The little Inspector panel here in my word processor reports that this question is only 63 per cent rhetorical (is there anything that Scrivener can’t do?). I have half a dozen working computers in my office and there are times when bringing you a column is like getting the Pony Express from Plum Creek, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. I ride one until it’s lame, then I jump off, grab the mochilla and jump onto the computer that’ll carry me the next ten miles or so.
Generally I keep this up until my work is done, or I run out of computers. Some days, I get to go to the movies at 1pm.
So honestly, I have no idea how you folks manage with just the one computer. A few weeks ago, my black MacBook came down with Sudden Shutdown Syndrome. SSS sounds like a slow tyre leak so let’s come up with something zippier and more dangerous: DEATHSPIKE. I’ll be bopping along on the keyboard, stringing together a sequence of flawless gems of perfect truth, when the machine just up and dies. This tends to interrupt the flow of my writing.
It happens without warnings or errors of any kind. It’s as though the MacBook suddenly thinks “Wait... What am I doing? I’m not a computer! I’m a napkin dispenser!” and promptly does its best to become a completely inert and non-interactive object before the other appliances get suspicious.
Before reaching for the whisky
Fortunately, we have a wonderful network of Apple Stores to call upon for service. But there are things you should do before speaking with a Genius about a problem like this:
■ Write down a list of the swear words you used when it happened. It won’t help to diagnose the problem, but those in tech support like to keep up with the latest gutter lingo.
■ Launch the Console app and look for error and warning messages. If a certain app was flailing around right before your Mac flew south, then there’s your prime suspect.
■ Ask yourself “What did I do to this machine before all this started happening?” My iMac started freezing up last week, just after I installed a bunch of fonts. Sure enough, one of them was corrupt. Undoing the install fixed the problem.
■ Restart in ‘Safe’ mode (restart the Mac, hold down the shift key immediately after hearing the startup chime, let go when you see the Apple logo). The Mac will perform an extended hard drive diagnostic, do a bunch of housekeeping, then start the OS with all but the most critical system extensions turned off.
If your problem disappears, then you know that either an app crashed a while ago and left behind a tainted cache file that went on to cause trouble, or you installed a piece of software that’s making your machine to go all pouty. Best case, the problem’s now fixed. Middle case, you start working your way backwards, uninstalling apps and extensions until the problem goes away. Worst case, you back up all of your files, reinstall the OS, and start again.
■ If you make it to this step without a positive result, read the Book of Job. Commonly referred to as the slapstick section of the Old Testament, Job cheers you up by making you think “However sad and pathetic I might be feeling right now, at least I’m not that guy.” If you don’t have a Bible handy, any episode of Big Brother will do much the same.
■ Reset the machine’s NVRAM. This will clear its nonvolatile startup-to-startup memory of any possible junk. Switch on the Mac and hold down the C-alt-P-R keys immediately. Let go when you hear a second restart chime.
■ With any power problem you can try resetting the power manager. In my 2007 MacBook, you do this by disconnecting the battery and the power adaptor, holding down the Power button for five seconds, and then putting everything back together and powering up as normal.
■ If you still get no joy, reflect that mankind is born unto trouble just as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7). No, I’m not religious. My familiarity with this particular section of the Bible just underscores how much of my life I’ve spent working with computers.
Try to leave the whisky bottle on the shelf, and hit http://support.apple.com for tech notes describing your problem. Though at this stage you’ll probably get more out of http://discussions.apple.com, a mostly uncensored message board where users vent, console each other, and offer hand-holding and practical solutions.
Sure enough, plenty of people have been complaining about DEATHSPIKE (that name isn’t going to catch on, I can already tell) shutdowns with this model. The handy bit is where people discuss their experiences in getting Apple to deal with it.
There was no help for me, sadly, so it was time to take the MacBook to see a Genius. Sometimes one of those steps and tricks solves the problem, and even when they don’t work, it still saves time at the Apple Store because you get to skip over the Genius’ first half-dozen questions and attempted fixes.
I’ve always had good experiences with Geniuses. But it bothers me that Apple’s track record for shipping reliable hardware is so shabby. There’s even a once-popular consumer activism site at www.appledefects.com. I note that it hasn’t been updated in more than a year and I wonder why.
I know it’s not because Apple started sprinking magical pixie Nev-R-Fail dust over every piece of hardware it ships. Apple has a reputation for screwy hardware and even as a longtime Mac enthusiast, the only proper response is to sort of look at the ground and kick the dirt around with the toe of my shoe a little and mumble “Yeah, it’s not the best.”
The punchline to this whole story is that while my MacBook is sitting on the disabled list, I’m using a MacBook Pro that I got for a different project. A week later, the mechanical latch that holds the screen shut somehow jammed. So the only way I can carry the Pro in a bag without it popping open, waking up, spinning up the hard drives, and putting my data in mortal danger is to strap the damned thing closed with rubber bands.
I’m starting to think that maybe Apple should sell portable Macs on a big roll, like paper towels.