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.


It’s time to demand reliability from DSLR manufacturers

Update: After sending the camera in for service to a Canon authorized repair facility, it turns out I took somewhere between 75,000 – 100,000 shots with my 5D when the shutter mechanism failed. Still, most of what I wrote below is appropriate commentary on the whole situation. 

When DSLRs (and now HDSLRs) cost thousands of dollars, and the manufacturer makes a promise that the shutter in said DSLR is rated for 100,000 shots or 150,000 shots, I think it should no longer be a promise, but a guarantee, and the manufacturer ought to be responsible for the repair to a DSLR whose shutter failed before its rated number of shots.

Look at cars. Some cars cost little more than a top of the line DSLR, but cars have serious warranties. These days, some cars have 10-year warranties on everything. Historically speaking, even if most cars haven’t had good warranties on everything, they’ve had good warranties on the power train — on the basic stuff that makes them go.

On a DSLR, the shutter is part of the camera’s “powertrain”. Without it, the camera can’t take photographs, and a full-frame DSLR that can’t take photographs is a very expensive paperweight.

It’s high time we demanded that DSLR manufacturers come up with warranties for the more expensive DSLRs, where they’ll guarantee that the shutter and the motherboard (pretty much every part that takes photos and writes those photos to a card) will work for a certain amount of time.

If we don’t, we’ll likely run into the situation I’m in right now, where my Canon EOS 5D’s shutter started to fail at under 50,000 shots. Initially, photos taken at 1/6000 sec or higher (1/8000 sec) would come out black or almost black. Now, months later and at around 52,500 shots, even photos taken at 1/1000 sec are severely underexposed.

Have a look at three photos taken with the 5D. The first two were taken at 1/8000 sec shutter speed a couple of months ago, and the third was taken at 1/1000 sec shutter speed a few days ago.

It’s not right that the shutter has started to fail at half its projected life span of 100,000 shots. And what’s even more improper is Canon USA Support’s reply to me. They told me the shutter’s rated life is not a warranty, not even a promise, but an expectancy (an anticipation if you will).

What that means is they can advertise long shutter lives all they want, but they’re not accountable for actual, real-world results from its customers. It’s irresponsible, and it shouldn’t be allowed. When we pay thousands of dollars for a fancy DSLR, we as customers pay that money with certain expectations in mind. Those expectations entail (among others) a need for durability and reliability.

I propose that a set of benchmarks be set for the entire photography industry, where shutter life is one of the differentiating criteria. Processor and camera motherboard life should be another. Manufacturers would then have to offer warranties on these benchmark criteria. I propose 4 or 5-year warranties on the circuits, and on shutter life, the warranty should go as far as its stated life span. If it’s 100,000 shots, then by Noah, it should be 100,000 shots, end of story.


The iMac: not so great long, long after

I received an email from Apple a couple of days ago, advertising the new iMac. The title of the ad was: “Amazing right out of the box. And long, long after.”


I disagree with that characterization. Perhaps it’s true of the new iMac, but it’s not true of our iMac. First, let me get something out of the way. I’m a Mac guy. I love Macs, I use a Mac all day long, I love their design and performance, and I love OS X. Unfortunately, my long-term experience with the Mac hardware, particularly when it comes to our iMac, isn’t so positive.

You see, we purchased an iMac G5 in late 2006, with an Apple Care plan. Thank goodness we did that, because we had problems with it from the get-go. A year after owning it, I wrote a post where I detailed the problems I’d been having. At the advice of some of the readers, I took it into an Apple Store to have it checked out. They replaced the motherboard and did a couple of other things. The repair experience was problematic in itself. Then, a short while afterward, the computer died again. This time we took it into a different store, where they replaced the motherboard again and did some other repairs.

Although that second repair experience was more positive, I had to take it into the store once more in 2008, for related issues. I can’t find the repair receipt at the moment, so I don’t know the date and I don’t know what they fixed, but yeah, that was the third time I had related repairs done to it, very likely for the same problems.

Then, inconveniently, about two months after the Apple Care plan expired in September 2009, our iMac died, just as it had died a couple of times before. It refused to boot up altogether. When I’d plug it in and press the power button on the back, nothing would happen. But, if I was extremely lucky, every once in a while, some noises would be heard in the back of the machine, as the cooling fans and hard drive started rotating, only to die a second or so later.

When this last hardware failure occurred, we were packing for an extended stay in Romania. I took the iMac along, since we had data on its hard drive that we needed. Once here, I was able to open it and retrieve the data from the hard disk. Unfortunately, the computer itself is still dead. What’s worse, I’m nowhere near an Apple Store. There are no official Apple stores in Romania. None at all. Where do I take it for service? And will I have to pay for the repair? A logic board replacement on an iMac G5 is somewhere around $900, and that’s only for the parts. It hardly seems fair to pay for a lemon repair, because that’s basically what I have — a lemon. Our iMac G5 has had repeated hardware failures of the same parts (at least three failures) while the Apple Care contract was still valid. The right thing for Apple to do would have been to replace it with an equivalent model, or to offer me a significant rebate on a newer model, allowing me to upgrade as painlessly as possible to more stable hardware. But none of that happened, and now I’m stuck with dead hardware.

So yeah, I don’t think the iMac is so great, long, long after. I’m sorry I spent our money on it, actually, and sorry it never worked as it should have, from the get-go.