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A Bad Week for Hardware

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By the time you read this, Tonya and Tristan and I will be on a well-deserved vacation trip to see family and friends in California, Oregon, and Washington (so we won't be reading much email for the next week). Aside from our usual work and the extra tasks that always seem necessary when preparing to leave on vacation, I've been suffering some hardware failures of late that have hurt my productivity (and to an extent, my pride - I'm not supposed to have these problems, I'm a Mac user!).

Monitor Death -- It all started when my left-hand Apple 17-inch Studio Display flickered briefly and went dead. It had gone black once about a week before unexpectedly, but it came right back that time. This time it was just dead, and my Power Mac promptly rearranged all the windows to account for the fact that it saw only one monitor. For those of you who use two monitors for increased productivity (and if you don't, you should), having one monitor is better than none, but only slightly. I dove into troubleshooting mode, verifying that the problem was not the DVI-to-ADC adapter, nor the video card, nor the Mac itself. The monitor was just dead. (Lesson 1: It's always worth checking all the connected components in a system to see exactly where the problem lies.)

Luckily, we have a 23-inch LCD television that has a VGA port, so I was able to bring it up as a second display fairly quickly with an additional video card we had lying around, but it was so much brighter than my remaining Studio Display and so fuzzy in text display that it wasn't at all comfortable to use. Nevertheless, it was better than dropping down to a single monitor, so I suffered through using it while I arranged for a replacement. (Lesson 2: Backups are good, but it's also good to have a line on backup hardware as well. That's one reason I make sure to have a fairly capable PowerBook, just in case my desktop Mac dies.)

Dell makes excellent monitors that are far cheaper than Apple's equally excellent monitors, so I first looked into buying a new matched pair of Dell 20-inch displays. Unfortunately, the way the low prices at Dell work, you must wait until a sale rolls around, and there weren't any happening at the time. I could have spent about $550 per monitor right then, but when I could see from old sales that the price might drop to about $400, it was galling to pay that much more. Plus, Dell claimed the monitors wouldn't ship for 5 to 7 days, which was a long time to be staring at that TV. I looked on eBay, where the prices for new Dell monitors were more in line with the sale prices, but a friend warned that making sure any such monitor had an original Dell warranty was key, since he'd had to send Dell monitors back for warranty service.

I was waffling about what to do when a friend who had heard about my predicament told me that he had a monitor identical to my dead one sitting unused because it hadn't worked with his Developer Transition Kit, and he was happy to sell it to me for a reasonable price. That proved to be the best option, and I didn't have the stress of working with an unknown quantity on eBay. (Lesson 3: In such situations, it's often worth asking around if anyone you know has older hardware they are not using and would be happy to sell. Lesson 4: Replacing dead hardware with a device of equivalent age can help you avoid spending a lot on new hardware.)

When all was said and done, I was right back where I'd started, but with a newfound appreciation for my double-monitor setup. I've also started tracking the Dell sales via dealnews; at some point - perhaps when I get a new Mac - I'll spring for a pair of new monitors and keep the old ones for backups.


Pining for 10.4.5 -- Apple has a habit of releasing updates on Monday afternoon, which drives us absolutely batty, since we've usually finished compiling our issue for the week and must scramble to cover the release. The most recent was Mac OS X 10.4.6, which appeared two weeks ago. Strangely, although other staff members were able to see it in Software Update, my copy wouldn't pick it up, which is unusual. Little did I realize that this was in fact a good thing. So, we all collaborated on the write-up using the release notes and the experiences of those who had been able to install it. (Lesson 5: Apple clearly schedules updates just to mess with our heads.)

The next day, though, my copy of Software Update announced that I could install 10.4.6, so I did, remembering that Apple promised an odd double-boot sequence after installation. After the first reboot, though, I got a kernel panic screen (a gray screen with a black box telling me to restart my Mac in four languages) but with the spinning startup gear rotating underneath it. I thought this was strange, but let it go, and indeed, the second restart happened automatically. Unfortunately, when the Mac came back up, it didn't think my Ethernet network was connected to my PCI Ethernet card, so I rebooted again. This time I got the kernel panic screen again, but then the Mac just shut off. Turning it on again resulted in the kernel panic screen with the spinning gear, and it booted normally after that. Ethernet worked, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I realized that Menu Meters (which I quite like; it's open source software from Raging Menace) wasn't showing any activity on one of the two CPUs in my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. Activity Monitor confirmed the problem, but everything else seemed to work normally. Every subsequent reboot either displayed the kernel panic screen and then booted (presumably one CPU was having a panic attack while the other remained calm) or shut off entirely after the kernel panic screen appeared. (Lesson 6: Although I didn't have to revert to my backup of the previous night, making a backup before installing an update to Mac OS X is a smart thing to do.)

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Once again, I launched into troubleshooting mode, trying Safe Boot (boot with the Shift key down), removing the now unused video card and my PCI Ethernet card, booting from and testing with Micromat's TechTool Protege FireWire RAM drive, and booting from my PowerBook in FireWire Target Disk Mode (it was still running 10.4.5). Booting from both the Protege and my PowerBook worked perfectly, with no kernel panics, whereas Safe Boot and removing the PCI cards made no difference. To my mind, that meant that 10.4.6 was indeed the culprit, and not merely an innocent bystander that I'd installed at just the wrong time.

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I reported the bug to Apple, but since it didn't produce any panic.log files, there wasn't much else to do but revert to Mac OS X 10.4.5 by performing an Archive & Install using my original Tiger DVD and then installing the combo update for 10.4.5. Of course, this all took two days, since I'd just lent my Family Pack Tiger DVD to my father so he could install Tiger in order to get multiple-person video iChat working. And, although Archive & Install is tremendously useful and easy to use, there are always a number of programs, like USB Overdrive, the driver for Seiko's Smart Label Printer 430, Subversion, and StuffIt Deluxe, that break and must be reinstalled or that need to be re-registered, like Snapz Pro X. (Lesson 7: Never assume that a clean install will be quick.)

Just as with the monitor debacle, at the end of this process, I'd spent a number of hours troubleshooting the problem and recovering from it, all to end up exactly where I was when I started, though at least I didn't have to pay for the privilege this time. (Lesson 8: At least when you're a writer, you can get an article out of such situations!)

The Writing on the Wall -- Two thoughts occurred to me throughout this entire process. First, and most notably, I feel bad for people who have problems but lack my level of experience, extra hardware, and connections. This sequence of events could easily have turned someone off the Mac for good if they didn't have the perspective that PCs suffer from similar, if not far worse, troubles. And even if they remained a fan of the Mac, I can only imagine how much effort or money someone else would have had to throw at the problem. It's no wonder consultants remain in business.

Second, you can see why people with troublesome older computers often just toss them and buy something new. Perhaps this is more common in the spyware-ridden Windows world, again, but it wouldn't take much for someone to interpret these events (a monitor dying, a computer acting truly weirdly) as an indication that it was time for a new computer. Heck, I'll admit that the thought even crossed my mind, and if Apple's Intel-based replacements for the Power Mac had been available, my Power Mac might have found itself relegated to server duty.


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