Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mac Pro adventure

My favorite client calls are the ones with unusual problems. Today I visited a Mac Pro that was having startup problems. The owner was quite good at his own maintenance and repairs and had done all the tests I usually do. The symptom was a refusal to get past the blue screen to the desktop. It reacted to a reinstall of Leopard, but with updates it went back to failing. Finally it wouldn't start from the DVD.

Aha, I thought, typical example of problems with the 10.5.8 update. Nope, I could not get it to start from my FireWire drive running 10.5.6, or another volume running 10.6.2. It wasn't a graphics failure because it would correctly display the startup alternatives from holding down the Option key.

Thinking it might be loose RAM or something, I went to reseat the modules, but he told me he had already tried that.

So I pulled his drive out completely. I wanted to boot ONLY from my external drive with no chance of interference from plugged in devices. That didn't work either.

I noticed something strange when I peered into the case, which was under a table and not immediately obvious. I looked at the back and yep, every slot was filled with a display card! He was running a standard 30-inch display, but he had the capability of running EIGHT displays.

"Did you order this with all those video cards?"

"No, this was a standard order from the online Apple store, in September of 2007."

It had been working fine up until the Software Update, all these months, with all those cards in place. A video card is supposed to be inactive until a display is plugged in, but something must have happened to one of them as a result of the update. So I removed all three of them, leaving the standard one he had been using all along.

It booted perfectly from my FireWire drive. I shut down and plugged his internal drive back in, removing mine. It booted perfectly. No repairs needed.

He still has no idea why he got a Mac with all those extra cards, but they will wind up on Ebay once he tests each one to see if one is dead and causes the problem to return. Outside of some headaches, he will come out ahead selling the cards and deducting my fee for the visit. Took me just under an hour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New Year Catchup

February Macworld Magazine

Buy the February Macworld magazine. This issue contains the Macworld awards for best Mac software, hardware, and iPhone apps. I found three good ideas on the first page. Examples: Acorn 2.1, an inexpensive but powerful image editor. Looks better than Photoshop Elements and, at $50, is cheaper. Wacom's Bamboo Fun $199 tablet is not only a drawing pad, but also reads finger gestures like a trackpad.

They also recommend the Iomega Media Network Hard Drive, a standalone drive that plugs into your network and serves iTunes, BitTorrent, iPhoto and TimeMachine. Iomega lost market share with their dying Zips, the Jaz drive fiasco and their less-than-reliable portable drives, but this unit impressed the editors so much they gave it 4 mice (out of 5). Every Macker should subscribe to at least one physical magazine, and this is a good choice. (I also subscribe to MacLife.)

Net Neutrality Hearing
Thursday is the last day for comments from us to support net neutrality. We need this in law so Concast and other large providers can't pick and choose which web sites we can see, or download quicker. Without it, the freedom we have now will wind up like broadcast TV: 95% junk and little chance to control it. Sure, the web is 95% junk now, but nobody is gatekeeping to prevent us from finding the gems, and the information we want. To send an e-letter, visit here: Please spread the word.

Software Updates

There have been a lot of little updates lately, but not much serious since the 10.6.2 update a couple of months ago. A partial roundup of where you should be:

Snow Leopard:
Get the 10.6.2 update. Each update has improved 10.6 over the last. Wherever you are, get here.

Stop at 10.5.6. Don't get 10.5.7 or 8. If at 10.5.7, stop there. The 10.5.8 update was quite unstable and prone to crashing. Unfortunately if you want to update Safari to version 4, you have to be running 10.5.8. This is the end of the line for any G-series Mac as 10.6 requires Intel processors.

10.4.11 is the end for Tiger. If not there, let Software Update do it, or go to Apple's site and download the Combo Updater for 10.4.11. This will let you update Safari to version 4.0.4, but I recommend stopping at 3.1.2.

10.3.9 is the end of the line for that. There are no updates worth getting to anything once there, no matter what Apple says. You are very limited as to which web sites will work with Safari 1.3.2, and Firefox 2 is as new as you can run.

Safari (any OS):
If you are using any version of Safari 4, get 4.0.4. Off to a weak start, Safari 4 keeps getting more stable. Be sure to go into Preferences and click Security, then uncheck the box for "Warn when visiting a fraudulent web site." While this is a good idea, it is still poorly implemented and crashes it often.
Safari 3.1.2: Stop here. Safari 3.2 was a bad update. If already there, do the same Security fix as above.

Firefox 3.5:
For the first time, the Mozilla Project screwed up with this upgrade. Many people report that it now crashes or freezes when it never did before. Stay with version 3.0, but update within. At the moment, current version is 3.0.16. If you got 3.5 but still have the installer for 3.0, I recommend you throw out 3.5 and reinstall 3.0, then let them update to 3.0.16. I wish it were this easy to downgrade Safari. Staying with 3.5? Do all the updates for it.

Google Chrome:
This new browser is missing a few features available in FF and Safari, but is still a nice addition to your browsing collection. While I use Safari for everything important, Chrome is fun to use.

This browser uses the same engine as Firefox but has a number of nice features. My favorite is the toolbar, which can support multiple rows, instead of just forming a menu off the right edge like the other browsers do.

Saft and Click2Flash:
These plugins work only in Safari and are the reason I stick to it. Click2Flash blocks all those annoying Flash animated ads on web pages, and display them only after you deliberately click on them. It can be configured to allow specific sites to display all Flash (like YouTube), but I still prefer having to click to activate a particular video.
Saft adds some features Safari needs, like remembering and reopening all the windows and tabs from a previous session after a crash or mass quit. It does strange things to multiple-tab windows when you close each tab, though: It does not close them in order. Annoying but not impossible.

Ad blocker for Safari. Recently released a version for Safari 4. Visit to download installers for it and SIMBL, required. Also blocks Flash ads from loading and offers a Reload Unfiltered option in its menu in case the page is negatively affected by the ad blocking (it happens).

Security Updates:
Apple has messed up here so often I simply don't bother with any of them. I get more service calls to fix things after a Security Update has been applied than all other causes.

There are updates to both AirPort Utility and AirPort Client. OK to get them.

Get all of the Java updates offered. So far, no problems with any of them. They are necessary for interacting with some Web sites that depend on it.

27" iMac Graphics Update:
This newest model Mac is just amazing, but a few had problems with unstable screen display. This update fixes/prevents them. If you have one, get the update. If you still have flashing, call AppleCare.

Current is 7.6.4 for Tiger, Leopard and Snow Leopard. If you have 7.5.5, stop there unless you need the video and movie capabilities of iTunes 9. If you have an older QuickTime and experience no problems with web videos and don't use iTunes for anything but playing music, don't update.

Stay where you are if it works for you. If you get a new iPod or iPhone, you need version 9. You also need it if you want to rent movies from the iTunes Store, or view TV programs even without an iPod. Turn off the "Genius" function. Mostly annoying and useless. Explore it if you like but deactivate it in Preferences and close the sidebar if you don't use it.

Keyboard Update:
There are updates to the chip inside Apple's new aluminum keyboards, both wired and wireless. OK to get them. Don't know why they're needed; never run into any problems in un-updated keyboards.

Bluetooth Updates & Firmware Updates:
Various versions of these are released for both laptop and desktop models. I have not had one ever fail on me. Go ahead and let Software Update put them in.

Repair Permissions
I have stressed this many times, and demonstrated the process for everyone I have visited. It is important that you do this before and after running software updates, and installing new programs.

Briefly, launch Disk Utility (in your Utilities folder, accessible from the GO menu in the Finder) and select your hard drive from the list on the left. When the DiskFirstAid window appears, click Repair Disk Permissions from the button on the lower left. Once finished, you can either quit, or click Verify Disk from the button on the lower right. You cannot Repair Disk from here, though. If you get a Failed to Verify, get in touch with me.


Quicken alternatives

Quicken support for Mac, which has been awful for a decade now, is pretty much over. has a reader discussion of alternatives and the future. The next MacOS will probably not support Rosetta, which allows non-Intel-native programs to run. Read here: I am still using Quicken 2006 but some day I will have to switch too.


Brother printers

I withdraw all support and recommendation for Brother printers. I am finding that even older models that seemed to work become squirrly and unreliable when combined on wired and wireless networks. Even HP, which had been seriously slacking in their Mac software department, are easier to set up and more consistently reliable. Canon's inkjets and all-in-one printers are still my top recommendation.


I am amazed by how cheap color laser has become. I have seen some advertised in Fry's for under $150. That's less than a set of replacement cartridges. It's almost cheap enough to take a risk and get one just to see if it is as good as one would hope.

If any of you reading this own one of those low-priced color laser printers (under $400) I would love to hear of your experience.


Got a G5 iMac? More and more of them are succumbing to the bad-capacitor problem, which is not repairable without replacing the logic board at a cost of $hundreds. Not all of them are dying but there is no way to know which is which, either by checking the serial number or visually inspecting a working board.

I recommend dumping yours and getting one of the new ones. Trade in your G5 to a place that offers trades (like MacPac and PowerMax) or just put it on Craigslist while you can truthfully and ethically state, "It's working fine. No known problems."

Once it starts to go you have a boat anchor, but as of Jan 1 that's illegal. All of the G4 iMacs are okay. Getting old, but no inherent problems like the G5s.


Moving to Leopard from Tiger? If you have been backing up (cloning) with the program SilverKeeper from LaCie, you have to switch to SuperDuper. The newer version of SilverKeeper is a failed product and version 1.1.4 does not create functioning, bootable backups of Leopard or Snow Leopard. Another good cloning program is CarbonCopy Cloner, which is free. SuperDuper is $28 for the "Smart Backup" feature. I wish LaCie would try again to make a simple and effective backup program like SK 1.1.4 was, but so far they seem to have moved on. They do not include SK 2.0 with their new drives, so that tells you how much respect they have for their own update.

Please, LaCie, contradict me or prove me wrong. I liked SilverKeeper.


That's it for this long-overdue post. Have a great 2010, everyone. News updates as they happen.

I'm on Twitter @mklprc. Without Twitter I would not have seen this great animation: