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When MacBooks Attack

By Jack M. Germain MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Mar 28, 2007 4:00 AM PT

In their search for an alternative to vulnerability-laden Windows-based laptops, consumers are growing increasingly attracted to Apple's MacBook. However, they face an ongoing challenge in attempting to purchase a MacBook that is not a "hot" item -- literally.

When MacBooks Attack

MacBooks are developing a reputation for having a number of annoying problems, including but not limited to swelling batteries, a "mooing" sound coming from the fan, and extremely high internal temperatures.

Add to this list of problems batteries that fail to charge properly, MacBooks that shut down without warning, indicator lights that fail to properly reflect the operating status of the notebook and units that misbehave upon coming out of sleep mode.

Apple's tech support has not acknowledged that any significant problem exists with malfunctioning MacBooks. Numerous tech support boards contain messages from unhappy MacBook owners with reports of suggested solutions that, in many cases, do not solve the problems.

Although the problems have been occurring since last spring, Apple officials recently refused to discuss the problems.

"Tell your readers to contact Mac support if they need assistance operating their computers," Teresa Brewer, manager of Mac Hardware division for Apple, told MacNewsWorld.

Lynn Fox, Apple's Mac public relations director, and Katie Cotton, Apple's vice president of worldwide corporate communications, did not answer formal requests for interviews with Apple executives to discuss the lingering MacBook issues.

Sudden Shutdown Syndrome

Imagine having to "buy" a temporary replacement MacBook from an Apple Store with the hard drive from your malfunctioning notebook swapped into the loaner while yours was shipped out for repairs. That is what Andy Abramson, CEO of California-based marketing firm Comunicano, experienced within 90 days of buying his new MacBook.

"Last spring/summer [my notebook] began to suffer what I called 'sudden shutdown syndrome' after the first of a series of firmware updates was supplied by Apple. This happened twice and the experience was anything but pleasant," he explained.

First the local Apple store did a system core reinstallation and sent him home with his notebook a few hours later.

Then, a few days later, his Mac started to repeatedly shut down. It would reboot after a few minutes. The same Apple store personnel refused to replace the MacBook and instead sent it out for repairs that took ten days.

Not long after he received his refurbished CTO Edition MacBook, the same problem started happening again. This time he returned to the same Apple store and demanded action.

"They shipped it out, loaning me a new MacBook, albeit far underpowered compared to what I was already using. They swapped out the hard disk, and the loaner worked, but I also had to 'buy' it and then 'return' it," Abramson complained.

This time Apple replaced his original unit with a Black MacBook. Free of the 'sudden shutdown syndrome' for seven months with the new unit, Abramson has to contend with a fan that never seems to stop running. The transformer still overheats and the heat sinks get too hot, he added.

Sleep Disorder

It seems that returned units sold as refurbished carry on the "hot box" legacy surrounding the MacBook. That was the experience that Susan Toscano, vice president of the Massachusetts-based Nicoll Public Relations firm.

Her portable also continuously runs hot. However, the most annoying persistent problem happens when the MacBook goes into sleep mode and does not wake up because the keyboard remains unresponsive. She has to use an external mouse to revive the sleeping giant.

"I called AppleCare. They have me remove the battery and reboot, and it seems to work temporarily. I stopped calling because twice they told me to do the same thing, and they don't really seem to know why it happens," explained Toscano.

Apple recently sent her an EFI Firmware update that is supposed to fix known start-up and wake-from-sleep issues on MacBook computers, she said.

Suggested Fixes

Several Apple tech support forums advise MacBook users that resetting the parameter random access memory (PRAM) and nonvolatile random access memory (NVRAM) may ease their pain.

Those same boards, however, report follow-up messages from owners saying that the procedures either failed to solve the problems or only seem to work intermittently.

Here are the steps for doing it yourself: First, shut down the computer and power it on again. Second, before the gray screen appears, press the Command, Option, P, and R keys on the keyboard simultaneously. Third, release the key combination only when the notebook issues its startup sounds for the second time.

The MacBook will then be reset to the default PRAM and NVRAM values. The clock settings may also be reset to a default date on some models.

Apple's help forum offers a possible cure that may help excise the "mooing" sounds from MacBook computers. It involves resetting the laptop's Power Management Unit (PMU). Detailed instructions for various models are listed here.

Before trying those more elaborate procedures, try manipulating the battery first. First, shut down and disconnect the power. Second, remove the battery. Third, hold down the power button for at least five seconds. Then reinsert the battery and reconnect the power supply. Now reboot the computer.

Manual Clue

Some MacBook users have commented on MacBook support forums that Apple seemed to expect from the start that excessive heating issues would be rampant. The user manual alerts owners that the MacBook may get uncomfortably warm if left in the user's lap too long.

The user manual for the Core Duo MacBook has an even stronger warning. It states that uses should not leave the MacBook in contact with lap or body surfaces for extended periods to avoid discomfort and possible burns.

Some Mac pundits are not surprised about Apple's long official silence on the continuing notebook failures.

"Apple hasn't said anything about this to my knowledge, but they never do, since for them to do so before having a specific recall or repair plan could open them up to legal liability," Adam C. Engst, publisher of the Internet-based Mac newsletter TidBITS, told MacNewsWorld.

Apple officials just want to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis, he suggested. However, they are certainly compiling information on common problems for internal use, he added.

"If they determine that the problem is likely serious enough to warrant proactive repair, they'll issue a recall. Otherwise, they'll just make it easy for individuals to get the specific problems fixed," he said.

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