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#661: Apple Tops Consumer Reports, Troubleshooting Back to My Mac, Repair of the Week, Reader Feedback


Happy Tuesday,

Signs of Spring are everywhere. Daffodils and tulips are in full bloom; the hydrangeas outside our Waitsfield showroom and growing quickly; ramps are in their prime outside my office window; the river is warm enough to swim in (well, almost); and lilacs outside my bedroom are poised to bloom any minute now. I’ll be tilling the garden on Sunday.

Much to my mother’s dismay, I went motorcycle shopping with Tony last Saturday. We’re going to look at a few more this weekend, and hopefully I’ll have one of my own before too long. Tony decided to test ride a new Harley, and wound up riding it home!

It’s always great to hear from readers. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly with any feedback or ideas for articles.

Keep in touch,


  Apple Notebooks Glow in Consumer Reports  

Happy Cinco de Mayo, Apple! In Consumer Reports’ upcoming June issue, Apple tops all three categories for notebook computers.

In the 13in category, the Unibody MacBook beat out 5 other notebooks—though the list included both the MacBook Air Solid State Drive and the plastic-cased MacBook in the #2 and #3 spots! In the 14-16in category, the 15in MacBook Pro beat out PCs from Toshiba, Sony and Dell.

Finally, in the 17-18in category—you guessed it—the 17in MacBook Pro beat out comparable models from Dell, Lenovo, HP and Toshiba. The 17” MacBook Pro won out by the largest margin across the three categories—16 points. It’s also notable to point out that the 4th place machine, the HP Pavilion dv7, is the computer that “Lauren” buys in the Microsoft Laptop Hunters commercial.

Rounding out the survey, Apple also scored top marks in their tech support for the AppleCare Protection Plan. The iMac and Mac mini were also featured in the list of desktops, though were narrowly beaten by other PC models.

Grab the June Issue to read the entire article, or read it online here (requires Consumer Reports subscription).

  Troubleshooting Back to My Mac  

I recently set up Back to My Mac, a feature of MobileMe, so I could access files on a home computer while I was on the road or at work. I had a tough time getting it set up initially, and was met with cryptic error messages and plenty of frustration.

Whenever I run into trouble, I turn to Google for answers. It turns out the Back to My Mac feature uses a suite of protocols called IPsec, designed for secure IP (Internet Protocol) communications. I found an article suggesting that connection failures could be due to the client and server system times being out of sync, and it struck me that the Mini at home required me to manually reset its clock after every restart. I was trying to connect at 9:30 AM to a computer that thought it was around 11PM.

Surely enough, after going home for lunch and to reset the time on the Mac Mini, I was able to immediately connect from work. If you’re outright unable to use the Back to my Mac feature of MobileMe, check that the time is synchronized as closely as possible.

Of course, there are some more elegant solutions to the time synchronization problem. The ideal is to install a replacement backup battery (often referred to as a PRAM battery, but correctly referred to as a backup battery) in the affected computer. I wound up doing this last night, and of course no longer need to reste the time. I also could have set the home computer to synchronize with a time server using the Date and Time Preference Pane.

Unfortunately, though, this computer has some software issues that prevented me from accessing System Preferences at all. Because this computer is so heavily customized, and I don’t really need access to System Preferences, I didn’t want to embark on any extensive software repair or reconfiguration. I’ll get to the root cause eventually!

My co-workers will agree that technicians tend to have rickety computers. We use them hard and swear by AppleCare.

  2009 AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule  

Apple somewhat quietly updated its AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule products a few weeks ago. While the price points and storage capacities for Time Capsule remain the same, each product is now twice as robust–they have dual antennas and dual radios to accommodate discrete, simultaneous connections on the 802.11a/b/g and 802.11n frequencies.

This means that you can use your 802.11a/b/g device, such as iPod touch or iPhone, on the same network as Apple TV or modern Macs using the long-range and screaming fast 802.11n frequency—all without slowing the entire network to the speed of its slowest member.

It is true that adding an 802.11b device to an otherwise entirely 801.11n network will slow the whole lot down the 802.11b speeds. The beauty of these new base stations and time capsules is that the two frequencies can coexist as one cohesive network, with all devices participating at their maximum possible speed.

The new AirPort Extreme has been a godsend in our busy South Burlington flagship store. With forty or more devices connected at all times, with at least a handful of them not running at 802.11n, there was untapped potential for a faster network. Adding the new AirPort Extreme to the mix was an immediate and zero-configuration update, as the configuration file from the last generation model was used to deploy almost instantaneously.

Get 10% off a new AirPort Extreme with the code “airport” (enter in cart)
Get 10% off any TimeCapsule with the code “timecapsule” (enter in cart)

Offer expires 5/12/09.

  Repair of the Week  

A long time customer dropped off her 24-inch iMac last week so we could resolve some power-related failures. The mid-2007 unit would power up and begin the boot process, but the screen would go dark after a few seconds. The service manual for this machine suggested a reset of the system management controller, or SMC, as the first troubleshooting step. This is done by unplugging the iMac for twenty seconds or so.

Unsurprisingly, this did not fix the video issue. I suspected a failure of the internal power supply, and took the machine apart to verify my hunch. With the machine open, I had clear visual access to several diagnostic light emitting diodes (LEDs). Once the machine was plugged in, the first LED would light, indicating correct trickle power from the power supply. The second and third LEDs lit up as usual. But as soon as LED four lit, indicating proper communication between the video card and logic board via a proprietary mini PCI-e slot, the machine would power down. The really weird part is that the first three LEDs remain illuminated after failure. Because they remained illuminated, I assumed that it was a logic board or video card problem, and I ordered both parts.

I installed the new video card in the original logic board, and the failure persisted. The unit chimed, the screen lit up, and the LEDs would light in proper progression; again, the machine powered off immediately after LED four lit up. Next step was to introduce the new video card to the equation, but the machine behaved even worse: it was even less responsive, having only the first LED come on when plugged in.

Analyzing my own thought process, I went back to my original hunch of power supply. I went ahead and ordered up the 250 watt power supply, installed it, and found that the unit booted right up. For my own edification, I used the process of elimination to see which one of the parts had really failed. It turned out that all three components had actually failed, and my diagnostic process was sound.

  Reader Feedback: Why I Won't Upgrade  

Virginia, a Small Dog customer since 2002, responded to last week’s Tech Tails introduction, and she made some excellent points. I’m sure many of you will agree when you hear what she has to say.

“I am dying to upgrade to Leopard because of Time Machine (although OS 8-9 had almost the equivalent, where you could search for ‘erased’ files and pull out files that in OS X are zapped forever). But the problem is that I, like probably a few other users, don’t just use the Mac for its own programs but run a lot of other programs on it. And to do an OS upgrade is to invite a big expense in upgrading Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark XPress, Office, etc. etc.

Let’s call it ‘App Lag’—where the non-Mac software is slow to accommodate a new OS, or has tried to accommodate it but at too early a point to make their software work well. This is why I am still on OS 10.4.1, stuck with ancient Safari (which I used to love) and Office 2004 and Quark XPress 6.5, because when I tried to upgrade to OS 10.4.5 or something 3 years ago, the printer and scanner drivers hadn’t caught up yet and some of the applications hadn’t either. So I had to go back to 10.4.1.

The up side is that I can still use Fontographer and Freehand (which I’ll probably never see again unless I keep an old computer around just for them). The down side is that I’m missing all the new stuff.

This isn’t necessarily Apple’s fault, which the company tried to address with Classic; it’s Adobe’s and Microsoft’s as well. But you shouldn’t think that people resist switching to a new OS just because of the current state of the economy (which is no doubt true). It’s also because they know they will lose some functionality and productivity. Those of us who use our Macs for work don’t really have time to fiddle.

If I were Apple (hah!), I’d make an OS that could mount every version of every program for the last 10 years (a whole nother kind of Time Machine). Then we could update those apps on an as-needed basis, instead of being forced to by a new OS.”

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