How To

A (final?) upgrade to my 2013 iMac

Yes, my main computer is still my late-2013 iMac. It’s still great as my photo editing and video editing (including 4K) machine. How is that possible? It’s simple: it was top of the line when it came out, with a maxed out processor and video processor. The rest was upgraded along the way. My latest upgrade, as I suggested in my previous post on the subject, is the replacement of my Fusion Drive setup (HDD + NVME) with an SSD. I wanted a big SSD, so I could fit all my regular work on the computer, only resorting to external hard drives for the big photo and video files. I also wanted to bypass the whole argument of whether to split or not to split my Mac’s Fusion Drive.

I waited for the SSD prices to come down, so I could get a 4TB SSD at a decent price, which happened in late 2020. I got a SanDisk Ultra 3D NAND SSD at 314 Euro (at the time). Now it’s at $470.

Back in January, I set to work on the upgrade. Those of you who’ve opened up iMacs released from 2012 onward know how much “fun” it is to pry open the adhesive strips that hold the display affixed to the aluminum body. I’ve bypassed all that crap, given how many times I’ve had to open up my iMac, and I use four strips of black electrical tape to hold the display to the case at each of its four corners. It works. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly, particularly if you cut the four strips equally and neatly, and you affix them at fairly exact points. You can’t even see them from the front of the computer. The display is black, the tape is black, it blends right in. You only spot them from the back. Anyway, it’s a lot easier for me to open up my iMac than it is for those who stubbornly cling to using the adhesive strips every time (there’s a joke in there somewhere).

After I opened it, it looked a bit grungy (the fan pulls in a lot of air and dust), and it had been almost a couple of years since I’d last cleaned it thoroughly, so I decided to take the heatsink assembly off the motherboard and replace the thermal paste — give it one last proper once-over, so to speak.

Off came the NVME card and its adapter. Now you can have a proper look at that supposed metal mount for the Apple SSD, which on this iMac is simply set with adhesive on the motherboard. As I said previously, it’s a design flaw, more like an afterthought. There are circuits on the other side of the motherboard going right under the mount, so there’s no way they could have put a proper mount with a flange there. The application of the adhesive was cleaner from the factory, but when I worked on it things got messier.

So now, I have no more NVMe SSD, no more Apple SSD, no more Fusion Drive, just one big SSD, plus my external drives. I figured it’d be a simpler setup, and it is.

Little did I know when I decided to be thorough with my cleaning, that it was going to be more of an adventure than I bargained for… First, I should set up the double-whammy scenario by saying that the way the heatsink assembly attaches to the motherboard is one of the most awkward and accident-prone setups in hardware design history. If I had put a cuss-count device on my desk as I worked on this stage of the process, and more so, every time I worked on this stage of the process, I’d have surely racked up some serious numbers. Now for the second part of the double-whammy: the way the CPU connects to the socket, which I guess is still part of the heatsink clusterfuck, since the CPU doesn’t sit in its socket without the heatsink, and when you attach the heatsink, the CPU can slide around in its socket, possibly sitting crooked and bending the feck out of the little socket connectors, each of which have specific connections to make and cannot short with each other and cannot be bent in weird ways… aaaaargh, aaaaaargh, well, you get the picture.

So I go through my whole spiel, clean everything up, put everything back together, including the heatsink assembly, tighten up all the screws, put the display back on, confident as ever, and instead of the Apple startup chime, I hear three nasty beeps. The iMac doesn’t boot up. Nothing. I go online and everyone’s posted about the RAM modules not sitting right, about various connectors on the motherboard not being connected properly, not sitting right in their sockets, etc., but EVERYONE forgets about the biggest damned connector on the motherboard not sitting properly in its socket, namely, the CPU! It turned out the reason my iMac wasn’t booting up was the reason no one was talking about: during the heatsink re-assembly, which requires you to do acrobatic work with the motherboard while holding the heatsink in place, flipping and turning the damned thing more than a burned pancake, the CPU somehow shifted about (which it shouldn’t do, because it’s got a very specific spot in there, but it still does, because you have to hold the heatsink over it with your fingers as you flip the motherboard to gain access to the screws from the backside and tighten those as you hold more screws on the other side with your fingers as you tighten them from the other side… anyway, this is so badly designed it’s bound to go wrong, and it definitely went wrong for me.

Because I couldn’t find any help for this online, I had to take the whole computer apart while carefully examining every connector and every piece that slid into another piece. Sure enough, after I took apart the heatsink assembly, I found the problem.

I present to you before and after photos of the CPU socket. The after photo (on the right) may not be perfect, but it works, and it’s after sitting there for about an hour with needle-nose tweezers and a magnifying lens, trying to bend the damned things back into shape and making sure they don’t touch each other.

After straightening those bent nose hairs with the tweezers, I began the re-assembly process. Keep in mind I had to clean off the thermal paste and re-apply it (always a fun task). When I tightened up the heatsink screws, that’s when I noticed that one of them was sliding in and out of its threaded socket, which is a big no-no. It means the threads have worn off, which is bound to happen given how much tension the Apple designers designed into the back bracket that holds the heatsink to the motherboard. It’s likely designed to work 2-3 times, and after that it’s anyone’s guess when the threads will strip off.

So what did this mean? I had to find a heatsink assembly on eBay, one that came with all the screws. If you’re also looking for one, be careful, some people only sell the heatsinks, and the set of screws is separate. I wanted the whole thing just in case something else might break on it. I ordered it on the 20th of January from someone in Italy, and because of the COVIDiocy rules in place in Europe it only arrived earlier this month, not quite but almost TWO MONTHS after placing the order.

In the meantime I wanted my computer up and running, so that same night, I took the risk and re-assembled the heatsink with only three working screws. I knew I was running the risk of overheating due to an uneven heat transfer between the chip and the heatsink, but I also suspected the chip had some sort of heat management logic built in, and would probably run at a slower clock speed if it saw a heat spike. Indeed, that’s what happened: my iMac was a little bit slower in the interim.

So, I finished re-assembling all the parts and my iMac was back in business, but that wasn’t all of the story, because it would have been too easy… The heatsink assembly arrived, but the back bracket for the graphics chip was too small for my machine (see below). Everything else fitted, but not that. Thankfully, the bracket from my own heatsink worked just fine, but this was yet another kink in the process.

In the course of re-assembly, after once again having to clean off and re-apply the thermal paste, I managed to somehow allow the CPU to re-seat itself in its socket, but this time it was more serious: after re-assembling everything, my computer wouldn’t boot at all and there was a strange humming noise coming from somewhere behind the motherboard. No beeps were given either. This time I didn’t bother to look it up on the internet, I went straight for the carotid, so to speak — right back to the CPU.

I take everything apart and now, not only are those damned little connectors in the socket once again bent in weird ways, but the corners of the CPU are bent, because it was pushed down into the socket by the heatsink after it came loose from its precise slot during re-assembly. If you’re delicate, you may want to skip over the rest of this paragraph. What the hell was I to do? I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know if the CPU would work again, so I took some needle-nose pliers and carefully straightened the corners. Thankfully, there’s a literal safety margin built into the edges of the chip, with no visible circuitry there, just the fiberglass backing (I think). Then I set about re-straightening the little connectors. You would not have wanted to be near me when I did that. So much cussing… I was too busy cussing to take any photos of this step of the process.

I put it all together again and wonder of wonders, it was booting up just fine. But wait, there’s more… For quite some years now, I’ve been pissed off by some fine dust that’s somehow gotten inside the display assembly and has been showing up in the both lower corners of my display. Now the display assembly itself is sealed with adhesive and with special tape, all around its back. It’s not made to be disassembled by the end-user. It’s made to be replaced. It can only be opened up in a special static-free and dust-free environment. Did I let that stop me? Heck no! I was pissed off by all the dust and I figured now that I tempted fate so many times with my iMac, it was time to tempt it once more by opening up the display. Now if you think, given what I’ve said above, that I surely couldn’t have cussed any more as I was working on the display, you’re wrong. I think it was one long, continuous cuss that just flowed out of me for about the half hour it took to clean the inside of the damned thing.

First, there’s adhesive tape that must be removed, all around the perimeter of the display, while being very careful not to mess with the display wiring harnesses. Also, there are a great many tiny screws, all around the perimeter of the display, that must also be removed. Once that’s done, the metal backing of the display comes off, revealing a stack of plastic sheets of differing transparencies and textures that make up the actual display assembly. Don’t ask me how it works that way. I don’t know. But I do know dust had somehow gotten in there, in-between those plastic sheets, and I needed to clean it off.

Here’s where the static-free and dust-free environment comes in. For as I wiped each of those plastic sheets clean on both sides, with a special dust cloth, they began to attract more dust. Hey, they’re plastic and they get charged with electricity as you wipe them, particularly in the dry late winter/early spring atmosphere. I had a static-free mat, but I couldn’t find the special wire that connects it to the house ground to discharge the static electricity. So I worked as best I could, cleaning each of those plastic sheets from the display sandwich while constantly cussing because I’d bothered with this and because who the feck knew a display was made of semi-transparent plastic sheets that attracted dust like a magnet!

I got it done and put it back together, half-expecting to have screwed it all up, but surprise, surprise, it worked! So now I don’t have those annoying dust spots in the lower corners, but I have a couple of textile fibers, one about 1 cm long and the other about 4 mm long, each about 1/20th of a mm thick, clearly visible in the lower part of the display, plus 5-6 minute specks of dust sprinkled around for good measure.

I hope I never have to open the damned display again, but might have to at some point, given yet another design flaw is clearly apparent here: a factory-sealed display assembly somehow sucked in dust, and now that I’ve had to break the seal to clean it, it’s likely that more dust will get in there.

My computer is working great again and it is back to its normal self. I tested it with Geekbench, and while it was slower in the interim when the CPU couldn’t cool properly, it’s back to its usual perky performance now. I’ve upgraded pretty much everything I could have upgraded on it, so I think the performance I’m getting now is just about all I’ll get from it, and it feels good to know that I’ve squeezed all the practical use out of it. If NVMe storage ever drops in price and increases in capacity to the point where I can get a 4-5 TB module for the price that I got my SSD now, given the huge increase in speed between a regular SSD and an NVMe, I might spring for one, but I don’t know if the iMac can truly handle those speeds. There might be a bottleneck somewhere, perhaps in the SATA connection itself, in the bus, who knows… I also don’t know how much longer it’ll last and if it breaks, what will break and whether it’ll make sense to replace that part, at that time. I am happy though, knowing I’ve made very good use of it while it worked.

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How To

A repair to my wife’s Mac Mini

My wife’s computer is a unibody, late-2012 Mac Mini, model A1347 with Fusion Drive, which we’ve had since then, having ordered it to our specs directly from Apple. We’re happy with it. It’s a lovely little computer with more than enough oomph for my wife’s needs (she is an author).

The HDD on her Mac was silently failing and her computer was getting slower. A quick disk speed test revealed that its write speeds had decreased by about 75%.

Running First Aid on the system volume did not yield any insights into the HDD’s true state. Thankfully, there’s a little app called DriveDx, which I talked about in a previous post. Running that app revealed the HDD’s problems.

The SSD wasn’t doing too well either, but at least its lifespan was at about 50%.

The solution was simple: I needed to replace the HDD. A 1TB SSD would suffice, so I ordered one (an ADATA SU800 1TB SSD). My wife continued to use her computer as usual, since it was still working, although I made doubly sure that it was backing up to Time Machine. I would restore her data from those backups after I replaced the HDD.

Once the SSD arrived, I got to work. I didn’t want Ligia to experience an outage longer than a few hours, so the pressure was on. My plan was to open up her machine, clean the insides thoroughly of dust, replace the thermal paste on the CPU and GPU, then replace the HDD with the SSD. After putting it back together and booting up, I would need to do a data restore.

Here is a gallery of photographs from that process. The insides were indeed full of dust and the thermal paste had dried up. I followed this guide from iFixit, although I have to say it’s not entirely accurate, as detailed below.

I was on my own when it came time to work on the AirPort/Bluetooth board, where the setup differed quite a bit from the guide. There were also a few screws whose location was different in the guide. So I took photos before I disassembled things, just to be safe.

While I love the design of the Mac Mini (inside and out) and I think it’s a fantastic little computer, it’s tricky to work on. Everything has to fit together just right. The things that gave me problems when it came time to re-assemble it were:

  • the minified SATA cables, which kept popping out of their slots on the motherboard and are really only held in place by the cowling (the little piece of plastic in a semilune shape),
  • re-seating the top drive, whose side screws have to slide into some holes in the back of the case, but there is little to no tactile feedback when they’re in place, and there’s no way to check things visually; it actually fits asymmetrically over the bottom drive, which is a bit illogical, but that’s how the engineers worked out the hardware design,
  • and the antenna plate. Oh wow, the antenna plate was a chore to work back in… It has to fit in just right, hugging the inside edge of the case with an indentation made in the wire mesh from which it’s constructed, and for some reason, it just didn’t want to go back in properly. It was off by less than 1 mm, yet it meant that I couldn’t put the screws back on. Be careful with that one!

When it was time to boot it up, the Mac Mini refused to do it. I stared at a black screen for a minute or two, wondering if I’d forgotten to connect some cable inside it, and then it occurred to me to re-seat the AC cable, which is notoriously hard to plug and unplug on this machine, because its slot is too tight. That turned out to be the problem. Whew.

Another wrinkle that I ran into was the Fusion Drive. This machine has an actual SSD inside of it, not a blade SSD, which is what you might find in an iMac or a MacBook. That was a bit of a surprise to me. Anyway, come time to reformat the drives, I figured I could re-enable Fusion Drive and end up with a single volume that used both the Apple SSD and the new ADATA SSD. Nope. While you can run the commands in Terminal to “marry” the two SSDs into a Fusion Drive (see this post for the details), checking the resulting volume with Disk Utility gives an error and Mojave refuses to install on it. So… no Fusion Drive for my wife, I guess. Then I figured I could create a software JBOD in Disk Utility to end up with a single volume once more, and I did that, and it worked, but once again, Mojave refused to install on it. So I had to simply format each SSD as a separate drive and use the 1TB SSD as the system volume, leaving the 128GB Apple SSD as a secondary volume to be used occasionally.

A quick check with DriveDx showed me that the new SSD was doing just fine.

And a disk speed test showed things were humming along nicely.

Here are some Geekbench scores for good measure.

My wife’s pretty happy with it now, she says it is faster than before and it doesn’t crash anymore, which it used to do every now and then. And if my wife’s happy, then I’m happy.

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Apple iMac
How To

An upgrade to my 2013 iMac

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 (A1419, EMC 2639). 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/repair. 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 major 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.

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Thoughts

What I’d like to see in a new iMac

As is usual in anticipation of the launch of new hardware from Apple, there are lots of posts and videos with detailed renders of what we might expect from a new iMac. Other than faster hardware, which is something that we’re going to get anyway, I would really like to see a new swivel design that allows me to turn the computer to Portrait mode. I made a mock-up in Photoshop, but I’m no wizard in that app, so you’ll have to excuse the quality.

The capability to rotate the display and have it conform automatically to the new vertical is something that we’ve already had for years in iOS devices like the iPhone Plus and the iPad. And with the iPad Pro, the bezel design is symmetric, so the device looks good in any orientation. So giving the iMac the same capability would require a redesign of the outer face, probably by making the bezel the same width all around, as others have already hinted. Do you see how this purported new design lends itself to the rotation of the display?

Monitors that function in Portrait mode are nothing new, so this isn’t reinventing the wheel. I’ve seen them around since the early 1990s, when people working on books and brochures in Aldus Pagemaker (also called Adobe Pagemaker later on) would turn theirs sideways to help with their work. I imagine it would also help when working on portrait photos or other vertical photography.

Oh, and how about six USB-C ports on the back? Rather than go with two USB-C and four USB 3.0, ports, I’d go with six USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) ports and use readily available connector adapters for USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 devices.

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How To

An upgrade to my mom’s 2007 iMac

If you thought my MacBook Pro was old, then you’re going to be surprised to hear that my mom has a 2007 iMac 24″ (model A1225) that’s still fully functional. Nothing has ever gone wrong with it, in spite of sending it to Romania via a shipping container (on one of those big ships) when she moved here, in spite of wild electricity fluctuations both in the US and in Romania, and in spite of being buried in paperwork all these years on her desk. It’s been working just fine and now that I’ve upgraded it, it’s working even better.

I saw an even greater difference in performance after the upgrade, as compared to my 2008 MBP. Not only was it slower than my MBP before the upgrade, but it’s now faster than it. I couldn’t understand why until I realized that the MBP’s hardware caps off at SATA I (150 MB/s) speeds while the iMac’s hardware is SATA II (300 MB/s). Yup, it was made a year before my laptop and yet it’s faster than it. It was also less expensive. There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

I’d upgraded this iMac’s RAM to the max it could handle (6 GB) a couple of years after she bought it, so the only upgrade I could make now was to swap out the HDD with an SSD. I opted for a 1 TB SSD that would replace her aging 320 GB HDD. Yup, this was the original HDD that shipped with the computer, and it worked just fine for 11 years!

Here is a set of photos taken during the upgrade. Since I’d never opened this iMac, I figured it was due for a thorough cleaning and a replacement of the thermal paste. I used this guide from iFixit to help me out. I’m glad I cleaned all of it; even though it didn’t have as much dust and lint inside as I’d expected, it needed to be cleaned.

A word of warning: there aren’t a lot of guides for this iMac on the internet, which means I wandered into unknown territory when I took all of it apart. I had to take photos of the screws and their positions, and of the wires and the sensors and oh boy… just be careful and keep track of everything if you decide to take it all apart… The back is plastic and uncharacteristically for Apple, the screw mounts are plastic, and that means you have to be gentle when you’re screwing components into the frame or else you’ll strip the plastic threads. This was the most complicated take-apart job I’ve undertaken so far, even more complicated than my iMac G5. I’ve never seen so many sensors and power cables running everywhere. And once I got it open, it was aluminum foil city… you’ll see what I mean.

As you’ll see from the photos, I ended up not using graphite pads. I went ahead and cut up pads for its chips, but when screwing back the heat sink assembly I noticed that one of the pads had fallen out, which meant that it just wasn’t making proper contact between the chip and the heat sink. I couldn’t risk having the other pads fall out as well and ruining my mom’s computer in the process, so I ended up using thermal paste for all of the contact points except for the GPU, where the pad seemed to stay in place securely. You’ll see a piece of cork under the graphics card below. It’s actually helpful when you screw the heat sink on top of the card, because the screw heads will dig into the cork and not turn, up to a point.

Be careful with this heat sink assembly you see below, the pins that secure it over the chip have to be de-cored (I don’t know if that’s the right word for it) so you can pull them out safely. Then you’ll have to push the cores back in place to secure the pins; if you break one… good luck hunting one down.

When you put the whole thing back together, leave these two screw mounts unused.

The two screws that you think go there, actually go here.

I know now why Apple has decided to make their display assemblies one-piece. While it might be easier to take apart a magnetic glass top that sits over the display instead of prying apart an assembly stuck to the case with adhesive strips, you only get to appreciate that design change when you polish the display for half an hour at the end of the upgrade, trying to remove the smudge marks that you left on it when you took it apart, and when you blow away every single particle of lint with a lens blower before you put the glass back on top, only to discover that you needed to clean some more spots, but you’re too tired to do it over. You might be tempted to cuss at that point… On the other hand, when your one-piece display assembly somehow sucks in fine dust that decides to settle into a spot in the middle of the display and in a corner and is quite visible but you can’t do a thing about it, as is the case with my 2013 iMac, you are also tempted to cuss.

I still say the newer iMacs are easier to service than this older iMac and also than my old MacBook Pro. They’re also more beautiful inside. I can clearly see the attention to detail and design that went into something few people will ever see, simply for the sake of doing good work. That’s something I appreciate more and more and I get older.

The inside of my 2013 iMac

Here are some screenshots that show the specs of the upgraded computer. You’ll see that the disk write speeds went up from about 40 MB/s to 240 MB/s. It’s not exactly 300 MB/s, which is the theoretical max of SATA II, but it’s still a huge jump in speed and the computer shows it in real world use.

The highest version of macOS I could install was El Capitan. The App Store still bugged me to install Mojave but when I tried, it told me I couldn’t do it. I know Apple wants everyone who can upgrade, to upgrade to Mojave, but they might want to check their notification code to exclude those with older hardware that can’t upgrade. I get the same notifications on my 2008 MBP, which I also can’t upgrade to Mojave.

I’d like to encourage you to explore upgrade options for your older computers. An SSD will probably make the biggest difference in performance and their prices have really come down during the last couple of years. From an environmental standpoint, upgrading an older machine to keep it working well is always going to consume less resources than making a new one. And there’s something to be said for keeping a good machine well maintained: if it’s served you well, it deserves a bit of TLC from you, a bit of regular maintenance to keep it working, as was its purpose from the start.

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How To

An upgrade to my 2008 MacBook Pro

I have a fully functional MacBook Pro made in early 2008 (model A1260). While it’s fairly slow when editing photos and I wouldn’t try to edit 1080p video on it, it’s just fine for word processing, web and email. It has become slow over time, as is the case with older hardware, so I thought I’d give it an upgrade. Since I maxed it out when I bought it, the only upgrade I could give it now was to switch the HDD with an SSD.

This MBP was my main computer for a number of years. I really put it through its paces during its heyday, and by that I mean the sound of its little fans going into overdrive to cool its chips isn’t a rare memory for me. When I bought an iMac, the MacBook Pro became my wife’s laptop, and she used it to write quite a few of her published books on it. Fortunately, I did something few people do with their laptops: I bought an aluminum stand for it right after I bought it, and we’ve used it (mostly) with that stand through all these years. I believe that’s what’s made the difference in its longevity.

When you use a laptop on your lap, you are shortening its life considerably, in spite of what its name (lap-top) implies. A laptop needs to stay cool, and making it work very hard to achieve that while it’s pulling lint and crumbs from your lap through its air intake, just isn’t going to do it long-term. Its chips will overheat and in the end give out, as I’m sure has been the experience of many people.

Here is a set of photos taken during the upgrade process. Although I’ve opened my laptop multiple times in the past, once to replace a faulty fan and another to replace a bad wireless card, I referred to this guide from iFixit to refresh my memory. I didn’t just replace the HDD, I also took the laptop completely apart in order to clean out the dust and replace the thermal paste on its chips. I’m really glad I did it, because there was a lot of dust and lint inside (as you can see from the photos) and the thermal paste had become dry and brittle, which isn’t a good thing.

I should caution you first: if your computer is still under warranty, such work will likely void the warranty. Take it to a trustworthy and authorized shop to have it done. Also, don’t expect the job to be as easy or look as clean as it does in the guides posted online. Here’s what my desk really looked like while doing the work. Know what you’re getting into before you open up your computer.

If you’ve looked through the photos and are wondering about the new thermal paste… I ended up not using any. I’d heard good things about a replacement for thermal paste: graphite pads, so I used those instead.

While I’m fairly sure they do what they say they do, which is to enable much better heat transfer than paste without degrading over time, I wouldn’t recommend them for this application, because unlike paste, they don’t stick to the chip at all, and they’re so light even a wisp of breath can blow them away. I was stubborn and did it anyway, but the way you have to fit the heat sink over the chips and turn the whole assembly over in order to tighten the screws means the pads will likely fall out or shift position, and that’s not good in either scenario. If they fall out, you’ll have nothing in place, leading to chip failure, and if they shift and touch other stuff on the board, like the little transistors next to the chip, they can cause a short-circuit, because unlike paste, they conduct electricity. I’m sure they’re great on regular motherboards where you simply sit them over the chip and close the heat sink on top, but not here, where the chips are tiny and you have to fiddle with and turn over the heat sink assembly to get it in place.

Our daughter had broken off one of the keys a few years ago, so I took this opportunity to replace it. Did you know there are websites that sell individual keys for reasonable prices? I didn’t; that was new to me.

I’d like you to see that there are six lights under each key on this keyboard. This is worth noticing because many laptops nowadays brag about having lighted keyboards and “individual lights under each key” when they mean a single LED, while back in 2008, this MBP had six LEDs for each key!

Last but not least, a set of screenshots for the specs. The two specs that are different now are the disk size and speed. The new disk size is 1 TB, which is going to be plenty for this old timer. The speed is capped off at SATA I (1.5 Gb/s or 150 MB/s) by the laptop’s hardware. With the new SSD, I’m getting somewhere between 125-130 MB/s, which is less than the theoretical max but about right in real world speed. Before the upgrade, I was getting somewhere between 40-60 MB/s.

The highest version of macOS that I can install on it is El Capitan, which means it still (sort of) works with iCloud: the photos sync up with my other devices, but the documents and desktop don’t. I know there are hacks out there to enable an upgrade to Mojave, but I’d rather use what’s officially available.

The question that needs a final answer is this: can I see a difference? The answer is yes. The laptop’s gotten a little snappier and for what I need it to do, it works great now. Most of all, I’m amazed that after 10 years, it still works, and it works well.

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How To

On keeping one’s computer tidy…

I recently had to take my iMac apart in order to look at the hardware closely, and after 5 years of intense use in my home office, I got a chance to re-convince myself of the importance of keeping one’s computer tidy inside, not just outside.

Apple doesn’t make it easy for us to service our computers, do they? Gone are the days of the big Power PC or Mac Pro enclosures that could be easily opened for a bit of vacuuming and dusting or the upgrade/replacement of a piece of hardware. Or how about those unique and colorful 1st gen iMac enclosures that were transparent, so you could see at a glance if they needed a bit of inside cleaning? The enclosure of my iMac G5, though impressively thin for its time, with components tightly packed inside, was still fairly easy to open. Even the predecessor of my current iMac, a 2011 model, was easy enough to open, because the display was affixed to the enclosure with magnets. These days, the enclosures of our Macs are sealed with adhesives that make it difficult to get inside…

The IT part of me gets it somewhat: if they’re too easy to open, most people will only get inside and mess something up. Plus, an accidental spill of liquid on the screen, or an overly judicious application of cleaning solution, might get inside and affect the circuits.

It’s easy and natural to assume that if a computer is sealed shut, it’s clean inside, but the truth of the matter is that computers need to be cleaned and serviced regularly. As long as a computer has active cooling (a fan that pulls air in), dust will get inside and settle everywhere. Even passive cooling involves some sort of air current that moves through the machine and dust will follow that current and accumulate inside over time.

Here’s what the inside of my iMac looked like when I opened it up for the first time.

It may not look too dirty at first glance, but let’s have a closer look, shall we?

I took every single piece apart, and every piece was full of thick dust like this, dust that would have clogged up the air vents completely and caused an overheat or even a shortcircuit. It was very fine dust that kept getting into my nose and making me sneeze. I couldn’t believe how much of it had gathered inside. This iMac’s always been on my desk, in my office, a room which I vacuumed regularly, but as you can see, five years of moderate to intensive use for 8 or more hours per day, will definitely show up on the inside, even though the outside is shiny and clean. This is why I believe every Mac owner ought to either learn how to clean their computer or take it into a repair shop every few years to have it properly and thoroughly cleaned. We have plenty of resources these days. I used the thorough guide for taking apart my iMac posted on iFixit.com, a resource I definitely recommend.

If and when you take your iMac apart, you should definitely check the air intake vents (located on the bottom bezel of the enclosure) and the air output vents (located behind the flex mount of the iMac’s foot, above the RAM bay). That’s where dust will accumulate the most.

Here’s how my computer looked after being properly cleaned.

Please be careful as you handle the various parts, will you? One wrong move with the screwdriver and you could damage a circuit or worse, if you’re handling the power supply, you could cause a short that could give you a real shock and damage it for good. Unless you work in IT and have handled computer innards before, your best bet is to find a reputable repair shop, hopefully an Apple-authorized one, and have them clean it thoroughly. Just so you don’t have any issues with your Apple warranty and perhaps void it by mistake, do this operation after the warranty runs out (that’s 3 years for Apple Care).

Hope this helps!

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2018 iPhone Line-up
Thoughts

Tim Cook says iPhones are justifiably expensive

In an interview on “Good Morning America”, Tim Cook said the following when asked about the prices of the new iPhones, which have grown well above the $1,000 mark: “it’s the most advanced device we’ve ever done… [and]… replaces every other gadget consumers might need“.

Dear Tim, I would like to propose a challenge to you.

If the new iPhones are indeed a replacement for most other devices we might need, then please make it a substitute for the laptop and desktop computer. Please justify their cost with one more worthwhile argument. Notice I did not say a “replacement“, because I also have a desktop and laptop and tablet and I don’t foresee giving them up, especially not my desktop. A substitute is sorely needed though. 

As I’m sure you’re well aware, the smartphone has become the only computing device for a lot of people throughout the world. And those people have to squint at a small screen and type on a non-existent virtual keyboard and poke around the (small, albeit now bigger) screen with their fingers whenever they need to do something important. It would be so much easier to plug it into a small device and be able to use it properly, as most of us have done, growing up using regular computers.

The iPhone is, as you say, a powerful and advanced device. Why not open up that power to the traditional users of a computer? I’m talking about a keyboard, a mouse and a monitor, of course, so we can use and work with email, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations on a bigger screen (these apps may be boring but they’re still the ones that run the world of business). It feels like you have deliberately held this option back from the consumers so it wouldn’t eat into your other lines (tablets, laptops, etc.). I can’t see another reason for it. I can’t imagine that you did not know that Samsung has been working on the Dex for years. It’s even been on the market for a couple of years now. It’s good. It’s so good it’s got me thinking I should buy a Samsung phone.

My request isn’t new. I’ve talked about it before. And no, the iPad isn’t the answer to my needs and those of many other people. 

Will you please do this? 

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A Guide To A Good Life, How To

How to choose a camera that’s right for you

In this video, I’m going to walk you through a process that will help you choose the right camera for your needs; it’s the same process I use myself as I choose new photo and video gear. Here are the decision-making steps I talk about in the video:

  1. Love what you already have
  2. Learn to use your equipment properly
  3. Don’t stress out about resolution (megapixels)
  4. Don’t get on a tech merry-go-round
  5. You don’t need UHD (4k video) just yet
  6. Be wary of “filler resolution”
  7. Separate the “nice to have” from the “must have”
  8. Get separate photo and video gear in order to obtain the best quality images and video

I hope this helps you!

Released 17-02-2018

It may seem like what I say in this video about camera resolution and about separating the equipment you purchase for photograph and video is contradicting what I say in this post, or in this post, but it isn’t that. I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, and I’ve simply become more nuanced in my understanding of many aspects of digital cameras; when I sat down and thought about what kind of advice I wanted to give in this video, the statements I made above rang truest.

Thanks for watching!

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Thoughts

My thoughts on Apple’s iPhone CPU throttling

Updated 12/29/17: Apple has posted an official response to this issue on their website. It’s the right response.

Everyone’s chiming in on this issue so I’m not going to rehash it, but I do have a practical suggestion that addresses it. You know what’s going on: older iPhones with older batteries tend to run slow (see this post). I noticed it as well and thought, like most people, that we (my wife and I) need to replace our iPhones, because they’re getting too old to handle the iOS upgrades and respective upgrades to the mobile apps we use.

As it turns out, Apple has been quietly throttling the CPU speeds of our iPhones in order to compensate for the fact that older Li-Ion batteries can’t sustain the voltages needed for those higher speeds. It was watching out for us, but without explaining it. And as it turns out in life, a lack of communication will cause problems. They only offered the explanation after people got upset — so upset that now several lawsuits have been filed against them (see this post). Only two lawsuits are mentioned in that post, but in another story I read today, the total went up to eight.

I’m not feeling sorry for Apple. They’re big boys, they have plenty of money to handle the lawsuits and their “we know better” attitude toward the customers, as well as their closed system approach to everything they develop, has always engendered a certain amount of anger from its customers. What they can and should do now is to suck it up and offer a good defense in court.

All of this could have been avoided if they’d simply done something similar to the “Low Power Mode” option that’s already offered on iPhones. That is an elegant and caring solution to a problem that users encounter every day.

ios11-iphone7-settings-battery-low-power-mode.png

Something like this, let’s call it a “Battery Lifespan Advisory”, could be a feature launched with the next incremental upgrade to iOS 11, and it might let us toggle the “Automatic CPU Throttling” on or off when the battery nears the end of its projected lifespan. We could get a message on our screens, just like when Low Battery Mode is recommended, that would take us directly to the screen where we read an explanation and get to manage this option.

And that’s about all I have to say on this.

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