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An Apple For Apple

Apple MacBook

“What the hell’s wrong with this computer now?” I groused this past Friday morning as my wife reported to me that her Dell laptop had suddenly lost connection to our wireless network…again. As I futzed around with the machine, I eventually realized that the cooling fan was running full-tilt and the keyboard felt like there was a five-alarm fire raging underneath it. To make a long story short, there was a runaway software process — the one that controls the wireless networking hardware — and the machine was cooking itself in its own juices. A reboot fixed it…for the time being.

“You know,” I said, “that machine is about ready to die.” I shake my head every time I say this, because it’s yet another reminder of what pieces of crap Dell makes these days. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that the machine I just mentioned was a $2,000 Latitude business notebook which I bought for corporate use. (Or as close as my one-man company comes to “corporate,” at least.) And my wife is only using it now because the Dell Inspiron she had before that degraded to such a degree that it was unusable for anything but simple word processing. This has become a dilemma, naturally, because I no longer have a trustworthy business machine when I need to go portable. Fortunately, that need arises very rarely anymore.

Whenever Apple’s laptop does something stupid like this, the conversation always turns to the subject of replacement computers and what our options might be. We’ve been talking about it for over a year now, in fact, but there was never enough money to do anything about it — nor did there seem to be the “perfect machine” available for a reasonable price. My wife wanted a laptop that was small and light, but which had decent video and audio capabilities so she could watch her favorite Asian TV series and movies on it. For some time we were considering a Mac, but in order to get the kind of hardware we wanted, we’d have had to choose a MacBook Pro, and the cost was prohibitive.

But on Friday, after the Dell’s latest meltdown (literally), the puzzle pieces fell into place in a way they’d never done before. Only a week ago, Apple (the computer company) released an update to their entry-level polycarbonate MacBook, otherwise known as “the white plastic one,” which introduced a pretty healthy dedicated graphics array, a nice LED-backlit screen and a nicely-sized hard drive for $999. An update to the Mac operating system (called “Snow Leopard”) had just landed as well, which seemed to make it a good time to buy into the Mac platform. But none of this would have mattered all that much if it hadn’t been for Apple’s 12 months same-as-cash offer. You might say that sealed the deal.

We were only going to stop in the Apple store for a quick look on Friday night before we picked up dinner at P.F. Chang’s. Just, you know, to see what the new MacBooks looked like, how they handed, and whether we could apply for that financing offer in-store. But everything went so well that we walked out of the store with a brand new MacBook in hand, which I had the Apple guys upgrade with 4GB of RAM right then and there, plus the 3-year AppleCare plan…because my luck with laptops is oh, so awful.

Since then, we’ve been on quite a little adventure.

As a dyed-in-the-wool PC guy, and one who used to relentlessly giggle at the Mac’s expense back in the ’90s, I felt like I was in a parallel universe as I set up my wife’s new MacBook. In many ways, it rocked: It booted in a near instant, had an incredibly clean feel to everything it presented me with, and the software…! Do you know that to install a program on a Mac, you just drag the bloody icon to the Applications folder? But in other ways I felt like I was brand new to the whole computing experience, because all of the shortcut keys and even certain concepts that I’m used to on Windows were gone in a flash of fire and brimstone, and I was pecking about the keyboard like an old-timer who has to take a course at the local community college to learn how to open his email.

I got spun up pretty fast, though. After working until dinner time on a side project, I got settled in yesterday evening for a night of MacBook setup. I migrated all of my wife’s files from the Dell, set her up with the free OpenOffice Aqua suite and lots more. Along the way, I learned a ton of stuff about Mac OS, how things work, how things don’t work, and generally what life is like in the land of Apple. (Appleland, I guess.)

For the most part, I’m impressed. Mac OS manages to make everything feel very stable and fairly simple, and you don’t worry about playing around with settings or trying new applications because it’s so easy to just get rid of stuff you don’t want. Also, QuickTime Player and iTunes, banes of my existence on Windows, actually don’t suck on Mac OS — they’re fast and responsive (but they’re made for the Mac, so I shouldn’t be surprised). Mac OS also comes with the ability to open (and even save!) PDFs right out of the box. This is perfect for my wife, who only needs to save our bank statements and other records to PDF format from time to time, and doesn’t need Adobe’s entire, bloated Acrobat suite.

In fact, that’s the general consensus I have about the whole experience: The MacBook is perfect for a user like my wife, who isn’t a rank amateur but isn’t a hardcore professional either. I’m not saying that Macs aren’t for professionals — legions of Mac users in my own industry are evidence enough — but I feel that the Mac provides a more useful experience right out of the box for someone who’s more middle-of-the-road, largely as a function of its exclusive operating system. The fact that it does it with plenty of style is icing on the cake.

For the record, my wife loves her new MacBook. She’s taken to the new ecosystem rather well, although I’m sure there will be things we both get a little confused on for the next few weeks, and which we’ll have to seek answers to. She’s already worked out how to do several things that I hadn’t thought of, so I’m sure she’ll get along smashingly. Because I’m the family geek — and thus need to be ready with the solution when trouble hits — I’m going to look for some resources to read up on, like the Mac OS X Snow Leopard “Missing Manual.”

Speaking of trouble, I will say that unlike what many fanboys will tell you, Macs are not immune to problems. Case in point: Late last night I encountered a bug in Mac OS X that caused a runaway process to run the machine’s CPU at maximum, ironically cooking the MacBook the same way our old Dell cooked itself on Friday morning. The battery started to drain rapidly, the keyboard got hot…the whole nine yards. It was like whatever demon had possessed our Dell had jumped out and crawled into the MacBook.

Now, being new to Mac OS, I had no idea where to start dealing with a problem like this. I figured out that the utility called Activity Monitor is the equivalent to Windows’ Task Manager, and it was there I discovered the name of the process that was running out of control: SystemUIServer. I then researched that process, and learned that it controls the icons that display on the Mac’s menu bar (like Windows’ system tray). I couldn’t find any evidence of widespread issues like the one I was having, though, but one article suggested that I turn off all of the menu bar icons to aid in troubleshooting, so I did that.

It didn’t help. I’d turned off everything — the battery status icon, the Bluetooth icon, the AirPort icon, the whole works…the CPU was still roasting. But there was one more thing up there on that menu bar: The date and time. “No, it can’t be something that stupid,” I muttered, even as I disabled it. Viola — the CPU usage instantly dropped to zero. Further tests proved that I couldn’t even look at the Date & Time prefs panel without CPU usage spiking into the ceiling.

Adding this bizarre criterion to my Google searches finally brought me to this thread on the official Apple forums, which was receiving post after post from other Mac users who were suddenly experiencing the same thing at that very moment. Over the course of the discussion, we all came to the conclusion that the bug was related to the Daylight Savings Time changeover! Sure enough, at 2:00 a.m. on the dot, the MacBook went back to normal of its own accord.

Not a showstopper, but definitely one of the screwier software bugs I’ve ever encountered. And unique to Snow Leopard, too, if reports are correct. Oh well, like I said…it’s been an adventure.

And what about that old Dell? Well, I still need to back up a few more of my wife’s files, but then it’s going to Shitty Notebook Rehab. I’m going to crack it open (the warranty’s expired) and clean that bugger out with my air blaster. Then I’ll wipe off the hard drive, replatform it as a business machine once again…and hope I never have to use it and its blown speaker, uneven display and furnace-like keyboard. No more Dells for this household, that’s for sure.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go babysit my TiVo and make sure it records The Venture Bros. tonight like it’s supposed to. You see, Comcast screwed up again, and one of my CableCARDs went out. All part of the fun when you’re in Comcastic Craptastic territory. I’ve already put in another word with their customer outreach group, and they’ve already responded to say that I’ll be getting a call tomorrow. I suppose you probably know what my next post on this site will be about, don’t you? What can I say…stay tuned.

2 thoughts to “An Apple For Apple”

  1. Yeah, it was fun. We don’t do the “spur of the moment” thing that often; it was nice for Apple to be able to get the computer she really wanted, when she wanted it. Sometimes you have to do something a little extra for yourself!

    She’s still totally loving it. I’m a bit jealous, really. 😉

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