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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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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