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#689: Non-Booting MacBook, Hidden Customization, 10 Tips for Mac Slowdowns


Happy Tuesday,

We’ve rearranged our South Burlington store in anticipation of our Customer Appreciation Days this Saturday and Sunday. There will be storewide savings including 10% off all Apple software, $20 discounts on 8GB iPod touch and nano, new financing options including a ’90 days same as cash’ deal (sorry, these are all retail store only) and pre-configured computer bundles including a free printer or 500GB LaCie backup drive for $19.99 (online and in-store!).

We’re offering special upgrade packages in the Service department as well. For the holiday season we’ve reduced pricing on hard drive upgrades for laptops and desktop machines, and including data transfer and installation at steep discounts. Not all of us need a new computer, or we may want to get another year out of what we have before upgrading; a hard drive, RAM, and operating system upgrade will squeeze all the performance possible out of your computer.

For those of you ready for a new computer, we’re offering a gifting service that includes secure erasure of your data and restoration to factory settings, and we offer extremely competitive trade-in deals on all Intel-based Macs.

As always, thanks for reading and keep in touch.


  Repair of the Week: MacBook Won't Boot  

It is every service provider’s goal to fix each computer quickly and completely the first time. Every so often, though, we don’t succeed. It is the rare intermittent issues that are almost impossible to accurately predict, diagnose, and repair. We have the option to send laptops to Apple’s repair facilities at our discretion, and we do utilize the mail-in facilities when a diagnosis is not entirely clear. Because these facilities service all of the United States and Canada, it makes sense for them to warehouse most every service part available, making efficient and effective diagnosis much easier. Small Dog does keep many hundreds of diagnostic parts in stock, but it’s just not possible for us to keep a million-dollar service part inventory!

With this in mind, this week’s repair is a MacBook that presented with the all-too-familiar flashing question mark when it was powered on. This generally means hard drive failure, file system corruption, or an operating system in disarray. However, this case didn’t follow normal patterns: the sick MacBook’s hard drive booted another MacBook just fine. The decision was made to send this repair to Apple for repair. All mail-in repairs are sent in via FedEx early morning overnight service and are almost always repaired the same day they’re received, and this was no exception. The MacBook came back with its hard drive and, inexplicably, its SuperDrive replaced. It did boot right up when we tested it, so the customer was contacted and the machine picked up shortly after.

Two days later, the computer came back with the same flashing question mark problem as before. Out it went again, and it came back with the hard drive, optical drive, logic board, and hard drive interconnect cable replaced. It turned out that the serial-ATA bus on the main logic board was to blame for the failure, and, despite repeated trips to Apple, the MacBook is in perfect working order once again.

  Tip of the Week: Hidden Customization  

There are myriad of customization options in Mac OS X—some are in plain sight in System Preferences and elsewhere while others involve manual editing of plist (property list) files or tricking the system into thinking one file is actually another. One of the most powerful interface tweaks you can make is to the menu bar, and while you can enable menu bar extras through System Preferences and elsewhere, doing so can take some sleuthing.

Mac OS X is built for multiple users. As such, each user has a home folder with that user’s preferences and settings. But there are common resources shared by all users, and these resources are for the most part located in the System and Library folders at the root level of your hard drive. Before I go further, I should note the importance of taking care when modifying anything in either of these folders. One misstep can lead to a completely nonfunctional computer!

The menu bar extras I mentioned before are located at Macintosh HD/System/Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras. All you need to do is drag the files in this folder up to where you’d like them to live in the menu bar. Some of the menu bar extras will not “stick” up there because they are not supported on your system. For example, the ExpressCard menu item will not stick if used on a MacBook without an ExpressCard slot. If you use Mac OS X Server 10.5 or 10.6, you can realize power savings with the CPU menu bar item, which allows you to disable and enable processors or processor cores as more or less power is needed.

Another item in the CoreServices folder is the default desktop picture, which is shown at the login window. You can replace this file with another jpeg of equal resolution and name it DefaultDesktop.jpg to change the desktop picture at the login window.

Your mileage may vary on these hints. Whatever you do, make sure you’ve backed up your computer before trying anything.

  10 Tips for Dealing with Unexpected Computer Slowdowns  

A friend recently sent me an email, questioning why his MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM was “getting slower and slower, with an increasing frequency of the appearance of the SRWOD (spinny rainbow wheel of death).” This is something I occasionally hear about, but haven’t experienced (except for Safari randomly bogging down for several seconds).

Unfortunately, mysterious computer slowdowns can be difficult to diagnose. Overstuffed system cache, old temp files, corrupted preferences, a hard drive in the early stages of failure, and faulty RAM are always candidates for causing this problem. Here are some suggestions to resolve system slowdowns.

Also, please make sure you have a solid backup of your Macs important data before proceeding. I’ll say it again: make sure your Mac is backed up properly before proceeding.

1. Any Mac will slow down when its hard drive is almost full, regardless of processor speed. Simply moving some of your data (especially media files like movies, video podcasts, etc) to an external drive can greatly improve a Mac’s responsiveness.

Read how to reclaim hard drive space in an old Kibbles article by clicking here.

2. Clear your Mac’s desktop. The OS has to draw each of those icons as separate windows, so when you have dozens of files littered on the desktop the system is taxed. Clearing the Macs desktop is proven to improve system performance.

3. Make sure your computer is up to date with all the latest software and firmware updates from Apple. This can go a long way to improving system performance. To check this, click the Apple in the top left corner of the screen and select “Software Update…”

4. Simply running a free maintenance program can often help bring a sluggish and flakey machine back to speed. These programs force the Mac’s regular Unix maintenance scripts; normally these run daily, weekly, and monthly early in the morning. Click here for further reading on this.

I use a program called Onyx to run these scripts. You can get it for Tiger (10.4) and Leopard (10.5). It’s effective and easy to use. It starts by checking the S.M.A.R.T. status of your hard drive, so you can determine if the drive is failing. This step takes several minutes. After that Onyx can flush system cache, etc.

One catch about Onyx is that it has several options that most people shouldn’t use, such as the option for erasing bookmarks and internet browsing history. I do like and recommend Onyx, though—get it for free from the developer by clicking here. You can also download Onyx directly from Apple’s site by clicking here.

You can also download a simpler program called MacJanitor that will only run the maintenance scripts by clicking here. When a tech diagnoses your Mac, he or she runs a battery of programs that are similar to Onyx. This takes several hours. However, Onyx does a great job for occasional repairs and maintenance.

5. Check the health of your hard drive. I depend on Onyx to verify the S.M.A.R.T. status of my Mac’s hard drive. Immediately back up your computer if you think there’s a real issue with the drive. Then consider using a dedicated drive diagnostic/repair tool such as Disk Warrior. If the drive is having issues and you’re going to replace it, consider using a 7200RPM model. A faster hard drive will result in a (slightly) faster Mac.

6. Check the health of your Mac’s RAM. There are several ways to test the health of your Mac’s RAM. I use Rember, which is a free program that is a front-end GUI to a basic Unix ‘memtest’ command. You can read more about testing RAM by clicking here

7. Deal with mutant applications. Ok, so maybe the word “mutant” is unfair. However, it’s always a good idea to delete applications that you don’t use. I use AppCleaner to do this.

Also, many apps install helper programs that run by default whenever you startup your Mac. This typically happens in the background, without the user having to confirm anything. Often these aren’t needed and can hog system resources without having anything to show for it. To disable startup items you don’t use, navigate to System Preferences > Accounts > Login items and uncheck the list.

Finally, any active, running application uses system resources including CPU cycles, RAM and disk activity, even when it is in the background and you’re not using it. Some programs leak memory when they are running, which makes them gobble RAM over time.

8. Use Activity Monitor and iStat Pro to analyze which system processes and applications are hogging system resources. You can download the iStat Pro widget by clicking here. Activity Monitor is found in the Utilities Folder which is nested in the Applications folder in OS X.

9. If you have an Intel Mac, use Xslimmer to trim away the legacy PowerPC code from Universal binary applications. Read more by clicking here.

10. Programs that automatically perform syncing, indexing, and backup operations on your Mac can occasionally slow it down. They can sometimes cause minor drags that slow the system for a couple of seconds at a time.

If none of these helps, the problem will likely be more time-consuming to resolve. At Small Dog, our techs run a battery of tests with several software and hardware tools to seek out and fix strange system slowdowns. Hopefully the above suggestions will keep you from having to send in your machine!

Editor’s note: Check out this cheeky website to log your time spent waiting for the “Spinning Beach Ball of Death!”

Originally featured in Kibbles & Bytes #604.

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