you don’t.
It boggles the mind when you consider the anecdotal return rate that units who don’t exhibit this problem may actually be defective! There are plenty of MBA users who are gambling that they’ll get one of those in the replacement cycle. But not me.
If anything, finding out that this problem is a design feature/flaw strengthened my decision to get off the Air platform (and increased my nostalgia for the PowerPC chipset, but that’s another story.) I am frustrated that it took so long to identify the root cause, but relieved to know that gambling on another unit isn’t worth it.
Since my case dragged on for several weeks at AppleCare, and therefore attracted a bit of attention from management, I used the opportunity to make a few suggestions to them.
- Educate Support: Product specialists need to know about this behavior and be able to explain why it happens, and what benefits it brings (if any). First-tier troubleshooting should be revised to better diagnose real mobo problems.
- Educate Consumers: Apple needs to address this issue publicly with a technote to stem the tide of replacements.
- Fix it in the OS: You can’t change the chipset, but serious efforts can and should be made to reduce the effects of the core shutdown within the OS and better manage single core mode invocation.
The first two suggestions can reduce agent support costs and reverse logistics expenses, as well as improve customer loyalty. I’ve run customer service organizations before, and I know the band-aids you can apply to make support more effective.
The solution lies in #3, though: fix the damn problem.
Sadly, that’s beyond AppleCare’s ken.
Special thanks to Artifex and Mike Rose for publicizing this problem, Josh Kagan for his insight into the Santa Rosa platform, and everyone on Twitter who’s listened to me gripe about this for the past three weeks.
7 April 2008
I spoke with AppleCare this evening to initiate the return of my MacBook Air Vinyamar. As a bonus I received the results of Apple Engineering’s analysis of my core shutdown crash data: the system is behaving as designed.
These past few weeks troubleshooting, reinstalling (twice, over Remote Disk, no less, which I can assure you is not speedy), waiting for replacements, talking with technical support — and dropping a core under load is expected system behavior.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Dropping a core under load is a feature, not a bug.
Therefore, since I’ve gotten so good at it, here’s my guide to shutting down one of your MacBook Air’s cores.
The Unfair Version
- Begin with a clean, fresh MacBook Air.
- Place it on your bed, a pillow, or lap.
- Sign on to your network, and start downloading a nice big movie file from your NAS.
- Open Activity Monitor, and make sure the CPU monitor is visible.
- Open Safari. Watch a movie trailer or two, and then browse YouTube while waiting for the movie to download.
- Play the movie with Quicktime or iTunes. Keep opening tabs in Safari. You won’t need more than 10, especially if they’re AJAX-heavy sites.
- Turn on Time Machine and start a backup.
- When the video starts stuttering or your UI getting sluggish, check Activity Monitor.
Voila! One of your cores has dropped. You’ve halved your processing speed.
Now, the activities described seem harsh, but they’re really relatively normal for someone futzing about on the internet. File transfers in addition to video seem to speed up a core drop, which presents a problem for anyone using Time Machine.
But there are those who will cry foul entirely because of #2. The Air requires some ventilation, and if you place it on a soft surface (even with the vents unblocked) the computer will heat up quickly.
Okay, fair. Try this one on, then:
The Fair Version
- Begin with a clean, fresh MacBook Air.
- Place it on a flat desk or marble floor.
- Sign on to your network and open Activity Monitor.
- Fire up a feature-length movie or two, either over the net or from the local disk.
- If you’re feeling adventurous, open XCode and do a little hacking.
- Read some documentation on Safari or Preview.
- Work for about an hour or so.
- Wait for the stuttering video and UI lockups. They’ll come.
Heat speeds up the process, but if you keep the CPU under a certain amount of load (doesn’t need to be pegged) it will eventually shut down one of the cores. After an hour or two of a big H.264 file playing in Quicktime, I could get the Air to drop its core under theoretically ideal conditions — on the marble floor of a cool bathroom.
Now, there are users on the Apple support forums who never experience the core dropping. I’m really happy that they don’t. I don’t know what to say to them, other than that whatever their MacBook Airs have, I wish mine would have caught it.
For me, this just hasn’t been worth it. It doesn’t matter how nice the Air is.
This will likely be the last post in my MacBook Air Log. I will ship the computer back to Apple tomorrow to return it classified not as a defective unit, but instead as buyer’s remorse. So shipping’s on my dime, naturally.
My only remorse is that I wasted so much time with it, wanting it to work one way, with those fancy dual cores, when all the while?
Behaving as designed.
Moving on now.
Immediately after posting yesterday’s decision to abandon the MacBook Air, I let the good folks on Twitter know about it. And, no more than a minute after tweeting, AppleCare called to talk. At 8:30 PM on a Sunday!
I must ascribe this to awesome coincidence, as at no time did either of us mention Twitter on the call. I’m not as fortunate as Michael Arrington to have attracted the attention of a Comcast VP in Philadelphia from his twittering in San Francisco.
Yet, the response was immediate, and at an awfully odd time. Wouldn’t it be great if companies monitored twitter like they do blogs, and resolve customer problems before they spiral out of control? It’s a nice thought.
But I have no proof, so I must assume coincidence.
Anyway, I had written an email on Friday that was the stated reason for the call, and I talked to the rep briefly about returning the Air, which required another call on Monday to coordinate with the Sales team. I set up a time and went back to my computer.
Wow, The Twitter is really something!
Hopefully, I don’t sound like too much of a dork. We’ll find out in a few days, I guess!
I wanted to make this point last night, and I’ll make it again here: this is not an issue with Apple’s customer service. Having experience managing customer service teams, I found little fault with the behavior of the AppleCare reps. Most of them strived for resolution on the first call, and were willing to work extremely hard to help me diagnose and resolve the problem. My suspicions that this is a problem beyond their ability to solve would sadly be borne out today, which I’ll describe in the next (and hopefully last) post on this matter.
The point of this post is that you never know what a new technology will bring. If you ask me why I use Twitter, it’s an easy response: so my (non-twittering) friends around the country can see what and how I’m doing.
But the side effects are pretty cool, too.
6 April 2008
“Thus Turgon lived long in bliss; but Nevrast was desolate, and remained empty of living folk until the ruin of Beleriand.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Like Turgon, my time with Vinyamar has come to an end.
Friday I received a replacement MacBook Air which suffered the same problem as the original. It’s now been nearly a month since I chose the Air to start developing applications again, and for all but a short period of time I’ve been frustrated by it. I want so very much to have repeated the delight of my experiences with my iPod, PowerBook, and iPhone.
But the MacBook Air has simply not lived up to that standard.
The physical machine is very nice. It is beautiful, compact, and a joy to handle. The failures of the internals should not be taken as a condemnation of the class design — far from it. The case is a tremendous success. The computer is a tremendous success.
If only the CPU could keep up with it.
I want, so very much, for the Air to be great. I want to enjoy using it. But I don’t. I work on it for a little while, do a few things with it, and then the machine locks up.
I am sure that future revisions will improve. By the time this machine hits its third generation, the core shutdown problem will be a distant memory. But the flaw in my Vinyamar is here, now, and I need a tool that works now. I can’t wait for them to fix it in six months.
So… I guess I’ll go get a MacBook or a MacBook Pro, instead.
Damnit. I so wanted this one to have a happy ending.
4 April 2008
Vinyamar’s replacement arrived today. I unpacked it and didn’t even bother setting it up past logging into the wireless network and downloading a movie from the NAS. Five minutes later, I’d reproduced the core shutdown issue.
I updated the software, rebooted, and reproduced the issue again. It took a little longer under 10.5.2 than 10.5, but it still happened.
So now I really don’t know what to do.
I called AppleCare, and they had me capture data to send to the engineers. I should hear back early next week, but don’t know what they’re going to say that will actually resolve the issue.
I also spoke with one of the AppleCare managers who talked to me earlier, and he wanted to know what he could do to help. I felt bad, because I know that the key to getting good customer service is to know what you want, and ask for it. But aside from a Macbook Air that works right now, I don’t know what else I want that satisfies me. The MacBook is probably small enough, but lacks the three-finger scroll and incredible design of the Air. The MacBook Pro has the power, but with power comes size.
In my short time with the Air, I came to really like the way it was like a folio I could take with me and tuck into a chair next to me. I didn’t even get to travel with it, but I could see it becoming a constant companion. I would RDC into my windows laptop, and Share Screens with Hithlum, and still have two Spaces left over for working, without any problems.
Well, no problems except, of course, for the random freezes. Those admittedly sucked.
Part of me says: just accept it. It’s not that bad.
But the rest of me says: it is that bad, and don’t settle for something that doesn’t make you happy.
So I put Vinyamar II back into the box this afternoon, and left it alone. I don’t think I even renamed it from the default; it’s probably still “Brett Peters’s MacBook Air,” which always makes me wonder what the correct rule is for possessives for proper names ending in sibilants.
And so I wait. Maybe tomorrow will bring something new.
3 April 2008
I packed up Vinyamar to send her on her long journey back home, in anticipation of the replacement Macbook Air arriving later this week. It’s with some relief that I returned to Hithlum.
I really should stop naming my computers. It makes me irrationally attached to what is essentially a highly advanced screwdriver.
28 March 2008
If you find yourself using a Macbook Air and wondering why it’s sometimes fast and sometimes slow, and almost always hot and spinning fans on high, check Activity Monitor. If one of your cores is black, you should call AppleCare.
After working with AppleCare all week, the overheating issue with Vinyamar’s CPU warrants a replacement or return. The core should not shut down, under any circumstances, especially not 10 minutes in to any video that I try to play.
So, back she goes. I’ll give the model another chance.
(Apparently, ‘limp mode’ is not actually a feature of the MBAir. Who knew?)
23 March 2008
Well, my plans for maintaining Vinyamar as a secondary machine lasted all of about an hour.
In my defense, I’m basically an idiot.
I’ve discovered the magic of Screen Sharing, which allows me to easily control Hithlum and manage all the music and movies stored over there. It’s really cool.
However, there are two flaws which I need to discuss with AppleCare tomorrow:
- Overheating: When the cores are under any sort of moderate load, one of them will eventually shut down. This appears to be a defect with the heat sink.
- N-Wireless: I got the Time Capsule set up today broadcasting an N network (instead of as a client on a G.) Vinyamar detects it fine, but drops the network a little while later and then can’t see anything without turning wireless on and off. This, too, is a known bug in the Apple Support forums, and a potential return issue.
There are plenty of other Air owners who aren’t experiencing this problem. Before I get too caught up in configuring this model, though, let’s make sure that we have a good unit.
17 March 2008
I am happy to announce the arrival of my Macbook Air named Vinyamar.
Vinyamar is named after the capital city of Nevrast in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. “Vinyamar” is Quenya for “New Dwelling.” Built on the western peninsula beneath Mount Taras, Vinyamar was the seat of Turgon’s power before he moved to the Hidden City of Gondolin.
The nomenclature of Vinyamar’s primary network is based upon regions of fantasy novels. Macintoshes are named after lands in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Linux machines are named after countries in Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels.
(I have, admittedly, bent the rules slightly here by using the name of a city instead of the name of a region. But it’s my network, I’ll use whichever names I like.)
- Entered service on March 18th, 2008.
- Has the 80GB hard drive option, not the SSD.
- 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo processor.
- Running Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard).
Vinyamar’s intended purpose is as a coding and work laptop, so Xcode and the iPhone SDK will be required. Graphics work will be light to support application development. It will be used as a business laptop, so some internet and encryption utilities will also be required.
My stated reason for choosing the Macbook Air over the Macbook Pro is that the platform embraces constraints and forces me to focus on certain tasks. Only time will tell if this is the right decision.
OS X is preloaded with nearly every tool that I need, so doesn’t require a lot of configuration to be useful. After working with OS X 10.4 (Tiger) for nearly three years on Hithlum, I’ve picked up a lot of modifications and applications that I “can’t live without,” even though I really can. I addressed the UNIX issues first:
Update Hosts File: Replace
/etc/hostswith Dan Pollock’s excellent replacement hosts file to block bad sites. I’ve considered automating this download, but have some reservations with messing around with root-owned files without looking at them first. (I should get over it, but I haven’t.)
This replacement /etc/hosts file blacks out bad parts of the internet — malware sites, aggressive advertisers, data collection companies, clicktrackers — by telling your computer to direct all requests for those hosts to itself, instead of out to the internet. It makes for a much more pleasant computing experience, and I highly recommend it, no matter what platform you’re running.
Disable SSH-1 and Force SSH-2: SSH-1 should only be used if you want to get cracked. I have no idea why it’s enabled at all in any default, but there it is in Tiger. I was happy to see that Leopard has SSH-1 off by default.
Protocol 2and restart
Change Default Shell: I’m generally happy with Apple’s Terminal, but there’s one default that I refuse to accept Apple’s guidance on: the default shell. Once you learn a shell, switching between them becomes a real hassle… and I learned on
bash. This is changed in Terminal’s preferences.
Also, pin the Terminal to the Dock while it’s open, and chose the white-on-black background for new windows.
Configure Passwordless SSH: I do a lot of work with remote servers. To automate SSH connections to these machines, I set up passwordless SSH.
Those are the primary UNIX changes that I felt were absolutely essential. Next, I installed the development environment.
Install Xcode 3: Xcode 3 is the development environment that comes standard with Leopard, though it is not installed as a default. This was remedied by a quick introduction to Remote Disk and installing Xcode from the Leopard disks.
Install iPhone SDK: The iPhone SDK is available via a free download from the ADC site and is an easy install.
While that was installing, I took care of some remaining OS X preferences.
Remap Caps Lock to Control: In the Keyboard and Mouse System Preferences panel, change the Caps Lock Modifier Key to trigger Control, instead. I don’t use Caps Lock, but I do use Control quite a bit.
.Mac Syncing: I copied over a few key files from Hithlum’s home directory, and configured .Mac Syncing to take care of the rest of the data.
Backups: I spent more time than was ever necessary backing up Hithlum. I resolved that Vinyamar would be different, so I bought a Time Capsule and pointed Time Machine at it. Done.
Secret Preferences: Try as I might, there are still a few hidden preferences I seem to always tick off when getting on a new machine. I started off fully intending to switch from TinkerTool to Secrets to manage these preferences, with an assist from SmartSleep to handle the sleep and hibernation behavior, but then I got to thinking.
I’m supposed to be embracing constraints, right? Part of that is living with the defaults. Changing hidden preferences isn’t really doing that. Do I really need any of these behaviors set:
- Disable Dashboard
- Turn off .DS_Stores on the network
- Pin Dock to bottom right hand side (to keep the trash in the same location)
- Turn off glassy Dock
- Enable Twooshsound on 140 character Tweet
No, no, I guess I don’t. So I didn’t.
After the development environment was established, I (cautiously) installed several applications. I debated going entirely stock configuration here, but decided there are some things that are worth it.
Quicksilver: I seriously don’t think I can work without Quicksilver anymore. Buggy? Yes. But very, very useful.
Instant Messaging/VoIP: In addition to iChat, I installed Skype. Merrystar only recently started using IM, and only with Skype, so it makes the cut. (The requirement of “Must be able to communicate with spouse” is implied, and trumps just about every other one.)
Encrypted Email: Even if the rest of the internet seems to get by without it, I still need encryption, so MacGPG and GPGMail are essential add-ons, in addition to the X.509 Thwate Freemail certificates that should be in my Keychain.
Multiple Email Accounts: All of my email accounts have migrated over to IMAP, so I won’t have to move local mail files. Signature Profiler is very helpful at managing signature files between the accounts, however, so it will likely stay.
Password Management: In addition to the Keychain (which is already very useful), I’ve come to rely upon 1Password’s autofill mechanism. (Not to mention how it will have native iPhone password syncing…)
Writing: MarsEdit is my weblog editor of choice, and everyone should have a weblog. It makes the cut.
For writing local files,
emacsis already installed. If I need full screen editing I’ll use it and GLTerminal.
Graphics: I’ve come to like Pixelmator quite a bit in the short time I’ve used it. OS X lacks a decent default image manipulator, so I’ll keep this.
Screensaver: I use just one: GLMatrix from the xscreensaver package. You’ll pry it out of my cold, dead hands.
Interestingly, there are some great applications that didn’t make the initialcut:
Instant Messaging: In a complete about-face from my last ten years of using IM, I ditched Adium X (with its wonderful multi-protocol support) and went with iChat instead. I don’t need as many IM protocols as I used to and iChat’s iSight integration is very appealing. Between Adium and Trillian I’ve managed 10+ accounts over the years; I’m looking forward to cutting that to 3.
At the same time, I’ve been trying out iChat on Hithlum, and it’s going to be a big change from what I’m used to.
Twitter is both a great time suck and a great way to interact with Mac developers. Twitterific is the client of choice here, but I decided to skip it for now, and shifting everything over to iChat/GTalk instead. This will also allow me to mute specific chatty people I follow. (You know who you are.)
RSS Feed Reader: I am seriously conflicted here. NetNewsWire is fantastic and allows me to keep up with hundreds of feeds.
The problem is that I keep up with hundreds of feeds. I’m leaving it off for now, and will revisit it as the RSS withdrawal symptoms kick in.
Full Screen Focus: I use Think on Hithlum to focus my attention on specific apps. By blanking out the background, it is surprisingly effective at doing this. My hope is that if I’ve done the rest of my job well, I won’t need Think. But if I do, then I can always go get it.
Screencaps: I really, really like Snapz Pro X, but it’s a bit of a CPU hog on the Powerbook. I will leave it there for now and see how things go. (I suspect that Snapz Pro X will find its way on to Vinyamar soon enough; it’s too good.)
Performance Monitoring: I admit that I like knowing what’s going on under the hood. iStat provides great visibility there. I’m concerned about getting too distracted by monitoring the hardware instead of working.
Office Software: For now, I’m leaving iWork and NeoOffice off. I’ll reconsider this decision when the time comes.
If you are interested to see how Vinyamar performs, I invite you to follow along in her weblog, as future updates will be posted there. (There’s even a separate RSS feed.)
11 March 2008
In a strange display of synchronicity, Merrystar and I both ordered new laptops in the last 24 hours.
Merrystar’s beloved Panasonic Toughbook W2 Tsiolkovsky will soon be joined by, of all things, a Dell XPS M1330. The Panasonic rep really blew the sale and couldn’t get her either a W or Y series within her department’s budget, so she opted for a screamin’ fast dual 2.6GHz instead. After years of making ugly laptops, Dell seems to have finally gotten this one right.
We’ll see how it looks in person when the Alpine White version (with pink hard drive and mouse, naturally) arrives later this week.
I’m actually really excited to see how Ubuntu runs on it.
I wasn’t planning on upgrading my Powerbook G4 Hithlum until its AppleCare expired in November, but the recent release of the iPhone SDK (which requires an Intel chip and Leopard to use) accelerated my timetable. The 1.67GHz Powerbook is the fastest G4 chip out there, but it’s now the punchline in recent Mac benchmarks.
Let’s call it like it is: the G4 is dog slow running Leopard, and it’s not that much faster running Tiger.
So, after convincing myself to get the 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro, I then did an about-face when I got to the ordering page, decided to embrace constraints, and bought what meets my needs now: the Macbook Air. Yes, the one I was waffling about.
And you know what? I don’t regret it for a minute. $1000 less, featherweight, and fewer distractions? Done.
It arrives next week.
While I’ll let you know initial impressions and put up new computer pages next week, Merrystar and I have important decisions to make while we wait.
Namely, what are we going to name them? A quick nomenclature refresher:
- Merrystar has two possible conventions to follow: laptop or dual-core. Laptops are named after science vessels in Star Trek: Oberth-class or Nova-class. (I think Nebula-class vessels are also allowed.) Dual-core machines are Excelsior-class. There’s a lot of options available.
- My convention is to use lands from science-fiction and fantasy: Macs use the lands of J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve been going through a Beleriand phase, but might shift east over the Misty Mountains if the names are right. The areas of Númenor are also options, but not very melodic ones.
Hmmm. Lots of thinking to do here.