Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

How I Made a Quick-and-Dirty Six-Minute Demo Video of My iPhone App

Monday, August 24th, 2009

My iPhone app OnScreen Pitch Count (submitted to Apple, but not yet approved for App Store placement) is easy to use. Even so, describing how it works, using only words and still images can be tedious and may give the impression that it’s more complicated than it is. The draft user’s guide for OnScreen Pitch Count details what every screen button is for. Most of them should be immediately obvious, but the sheer number of buttons might make learning seem an unpleasant task, at first glance.

I clearly needed a video presentation of OnScreen Pitch Count that showed both how to use the app and what it was to be used for. Not knowing either the timetable or the exact procedure for the Apple review, I also felt the need to get something online as soon as possible, just in case an Apple reviewer, with the app’s fate in his or her hands, came to the web site looking for help in using it. I originally thought that a video of me or someone else tapping the buttons on the screen would be best, as being more realistic and possibly making the viewer want to start doing the same thing. That may be true, but given my resources and my impression of some rather pathetic online videos of iPhone game play, where the player’s fingers really got in the way, and the focus was poor, I decided to opt for making a screen recording of the app running in the iPhone Simulator, which Apple provides for testing apps under development.

Since most button taps lead to the tapped button’s being highlighted, it should be easy for the viewer to follow the action, imagining the invisible finger or thumb of the user. I already had used a Macintosh program iShowU for making a screencast demo of OnScreen Particle Physics, OnScreen Science’s modern physics teaching software, so my first thought was to try iShowU. First I went to its web site to see if there was a new version. There was, one that required Mac OS 10.5. This raised the question of whether the version I had would run under 10.5 at all. Since there was a discounted upgrade price I decided to look into the upgrade. Unfortunately to get to the upgrade page, one had to enter a password, the meaning of which was not explained anywhere I could see. I decided to launch the older version to see if the password might be found there. The good news was that the older version launched OK under 10.5, but the serial number turned out to be extremely long and with no way to copy it. Perhaps some old email would have it, but that was enough to deter me from the upgrade, since I wasn’t even sure the serial number was in fact the required password. I decided to see how well version 1.7.2 would work before revisiting the upgrade or alternative software question.

iShowU provided an easy, intuitive way to capture just the portion of the screen I wanted. There was a draggable, resizable rectangle, which I could put exactly over the iPhone Simulator’s on-screen representation of the iPhone device. The on-screen instructions said to hit return to set the recording area. Nothing happened to indicate that the capture rectangle had been registered when I did that (several times). It seemed this might be an incompatibility with 10.5, as I had feared. What else to do but try quitting and relaunching? That did the trick, though as usual in such cases, I’ll never know why. I did a couple of short practice runs. It was working, saving a QuickTime mov file to the desktop, each time. I then plugged in my USB microphone, the Blue Snowflake, and tested it with commentary enough to see that the audio worked. About a megabyte seemed to be required for each minute of recording, which I thought was within reason.

Clearly, though, I could not just improvise my way all the way through a demonstration. I would have to script it, and try to keep it around five minutes. It was immediately apparent to me that methodically going through the use of each button would be boring, and probably impossible to do without a context for the button usage. At the risk of sounding dumb, I decided to use a made-up game scenario, which I would narrate sparingly, to illustrate the app. I typed the script as fast as I could, thinking of it as a first draft. Looking at it now, I can see a couple of things I might have added, and a couple of places where the order might be improved, but it covers most aspects of the app’s usage to record pitch results in a game. When I do it again, I’ll probably include a runner caught stealing and a batter reaching base after a dropped third strike. I definitely should have shown the use of the Undo button, but its visible presence hopefully makes the point that it is possible to undo actions.

Now, how to do it physically? The script went beyond one page, but I didn’t want to have paper rustling sounds recorded, and I needed to have my hands free to use the trackpad and keyboard on my MacBook Pro anyway. I should note that I turned off the mouse cursor recording feature of iShowU since I didn’t want the movement of a mouse pointer across the screen to be highlighting continually that this was a simulation on a computer screen. I didn’t try to get a visual display of mouse clicks (simulated button taps) since the mouse clicks almost always highlighted the button anyway. One place where the simulation didn’t match the standard iPhone screen was when I typed in names. The iPhone keyboard appeared in the simulation, but I would have had to click with the mouse pointer on each letter in order to show the big letter that appears beside the tapped key. This would have been much too slow, so I just typed on the computer keyboard, which accomplished the job much faster, but without the usual visual display.

I decided to lay the two pages of the script out side by side to avoid the paper handling problem. It was still challenging to go back and forth between the screen and the script, and I lost my place a couple of times and had to do some improvising. The result was bad enough in one six-second interval that I decided to edit the audio track, which I’ll tell about below. I may do more editing later. The method I used for script page display wouldn’t work for anything longer than what I recorded. Maybe I could use a page turner the way pianists do.

Despite the less-than-perfect delivery and the deviation from the script in places, I went ahead and posted the demo as recorded, copying the javascript code I had used previously to play the OnScreen Particle Physics QuickTime demo. One place where my voice trailed off while I obviously searched for what I wanted to say seemed worse and worse the more I thought of it (played it, actually). I wasn’t sure how to edit the audio part of the mov file, but I knew there had to be a way to replace the flawed section. I had Audacity, the free audio recording and editing software distributed under the GNU General Public License, on my hard drive, so I thought I’d give it a try. Audacity imported the mov file via the Open command. I was able to locate the problematic section without any trouble and see that it was six seconds long.

Now what? I had to record a replacement for the bad section. I considered doing it with Audacity, but for some reason I don’t recall now I didn’t succeed immediately, so I decided to use QuickTime Player (Pro) as my recording software. Recording with QuickTime Player proved easy once I realized I had to set the input source as the Blue Snowflake microphone via the Preferences panel, just as with Garage Band. I recorded what I thought was a major improvement both in wording and diction. I then opened the file with Audacity and located the beginning of the substitute sentence. Since it was spoken without hesitation or searching for words, it took a considerably shorter time than the original one had. In order to keep the rest of the audio in synch with the video, I just selected six seconds from the new recording, which included a good bit of silence at the end. I then went to the old mov file audio track, which still had the undesirable six seconds selected, and did a paste. Would it combine the two, insert the new audio before the old, or replace the original as one would expect? It replaced the original. I could now play right through the edited section without hearing any obvious “splicing” effects. I did regret not having given a little silence at the beginning of the new segment, but the result was well within the Guy Kawasaki “Don’t worry, be crappy” standard. I have a feeling anyone that knows there was an edit done somewhere will be able to pick out where it occurred, but it is definitely an improvement over the original.

I still didn’t have the new audio inserted into the video. A straight save from Audacity would only give me an Audacity project file rather than a mov file with a video track, so I did an export to AIFF, an Apple audio format I knew QuickTime could handle. It took a little bit of searching through the QuickTime Player Help, but I found the procedure for adding a soundtrack to a mov file. I opened the new AIFF file I’d exported from Audacity and chose Edit->Select All, then Edit->Copy. Then I opened the mov file with the original sound track and selected Edit->Add to Movie. I played through the “bad” spot and discovered I had just added a second track, so that both versions played in the six-second interval I wanted to change. No big surprise, but I had thought it might just replace the soundtrack. Revert. Then I rediscovered that Window->Show Movie Properties revealed the video and audio tracks of the movie. I selected the audio track and deleted it. Then I repeated the procedure for adding the new sound track and ended up with what I was after. I then replaced the online mov file with the newly edited one. The next edit will be much easier. One of the reasons for writing this is so that I’ll have it for future reference.

So, is a something-less-than-professional, hand-rolled video better than nothing? I have no doubt that it is. There really is no easy way to convey the app’s usage with text and still images. I plan to improve on this first video effort; and, as I await Apple’s approval, I may be moved to do the whole thing over, but I feel it is an asset already. You can see and hear the results here.

Too Good to Be True? My MacBook Pro: First Cool, Now Quiet

Friday, May 15th, 2009

This will be a brief coda to a couple of recent posts in which I related how I finally solved an ever-worsening (OS changes?) problem of overheating on my first generation MacBook Pro. See “What a Relief! MacBook Pro Overheating Problem Cured—Really” and “Can’t Boil Water With Vista on My MacBook Pro Anymore” for the details. The solution turned out to be undervolting—setting cpu operating voltages at values (determined by experiment) below the overly conservative ones set at the factory. A great little piece of software called CoolBook enables one to do that on the Mac. A similar program (RMclock) is available for Windows.

I can report that I have encountered neither high temperatures nor computer instability since adjusting voltages lower with CoolBook. After a couple of weeks of stress-free lower temperatures, I realized that the previously necessary evil of the constant droning of the MacBook Pro’s cooling fans was no longer necessary. In my earlier efforts to control temperature I had installed a System Preferences utility called Fan Control. This allowed me to set the minimum temperature at which the fan speed would start ramping up and the rate at which it would increase with temperature. This was not a solution for sustained operation at the highest default voltage used when the cpu was running at maximum speed, but I think it did keep things cooler than what Apple’s normal fan speed algorithm did.

It may seem funny that Apple would have such high operating voltages coupled with such puny fan cooling; but I think we have reason to believe that Steve Jobs hates fan noise (I’m with you there, Steve), perhaps beyond reason. I remember buying a third-party fan that sat on top of my first Mac, the mighty one-megabyte-RAM Macintosh Plus. Word was that it was needed to prevent premature death of the convectively cooled Mac. I can imagine Steve telling the engineers to get rid of that fan noise on the MacBook Pro, or else.

The fans on my machine, even though one of them was relatively new, having been replaced under AppleCare when my original hard drive croaked (Fatal But Survivable: A Hard Drive Transplant Story), seemed to have gotten noisier over time, from overuse I suppose, so they were annoying me more. Why not get rid of Fan Control? Removing it from the System Preferences Panel wasn’t hard (Ctrl-click and make selection), but this merely put the fan speed versus temperature profile out of my control, while leaving the last one set by Fan Control in effect. I saw one unfortunate on MacUpdate warning people not to install Fan Control because it permanently changes the fan settings. This is fortunately not true, but the folks that make Fan Control should probably do a better job of letting people know how to completely uninstall it. Here is the rest of the procedure: remove the following files and folders (both on your start disk)— /Library/StartupItems/FanControlDaemon and /Library/PreferencePanes/Fan Control.prefPane.

In order to have a way of monitoring temperature and fan speed I went back to running smcFanControl, a program that only allows one to set the minimum fan speed. I used it to set the minimum speed back to 1000 rpm, down from the Fan Control minimum of 1600 rpm I’d been enduring. This is really quiet!

Having smcControl running enables me to step in to raise the fan speed if necessary. Shades of the past: yesterday I was reinstalling the iPhone SDK as part of a long battle (probably not to be related here) to be able to test my in-development iPhone app on an iPod Touch, when I noticed the smcFanControl temperature reading said 90° C, while the fans were still whirring away at less than 2000 rpm. I used smcFanControl to raise the minimum speed much higher manually, which had the desired result. When that taxing installation procedure was over, I set the fan speed back to 1000 rpm.

Now that I finally have what I thought I was getting when I bought the MacBook Pro, this should be the last I’ll have to say on the subject of temperature control and fan noise. Peace.

Can’t Boil Water With Vista on My MacBook Pro Anymore

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

It was a little over a year ago that I got Windows Vista up and running on my first-generation MacBook Pro by means of Apple’s Boot Camp, only to discover that it ran hot—so hot that it seemed pretty worthless. I believe that post (Vista on My MacBook Pro Is Hot—Boiling Hot!) has brought this blog more visitors than any other, which I count as solid evidence that many other Mac users have encountered the same problem and have gone searching on Google for a solution.

Unfortunately, all I could offer my fellow sufferers was the knowledge that they were not alone, but now I have a solution for them, based on the same “undervolting” technique I finally discovered to solve the even greater overheating problem I had encountered running under Mac OS 10.5.6, where temperatures would climb over 115° C and cause the computer to shut down unless I exited certain programs (rendered useless) or web sites in time.

I recently wrote What a Relief! MacBook Pro Overheating Problem Cured—Really, in which I told of finding a program called CoolBook to be the answer to my overheating problems. The basic idea behind the solution is that the computer’s factory-default voltages, which essentially determine the operating temperature, are for the different cpu clock frequencies substantially higher than they need to be. CoolBook enables one to reset these voltages to lower values, thus gaining much cooler operating temperatures, most importantly for the highest frequency, where sustained heavy-duty computing can lead to overheating. Undervolting with the help of CoolBook really gave me back the full use of my MacBook Pro. I refer anyone having similar problems to that recent post. The procedure for finding the lower voltages your particular computer can live with involves a fairly lengthy trial and error period, but it only needs to be done once.

I mainly wanted Vista on my Mac in order to test the Vista-compatibility of the Windows versions of my science education programs, OnScreen Particle Physics and OnScreen DNA. Having done that, and not having a new version to test, I could easily live without Vista; and the overheating problems encountered under 10.5.6 were much more serious for me. Nonetheless, it was an ongoing irritation in the back of my mind that Apple’s promise of being able to run Windows with Boot Camp was really a false one so long as the temperature went up so high under normal use. Thus it was natural to ask if I could apply the same undervolting procedure under Vista to eliminate the heating problem there as well.

Of course, CoolBook was no help for running Vista, since it is a Mac program, but a Google search for undervolting led me to a Windows solution. If you Google with the search string “undervolting guide,” you will find The Undervolting Guide, which tells you everything you need to know to undervolt under Windows. There is a free downloadable program called RMclock that allows you to reset the default voltages, just as CoolBook does for the Mac. The guide is written under the assumption that you have no previous information about temperature or the lower voltage limits at which your computer can operate stably. It leads you through a procedure similar to what I outlined in my post on Mac undervolting. Since I had already gone through this under Mac OS X and couldn’t see any reason why the lower-limit voltages would depend on the operating system, I assumed my results would still hold under Vista. The whole procedure seems a lot easier on the Mac side, so I would recommend anyone trying to cool down Vista on a Mac to determine lower-limit voltages under the Mac OS. Be sure to write down the lower-limit voltages you have found before booting into Windows to set voltages there.

I went directly to the RMclock instructions in the guide, skipping the parts dealing with stressing the computer at different voltages. You need to follow the RMclock instructions closely, as the procedure is considerably more complicated than what it is for CoolBook, there being several steps to go through before you reach the point of actually setting voltages. Things look quite a bit different too. Instead of showing the frequencies in physical units of MHz, RMclock shows “multipliers,” which are presumably the factors by which some reference frequency (unspecified) is multiplied to obtain the actual frequency. I just made the reasonable assumption that the maximum multiplier corresponded to the maximum frequency (2.004 GHz in my case) and set the voltage to what I had previously determined was sufficient under Mac OS X for my MacBook Pro. For the other multipliers I scaled accordingly, but chose voltages on the conservative side, i.e, a little higher, just to be safe. For keeping the maximum temperature down, it’s really only the top frequency voltage setting that matters much anyway. Lowering the other voltages below that used for the highest frequency just gives you a lower average temperature and longer battery life.

Did it work? Yes, I can run the most complex simulations of OnScreen DNA at a “cool” 80° C, instead of the previous 100° C. Undervolting has made it comfortable for me to run Vista on my MacBook Pro, so I don’t feel cheated anymore. Maybe I’ll actually use Vista for something other than testing my software now.

What a Relief! MacBook Pro Overheating Problem Cured—Really.

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Just in case anyone has arrived here desperate for a solution to MacBook overheating, let me put it in this first sentence: CoolBook is what you need. I last wrote about the ever-worsening tendency of my first-generation MacBook Pro to go into a runaway heating mode back on November 22 of last year in an optimistically titled post called New Firefox Cures Overheating? I knew better than to be confident that something as simple as a browser upgrade could have taken care of my overheating problems, but I wanted so much to believe it. The Firefox upgrade probably did alleviate overheating associated with Firefox, but before long it became obvious that it was only a small part of the problem.

Since my lonely corner of the blogosphere receives several visits daily from unfortunates with the same overheating problems (I can tell from the logs of their visits: Google search terms), I’ve felt bad that all I was really offering them was the knowledge that they were not alone, even if Apple has never said anything about the problem. My computer got a slight amount of symptomatic relief by using the Fan Control utility, which goes into the System Preferences panel. With Fan Control, I was able to control the fan speed versus temperature profile to some degree, but the maximum fan speed, no matter what temperature it kicks in at, is no match for a true runaway heating episode.

The overheating problem only got worse for me with the 10.5.6 OS upgrade. Some apps became completely unusable. For example, Winclone, a great program for backing up your Boot Camp Windows partition to a compressed file on your Mac partition, thus allowing you to have a Windows backup on your Time Machine drive, would reach 100° C before 5% of the Windows partition had been read! The temperature never reached a plateau, and the high temperature caused a shutdown the one time I decided to let it keep going and hope for the best. I tried reverting back to an earlier version of Winclone, which had never caused a problem before, but that didn’t help.

The funny thing was that the runaway heating often seemed to be associated with periods where one might expect the computer to be cooly twiddling its thumbs. For example, EPSON Scan, the software that runs my excellent Epson Perfection 2450 Photo Scanner, would operate at a reasonable temperature when actually scanning, but once I clicked to tell it that, yes, I wanted it to scan another page, it seemed to go into a rage for some reason, and I heard, not the purr of a resting Mac, but the ever loudening buzz of the cooling fans, which were vainly trying to get it to cool down. Click to begin the next scan, and the temperature would drop. Similar odd behavior was observed with the Microsoft Office upgrade installer. Once the installation, which occurred coolly enough, had finished, the fans would start to buzz; and quitting the installer was the only way to bring the temperature back down.

There were also certain websites that would cause both Safari and Firefox to get a fever that ramped up rapidly and could only be stopped by jumping to another site. This could happen on certain sites without any video or anything I’d seen associated with the problem before. A web site featuring high school athletic event schedules was one such innocuous looking site with pyromaniacal pages.

At some point a few weeks ago Safari became completely useless, as it would invariably start up the runaway heating ramp within seconds after launch. How can it happen that a program permanently changes its behavior? I don’t know, but reinstalling with a freshly downloaded copy of Safari 3.2 did not help. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have tried the Safari 4 beta, but I had nothing to lose at that point, so I installed it, and it ran normally. I believe running Safari 4 instead of its formerly stable predecessor actually caused an overall lowering of the average temperature at which my MacBook Pro ran, but it by no means cured the overheating problem. I was pretty well resigned to having it indefinitely until the day before yesterday, when I got my hopes up again.

I can’t remember how I came across CoolBook, but I downloaded and installed it yesterday, and it has really solved my problem. Hopefully it has no undiscovered side effects. How does CoolBook work? In a word: undervolting. CoolBookController (to use the program’s full name) allows you to scale down the operating voltages assigned to different frequencies, thus allowing the computer to run at a cooler temperature without reducing the computing power, which depends on the frequency. Apple has set a default table of these voltage and frequency pairs that is quite conservative. Chips vary, and Apple must have chosen the voltages so that almost no cpus will be unstable for any frequency. This makes life easier for Apple, from the warranty standpoint no doubt, but in the case of the laptops it sells, it makes for a lot of unnecessarily high operating temperatures. So why doesn’t Apple do a chip-by-chip calibration to minimize the number of hot MacBooks? Well, it probably took me at least two hours to get CoolBook all set up for my MacBook Pro. First, it takes a while to figure out what to do, though everything you really need can be found in the instructions.

Then it’s just a matter of trial and error to determine what is the lowest voltage you can use with a given frequency on your machine. A utility called CPUTest is provided to verify cpu stability for the voltage/frequency combination you choose. This utility evidently does uninterrupted heavy-duty computations until it catches an error or until you decide it’s run long enough to call it a successful combination. The documentation recommends running the test for at least ten minutes; so you can see how an hour can easily be used up. In my experience, failures usually occurred in the first minute or so though.

I followed the recommendation to determine the maximum frequency at which my machine could run without trouble at the lowest voltage setting of 0.95V. Following the result reported in the documentation I tried 1.837 GHz for this voltage and got an immediate black-screen shutdown. i should have known mine couldn’t match that. I cut the trial frequency way down and worked my way up. I found 1.503 GHz was the highest stable frequency. Apple’s default frequency for the lowest voltage is 1.0 GHz.

Here are the frequency/voltage pairs that my formerly hot MacBook Pro ended up with (original Apple voltage settings in parentheses):  1.503 GHz, 0.95 V (1.1125 V); 1.67 GHz, 0.9625 V (1.1625 V); 1.837 GHz, 1.0125 V (1.2125 V); 2.004 GHz, 1.0875 V (1.2625 V).

How much difference do the lower voltage settings make? A very big difference in operating temperature for my machine. It has cool (58° C) and silent operation during times of cpu-loafing such as the computer is experiencing while I type this piece. During the stress of the CPUTest, I saw the temperature reach 98° C for the 2.004 GHz frequency, but it stopped there, and I know from experience it would only have been stopped by a computer shutdown at 115° C using the Apple default voltage.

The fix of the overheating problem still doesn’t explain why the computer thinks it needs to go to to maximum frequency for no apparent reason. CoolBook’s cpu-frequency monitor allows you to see what the current frequency is. Sure enough, it goes to the maximum 2.004 GHz on that baseball schedule page. I think I may just now have seen the culprit though. That page has one of those continually scrolling stock-ticker-like message things, which perhaps eats up computer cycles somehow. If that’s it, it doesn’t even have to be visible to cause the effect.

I also see that gathering permissions info in Disk Utility throws it into the highest frequency mode, as I would have expected from previous temperature rise observations. Why is that, I wonder? Quitting Disk Utility in midstream had no immediate effect on the computing frequency though. It’s stuck there at the highest frequency, though no running program is doing anything I’m aware of. I think this must really be an OS X issue. Fortunately, instead of being in the upper nineties, the temperature is around 70° C. That’s still high enough to cause an annoying fan noise though. Already complaining!

Anyway, the $10 I spent on CoolBook was nothing for the amount of relief it has brought. I’d have spent ten times that much to be guaranteed a solution to the overheating problem, which was ongoing and had become quite limiting, witness my not being able to run Winclone. This time, there really has been a solution. I successfully made a backup with Winclone yesterday at around 70° C. Unless Apple breaks CoolBook with its next update (and the danger of that will give me pause), I’m set for being a normal Mac user for the foreseeable future. CoolBook is evidently the creation of Magnus Lundholm and is found on a web site with an se domain. Hats off to the guy in Sweden!

New Firefox Cures Overheating?

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

In my last post, Boiling Temperature—Not Just for Vista Anymore, I recounted my experiences with my first generation (2 GHz Core Duo) MacBook Pro overheating to the point (121°C!) where it shut down automatically. Since I had never seen this behavior before, I speculated that it might be related to the latest version of Mac OS 10.5, though of course I feared it might be some newly developed hardware problem.

Such sudden shutdowns due to overheating, were they to continue, would not only be inconvenient but would seem likely to decrease the lifetime of the computer. Since I last wrote, I witnessed yet another runaway heating incident. The maximum revving of the cooling fans alerted me to the potential problem. A quick check of the CPU temperature showed it had already reached 116°C, so I quickly saved anything that needed it and shut the computer down. Upon restart it was back to normal operating temperature. I was facing the prospect of taking my MacBook Pro in for a checkup, thus losing the use of it for an indefinite period of time, without much confidence in a simple solution being found.

Since that time, I’ve become guardedly optimistic that the problem has been solved, as my machine has been doing a pretty good cucumber imitation for the past ten days or so. I believe that the fix was a routine upgrade of Firefox to version 3.0.4. It was only a few days after I had given Firefox the go-ahead to install the new version that I came across a topic called “Overheating caused by Firefox 3 and/or Flash?” in the Apple Support Discussion section devoted to “MacBook Pro (Original) > Internet, and Networking the MacBook Pro”. Some pretty strong circumstantial evidence was presented that the then current version of Firefox (as of October 31, 2008) could cause runaway temperature increases, even when it was seemingly just idly standing by.

Now, I routinely run both Safari and Firefox all the time. Firefox is necessary for editing this blog for example, as Safari destroys text formatting when it’s used to edit a post with WordPress, and I still encounter web sites (government usually, it seems) where Safari doesn’t work. Anyway, I’m in the habit of using both at the same time for general browsing as well. So it is safe to say that Firefox was running every time the runaway temperatures were encountered.

I don’t know what kind of software bug could cause overheating, but I’m hoping that there was one in Firefox that has been been fixed in the latest version. I have a gut feeling that my problem has been solved. Yeah, I know, it sounds too easy, but sometimes we get lucky.

Meanwhile, I’m taking it as one more sign of my own return to health that I’ve gotten a mild cold. I apologize to any regular readers for yet another computer post. I promise I’m working on something else.

Boiling Temperature—Not Just for Vista Anymore

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

As I slowly crawl my way out of a case of “walking pneumonia” that has lasted for over five weeks now, and while I’m still not up to anything that requires much energy, mental or physical, let me report on the health of my MacBook Pro system, which has been occasionally running a fever far, far higher than the low grade ones I’ve been experiencing from time to time. Beyond entertaining the (probably few) who enjoy accounts of unsolved computer problems, I’m hoping that, in case others have encountered similar unexplained behavior, this report might provide data to help someone figure out what the likely cause of the problem is.

Back in March in a post called Vista on My MacBook Pro is Hot—Boiling Hot!, I reported on the high temperatures (up to 100° C or 212° F, the boiling point of water) I’d observed while running graphics-intensive software under Windows Vista installed on a Boot Camp partition on my first generation MacBook Pro. Since not a day goes by without a few visitors arriving at this blog due to Google searches on terms such as “macbook pro runs hot in vista,” I’ve concluded that the high temperature under Vista must be something that has caused concern to a lot of people. I have no way of knowing if this is mainly Apple’s, Intel’s, or Microsoft’s fault, though I suspect it is Apple’s, since Vista’s operating temperature would naturally have a much lower priority for Apple.

I’ve recently observed temperatures under Mac OS 10.5.5 that make the Vista temperatures seem mild in comparison, however. The first new record-setting temperature occurred for no apparent reason several weeks ago. I had given Microsoft Office 2004 Update the go-ahead to install the latest update of Mac Office 2004 in the background while I went about my business. After a while I noticed that the fans were revving up higher and higher. I checked the temperature with the iStat Pro widget and saw that the MacBook Pro was hot all right, having reached 104° C with no sign of starting to cool. I realized that Microsoft Update was still open even though the update had been completed some time ago. Could that be the source of the heating?

Sure enough, when I quit the Update program, the system started to cool right away. It may have been a coincidence, but it was too dramatic not to convince me that somehow Microsoft Update had put the system into a a funny state that made it run hotter and hotter. Since this had never happened before, and since it seemed to be associated with the Update software, which had run numerous times before, I can only guess that the problem has to do with the Mac OS version I was running under, which at that time could have been as early as 10.5.4.

Perhaps running the Update software had disabled the fan response to temperature rise and then, upon completion of the update, the fans had kicked in and would have brought the temperature down anyway. In that case the temperature drop when I quit the Update program would have been a coincidence. The fans were definitely running at high speed by the time I quit Office 2004 Update, but not having checked the temperature earlier, I can’t say that it hadn’t actually been higher than the 104° C I observed just before I quit the Update. It’s hard to get rid of that gut feeling that the Update software was somehow causing the system to heat up though.

A few weeks ago, some time after that record temperature, while I was definitely running OS 10.5.5, a much more dramatic and disconcerting heat spike occurred. I was online at Guy Kawasaki’s blog, scrolling down a page (probably in Safari, but possibly Firefox) which contained many photos that Guy had taken. These were all still photos, not videos. I wasn’t pausing to look at most of them, just scrolling past them on my way to an earlier post lower down. I noticed the fans were running at a high speed. I brought up iStat just in time to see the temperature had reached 121° C (250° F) before the computer shut down, presumably due to overheating. As before, I have no way of knowing whether the temperature spike was the result of scrolling past many images, some intermittent, randomly occurring, hardware problem, or something unrelated to hardware or what I was doing on the computer at the time.

Then on election night, when I was halfway through watching an online video of John McCain’s concession speech, the MacBook Pro suddenly shut down again. I didn’t have a chance to observe the temperature before this happened, so I don’t know if it was a high temperature shutdown. Watching videos invariably causes the fans to speed up, so that wouldn’t have caught my attention. I had experienced one sudden shutdown before the one definitely associated with high temperature, and I had not considered high temperature as a likely cause then, not having observed the very high temperatures before. Now I have to suspect overheating as the cause of that earlier shutdown.

I’m trying to keep a closer eye on temperature now. I worry that having the temperature become high enough to cause a shutdown will eat into the expected lifetime of my machine. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone that has seen similarly high temperatures. Have others had shutdowns due to high temperatures? Use the link toward the upper right to send me an email. I’m weakly hoping it’s something that Apple will quietly fix in the 10.5.6 version. Until then, that 121° C reading is just one more way OS X soundly beats Vista.

Fatal But Survivable: A Hard Drive Transplant Story

Monday, July 14th, 2008

OK, here goes another computer (Mac) problem and tech-support story. It could be useful for a few people that wonder what they would need to do if they had to replace a hard drive that had both Mac OS X and a Boot Camp Windows partition installed on it. Other than that, it is a story of persistence in the face of frustrating hardware and human error, ultimately resulting in a successful restoration—improvement even—because the customer support came through in the end. Some people evidently like such stories, and this is for them as well. Those only interested in procedural details of restoring a Windows partition on an Intel Mac should feel free to skim.

My previous efforts in the Pournellian genre of computer problem personal narrative (Boot Camp? I Was Ready to Punt and Vista on My MacBook Pro Is Hot—Boiling Hot!) continue to be the most frequently read (or visited, who knows if they are read?) of all the posts to this blog. There are evidently quite a few people out there searching the web for “hot vista macbook pro” and such each day, presumably because they have encountered the same problem or, let’s say, unexpected behavior I did.

This story begins with my decision to go ahead and upgrade the Mac OS version running on my MacBook Pro from 10.5.2 to 10.5.4. I’d waited a while and hadn’t seen any horror stories not connected with exotic configurations, so I figured it was safe to upgrade. Following my usual procedure, I launched Disk Utility in order to repair any file permissions that had somehow been altered. I don’t know how file permissions get changed, but some do, and everyone says you’d better repair them before you upgrade your system software.

Uh-oh. Major uh-oh. Disk Utility literally used red letters to impart the following message: Fatal hardware error detected. It also advised me to back the disk up pronto (if it was still working at all) and replace it. Except for being a little bit noisy, which was nothing new, my hard drive had not shown any signs of going bad. Well, maybe those files that couldn’t be copied at the time when I was first installing Boot Camp were a sign I hadn’t recognized. Still, I was hopeful that a google search on the message would bring up some well-documented cases of that message having been bogus due to some known fixable cause. No such luck. I tried booting from my original Leopard installation disk and running Disk Utility from there and obtained the same alarming message.

I immediately backed up what seemed my most crucial files onto three DVDs. When I say immediately I mean I started immediately. Anyone that backs up to DVDs will know it is a time-consuming process. The files seemed to copy all right, so I shouldn’t be facing total disaster if the hard drive totally stopped working.

Merely having those crucial files backed up would not be enough to get me back to normal though. I needed a complete copy of my hard drive with all applications and user setup info just as they were. I used to use Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) when I had a smaller hard drive on a PowerBook, but I didn’t have an external drive big enough to back up my MacBook Pro’s hard drive and I wasn’t completely sure about how I would use CCC to restore my drive’s contents to a new drive anyway.

It was clearly time to buy a new external hard drive and start using Time Machine, Apple’s own backup and restore solution, which was supposedly the greatest thing about Leopard (OS 10.5) anyway. I learned online that I could restore from a Time Machine archive to the internal hard drive after booting from a Leopard installation DVD. Not wanting to wait even until the next day, I drove to the Cambridge Micro Center and got there about fifteen minutes before closing time. After a quick walk through the generic PC areas, I decided I should just go see what the Mac section had. Sure enough, there was an external hard drive section which included boxes proclaiming Time Machine compatibility, which probably wasn’t an issue anyway, but eliminated any doubt. I grabbed a 500 gigabyte Iomega drive, which only cost about $170 and headed for the cash register, forgetting I’d sworn years ago never to buy anything from Iomega again after the trouble I’d had with their cartridge drives.

As promised, the drive box included a Firewire cable, albeit a rather short one. I connected the drive to my MacBook Pro, started it up, and then clicked on the Time Machine icon on the Dock. This allowed me to choose the new external drive as my Time Machine backup drive. So far, so good. The spacey Time Machine user interface was annoyingly mysterious, and backing up and restoring a hard drive is not something I want to experiment with. So I haven’t even looked at the big-screen Time Machine interface again, but I’ve been able to use Time Machine without it. There’s a good old-fashioned menu that drops down from the Time Machine icon on the menu bar, and that enables me to choose Back Up Now, which is all I’ve needed it for.

I can’t remember how long the backup took, but it was pretty fast for 65 gigabytes or so. I was now realizing that the Time Machine backup did nothing for my Vista system in the Boot Camp Windows partition. OK, that’s what Winclone is for, right? I ran Winclone again and used it to make a new image of the Windows partition. To save space, I trashed the old one. Then I ran Time Machine again, so that I would have the latest state of the Vista partition backed up.

Since the full Time Machine procedure had been completed without any complaints, I felt pretty confident that I had a full backup in place. Now I had to face the reality of my need to get a new internal hard drive installed, First step: call AppleCare. When I entered into the Apple Lease on the MacBook Pro, I decided I had better get AppleCare. After more than two years, this was the first time I was having to use it, not counting the time I called for advice of what to do about the Boot Camp Setup bug in 10.5.2 related here. Based on my recent experience with a number of machines, I’d say that the lifetime of the hard drive in a Mac laptop (Sorry, Apple, notebook—so it’s OK to be hot) is only a couple of years, which hasn’t always been the case. Better get AppleCare with a MacBook or MacBook Pro and back up your data regularly. Anyway, I called AppleCare, and the guy I got assured me that the Disk Utility message was infallible. He assigned me a case number and recommended I take it to an Apple Store, though he couldn’t say whether they would do the work on-site or not.

I just wanted it done quickly, since my backup computers were missing the latest apps and data, and I didn’t want to fool with new installations and data transfer if I could avoid it. I called the Cambridge Apple Store (annoying menu of options—mainly trying to get you to hang up and go online instead—you have to listen to when you call an Apple Store) and the person I finally reached said they did not do repair work on-site. It seemed they would send it off to Apple. I asked if she knew whether the big new Apple Store in Boston did the work on-site, but she didn’t.

I remembered a small Mac repair shop in Roxbury. They had done good work in installing a hard drive in my wife’s iBook after its hard drive had failed. That work hadn’t been covered by AppleCare, but I had noticed they were an Apple certified repair shop. I sent them an email asking if they did AppleCare and if so how long a hard drive replacement would take. The reply was succinct: “Apple cut us when they opened up the big Boston Apple Store…we are dead!” I was sorry to hear this since the place seemed one that might have opened in the days of the original 128K Mac, or at least the Mac Plus, and looked like a Mac repair shop right out of Dickens if you can imagine such a thing.

That news strongly implied that the Boston Apple store did repairs on-site. But Micro Center does Mac repairs too, and a hard drive replacement is a straightforward operation with no diagnosis required. Micro Center was a little more convenient for me (I knew how to get there), so I thought I’d check them out. First I called AppleCare again just to make sure Micro Center could handle the job. Yes, they could, though they would not be able access the case number; but the serial number would be enough to verify AppleCare coverage.

Then I called Micro Center and asked to speak to the service department. Rather than transferring me there, the guy on the other end of the line asked me what I wanted to know and answered my questions himself. His answers were yes they did AppleCare work on-site, and a hard drive replacement would probably take about twenty-four hours. Great! Off to Micro Center. After a fairly long wait in line I reached a person who heard my story and then took the MacBook Pro out of sight into the repair area. She came back after several minutes to tell me that it would take a few days because they would have to send the computer to Apple, as they didn’t do the hard drive replacements themselves. She suggested that I take it to the Apple Store, where they would do the work on-site. As they say in Italy: pazienza! Since the person I was talking to was not the one that had misled me, I managed to walk back out to my car without blowing my top, having learned this lesson: consider no one else but Apple for AppleCare repairs.

Back home, I called the Apple Store in Boston. The person I talked to wasn’t sure about the turnaround time, but I would have to make an appointment with an “Apple Genius” in any case. Just go online and sign up. Fortunately my computer still worked despite the fatal diagnosis. I made an appointment and then, after one last incremental Time Machine backup, jumped on the “T” (the MBTA subway/trolley system in the Boston metropolitan area) to head for the Back Bay store. The online map indicating the location of the Boston Apple Store was a little misleading, so the walking part of the trip took longer than it should have, but I was only a few minutes late and got to see a Genius pretty quickly. The last hard drive of the right size in the shop had been allocated to another repair, so they would have to order one but should get Saturday delivery of the drive (this was Thursday afternoon) and have the replacement done by Monday. Not bad, since I was going to be out of town until Monday afternoon. Taking advantage of the fact that the MacBook was going to be cracked open anyway, I asked if they could also take a look at the fans since I had a lot of fan noise when they really got going.

Sure enough, when I returned to OnScreen Science, Inc’s Intergalactic Headquarters Monday, there was a phone message waiting to tell me the computer was ready for pickup. Just to be certain about the procedure, I called the store before going to get it. No Genius appointment necessary. Good news at the Apple Store: not only did I have a brand new hard drive; they had determined that one of the fans was bad and had replaced it! I would probably never have brought it in just for a fan replacement, so this was a big bonus for someone that hates unnecessary computer noise.

Back home with my MacBook Pro, I followed the procedure outlined for restoring the old system. Connect and turn on the external drive serving as the Time Machine archiver. Start the computer up with the letter C key held down and the Mac OS X install disk in the drive slot in order to boot from the DVD. Pretend I’m installing the system software, but at the earliest opportunity switch over to restoring from a Time Machine archive. Wait while the long transfer takes place, then restart and cross my fingers. It worked! The next step was to once again make a Boot Camp Windows partition.

Uh-oh. What happened to my empty disk space? I’m showing only about 8 gigabytes as free, when before I had about 12 free after 17 had been allocated to the Windows partition. I’m short 20+ gigabytes. My first thought was that somehow everything had reverted to the ghost of my original attempt to partition my old drive into Mac and Windows parts. This didn’t really make sense, but the Boot Camp hangup was my only prior experience with disappearing disk space.

The answer turned out to be more straightforward. The AppleCare folks had replaced my original 100 gigabyte drive with an 80 gigabyte one. There were evidently two editions of the machine, and I had leased the top-of-the-line one with the bigger drive and more VRAM. Perhaps the Boot Camp partition had thrown them off. I called AppleCare again to see how to proceed. The AppleCare guy I’d talked to in my initial inquiry had had a very strong Southern “country” accent, I’d call it, but he was loud and clear and easy to follow. This second guy spoke without sufficient variation in pitch and inflection for me to be certain whether he was muttering while he thought out loud or giving me instructions on things to do on the computer. I eventually determined that they were all instructions, but I still had to ask him to repeat them most of the time. It seems he just wanted to verify what I had actually gotten installed. It was clearly a mistake, and he gave me a new case number.

I went through the now familiar process of making a Genius appointment online, backing up with Time Machine again, and heading to the Back Bay with my MacBook Pro. The “Genius,” who by chance happened to be the same one I had seen before, was apologetic, and I vaguely remembered having heard him say 80 gigabytes, which means I should have been on my toes more also. One piece of good news was that, since there was nothing wrong with the drive currently in my computer, they could just make an image of it and then transfer it onto to the new drive, saving me the long step of restoring by means of Time Machine.

By the time I got home, having left the computer in Apple’s care once more, someone had already called from the Apple Store with a question, which turned out to be would I rather replace my original 100 gigabyte, 7200 rpm hard drive right now with a 120 gigabyte, 5400 rpm drive or wait a couple of days to get a 200 gigabyte, 7200 rpm drive. The question was being asked because the 5400 rpm drive would represent a step down in speed from what I’d had before. Having no immediate critical need for the machine, I opted for the bigger drive, which took a day or two longer than I’d thought it would, but was installed about nine days after my original bringing in of the computer for the first try. The Apple Store was open on the Fourth of July, and that was when I got it.

As an aside, let me say that four visits to the three-storeyed Boston Apple Store left me feeling a bit like I’d been inside the headquarters of a cult, some kind of cool technology cult. I’ve been mainly a Mac user for over twenty years, but there was something a little disconcerting about the large numbers of young (non-genius) Apple employees walking around the store wearing color-coded tee shirts (dark blue shirts for “Creatives,” light blue ones for “Specialists,” and orange ones for “Concierges”) and continually asking you if you were finding what you needed etc. I mean service is great compared to what Apple used to get in retail stores it didn’t operate, but the combination of the smiling kids and the colored tee shirts made me half-wonder if Apple hadn’t hired one of the Rev. Moon’s organizers as an adviser. Just joking—Steve Jobs doesn’t need advice on cult creation and maintenance. Let’s just be careful not to start worshiping these machines, no matter how powerful and elegantly packaged they may be, nor buying them just to be part of the cool technology cult.

With my new hard drive installed I felt I was in good shape to make a Windows partition, as there were over 120 free gigabytes to play with. First I used Boot Camp Setup to partition the drive, allotting 32 gigabytes for Windows. With all that hard drive space available this was not really a test of whether Apple has eliminated the bug that made disk partitioning impossible with Boot Camp Setup on a fragmented disk. Now came the big test. Would simply using Winclone to copy the old Windows partition’s contents into the new one be enough? I fully expected it would not, having read many tales of users having to go to Microsoft for permission to install Windows again if the system it was running on changed in any way, including the use of a new hard drive.

I launched Winclone and set it to restoring from the saved image to the Windows partition. It seemed to work OK. Now to start up under Windows if possible. This is where I expected Microsoft storm troopers to intervene. Windows seems to get underway properly. Now chkdsk wants to check everything about the Windows file system. That doesn’t take too long, and soon I am looking at the Vista login screen. I enter my password and everything is totally normal (allowing that running Vista on a Mac can now be considered normal). It worked! Winclone is a great solution. I owe them another donation, and I mention that here so I won’t forget.

In summary, with the help of Apple personnel, the Mac system software, and the very useful program Winclone, I was able in about nine days to move in an indirect path (with some backtracking) from a doomed hard drive to a new one with twice the capacity, while incurring no data loss nor additional monetary cost. In addition, I now have quiet fans. No more model airplane propeller noise! I was able to reinstall my Windows system without any headaches and with almost twice the original amount of disk space allocated to it. I should add that Disk Utility alerted me to the problem (always assuming there really was one) before it had started to cause data loss etc.

So, despite some unhappiness with the unreliability of Apple notebook hard drives these days and one or two Apple employee errors along the way, since rectification was prompt, and the end result was very good, I am satisfied. AppleCare and the Mac’s disk-maintenance and backup software came through very well. Human error can never be completely eliminated. The support system works efficiently, and that’s pretty impressive.

Vista on My MacBook Pro is Hot—Boiling Hot!

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I recently told the long story of how I installed Windows Vista on my MacBook Pro by means of Apple’s Boot Camp technology. To make that story short: it was difficult and took a long time because of a bug in the Mac OS 10.5.2 version of Boot Camp Assistant, but I did eventually succeed. See the earlier post for details.

Once I had Vista set up and running, the first thing I did was to test the science education programs I sell, since that was my main reason for wanting access to a Vista machine in the first place.

Both programs installed and launched without any problem. I had expected OnScreen Particle Physics, which used standard “old-fashioned” Windows routines for its drawing to the screen, would work smoothly, and users had reported success with it under Vista, but I had not tested it myself, so I was glad to see that everything I could think to try worked without a hitch.

OnScreen DNA was the one I had more concerns about. I had been advertising it as being for Windows XP, since I knew that its use of Open GL for three-dimensional graphics might be an issue for some configurations under Windows Vista. All the software that OnScreen Science sells has a sixty-day guarantee of customer satisfaction, so no one was in danger of losing any money by buying it to run on Vista, but I wanted to get a clearer answer about Vista compatibility, especially since new PCs all have Vista installed unless the buyer makes a special effort to get Windows XP instead, which some companies are actually doing.

When Vista was first released I did a very quick test of OnScreen DNA on a machine running Vista Home Premium. The software installed and launched without difficulty, but had a major problem showing animations (its whole basis, really) under Vista’s new Aero look. Once I switched into Vista’s “Windows Classic” theme (which has a pre-XP look to discourage its use, I suppose), all went well however.

I was almost certain that the animation problem with Aero was due to Microsoft’s having provided no default support for Open GL under Aero. Open GL, which I’d used to program the three-dimensional interactive graphics of OnScreen DNA, is a software interface to accelerated graphics hardware available for Macintosh and Linux as well as Windows. Its use had meant that the hardest part of the OnScreen DNA coding needed to be done only once, which had shortened development time by untold weeks. While it seems evident that Microsoft wants to discourage the use of Open GL, preferring instead to lock people into using DirectX, which is only for Windows, I knew that they had left the door open for graphics card manufacturers to provide their own custom drivers for Open GL. Since a substantial number of Windows games and screen savers etc. have been programmed using Open GL, I had assumed that providing Open GL drivers would become in time standard practice for graphics card makers, but this was a little bit of a gamble.

An online reviewer for PC World, who was taking a look at OnScreen DNA Lite, the free edition of the software which mainly deals with details of DNA’s double helical structure but lacks the simulations of how DNA works found in the advanced editions, encountered the Vista animation slowdown and queried me about it. I told him what I knew, and he proceeded to run the software either in Classic theme or under XP, then gave the software a favorable review but with a caveat about Vista Aero. I had in the meantime had some positive reports from users running OnScreen DNA under Vista and imagined that others must be running without problem on Vista as well, though I continued to advertise it as being for XP.

I was certainly curious to see what would happen running OnScreen DNA for Windows on my Intel Mac. It was gratifying to see that it was snappy and without any issues that I could uncover running with the full-blown Aero look. So the drivers that Apple was providing for running Vista on a Mac must support Open GL, which I took as more evidence that the driver support I’d been counting on was likely to be there on new machines.

So everything was OK, right? Well, pretty much everything except that my MacBook Pro sounded like a twin-engine model airplane trying to build up enough speed for takeoff against a strong headwind. I’d never heard such noise from the cooling fans. They seemed to be going full blast once they got started. I remembered that when the MacBook Pro first came out, a number of people had complained about excessive fan noise, but I had not encountered it. Apple laptops have a reputation for running hot—so much so that Apple will correct you if you call them laptops (they’re notebooks) to prevent you from complaining about a hot lap—but this seemed a good bit more than what I was used to.

I was especially concerned since the higher temperature and fan revving seemed to be associated with running the 3D animations of OnScreen DNA. I decided I should get quantitative about it and downloaded a free Windows program called speedfan, which promised to display computer temperatures, as well as letting you set the fan speed according to temperature in order to better control how hot it would be allowed to get.

I was shocked to see that the cpu temperature was going as high as 100°C. That’s 212°F, the boiling point of water! I hadn’t ever given the temperature of my laptop much thought, figuring that, although it might feel pretty hot to the touch, it was probably nothing to worry about. This high a temperature just didn’t seem reasonable though.

Some online research led me to an article in which the reviewer was concerned about the “excessive” 60°C temperature he was seeing on his MacBook Pro. This really made my temperature sound bad, but a little more research produced a less alarming assessment. The machine in the review just mentioned had a 2.2 GHz Core 2 Duo cpu, which supposedly is OK at temperatures up to 73°C, so the concern should not be great at 60°C. My MacBook Pro, however, is from the first generation Core Duo models. Those are supposed to be OK up to 100°C, so I am not really in the kind of danger zone that my first reading of the Core 2 Duo machine review had led me to fear. Nonetheless I am right at the margin on occasion.

A number of articles I found made it seem that Apple’s overuse of thermal paste was a well-documented cause of high temperatures in the early assembly runs of MacBook Pros. Some sites had instructions on how to crack your laptop, remove Apple’s paste, and put on a little bit of a better kind. I’ve installed RAM and a hard drive or two, but I don’t think that is something I want to attempt.

I had never monitored temperature under OS X, so I had no way to compare it to Vista, though I felt Vista must be running hotter. I downloaded the Temperature Monitor app from the Apple download site, and used it to monitor my Mac temperatures. The temperatures I mention in the rest of this piece are those from the cpu monitor. Unless it was in a quiescent state, the MacBook Pro was always hotter than 60°C. Running OnScreen DNA in an uninterrupted animation of DNA replication, I once saw the temperature climb to around 90°C. However, the same test at a different time saw the temperature peak at 80°C, with the fans bringing it down to around 75°C, where it would be maintained.

Similarly, running Vista, monitor readings on a day different from that when the 100°C had been measured found a peak temperature of 90°C. I speculated hopefully that some intervening Microsoft upgrades to Vista (they install some without giving you a choice) might have improved things. This brings me to my next Jerry Pournelle type adventure: installing Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1).

Although Microsoft had earlier said Vista would not need service packs to fix bugs etc. in Vista, they had had to issue one if only to sell Vista to the holdouts that always wait for the first service pack before upgrading. I hoped that SP1 might lower the operating temperature further. Plus there was a vaguely worded promise of improvement in running games “not really designed for Vista” (not using DirectX, in other words, is my guess), which I hoped meant better Open GL performance.

Vista SP1 was made generally available March 18. Microsoft strongly recommended ordinary users upgrade through the standard Windows Upgrade program, which performs the same function as Software Update does for the Mac. But Windows Upgrade found nothing new for me. Microsoft online documentation had said that Windows Upgrade would just pretend you hadn’t asked if it detected a problem driver on your system—this without so much as giving you a hint that SP1 was available at all, never mind the specific reason you were not going to be allowed the upgrade. Thinking it might help to install a few optional upgrades I had skipped, I went ahead and did that. Windows Upgrade did then offer me something new, but it was a small upgrade. Installing it and restarting did not change things.

I wondered if an Apple driver might be causing me to get the cold shoulder from Windows Upgrade. A message I left on Apple’s Boot Camp forum brought replies from others that had successfully installed SP1 via the Windows Upgrade utility, so I knew it was possible on a Mac if not necessarily one with my exact configuration. But after numerous failed attempts to get the word from Windows Upgrade that SP1 was ready and waiting for installation on my Mac, I decided to go against Microsoft’s strong advice and download the 440 megabyte SP1 installer to do it myself. Once it was downloaded and launched, the SP1 installer informed me I needed 3 gigabytes of hard drive space in order to carry out the installation. I had been afraid my 1.75 gigabytes of free space on the Windows partition would be too meager, and it was.

Contrary to what I mistakenly said in my earlier post about Boot Camp, I had actually created a Windows partition of only 12 gigabytes. I was surprised to see after installing Vista that I only had about 300-400 megabytes free on the Windows partition. There really wasn’t much in the way of program files to get rid of. Most of the space was taken up by the Windows folder and a couple of humongous (2 gigabyte) files, one obviously for virtual memory paging and the other (hiberfil.sys) that turned out to be for “hibernating” or storing the contents of memory for quick return to your computer’s state without rebooting and relaunching programs. Since I had never known about hibernation, I figured I could live without it. I found instructions online for ditching the hibernation file through the Windows command line, since a drag to the recycling bin wouldn’t do the trick. That had bought me a little space, but not enough to install SP1. I could see no way to free sufficient space.

I already knew that it was impossible to just expand the Windows partition because of the different formats used by the two operating systems sharing the hard disk. I would have to start all over with Windows installation, as far as I could tell. But then a little more research made me aware of a very useful program that anyone using Boot Camp should know about: WinClone. It saved me a lot of trouble. It is donationware, and I was happy to make a donation after having used it successfully. Using WinClone, which runs under Mac OS X, but can read from and write to a Windows partition, I made an image file of everything that was on my Windows partition. Since I was going to have to get rid of the partition anyway, I wasn’t too worried about whether WinClone would work.

Next I used Boot Camp Assistant to eliminate the Windows Partition. I then rebooted using the iDefrag boot dvd I had made earlier, thinking I would need to defragment to make sure I could make a new and larger partition for Windows using Boot Camp Assistant. However, the visual evidence of a very defragmented drive shown by iDefrag (and of course the 12 gigabytes of the just wiped out Windows partition would be empty) convinced me I could stop the defragmenting and proceed directly to making a new Windows partition. Boot Camp Assistant successfully created a 17 gigabyte partition in a fairly short time without any problems. I then quit the program and relaunched WinClone, this time using it to “restore” the new larger Windows partition.

I then restarted Windows. It made some complaint about something having changed, so that it needed to check everything. I told it to go ahead and check. It was eventually satisfied and launched Vista. I logged in and started the SP1 installer again. This time it ran, warning me that it might take an hour and would restart several times in the process. It worked.

Now I had Vista with SP1 installed. Would it help keep the temperature lower? The answer was no. Even worse, I was now seeing the 100°C temperatures again. However, based on subsequent tests, which have measured the peak temperature under Vista once more at 90°C, and even brought below that by the fans, I have to conclude that there is some other factor that raises the floor of the temperature, and I think the ambient temperature can be ruled out.

In any case, Vista with Boot Camp consistently runs 10-12°C hotter than OS X on my machine. Running my graphics intensive program OnScreen DNA, the temperature peaks somewhere between 80-90°C, under Mac OS 10.5.2 and can usually be reduced a few degrees by the fans as they rotate faster. Running the same software under Vista on the same machine sees peak temperatures of 90-100°C, which can also usually be reduced a few degrees by the fans. I don’t have the data to back it up, not having monitored temperatures under Mac OS 10.4, but, based on my increased awareness of fan noise, I have the feeling that 10.5.2 may run hotter than 10.4.

Even if I could forget about the temperature, the fan noise is not something I’d want going in the background if I were trying to demonstrate the Vista version of my software, which militates against using the MacBook Pro for demos. Actually, I don’t think I could stand working with the fan noise for long anyway, as it is louder than my old Dell box. These high temperatures are occurring in March, where the ambient room temperature is 22-24°C. It will be considerably hotter in the office during the summer. This has not been a problem in the past, but that was before Leopard and Vista, so I can’t be sure what will happen.

All in all, my hopes of getting a topnotch Vista machine out of my first-generation MacBook Pro using 10.5.2 Boot Camp have so far been disappointed. I think I know Apple well enough not to expect any sympathy or direct help from them (though the Apple user forums are helpful). Not to be disloyal or anything, but Apple does not like to acknowledge it has been the cause of any problem you encounter with its products. If only my audience were a little bigger… Maybe I should try to get some conservative talkshow host to go on the air with my problem. Would that work? Too crazy!

Boot Camp? I Was Ready to Punt.

Friday, March 14th, 2008

This is going to be my Jerry Pournelle column. Not that it’s about Jerry, but it falls into the genre he created, or at least became the master of. For those of you not familiar with Jerry, he used to have a column in Byte magazine, which ceased publication several years ago. Jerry’s column had pretty much the same basic outline each month. Under the guise of reviewing new hardware and software, it chronicled his latest misadventures with computer technology, problems he had encountered just in his daily work as a writer and in setting up and connecting components.

I was a Mac user, and he mainly dealt with PCs, so there wasn’t much overlap of my experience with his, though for a time it was amusing to follow his monthly tours (long, meandering tours usually) through troubleshooting land: first I did this, but then that caused this other problem, so I had try this other procedure, and so on. I had the feeling that life couldn’t be that hard for all PC users, so that maybe Jerry was deliberately trying things that would stress the systems just to see if he could encounter the problem that would become next month’s column.

I recently discovered that Jerry is still at it, writing about computer experiences at, only now he is mainly using Macs. I read an episode a few weeks ago, and sure enough Jerry had gotten into a bind doing something unusual: copying all 55,000 Windows PC files from an external hard drive connected to his Mac to the Mac’s trash folder in order to clean off the drive, instead of just reformatting it, which he was going to need to do anyway. He ran into problems trying to empty the trash (which took many paragraphs to relate) until someone told him to disconnect the drive. See what I mean? Jerry could definitely make a little extra income as a software and hardware tester. It’s fool proof, but is it Jerry proof? Just joking, Jerry. I’ve had problems too, as I shall now relate.

I have been needing a Windows Vista machine to test my software (OnScreen DNA and OnScreen Particle Physics) on. The Dell box I developed the Windows versions on runs XP fine, but is not up to running Vista. Ever since Apple announced Boot Camp as a way to install Windows on an Intel Mac, I’ve been planning to use it to make my MacBook Pro function as a Vista test machine, just as soon as Boot Camp was out of beta.

That happened when the latest version of Mac OS X, Leopard (aka 10.5), was released a few months ago with Boot Camp as a component. But still, I was a little leery of version 10.5.0, and indeed a number of problems were encountered by some early adopters. I didn’t actually install Leopard until the second update 10.5.2 appeared, which by some accounts was the first truly non-beta version.

As an aside, let me say that the last upgrade to 10.4, the oddly numbered 10.4.11, had caused me more trouble than any other Mac OS upgrade I’d ever installed. Safari wouldn’t run at all, at least until I upgraded QuickTime as well, which shouldn’t have been necessary. Meanwhile I learned that Firefox is not that bad, and I now use both. I was glad to have obtained the experience with Firefox, having recently discovered that it’s impossible to edit a page for a blog in WordPress using the latest version of Safari. Don’t try it; it will make you want to pull your hair out when all your paragraphing disappears! Firefox works fine with WordPress.

I purchased an OEM version of Vista Home Premium for a little over $100, thus saving quite a bit of money though restricting myself to never installing from that disk to another computer, which seemed a reasonable sacrifice. I had done a good bit of online research from which I had concluded that it was all right to install the OEM version on your own computer, so long as you realized you would not be able to get any tech support from Microsoft. I was after all making a custom computer assembly of a sort, just not one I planned to sell.

After installing 10.5.2 and waiting for things to equilibrate for a few days, I decided to take the Boot Camp Vista plunge. The first step in Boot Camp installation is to partition your Mac hard drive into separate Mac and Windows partitions. You are supposed to be able to do this “in place” without erasing your hard drive. A program called Boot Camp Assistant is provided by Apple to move files around to clear space for the Windows partition and then to do the partitioning.

I launched Boot Camp Assistant, instructed it to make a 15-gigabyte partition for Windows, and then took a break, assuming this would not be a rapid procedure. When I came back to the computer, I was not happy to see the ominous white text on a black background that signifies “Kernel Panic,” even without the words. Nothing to do be done but to restart and try again, hoping it was some freak glitch.

I was relieved to see that the MacBook Pro appeared to boot normally if a bit slowly, indicating (I thought) that the interrupted partitioning had not harmed the disk or its directory etc. Then I noticed that the total gigabytes for the disk had been reduced by the fifteen I had tried to give to the Windows partition. Disk Utility didn’t see the Windows partition, so it was as though the space had just disappeared from the hard drive.

I have AppleCare (Apple’s extended warranty plan), so I gave them a call and got through in a reasonably short time. The fellow I talked to had not encountered the problem, and the few things he suggested didn’t do any good. He put me on hold for a long time and then came back to suggest wiping the drive clean and reinstalling everything.

That was not something I wanted to do, as it seemed both time-consuming and risky. I thought I’d check the Apple support forums to see if anyone else had run into the problem. Indeed I found several people had had experiences essentially identical to mine that very same day, and all had been running the brand-new version 10.5.2. A couple had already reported that rebooting from the system installation disk and then using Disk Utility to repair the shrunken drive would restore it to apparent health, gigabytes recovered. This was encouraging at least; and I was able to obtain the same result. But I still didn’t have Windows Vista installed on my MacBook Pro.

I was not tempted to try the partitioning procedure again, since I felt lucky to have escaped with my data intact. There were a few hard-headed optimists in the forum that had gone through the whole procedure, Sisyphus-like, several times. I kept checking back in the Apple Boot Camp forum, for news of a solution. Finally a couple of distasteful workarounds appeared. One guy had just done what Apple Care had suggested I do, and he could verify that after restoring the contents of his hard drive from a backup drive, he had been able to partition it with Boot Camp Assistant and then install Windows. Another had achieved success after defragmenting his hard drive. This was more appealing to me. I paid for a program called iDefrag online ($35) and downloaded it. First I had to use the software’s special program for creating a bootable DVD with iDefrag on it, since it can’t defragment the startup disk.

Defragmenting is a slow procedure, but the software’s colorful visual representation of moving files and fragments around and filling in holes in the disk was rather fascinating, in the way watching clothes wash through the window of a front-loading washer can be, so I watched it for a while. It was slow though, and I eventually took a break. When I returned I found that a disk-reading error had occurred, and the software had quit, though it had been kind enough to tell me the name of the file it had encountered the problem with. The same file had failed to copy during my earlier backup to an external disk, so I wasn’t surprised to see its obscure name appearing again.

I deleted the file from the hard drive and started the defragmentation again. I was sorry to see that the program didn’t go back to where it had left off but was starting all over again. Even though the first part of the disk it was working on (as seen in its graphical display of the process) was almost solidly colored in with defragmented files, there were a few bubbles now present due to my having deleted that one file. It took a long time just to scoot blocks over to fill those bubbles. I left it to do its work again, and when I returned saw the same dismaying message about a problem file. Delete file and start over.

The same thing happened two more times. I was now worried that my hard drive might have some physical damage or that the original partitioning attempt had left a lot of files in a messed up state. Since the last couple of problem files had been in the same folder, I decided to try replacing the whole folder from the backup I had earlier made. Having done that, I crossed my fingers and started iDefrag again.

This time it worked, and the Boot Camp partitioning went through without another hitch. Now I was ready for the actual Vista installation. Then I read on the Vista box insert that the OEM version of Vista might require, according to Microsoft, installation by something called the OEM Preinstallation Kit or OPK. Going to the OPK web page, I saw that there was a license Microsoft wanted you to obtain (online application form, of course) in order to get the OPK. This was looking like a lot more trouble than I had anticipated. Some online searching about installing Windows with Boot Camp led me to assurances that the OPK was not really necessary.

I have to admit that, while I can interpret Microsoft’s fine print on use of the OEM version in a way that justifies my use of it (as a “system builder” that just doesn’t intend to redistribute this particular system, thus not needing to use the OPK), my main justification is my belief that, given the widespread availability of the OEM versions of Vista (I got mine from Amazon, and I’ve seen it listed at Walmart), Microsoft does not really care about individuals installing on their own machines, so long as they don’t expect any technical support.

I proceeded with my Vista installation, following Apple’s directions. As far as I could tell, my OEM version disk was just the same as a regular one, and it installed Vista without ever demanding I use the OPK instead. Sure enough I had Vista installed and running on my Mac! But something that should have taken around an hour had stretched over two days and required lots of online research and the purchase of a third-party program.

Whew! I don’t know how Jerry Pournelle does it. Writing this has been like pulling teeth after a sleepless night. That’s more than enough for a single post. Having gotten this far, I’ll relate my so far none-too-happy experience with Vista on the MacBook Pro in a later entry.