From touchy trackpads to balking batteries, Apple’s portable computers (the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air) are vulnerable to certain problems not shared by their desktop siblings.

If you have an Apple laptop that’s giving you grief, here’s how to fix the most common woes.

Sluggish performance
Does your new MacBook Pro perform as if it were swimming upstream against a strong current, especially when you’re using graphics-intensive applications? If that’s the case, go to System Preferences and select Energy Saver.

In the Graphics section at the top of the pane, enable Higher Performance instead of Better Battery Life. This switch forces the MacBook Pro to use the faster of its two graphics processors, the Nvidia GeForce 9600, instead of the slower GeForce 9400M GT. All of your graphics-intensive applications should now run at a snappier pace.

Display problems
If you connect an external display to a MacBook Pro (Late 2008), you may find that the monitor’s screen flashes on and off when you wake the laptop from sleep. Unconfirmed reports place responsibility on that GeForce 9400M GT chip. One way to work around the problem is to shift to the other graphics processor, the GeForce 9600, as explained above.

Some users claim the GeForce 9600 has problems of its own: odd distortions appear when scrolling, and sometimes the display goes completely black, especially when you’re playing games.

Nvidia contends that the chips have no hardware defects, so there is no official fix yet. However, both Apple and Nvidia have acknowledged a similar problem with the GeForce 8600M GT, which is used in older MacBook Pros. If your laptop qualifies, Apple will repair it free of charge, even if it’s out of warranty.

Glossy display
Are you unhappy with the reflective glare from the glossy display on your new MacBook? Would you prefer a matte finish? If so, don’t expect any help from Apple. All of Apple’s current line of laptop computers ship with glossy displays; only the new 17in MacBook Pro comes with a built-to-order matte option.

One workaround is to buy a matte protective film for your MacBook. Photodon (Photodon), for example, makes a cover screen that fits the current MacBook and 15in MacBook Pro models.

However, many users report that the film adds graininess to the display. And it may also be aesthetically unpleasing, as it can alter the transition from the display to its surrounding black border.

Battery not charging
Does the battery in your older MacBook or MacBook Pro fail to hold a charge? Before you buy a new battery, make sure you’ve installed the latest MacBook Pro Battery Update (MacBook Pro Battery Update). That alone may fix the problem.

The Info window for BatteryUpdater.bundle shows that its version is 1.3, meaning this Mac has the most recent update.

To check, go to the SystemConfiguration folder in /System/Library and look for a file named BatteryUpdater.bundle. Select Get Info for the file. If its version number is 1.2 or 1.3, you should be fine. If not, or if you can’t find a BatteryUpdater.bundle file, download the update from Apple’s website and install it.

If installing the update has no effect, you probably need a new battery. The good news is that Apple may replace the battery for free, even if your MacBook is no longer under warranty. To find out whether your laptop qualifies, take it to an Apple Store; the staff will check to see if your MacBook meets the criteria.

Need FireWire
The latest MacBook Pros have only a FireWire 800 port. So what if you need the older FireWire 400 port? You can get one, but it will require an additional purchase. You actually have two options.

First, you may be able to get by with an 800-to-400 FireWire cable (Apple Store). Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a FireWire 400 card and insert it in the MacBook Pro’s ExpressCard slot.

The latest MacBooks (as opposed to the MacBook Pros) come with no FireWire ports at all and no ExpressCard slot. If you have one of these, you are simply out of luck; you’ll have to find a USB alternative.

Trackpad button failure
If your MacBook or MacBook Pro is one of the Late 2008 models, you may have found that pressing the trackpad button sometimes has no effect. You can restore your trackpad to full functionality by installing the MacBook Pro Trackpad Firmware Update 1.0 (MacBook Pro Trackpad Firmware Update). If you haven’t already installed the update, it should show up automatically the next time you check Software Update.

One caution: if the firmware installation is interrupted for any reason, you may wind up with a completely non-functional trackpad. If that happens, you need to find a way to perform the firmware installation again.

The simplest solution is to temporarily connect a mouse to your laptop. Next, using the mouse instead of your comatose trackpad, navigate to the firmware update application and start over. If the update completes successfully this time, your trackpad should be up and running again.

Dead laptop
If your MacBook appears totally dead and it’s running on battery power, your first step should be obvious: connect the laptop to the nearest power socket. You may have a completely discharged battery. Give it a few minutes and then try to restart the laptop.

If that doesn’t help, simultaneously press control, C, and the power button. This may get the computer to restart. Otherwise, force the laptop to shut down (by holding the power button down for at least ten seconds) and try to restart it.

If all of these suggestions fail, it’s time to reset the laptop’s SMC (System Management Controller). For Apple’s latest MacBook and MacBook Pros, remove the battery, disconnect the AC power, and hold down the power button for five seconds. When finished, put everything back and attempt to start up. For more details, see Apple’s support articles at Apple Support article HT1411 and Apple Support article TS1365.

If your MacBook remains dead even after all of this, it most likely requires a hardware repair. Take your laptop to an Apple Store or to an authorised service centre.

Keep updated
In December 2008, Apple released SMC Firmware and EFI Firmware updates for the Late 2008 MacBook, MacBook Pro, and/or MacBook Air. Exactly what these updates fix is a bit vague. All Apple says about the EFI update is that it “fixes several issues to improve stability.” As for the SMC update, Apple is a bit more specific: it “improves the sensing and accuracy of the MagSafe Power Adapter indicator light, and the battery charge indicator lights.”

If you’re having any unexplained problems with your laptop, install these updates (and any newer ones that may come along). With Apple generally not divulging all these updates do, you never know what they might fix.