It is not a good day

Here I am, deep in the grading mines, and my laptop has decided to expire on me, with intermittent periods of constant crashing interspersed with lulling sessions in which all is working smoothly. I never know when it’s going to behave itself or throw little electronic temper tantrums, the screen going black and then rebooting itself repeatedly.

Grades are all backed up on multiple media, of course, so nothing is lost, but updating those grades has become unreliable, and I’ve also lost several things I was writing to laptop hissy-fits. So I’m reduced to the iPad, which is simply not as good for long writing sessions. Updates here might get sporadic and weird.

The only real solution is that Mary is getting me this for Christmas: Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-Inch Laptop with Retina Display and Force Touch – Intel Quad-Core i7 2.8GHz, 1TB Flash Storage, 16GB DDR3 Memory, AMD Radeon R9 M370X Graphics with 2GB Memory. Isn’t she nice? Unfortunately, there goes all the slack in our budget for the next few years, and also I’m going to have to wait a week to get it.

I’m warning you, I might just lose my mind for a while. How do people function without a big slab of splendid silicon supplementing their existence?


  1. Artor says

    You could just get a slab of slate & scratch out your work on that. It’s mostly silicon too, so it should work just as well, right?

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I thought I needed to replace my 6 year old iMac, as it was behaving badly too, with problems similar to what you describe. Traced it to one of the distributed computing programs (SETI@home) that was making use of my video card, creating conflicts. Reset the preferences to avoid that, and went from daily reboots to solid performance.

  3. robro says

    Nice choice…but that’s just an opinion. Just like the one I use for work.

    At the risk of sounding like I know what I’m talking about, have you tried doing a disk repair on your current computer? Sometimes that clears up random crashing. If you use a recent version of the OS, you can go into Recovery Mode (restart and hold down Command-R), then use Disk Utility to repair the drive and file permissions.

  4. says

    Yeah, I’ve done all the routine repair stuff. It’s a crap shoot, though — I’ve done a few full checks with disk utility, but multiple aborted efforts where it just pukes all over itself.

    I’ve had it for 5 years, it’s had a good run.

  5. =8)-DX says

    Just a note – if you get it to do full disk checks from boot – that is often the culprit. Another one are graphics cards (not into Macs btw so don’t know if its integrated) – often old gfx cards overheat so switching to only processer graphics can help. Oh and apart from a disk check (which looks like the problem if it doesn’t finish) also do a memory check from bios. Last thing I can think of is cleaning the fan – glugged fans lead to overheating which (alongside gfx card overheating) fit the “sporadically working then not” model. Heh enjoy your early Xmas present and good luck.

  6. AlexanderZ says

    You’re getting a gaming computer? Nice!

    Caine #7

    Retina display

    Ummm…okay, looked it up.

    The article is misleading. Yes, you don’t need Retina display for movies, but you do need the extra display for cutting edge games. Same thing with the 16GB memory – you need to play on maximum visual settings.

  7. microraptor says

    I’m warning you, I might just lose my mind for a while. How do people function without a big slab of splendid silicon supplementing their existence?

    Relevant xkcd

  8. Alverant says

    Oh shit man, I’m sorry. I can sympathize. Last night I updated the OS on my Nexus 7 tablet and I must have gotten a corrupted copy or something because it stopped working. I couldn’t even get to the options page and tell it to flush the OS partition. I just dropped it off at a computer repair place so I’m without it for the weekend. I’d hate to lose the data on it with my saved games and stuff. Funny how those little devices can work their way into your life.

  9. whheydt says

    How to cope? And on the cheap? Raspberry PI 2 Model B ($35), RPF 7″ touchscreen ($60), keyboard (Logitech K120) $15, mouse (Monoprice) $5, PSU (Adafruit) $8 and away you go.

  10. cgilder says

    My husband *just* got one of those last night. Although he backed down on the storage. He really wanted the 1TB drive, but they didn’t have them in stock and he is HORRIBLE at waiting for anything he wants.

    It’s a very pretty machine, that’s for damn sure.

  11. robro says

    Perhaps the reason for all these computer failures: Today is Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. Coincidence? You be the judge.

  12. says

    I could use that computer. I would put KVM on it and run several operating systems at once. None made by Apple or MS though.

  13. says

    I had to replace my 7-year-old Macbook Pro recently, and as I actually need a 15-inch screen, I had no choice but to get a retina display. (They no longer make a non-retina 15-inch laptop, which is really annoying. You can get a non-retina — for which you may read “noticeably cheaper” — 13-inch or 11-inch model, but if you need a 15-inch screen you have to pay through the nose.)

    It’s not a bad display by any means. That article Caine linked to in #6 is nonsense by someone speculating about laptop performance based on specific models of mobile phone, which is just silly. A full-sized computer (even a laptop) has more than enough graphics power to drive “all those pixels” — if not, no laptop would be able to handle an external monitor. The color is good, text is very nice and crisp (small text is somewhat more readable now than on my old machine), and some OS elements make use of the higher pixel density — icon previews of image files and movies used to be a little confusing sometimes (I keep icons at 48 by 48 in the Finder), but now practically every one is completely legible because the Finder keeps the same size while using the extra pixels. And as a bonus, the change from a mechanical HD to an SSD speeds up disk access enough that the previews are still being rendered (when reading the files for the first time) faster than they used to be, even though the results are technically many times the size.

    But was it worth the extra money? I am inclined to think the answer is “no”. If my old laptop hadn’t been so beaten up that it was getting mechanical failures and the power adaptors weren’t failing and replacement batteries had actually worked for real instead of losing contact with the laptop at random (Apple no longer makes the batteries, so you have to get third-party ones, and the quality is noticeably lower), I would have had it fixed up instead. Version 10.9 of the OS, actually ran really well on older hardware. 10.10 slowed things way down*. Apparently the new version, 10.11, fixes the problem without altering the list of supported models, so if the machine had lasted I would have an had up-to-date OS running at full speed, without spending the money.

    *My model was one of the dual-graphics-card models, which had a power-saving GPU and a full-power (much faster) one, so I can tell what Apple did wrong: 10.10 was forcing too many tasks to the GPU, under the assumption — valid in more recent models — that the GPU had lots of power to spare and was running anyway so why not make use of it all? When using the power-saving mode, the thing was so slow that it had trouble playing two videos at the same time — when in the previous OS version it had no problem with 4 or 5 at once. With the full-power GPU enabled, the machine recovered its speed, but in exchange it heated up like a hotplate. I’m guessing that in 10.11 they let older models go back to the 10.9 model of task distribution between CPU and GPU.

  14. Nemo says

    @Caine #7:
    As with almost everything Dvorak says, completely the opposite is true. (Seriously, why does anyone ever listen to this guy? How does he still get published?)
    I just got a Retina MacBook the other day. I knew all about Retina in theory, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality. It’s incredible. The only “bad” thing I can say about it is that it’s utterly spoiled me, and I’m not sure I can ever go back.

  15. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    Listening to Dvoraks opinion on anything to do with computers is a bit taking Luskins views on evolution seriously . Listening to his views on anything Apple is like taking WBCs view on homosexuality seriously. Just don’t.

  16. says

    Yeah, Dvorak is a babblin’ incompetent, and has been since the late 1970s when he’d have a column every month whining about the imminent, long-deserved death of Apple Computer. He’s always had a hate-on for Macs, to the point where he was the worst computer pundit I’ve ever read. His mania seriously distorted his perspective.

  17. says

    That retina display does spoil one, and one of the reasons I went for that model.

    You can try to tell me it doesn’t matter, but I’ll also expect to to reassure me that I don’t need a laser printer, that lovely 8-bit dot matrix printer is just as legible.

  18. says

    @#21, PZ Myers:

    It’s not that it doesn’t matter, or isn’t noticeable. I just question whether it’s worth the price. The differences in the user experience are all somewhat marginal, and IIRC it adds $300 or so onto the price of a 15-inch laptop. (And if you plug in an external monitor, as I do when I’m at home, it emphasizes how minor the differences are in practice.)

    To be honest, now that I’m thinking about it, there are some definite problems with the retina display, albeit minor ones. Webpages tend to be rendered so that 1 pixel in an unscaled bitmap image is 1 pixel on a non-retina screen, which means that they aren’t an even number of pixels on a retina screen. (The 15″ Macbook Pro has 220 ppi, so it’s not an even multiple of any common screen resolution.) This isn’t so much an issue with photos, usually, but any sort of cartoon or lineart gets… well, smudgy is the best word I can find. And apparently webkit-the-unadorned-API isn’t entirely comfortable with the distinction, either, because CSS which uses pixel measurements for the width of borders or block elements gets alignment wrong on either the retina display or my non-retina external monitor — one or the other on a program-by-program basis. (Not in Safari, though — apparently Safari is doing something that isn’t in the Webkit API as such to correct this.) And, finally, the program I use for minor graphical editing, Acorn (a cheap, non-Adobe alternative for simple graphics editing — like old paint programs used to be before Mac OS X came out), treats a 100% zoom level as being “one physical pixel is one pixel of the image”, so the retina display is actually much harder to use for editing an image — everything appears at a little under 50% the size in each dimension that it will appear in (say) a web browser.

    As far as the printer metaphor goes, it’s like, oh, having a choice between a monochrome 200 DPI laser printer with no built-in page description language so the computer has to do all the work, for $150, or having a monochrome 1200 DPI laser printer with PostScript 3, for $450. You can see the difference, and some things which look mediocre on the cheap one will look nicer on the expensive one, but chances are good that the cheaper model will do everything you need and then some unless you are specifically a graphics professional — and the $300 difference will probably keep you in paper and toner for years.

  19. says

    And here I am plugging away on an 8 year old Thinkpad T500. Thank goodness for Linux. No new machine for me in…who knows when, because what little spare money I have is going toward a charity build for a close friend who’s also a victim of human trafficking.

    But congrats on the new lappy, PZ. Keep that firewall up, lest I turn it into a DistCC node for Gentoo compiles :v

  20. Nemo says

    @The Vicar #22:

    any sort of cartoon or lineart gets… well, smudgy is the best word I can find.

    I have a lot of webcomics in my feed, and I’ve found this to be true of one of them — but all the others look sharper and better than they did before, or else no different. Still figuring that out… but no, the difference in my user experience is not marginal.

    BTW, one thing I’ve discovered is that the display is apparently using a virtual resolution that’s even slightly higher than the physical resolution. “About this Mac” says the display is 2304×1440, but if I take a screenshot, it comes out at 2560×1600.

  21. says

    @#24, Nemo:

    If you have a plain Macbook with a Retina display, then 2560×1600 is the actual physical resolution, and you’re using a scaled resolution. (That is, the graphics layer is pretending the display is actually 2304×1440, and then taking the rendered display and stretching it to the 2560×1600 screen.) Check the Display section in System Preferences; you probably have it set to “Scaled”, with a setting other than “Default” in the list of options. (At least, that’s what the 10.10 System Preferences would show. I haven’t upgraded to 10.11 yet so it’s entirely possible that in 10.11 they’ve changed the options again. What was wrong with letting us just choose a resolution?! If I wanted a hardware abstraction layer which hid the graphics settings and made bad default choices, I’d switch to Linux.)

    @#23, Marissa van Eck:

    Keep that firewall up, lest I turn it into a DistCC node for Gentoo compiles :v

    An open-source user trying to mock other people about security? “The puddle complains that the lake is shallow.” My heartbleeds for you.

  22. andyo says

    Besides what others have said about that Retina article, that’s from 2012. So-called “retina” displays are now ubiquitous and a huge success, especially in the mobile space, and as a result prices have gone also down a lot. I give it to Apple to have been the one that pushed it into the mainstream. Even for image editing, we need to evolve from the old thinking of 1:1 pixel matching on the screens, or thinking of objects on the screen as sized in pixels. We can now think of them as sized in physical units like inches, or a proportion of the size of the screen, and the more pixels you put into that physically-sized object (pixels-per-inch), the better definition it will get.

    Sure, the OS and programs need to be updated, but right now most apps in mobile/tablets and many in the 2 big desktop OSs are. It is so much nicer to look at, especially for reading and rendered graphics.

    There are even nice side effects from this push to very high PPI screens. Even when a 500+ PPI screen is close to ridiculous on a phone, for things like VR this has been one of the big advances that has made it possible at this point in time. Without a push for high-PPI screens from the mainstream, high-res, consumer-priced VR would probably have never been possible.

  23. Bob Foster says

    My wife is lusting after a MacBook with Retina display to make dance and performance videos. So, being the sort of guy that I am, I checked them out online. Yee gads, those things are frigging expensive! And what with this add-on and that little bit more memory one can easily drop 3 grand on a top of the line model. But, all the kids (which for me is anyone under 30) insist that they are the laptop to have. They all have them. Which then leads to the inevitable question: how the hell do these young student types and recent grads without decent paying jobs afford these things? There’s something afoot and I want to know what it is.

  24. says

    Nah, I see a lot of students with a variety of different laptops. They generally aren’t getting that top of the line model that the posh professors can afford. Of the Macs, I’ve seen a lot of Airs, their ultra thin lightweight laptop — much cheaper. Most are 13′ screens, too.

    Where they are getting them is from their mommies and daddies. Nowadays, when you ship the kiddos off to school, the best and most useful gift you can give them is a computer. All three of my kids got a Mac to start ’em off.

  25. Nemo says

    @The Vicar #25: No, I’m on Default. From what I’m reading, 2560×1600 is the native resolution on a 13″ MacBook Pro, while a 12″ MacBook (what I have) is 2304×1440.

  26. says

    @#27, Bob Foster

    And what with this add-on and that little bit more memory one can easily drop 3 grand on a top of the line model.

    Oh, yeah. I forgot about this. I don’t know why Apple is price-gouging on RAM again. They used to do it back in the 1980s and early 1990s but for about a decade they stopped overcharging. Now they’re back to charging an arm and a leg for what is just ordinary RAM — except now it’s soldered to the motherboard and can’t be upgraded, so you have no choice. >:(

    But, all the kids (which for me is anyone under 30) insist that they are the laptop to have.

    I think it’s more the fact that Windows 8, 8.1, and 10 are disasters (UI choices which are not just bad but bad in ways which confuse existing Windows users, which is as bad as it gets, updates which break things left and right, badly-planned permissions, instability, etc. etc. etc.), so people actively want to avoid buying new Windows machines at the moment. And Linux is… well, if you aren’t actually a techie so you don’t enjoy bit-twiddling, Linux is the equivalent of buying a foreclosed house with a cracked foundation, broken windows, burst pipes, damaged floors, and a collapsed garage, in a town where all the contractors promise they’ll show up tomorrow, no next week, next month at the latest but every single one is incompetent anyway so you might as well fix it yourself, only the building codes require you to use only tools manufactured in North Korea and won’t let you build with wood or bricks or stone, you have to use copper pipe and stale cheese because the mayor got his ideology from his youth as a radical Wisconsinite, and the electrical supply changes between 120V and 220V at random and the HVAC takes its instructions in transliterated Chinese morse code — there’s a thermostat which can handle it for you and it’s available for free but it only reliably handles temperatures outside the range where water is liquid — and if you try to add an addition the whole house starts falling apart and just when you think you have it all fixed and invite your family to stay for the holidays the roof falls in and if you look for help all you get are instructions on how to build a shopping mall to meet building codes which were changed in 1993 and if you tell anyone about the problems you’re having they tell you it’s your own fault, you should have bought a house with a two-car collapsed garage.

    So until Haiku gets off the ground or Microsoft gets its act together (or Apple finally produces a version of Mac OS X which is as alienating as Windows 8), Macs are the “least worst” option for a lot of people.

  27. says

    @25/The Vicar

    I’ve spent 22 of my 30 years of life poking around inside these things and figuring out how they work; I am well on top of Heartbleed, as well as several other nasties I’m quite sure you aren’t even aware exist. Security is a process, not a single program or practice. Defense in depth is the watchword.

    Thanks for the concern though :)