I’ve worked on a few upgrades to our family computers in recent months: my 2008 MacBook Pro, my mom’s 2007 iMac and my own late-2013 iMac. This is the tale I’d like to recount for you now, because it’s something that I’ve had to deal with since last autumn (october of 2018), and I’ve just recently (I hope) finalized the upgrade. There’s a valuable lesson in here for the people at Apple Support, if they’re interested.
It started with my iMac slowing down to a crawl over the course of a few days, back in late 2018. At first I thought it was spyware or a virus. I checked everything: every app, every file, every process. I removed apps, one by one, to see if it would fix the problem. It didn’t. I ended up removing all of the apps but those that came with macOS, and the problem still persisted. I wiped the drive clean and reinstalled the OS, then reinstalled the apps anew, one by one. It was just as bad. I ran hardware tests using Apple’s software and everything checked out. I scoured the web for solutions. There were some suggestions online that iCloud could cause slowdowns when the syncs weren’t going properly. I checked the Apple Server Status page and indeed they’d been having some problems with iCloud, but they were marked as resolved. I checked Photos and there were issues: my photos weren’t syncing properly across my devices, and there were image compression/corruption (?) issues going on, with diagonal blue lines appearing all over my recent photos, lines that persisted even when opening the photo at full resolution.
I called Apple Support and began a series of interactions that did not end with any sort of solution. From the start, they agreed that iCloud was causing the slowdowns and had me go through a series of steps such as logging in and out of iCloud, disabling and enabling the various iCloud syncing options, etc. to no avail. Mail started acting up as well, so they suggested I disable Mail syncing, because I had “too many messages in my mailbox”. Documents started acting up, with iCloud Drive showing up empty on my computer, so they suggested disabling that. In spite of the fact that I’d already done it, they tried to convince me to reformat my computer and start fresh. I kept getting a hunch that something else was amiss and asked them if they were sure this wasn’t a hardware issue. They said no. They told me to wait for the photos to finish syncing, then enable the other iCloud features one by one, and things would get back to normal. They didn’t. We kept going back and forth, with Apple Support posting one update per day (or less) to the case, asking me to do this and that, and even though I’d complete their requests and post more updates during the day, they wouldn’t respond till the next. I offered to pay a case fee to expedite issues. I explained to them that this was my main computer and I couldn’t do my work. This went on for weeks, with me getting more desperate and the techs telling me they’d stop helping me because I couldn’t stay calm.
With things going nowhere and Apple Support techs who couldn’t care less, I decided to exercise the “nuclear” option. I found Tim Cook’s email address and wrote him an email. I didn’t expect a response, but I wanted to vent. To my surprise, a short while later I got a response, not from him but from his office, promising me my issue would be forwarded onto someone who would get back to me. I waited a couple of days and… nothing. No one contacted me. I figured I’d try my luck again. I got the same response, but someone finally contacted me and connected me directly with an advanced support technician. There’s apparently a “third tier” of tech support that is only available on a case by case basis; I guess after almost a month of my computer being down for the count, I qualified.
It took a while longer to get to the bottom of the problem: daily communications, screen sharing sessions, uploading log files to Apple servers, trying various steps, etc. It took over a week. iCloud was at first to blame, then Adobe software, then finally, after my case was put in front of a senior technician directly responsible for iCloud connectivity, my issue turned out not be software related at all, but caused by hardware. Hold on to your hat, because as it turns out my HDD was going bad. That was it. It was as prosaic as that! In total, I’d lost over one month of my time and I had to appeal to Tim Cook’s office, all because Apple Technicians couldn’t pinpoint a failing hard drive from the get-go.
Once the problem was found out, it was an easy enough fix. I opened up my iMac and replaced the HDD with a fresh one. I also found and installed a piece of software called DriveDx, which gives detailed stats about hard drives and can let you know of a bad drive before it actually fails. Most drive diagnostic apps rely on the S.M.A.R.T. status flags, but that’s not enough. DriveDx does a whole lot more. The app quickly let me know that the blade SSD (the second half of the Fusion Drive on my iMac) was also close to its lifespan. Since it was still working okay, I decided to hold off on replacing it last year, choosing to monitor it with the app and only replace it when it was close to failing. Here is a gallery of photographs from the time I replaced the HDD. I also chose to take apart the chips and heat sinks and to replace the thermal paste, which had become dry and cracked. Before I put my computer back together, I cleaned the case and the parts thoroughly with a brush and soft cloth, because a lot of dust had accumulated inside and on them. After I put my iMac back together, it worked beautifully once again. I know I could have replaced the HDD with an SSD, and I plan to do it in the future. It’s just that I want to get a 3-4 TB SSD and their prices are still a bit high.
A few weeks ago (about seven months after replacing the HDD), DriveDx told me the blade SSD was fairly close to failing, so I chose to replace it with a Samsung 960 Pro M.2 512 GB NVMe SSD module that I already had, so this upgrade only cost me about $16 for a Sintech NGFF M.2 NVMe SSD Adapter Card, which seems to be the card everyone recommends for MacBooks and iMacs.
I’ve enclosed a separate gallery of photographs of this upgrade below. You’ll laugh when you see one of the photos, so I’ll explain: in what seems to be an iMac design flaw, the cylindrical bracket that secures the screw for the blade SSD is only glued to the motherboard. Unlike every other screw bracket which is secured directly to the motherboard with metal, this one is not designed into the motherboard. Underneath it, on the other side of the motherboard, there are circuits running right across that spot. It seems to me like at the time (2013), the blade SSD and its screw bracket were afterthoughts of sorts for the hardware design team. My bracket came right off the motherboard. I had no glue in the house, only some silicone-based adhesive that takes up to 24 hours to harden, so I put a dab of that under it, tightened the screw and stuck a wood shim in-between the case and the top of the screw, to hold it in place while the adhesive hardened. I know it looks terribly unrefined, but it’s been working fine.
There are two things I should tell you about this upgrade: (1) this particular SSD tends to run hot, so DriveDx will warn you about its temperature, and (2) after booting up my iMac for the first time, it didn’t see the new NVMe SSD, so I powered it down, opened up it up again (thank goodness I hadn’t yet closed it completely) and re-seated the SSD and its adapter in the blade SSD slot. After I did that, it saw it, recognized it, and I was able to boot into recovery, go into Terminal and recreate the Fusion Drive, then reinstall the OS and restore my data.
In spite of the temperature warnings, my iMac has been working great so far. I noticed a bit of a speed boost, but since I’m still using Fusion Drive and I’m tied to a spinning hard drive, a lot of the oomph of the SSD can’t be seen. I suppose I could have chosen to install the OS on the SSD and keep my files on the HDD, but I prefer to work without complications. A single 3.5TB volume works for me. If I could have a single 24TB drive that holds my OS and all my files (that are currently sitting on three external hard drives), I’d be happy with that.
I would like to thank Tim Cook’s office for responding to my messages and getting me out of a real bind. I was at the end of my wits at the time, so the tone of my emails to them was gruff and biting; they could have chosen to ignore me. I don’t know what I’d have done if they hadn’t stepped in. But I do wish I didn’t have to exercise that option. Apple Support should have found out the issue from the start. It wasn’t something arcane, it was a simple drive failure.