December 08, 2006

Macbook Black 13" – broke before I could finish the review! (broken fan whine)

I buy a Macbook

Since having a desktop replacement type laptop, I’ve always said that the next laptop I buy will have:
  • A decent battery life
  • Be 64bit
  • Have enough RAM to run Eclipse, surf the web, stream music and run an email client all at the same time (ie more than 1GB)
  • Not be a gamer-oriented laptop, as I will get a desktop PC for that.

The new Intel Core 2 Duo chips are 64 bit. Had a look around, and to my surprise the Macbook came in much cheaper than the competiton; and being 64bit and Intel meant that it would – in theory – be able to run Linux x86_64 (and Windows should I lose my mind).
Not being a fan of the whole Apple fashion brand, it took observing friends using these Macbooks that helped me decide.

So I bought a Macbook 13” from Apple Online Higher Education store. Black, 2GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard drive, two batteries, a rather feminine blue carry case (it looked cool on the internet!) and a free-after-rebate HP 5940 printer.
Macbook Black 13

The good

Lets get the good stuff out the way quickly:
  • The battery lasts ages. I think with the backlight low, it can go for almost 4 hours doing the above programming, music, email and surfing actively. Impressive.
  • Once you shut the lid it sleeps immediately, and wakes just as fast.
  • Once the mac is asleep it has already hibernated – this means without AC you can run Firefox, close the lid, remove the battery, put a fresh one in, open the lid and keep working without losing any data. It’s an outstandingly good feature – I have no idea how it writes potentially 2GB to the hard drive in just over a second, so as a software engineer I am impressed.
  • It’s quite pretty to look at, and the keyboard is not as bad as people make it out to be. Though I have had to adjust my style to get the keypresses every time.
  • I ordered it on Friday, it arrived on Monday. That’s impressive. Oh, and a 13% Warwick uni discount too.

The weird

So great says I. The first day I tried getting Fedora Core 6 64 on it.
  • I read the Bootcamp docs, and saw that I needed to check my firmware. It seems that my firmware is more recent that the most recent one published online. Mine are:
    Boot ROM Version: MB21.00A5.B00
    SMC Version: 1.13f3
  • So I get a copy of Refit on there too, and go about booting up the DVD.
    Fedora FC6 64 installing

It installs fine, everything worked just like a normal PC would.
But then it doesn’t boot Fedora. MacOs is still fine.
So I pop in the rescue CD. It boots it, but then refuses to accept my keystrokes.
I try the original Fedora DVD, and get the same. Weird, because it worked before.
Then I booted up SysRescCD, which would sometimes accept my keystrokes on the boot screen, but then double them once the kernel booted ie pressing a gives aa, and backspace doubles too. The only way to type is to hold down a key for a while, hope you get an odd number of aaaaaaaaa and then use the double back space to leave just one. If you thought parted is a pain to use normally, try using it like that. Annoying is an understatement.

OK so that whole issue didn’t work. I tried again actually, involving scrubbing the hard drive, reinstalling MacOS and going back to default. Yet the system still doesn’t let my type when the Fedora DVD boots. So even returning the laptop to factory settings – and remember I have never altered the firmware – something is now broken; the first time it took the FC6 DVD and let me type boot options, and now after a full wipe it still doesn’t. Bizzare.

So the ‘get rid of MacOS and put on Linux’ extravaganza failed. Once I found ‘You Control Desktops’ plug-in to give virtual desktop switching on the mac it was almost as good anyway. X11 works too under MacOS.

So I forget it for now, and await either a new version of FC6 or a new firmware.

The downright ugly

But then the Macbook breaks. Ordered it on Friday, got here on Monday. On Thursday night it starts screaming. You know how you can sometimes tell if a CRT TV is on in another room, because there’s a high-pitch sound you can kinda hear? It’s making that noise. You can sort-of hear it. It’s annoying when working in a quiet place, and like a TV I can kinda hear that the Macbook is on just before I’m entering my room.
So the screaming is coming from the left hand side, around the CapsLock area. After a little scientific method and induction, it seems that it only happens when the CPU is idle. The backlight, temperature, AC/no AC, etc etc make no difference. So that’s annoying…
Then I notice that when I picked up the Macbook, the sound changed to a brrrrr like when you put a wonky DVD in a reader. Everytime you move the Macbook, you get a brrrrr. This is annoying enough to investigate whether the AppleCare warranty I bought is up to scratch.

I rang Apple up, who linked my telephone number to my Macbook serial number. Nice touch. After some fairly pointless, yet mandatory “now hold down the power button, pad your head and rub your stomach: can you now touch your toes?” style troubleshooting we both agreed the 4 day old Macbook was fubar. It needs to be sent back. And to my complete surprise, Apple were happy to send a replacement before I send this one away, so I could copy over my stuff. And to a different address to boot. Cost to me: nada. Not even time, I just have to put up with the screaming for a while until the new one arrives.

So it didn’t run Linux, and broke after 4 days.

Now that’s annoying. But at least I’m impressed with the after-sale support. And you know what, I should be irate with the whole situation. But I’m not because Apple didn’t fight me, and are doing exactly the right things to sort the problem out, without me having to threaten them like every other company I’ve dealt with in the last ten years. Which, frankly, I’m amazed at.

I’m looking forward to the replacement, and also feeling smug about taking out the 3yr warranty. Which makes me a satisfied, new, and converted Apple customer.


- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. No Apple aren’t perfect, but as you so rightly say you don’t have to threaten them in order to get service out of them, they just do it. Not like shall we say a large US company whose name is 4 letters long and end in ‘ll’. On the other hand my desktop from them is still working fine at two years old, so who am I to know… though admittedly I rebuilt it from a blank hard drive as soon as it arrived. The only other company I’ve had such good service as Apple from in the computer arena is HP, but then I was talking about a few ProLiant servers and was a corporate customer.

    08 Dec 2006, 15:45

  2. Chris May

    OTOH… when my powerbook broke 2-and-a-half years into it’s 3-year warranty, I rang applecare, and they said ‘have you got your warranty registration number’? To which I said ‘The what now? I’ve got the serial number on the back of the laptop, will that do?’ and they said ‘No, and if you’ve not got that magic number then you’re not getting anything from us’.

    So that was the end of my relationship with Apple. I’ve got a Tosh. Tecra instead, which doesn’t quite have the build quality of the apple kit, but does have a faster chip (at least, it did when I bought it – maybe apple are doing the 2.33G C2Ds now). And it runs Ubuntu just fine :-)

    My advice: keep all the paperwork from your extended warranty somewhere safe.

    08 Dec 2006, 21:26

  3. hackmiester

    Provide these options to the kernel to get rid of double key strokes.

    noapic irqpoll acpi=force

    Hope that helps.

    30 Dec 2006, 01:16

  4. Mem

    Nice review mate.. I’ve been thinking about going for the black Macbook too and using the HE store. Make use of it while I’m still a student :).

    What’s the printer like? Glad to hear the warranty is worth having.

    25 Jan 2007, 15:23


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