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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Thoughts

Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

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