Skip to main content

Checking my MacBook

As I reported recently, my primary MacBook has been misbehaving of late. When I reboot it, the screen often starts blank. I’ve reset the SMC. I’ve reset the PRAM. But sometimes, when I do enough [1], the screen suddenly starts to work again. Did I mention that I hate computers?

I didn’t want to deal with the problem during the week that I shouldn’t call Heck Week [2], so I’ve put it aside. But it’s now spring break, so I was able to start looking at the issue. As I noted in my yesterday’s time log, I spent a few hours on Saturday trying to deal with the issue and then a bit more time on Monday. This musing serves as a narrative of how I spent that time [3].

I started in a relatively good state: The computer seemed to be working and I could see the screen.

Step one: Treat it like a normal computer. That is, just do regular work on it. That seems to have been a bad idea. It ended up shutting down with an error after a few minutes. Fortunately, it booted with the screen working.

At this point, I saw two routes. I could keep exploring the state of the hardware or I could try to determine if it’s a software error. For the latter, the natural thing to do would be to erase the computer and start again. If it worked in that state, I could then restore from backup. But that’s time-consuming work. So I decided to look more at the hardware.

Step two: Run a system check. I used TechTool Pro 9.5, which is my normal go-to for checking my system. It found no significant errors [4].

Step three: Continue system checks. I was still worried. So I looked up how to check the system using the official Apple utilities. My new MacBook is from fall 2013 [5]. But that’s new enough that I should use Apple Diagnostics, rather than Apple Hardware Test. So I tried to follow the instructions. I shut down the machine. I booted while holding the D key. And … blank screen. At least I confirmed that the process of booting to a working computer is not reliable. Time to set aside the system check and see if I can get it to boot to a working screen again.

Step four: Go into panic mode. I turned it off using the power key. I booted in normal mode, but without a working screen. I used my vast knowledge of computers to get into terminal mode and type sudo shutdown -h +1 2>&1 | say [6]. I waited for it to shut down. I reset the SMC once again. I booted. And, lo and behold, I could see the screen. At this point, I backed up the laptop once again [7]. Unfortunately, because I’d done some hard resets, it spent a lot of time preparing the backup [8]. After that, the backup of 4gb or so wasn’t too bad [10].

Step five: Experiment in getting Apple Diagnostics to work. I shut down the computer using the shutdown command, which seems to leave the computer in a more reliable state than the Shutdown menu item. I reset the SMC. I started the computer while holding down the D key. And … Starting Internet Recovery … This may take Awhile. Yay! Okay, next I get to enter the password for our wireless network. And I can start the tests. I’m running the extended tests, which will take 1 hour or longer, depending on the amount of memory installed. However, it pauses the report while testing memory, saying Total Time Testing: 19 secs. Should I panic? Nah. I’m going to assume that it doesn’t update that dialog very frequently [11]. After a bit more than an hour, it finishes with memory. It reports at SATA error, but then I realize that I still have my backup drive connected [12]. So I shut it down again and … I’m back to the black screen of death.

Step six: Go back into panic mode. I do seem to be able to log in to terminal without a working screen. I reset the PRAM. I reset the SMC. I crossed my fingers. It’s no longer showing the keyboard lights when I boot, which makes it even harder to tell if it’s booting. It seems that testing may have pushed it over the edge.

Step seven: Submit warranty claim. I have a warranty with Consumer Priority Service which came with the laptop when I bought it. They took a month for my last repair. They also have an odd note that I only have $189.00 in remaining liability. It appears that they feel like they can issue me a settlement check for that amount if the computer can’t be repaired. My previous claims (battery and keyboard) were $198.00

Step eight: Wait for response. It came on Monday. My, that was quick.

Step nine: Get ready to pack it up. Discover that when I open it up, the screen is working again. Curse. Curse again.

Step ten: Run Apple Diagnostics again, using the extended testing. Testing memory took a bit over an hour. Testing the main logic board was faster. In the end, it reported the following error

4HDD/11/400000000: SATA(0,0)

Great. That means that the hard drive is failing. But a failing hard drive should not cause the computer screen to die, should it? I’d think that the graphics problem would be elsewhere. So I tried running a non-extended test. That didn’t work. I tried rebooting. And … back to square one: The black screen of death.

Step eleven: Ship it out [14]. I’m crossing my fingers that the technicians can reproduce the problem.

Step twelve: Wait. Last time it took five business days or so to get to NYC [15]. Then it took about five business days for them to decide what to do with it. Another five business days for them to fix it. And another five business days for it to get back to me. So … about a month till I get it back.

Step thirteen: Worry. Will they decide that it’s not worth fixing under their model of a warranty? If so, what are my options?

At least I can survive (barely) with my old MacBook. But grading is certainly slower.

Here are my steps, in case this ever happens again [16].

  • Shut down with sudo shutdown -h +1 2>&1 | say and then your password. (If it doesn’t say anything, that’s probably good.)
  • Wait one minute. It should shut down. You can tell if you have iTunes running and it stops or if you have the keyboard lights on and they go off.
  • Reset the SMC by holding down ctrl-shift-option-power for about twenty seconds.
  • Boot into diagnostics mode by holding down the D key immediately after booting.
  • Try not to scream.

[1] Or, it seems, when I do nothing.

[2] That is, the week right before spring break.

[3] I took copious notes along the way and then went back and filled in some additional details.

[4] There were a few corrupted images in a shared Google drive, but I don’t count those.

[5] Potentially ancient, by computer standards.

[6] I know, I should type /usr/bin/sudo rather than sudo. But I couldn’t see what I was typing. The fewer characters I type, the better.

[7] I’d installed the latest TechTool Pro. I’d updated my Microsoftware. I’d removed some unnecessary files. It seemed prudent to back up again.

[8] At least that’s why I think it spent a long time preparing the backup. I get my information from random Apple Support pages [9].

[9] I do know that when I made a second backup soon thereafter, it spent much less time preparing the backup.

[10] I use a portable drive for my backups. That may not be my best idea, since portable drives tend to be slower.

[11] I was right. It updated at about 1:11, 2:08, and 2:28. It’s still testing memory, though.

[12] Whoops.

[14] I did so yesterday.

[15] Ah, the joys of UPS ground.

[16] I hope it never happens again. But I’ve learned that it’s a good habit to document.

Version 1.0 released 2018-03-21.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-04-10.