Mac, diagnose thyself!

Over the past few years, our household has turned from a Microsoft Windows centric one, to one that is populated almost entirely by Apple Mac’s, along with iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs.

While over the years, the Macs have proved resilient reliable machines, our experience has not been without problems.

The only one that has been big enough to matter is the one that has affected my personal iMac.  It’s a 27″ monster, with 16 gig of ram, and a 500 gig SSD (not factory standard!).  This machine is super fast with its quad i7 processor and the SSD.  Unfortunately, over the past three months or so it has become unstable.  The symptoms started with random kernel panic’s (think Windows BSOD), and then moved forward to include drive corruption and the machine just failing to wake up.

Troubleshooting a problem like this can be a real bear!  I started with checking the SSD for errors, and it found quite a few.  After repairing those, things stabilized for a while, but then it resumed having problems.  I then thought that it was perhaps an issue with Parallels (which I use to run Windows and various Linux distributions).  I uninstalled and reinstalled Parallels many times, including doing the full uninstall process as documented here.

At this point, I began to run into corruption problems on the drive so bad that it was corrupted beyond a simple repair, and I had to restore the whole system (back up your systems kids!).  Fortunately this was easy to do because of the Time Capsule that we use to back up our desktops and laptops.

I then decided, since most issues seemed to be drive related, to upgrade the firmware on the SSD.  After downloading a bootable image and “burning” it onto a USB stick, I upgraded and the problem was solved!

For a few days. <sigh>

Continuing along the path of thinking that it was a Parallels problem, I downloaded VMWare Fusion.  I tried to migrate the Parallels VMs over to it, but it failed again.  This reinforced the idea that perhaps the problem was with Parallels.

I finally decided to “start over”.  I wiped out the machine, reformatted the drive, and did a clean install of OS X Lion.  Fortunately this was pretty straightforward and only took about 30 minutes, including the time to download it over the Internet.  I started installing applications (leaving out Parallels) and everything remained stable.  Hooray!

Until I installed the FitBit application.  Within minutes, the machine Panic’d again!  Okay, so clearly the FitBit application is the culprit!  I uninstalled it, and four hours later, the machine went down again.

I decided to try to find a way to stress test the SSD to force an error to come up so I could get a replacement.  After some searching around, I discovered the Mac’s have “built in” diagnostics.  The newest ones have it in eprom (or something similar) and you can get to them simply by pressing and holding D (for Diagnostics – those clever Apple people!) at the chime.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t on mine, so I had to figure out how to get into it from a Snow Leopard boot CD (these are what originally shipped with my iMac).  After several false tries, I figured out that it was on disc 2.  So to get the diagnostics to work, I just put in disc 2, rebooted, held down the D key and voilà, a few minutes later I was looking at diagnostics.

Now, let me tell you, these things look like they are from 1985… and I don’t care!  They are obviously written to diagnose a computer, not to have a super looking experience.  Here’s where things get interesting. I don’t have a wired mouse, and it turns out that the wireless one doesn’t work (I had a wired keyboard plugged in at the time, so I can’t say if a wireless would have worked or not – I’m guessing not), so I had to use keyboard shortcuts to navigate the app.  It only took a moment to figure out tab and up and down arrow were my friends.  I tried to check the “thorough” diagnostics flag, but couldn’t make it work, so I figured I would just run the normal ones.  I kicked them off and sat on the couch for a few minutes and… BAM!  An error came up!  Oh happy day!  I can prove that my SSD has a problem and get it replaced!

Wait, hang on a second, this error says “MEM” in it?!

So get this, after spending months thinking my SSD was unreliable, the problems were coming from one of the memory chips!  Son of a…

To make an already way too long story somewhat short, I then had to uncable the iMac, pull out some memory chips, hook it back up (just assume this part happens a lot), run diagnostics again, find no errors, swap the memory chips (using the same slots to make sure I was testing the chips, and not another set of slots and chips), run diagnostics and it repeated the error – consistency!  It is my friend!  Finally, I pull one of the chips out, ran diagnostics, got a clean bill of health, put that chip aside, reinstalled the other ones, ran diagnostics, clean bill of health and…

Five days later it hasn’t had a glitch.  OH HAPPY DAY!

Posted from my now healthy iMac.

Some thoughts on the Kindle Fire

I’ve had the Kindle Fire for over a week now and so far it’s been an interesting experience.

There have been plenty of reviews that do a much better job than I’m willing to do reviewing all of the gory details (take a look at ArsTechnica’s review for a complete run down), but I do have a couple of specific thoughts I’d like to share.

To put this in perspective, my “other” tablet is an iPad 2. I totally get that the Kindle Fire is NOT an iPad, and is not a full fledged tablet, so these comments do take that into account.

First of all, the build quality is definitely a step below what you get with an Apple device. The design is “chunky”, and in my case, if you squeeze the top and bottom of the left side together (such as when gripping it between your finger and thumb), I feel the case flex, and I can even sometimes hear a tiny squeak!

Second, the lack of a built in Exchange email client is a tough pill to swallow. I’ve found an app that handles the job (Touchdown for Android – $20 for a license, 30 day free trial), however it does not work as smoothly as my iPad does. The main issue here is that even though the new email notification chime will go off when a new email arrives, the time it takes to display the email once the device is turned on and the app is opened can sometimes seem like forever. It’s probably “only” a 30 second delay, but that’s compared to no apparent delay at all with the iPad.

Third, the Kindle reading app itself. There is no excuse for something as simple and important as page turning to stutter. Now the good news is that a release that came out between the time I started writing this and now seems to have fixed this. The problem is that it still fails in another major way – reading magazines. I have gone pretty much paperless in my reading life and magazines are one of the things I’m happy to have on my device instead of on a table. The problem isn’t so much that the Kindle Fire screen is too small for reading magazines (most have a button on the screen that lets you switch to a text view that works just fine), it’s just that for many magazines, it completely forgets where you were at the last time you opened that magazine. It’s as if each time you put a magazine down, you don’t bother to put a bookmark in so you can find your spot! Now if you’re reading some fluffy magazine this might not be a big problem, but for things like Technology Review from MIT it is not acceptable to have to keep hunting for where you were last. The funny thing is, the Kindle reader app on the iPad handles this just fine.

Finally, the carousel that shows your most recent apps run / web sites visited / books read is just awful. It is impossible to position correctly, and it’s impossible to hide stuff. For example, if I just finished a book, on the iPad I can just delete it from the Kindle app. On the Kindle Fire, it’s impossible to get rid of it. I’ve read it, I’m done, I don’t want to see it again!

I’m finding overall that the experienced is mixed. What are your thoughts?

Lapin Systems and Amazon delivering great customer service

Good customer service is such a pleasure when I encounter it. I had two stand out instances this week.

I have an iMac at home, and really appreciate Mac OS X and all that it brings to the table, but after having an SSD in my systems at the office for the past several years, I couldn’t take the “slow” hard drive any more. Just to be fair, the drive is no slower than that in any other PC (speaking generally of course). It’s a bog standard 7200 rpm drive, which is probably adequate for most people.

However, once you go SSD, you really don’t ever want to go back! I finally decided that I’d had enough of the performance “problems” on the iMac and put my plan in action.

The first thing I had to do was acquire an SSD. While we’ve purchased around 20 OCZ Vertex drives at the office, we’d had a high enough failure rate with them that I wasn’t going to buy another one. I ended up ordering a 512 gig Crucial SSD from Amazon on Monday evening at around 7pm, with standard Prime second day shipping. The web site estimated a delivery date of Thursday (not sure why there was a projected delay, but what the heck).

I was shocked Tuesday morning when I arrived at my office at 11am (I had to visit another office in a suburb before getting to our headquarters) and discovered that the SSD had already arrived! That is customer service!

The next part of the master plan was to get the drive installed. I’m a pretty geeky guy and could do it myself, but I also capable of changing the oil in my car and yet I choose to pay someone else to do it. I honestly just didn’t want to deal with removing the glass from the front of the iMac. Breaking or scratching that, or even worse leaving dust behind the glass (the horror) would cost a lot more than paying someone else to do it.

With just a bit of Google-Fu (Bing-Fu just doesn’t sound right) I found Lapin Systems in Evanston, IL. I exchanged some emails with them to confirm their willingness to do the work, and how long it would take. I was a bit disappointed that they couldn’t guarantee a same day turn around. It is understandable though – if someone came in with a “system down” situation, it would make sense to fix them up first. Anyway, I dropped the iMac off their office on Thursday at 9am with the promise that they be able to get it done today (not much work sitting on the bench I guess).

An hour and a half later I got a call from them that my machine was ready! Hot diggity. After a quick round trip to their offices I got the machine hooked back up and restoring data (back up your systems kids!).

A big thank you to Lapin Systems and Amazon for making this upgrade project pretty much painless (except for paying for the SSD).

Oh yeah, the iMac screams and runs multiple VM’s under Parallels (Windows 7 and Windows 8 ) quite nicely now.

Task switcher that Vista should have shipped with…

I tell you, some days I love Vista and on others, well not so much.
 
One feature that seems cool but doesn’t really prove useful is the Flip 3D feature.  Apple has one on their system that makes a lot more sense – press a button (or squeeze the side buttons on the Mighty Mouse) and you’ll get Expose.  This shows miniature versions of all open Windows on the desktop at once.
 
Well, it turns out that Bao Nguyen has created Switcher, a program that pretty much does what Expose does.
 
I just installed it and I’m very impressed.  Give it a shot.  It’s free, small and easy to work with.
 
PS: Let’s hope this posting makes it up without any typos. <sigh>

Vista – it’s the little things that make it so nice.

I’ve been using Vista on my desktop since it was officially released at the consumer level.  I didn’t blog about it, but my upgrade on my desktop workstation did not go well.  Generally, unless you have a large IT department doing the work, my advice is get Vista with a new machine.
 
Yesterday I caved and purchased the new Apple aluminum keyboard and a Mighty Mouse.  These two things are pretty expensive considering that they are both wired, but I absolutely love the feel of the flat keyboard, and I thought I might as well make it a matching set.
 
The important part is that I wasn’t originally planning on using these devices on my Vista laptop.  Rather, I was going to use them on my Mac Mini which I keep around just to be cool like Steve Jobs .  However, at some point last night I decided to plug them into my laptop to see if they would work.  Well, Vista picked them up and they work quite nicely.  Without installing any software the keyboard is working, and the mouse and its weird buttons and scroll ball (on top) are working fine.  The special function keys (volume, etc) aren’t working yet, but I believe Apple has a driver out there somewhere.
 
After that went smoothly, I was playing around with Flip-3D in Vista and I noticed that when I did it, my MSN Live Messenger window automatically indicated that I was ‘busy’.  This isn’t a Vista feature, but it’s a nice bit of integration between Vista and Messenger.  There is a setting that you can turn off that prevents the ‘busy’ flag from being set whenever you are running a full screen app (which Flip-3D apparently counts as) or in presentation mode.
 
Finally, things like the breadcrumbs in Explorer, the search in the start menu (I haven’t organized the start menu ever – no need, just type a few letters), the previews in the task bar and the previews when using Alt-Tab just make Vista a nice place to spend time.
 
Maybe another day and I’ll post about the Vista annoyances… can you say UAC?  I knew you could!

New Sharepoint 2007 Training

The (in)famous Ted Pattison has just announced that The Ted Pattison Group will be hosting a new training class for Sharepoint 2007, starting August 27th.  This class will focus on creating solutions in Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server, without using programming.  See the details at: http://tedpattison.net/Courses/SSE301.aspx.
 
I’ve been to Ted’s training and found it very helpful.  If you use Sharepoint 2007 in your business (either Sharepoint Services, or Sharepoint Server), I strongly recommend you take the time and go to one of his classes.  You will learn a lot, and by taking the four days out of your schedule, you’ll be able to focus on Sharepoint, and not the daily interruptions that plague us all.
 
Have fun!

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found in your hard drive?

When I say "in your hard drive", I mean that quite literally.
 
We are destroying some drives for a medical customer.  Since we do not have the proper SCSI card to actually connect the drives, we’ve decided to physically destroy the drives.  One of them had a stripped screw, and we ended up folding back the metal cover over the drive platters to get access to them. 
 
Amazingly, when we flipped back the cover, we saw that one of the drive platters had a large X written on it with a black marker!  See the attached photo.
 
That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever found *in* a hard drive.
 

Ever had a truly busted SQL Server 2000 install?

Recently, while installing CRM on a client’s server, we discovered a "broken" SQL Server installation.  Enterprise Manager wouldn’t run, and certain SQL Services were no longer working.  In order to clear this up, I tried to do an uninstall and reinstall of SQL Server.  Unfortunately, during the uninstall, it errored out.  So I was left with a SQL Server install that wouldn’t uninstall, and wouldn’t run.  In trying to reinstall it, it would not allow an installation as the default instance.
 
Fortunately, Microsoft has a document on how to repair a disaster of this level.  Take a looksee at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/290991 and follow the instructions very carefully.  After doing all those things, you too can have a working SQL Server 2000 installation. 

Lenovo’s enthusiasm is amazing – new T60 and then some.

I complain so often about poor customer service that I thought it would be worth it to call out a company that takes servicing their customers seriously.  On June 20th I ordered a new Thinkpad T60 from Lenovo, with some very high end specs.  It shipped on June 22nd from Hong Kong and was at my door on June 25th.  That’s only two days in manufacturing, and 3 days to travel half way around the world!
 
Later that day the docking station I ordered was delivered.
 
Two days later another docking station was delivered.
 
Two days later another Thinkpad arrived.
 
I just found out that another docking station shipped today for delivery in a few days.
 
Yikes!  While I enjoyed having a spare Thinkpad and docking station laying about for a few hours, a quick call to Lenovo took care of returning it (they did charge my card after all!), but I’m hoping they the airdrops of new and expensive equipment stop in the near future!
 
In all seriousness, kudos to Lenovo for delivering so quickly, and handling the return of the unordered equipment with absolutely no hassles.
 
The machine kicks some serious ass too.  A Core 2 Duo 2.33ghz processor plus a 7200 rpm drive and 3 gig of RAM makes Vista a very happy OS, and the machine beats the tar out of my old and full sized HP XW6200 workstation with a 3.2ghz XEON processor and 2 gig of RAM.
 
In short, the Thinkpads are still expensive, but hopefully worth it, and Lenovo’s customer service (so far) seems to have stayed top notch.