Rebuilding an old MBP

I had an old, broken 2009 MacBook Pro sitting on a shelf because I had never gotten around to trying to fix it. It had three significant issues:

  1. It randomly kernel panicked every once in a while
  2. It had an SSD drive in it that no longer worked
  3. Three of the keys on the keyboard didn’t work.

Last weekend, I finally decided to see if I could get it into working shape again. To start, I took the back off and removed the failed SSD drive. The MBP is too old to run a current version of MacOS, but it still has a working HD drive, so I decided to install Linux there.

To fix the keys, I tried removing the key caps and cleaning the switches, but after putting them back together they still failed. By chance however, I noticed that if I *smashed* the key beside one of the failed ones (in frustration? πŸ™‚ ) then the original keys would start working for a bit. This led me to pulling that other key cap off and cleaning it, and after putting it back together all the keys worked.

This only left me with the random kernel panics, so I booted the Mac into hardware test mode and let it do a full test. Even after 10 minutes of hammering RAM and CPU (with the fans screaming), there were no failures, so I chalked the problem up to either a Mac driver issue, or something to do with the now removed SSD.

For linux, I just went with Ubuntu, mostly because there was a tutorial about installing on Macs that seemed pretty reasonable. The only wrinkle was the lack of a driver for the MBP’s discrete graphics card. I went for the easy option of doing nomodeset in grub, and ended up with…

I don’t think it’s worth putting a new battery in it, but if I needed a home computer for email and web browsing this would be perfectly useful. Nice!

How fast is fast enough?

Friday after work I picked up a new laptop. It’s one of the just released MacBook Pros with the “real” i7 processors (i.e. 4 cores, multi-threaded). In addition to an 8Gig memory upgrade, I had them replace the DVD drive with a 128Gig SSD to hold the core OS and applications. For the few times when I might still need a DVD burner, the old drive was placed in an external USB enclosure. I must say, being able to easily get these kinds of aftermarket mods done is one of the reasons why I shop at Carbon Computing rather than the Apple Store.

After playing with the new machine for a weekend, I can categorically state that it is everything I had hoped for. It boots from power on to desktop in < 20 seconds; apps start before the dock icon can complete its first bounce; WoW was above 80fps most of the time [low: 55fps; high: >150]; It’s awesome.

I actually had a spare copy of Windows 7 lying around that I never got time to install under Parallels on the old laptop. When I installed it on this one I could give it 2 dedicated processors and 3 Gig of RAM without even noticing any performance impact. Seriously, the machine appears to run as well with Parallels running as without.

But here’s the thing… The apps themselves don’t actually seem much faster. Even on my old laptop, for anything other than a hardcore developer task (like doing a full build of a product plus running the test suites), as often as not the rendering/processing power of the machine wasn’t the limiting factor. In this connected world we live in, if I’m waiting for something it’s usually a remote server, either on the internet or some network shared device, not my local machine.

In general, I believe we’re well past the point where machines needed to run at 100% to simply render the UI fast enough, with the one exception perhaps being gaming. Even there it seems that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns: Is that extra bit of motion blur and depth of field processing really making the game more fun?

For the average person’s use case — reading mail, browsing the internet, editing files, and playing Farmville — an iPad 2 (with a BT keyboard) will be every bit as useful as my laptop. Heck, even a $300 netbook will do the job.

So is that it? Do we need machines to be faster? Not until we discover how to put the performance to some use more interesting than making the windows jiggle when you move them [yes, Linux I’m looking at you]. I’ve tried to think of possibilities here, but to me the most interesting directions appear to be data driven, again making the speed of your internet connection more interesting than your CPU. I guess we’ll see.

We’re an all mac family!

For those who aren’t following Deb’s twitter feed, the latest round of random, gratuitous Windows glitches/crashes that have afflicted her old Dell laptop has led to some great news:

New laptop – PC to Mac. Good thing I’m sleeping with the IT guy!

Yes, our last hold out has switched. We’re now all rocking MacBook Pros:

  • Dennis has the 2.5Ghz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro that I was using until I got a new one a few weeks ago
  • I have the new i7, 15″ model
  • Deb got the i5, 15″ one (because, you know, mine needed to be the fastest. πŸ˜‰ )

Overall, this should make the home network IT tasks a lot simpler.

We’ve got her contacts, calendar and favourites all moved over, as well as her email account set up so new mail goes there. I haven’t looked at moving her old mail over, but getting it out of Outlook 2003 is probably going to be no fun. Oh well, that’s tonight’s task[*].

Unfortunately, it seems like there are still a small number of Windows apps that she will have to run, at least until we can find Mac replacements. The good news is those replacements appear to exist, but our budget has already taken quite a beating, so we’ll have to buy those incrementally. In the mean time, a copy of Parallels should keep her going.

* Btw, if anyone has any words of wisdom about how to get mail from Outlook to Apple Mail, let me know.


So another MacWorld keynote has come and gone. There was plenty of coverage in the Mac community, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but here’s a capsule summary of the announcements:

  • New versions of iLife and iWork, both of which have enough features that I’ll have to buy the upgrades. From my p.o.v., the most interesting enhancements are:
    • facial recognition and geotagging support in iPhoto
    • (what looks to be) a much improved version of iMovie
    • in GarageBand the ability to learn to play songs by particular artists as taught by the actual artist using video, on screen keyboard/fretboards and control over playback speed, etc.
    • Support for remote control of Keynote presentations via iPhone/iPod Touch
    • MathType and EndNote built into Pages — Dennis will love that
    • Online support for viewing and commenting on iWork documents via a new “” site, which is currently free in beta, but eventually will be a pay service. (I’m actually not sure how interesting this is in practice — Now, if you could edit them online…)
  • A new 17″ MacBook Pro, with a non-removable, 8 hour battery life. (Of course, they used to claim 5 hours, but I never got more than 3.5, so this effectively means a real-world battery life of 5 hours — definitely not too shabby.)
  • A new pricing model for iTunes: songs can be $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29. That’s in the U.S., of course, so it remains to be seen what happens in Canada.
  • All iTunes music moving (by the end of Q1) to be DRM free. This is great for people buying new music, but it should be noted that they did not wave the fee for upgrading your existing tunes to the new format. When I checked today, they already wanted >$60 to upgrade my existing purchases, and that can only climb as more tunes get converted. Oh well.

Some cool stuff there, but I was disappointed that there was still no word on new Mac Minis. My G5 PowerMac is getting pretty long in the tooth now, and since I basically just use it as a server (for this site, among other things) I’d love to replace it with a new Mini with a current C2D and a Gig of storage. Particularly since it now looks like Apple is phasing out support for the G5 processor.

MacBook Air

So the Macworld keynote has come and gone, and I must say, there wasn’t really anything that thrilled me. A new NAS? I guess. But they’re awfully late to the table, and it’s not cheap. Movie rentals? Not in Canada. An upgrade to get mail on the Touch? Great! But wait, you want to charge for it, even though it’s going to be free on all new ones sold? Come on!

And then there’s the MacBook Air. Am I the only person who thinks this is way too expensive? It’s got only an 80Gig HD, no optical drive, no wired ethernet, only one USB port, no Firewire and a significantly slower processor than the other Apple laptops. I guess it’s nice that it comes with 2Gig of memory, but you’ll notice that they had to put 2Gig in at the factory, since there’s no way to upgrade it.

Compare it to a black MacBook… Same size screen and the same graphics chip. The MB is cheaper, but it has less memory, so let’s say we upgrade the memory to 2Gig and throw in the 250Gig HD — we still only come up to the price of the MBA. And the MB does have an optical drive, a firewire port, a second USB port and a 2.0GHz processor (vs. 1.6GHz on the MBA).

I’m sorry, but making it thin around the edges and backlighting the keyboard is not enough compensation for those limitations. Essentially, no one should buy the MacBook Air.

Update: OMFG, it doesn’t even have a user replaceable battery! WTF?