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Ubuntu on a Macbook Pro

I’m not abandoning Mac OS X, but you knew it had to happen—I have installed Ubuntu on the Macbook Pro as a dual-boot. It hasn’t been easy, mind you. Previously, I had done a few dual-boot setups with Ubuntu and Windows or Ubuntu and some other Linux distro or even Ubuntu and an older version of Ubuntu. Ubuntu on a Macbook Pro is a totally different experience.

So first I went to the Ubuntu wiki to find out if it was worth my time. According to the Macbook Pro 3,1 page, everything works pretty much out of the box with Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx). That was encouraging. Then I read up the generic Apple Intel installation instructions. They didn’t sound too complicated. Install rEFIt, repartition the hard drive, install Ubuntu in the new partitioned space. Easy, right? Well, not so easy. Here are a few bumps I encountered along the way:

  • rEFIt didn’t install correctly. After you install it, you should reboot and see the rEFIt menu. No menu. So I had to do some digging and found out there is a script you can run in the terminal to sort of reinstall rEFIt.
  • I couldn’t resize my hard drive through Disk Utility or BootCamp. Both failed, claiming there wasn’t enough free space, even though there was plenty (at least 70 GB after I backed up my files to an external hard drive and deleted them, planning to copy them back later). So, believe it or not, I took the hours to completely reinstall Mac OS X from scratch and then repartition the drive.
  • Since Ubuntu can’t reliably write to HFS+, I put my music, pictures, etc. on a shared FAT32 partition. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t really dig that. If I try to skip to the next song, I get about five seconds of the rainbow circle of death before the next song will actually play. The symlinks from the FAT32 partition also broke at first, too, because initially it was mounted as /Volumes/Storage but then it suddenly became /Volumes/STORAGE. After fixing everything to point to the upper-case mount point, the links appear to be working again.
  • Ubuntu would not install the first five times I tried. That’s right. I tried five times. It kept failing in the middle of the installation, claiming the CD was bad or the CD drive was bad or the laptop was too hot. All of those things could have been true to some degree. The CD had a little bit of dirt on it, which I tried to clean off but couldn’t get completely clean. The CD drive was definitely bad. In OS X it was pretty good at reading commercially produced CDs and DVDs but would sometimes reject homebrews (it would spin and try to read for a minute or two and then just spit the disc out). Also, unlike my wife’s new Macbook Pro, this old MBP overheats like nobody’s business. You could probably fry an egg on it. Eventually, I did something that worked, and I’m not sure which part of it did it. I turned the computer off for the night (let it cool down completely). Then I immediately booted it up and while Ubuntu was installing, I never left it alone. I played gBrainy. I looked in the file browser. I changed various settings. I didn’t let the CD rest and give up. So I don’t know if it was having it cool or constantly engaging the live CD session, but eventually Ubuntu did get installed.
  • I installed the Nvidia driver, but then Hardware Drivers instructed me to use a more recent driver. After that, suspend didn’t resume. But then I removed the old driver and rebooted, and resume from suspend worked fine, as did Compiz.
  • The touchpad works extremely well for two-finger scrolling, but the touch sensitivity is a bit much (and can’t be adjusted, as far as I can tell), so I have to be careful not to tap the touchpad accidentally when trying to scroll; otherwise, I end up clicking. If I turn off tapping to click, then I can’t right-click by tapping down two fingers. A bit annoying.
  • Control is a rather small key on the Mac keyboard, but for most navigation it’s used more often than the Cmd key (the Super key, for all intents and purposes). The key placement is a bit odd when you’re used to coming from Mac OS X or even from a regular Windows keyboard. Takes a bit of getting used to.
  • I thought Skype was broken, but it wasn’t. I set my account to offline instead of invisible, and apparently if you’re offline you can’t do the Skype test call (it just fails immediately). I didn’t know that, so I was trying all these crazy fixes like uninstalling PulseAudio or whatever. Turns out it just works fine if you’re invisible or online.
  • The Picasa from the Google repositories is broken with the latest Lucid kernel. If you download the .deb straight from Google, though, it works just fine.
  • I had a 32-bit Ubuntu CD already, so I didn’t really want to bother downloading 64-bit Ubuntu to take advantage of all 4 GB of RAM (and waste another blank CD, since Macs can’t boot from USB). I guess that would have been interesting to try, but 32-bit works quite snappily with only a bit more than 3 GB of RAM being recognized.

Overall, I have to say Ubuntu works quite well on a Mac. I think it even runs a bit cooler, too (still very hot but maybe not hot enough to fry an egg on). My plan is to keep playing around with both (sometimes boot into OS X, sometimes boot into Ubuntu). With a FAT32 partition for files, I have that luxury, except that I will have to be in OS X to import into iTunes and iPhoto—Rhythmbox and Picasa on Ubuntu will automatically watch folders for new files.

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The Macbook Pro Dead Video Card Saga

Back story
Those of you who have been following my blog know I recently switched my primary computer from a Ubuntu netbook to a Mac OS X laptop. I still have the Ubuntu netbook and use it from time to time (mainly to take out with me when I do laundry), but my wife’s old Macbook Pro is my main computer now.

About Apple Hardware
We bought this computer back in January 2008, less than 2.5 years ago. At the time, it was US$2000, quite a significant purchase price for a computer. Given some people’s much-vaunted claims about Apple computers’ “superior hardware,” the real truth is that Apple uses generic components. Nvidia graphics card. Fujitsu SATA hard drive. We’ve upgraded the RAM on two Apple laptops using generic RAM from NewEgg (much cheaper than the Apple Store RAM), and it works just as well as the Apple RAM. There is nothing special about the Apple internal hardware. The external hardware is a work of art—well-constructed and pleasant to look at. But an Nvidia card in an Apple laptop is about the same as an Nvidia card in a Windows or Linux laptop.

Graphics Card Failure
So last week, I was in the middle of using this laptop when the screen started rapidly flickering white like a strobe light while the mouse turned into the rainbow circle of death (also known as the beachball). I could move the mouse, but I couldn’t click on anything. Eventually, the only way I could get it to stop was a forced shutdown. After I rebooted, everything seemed fine for an hour or so. Then I got the crazy flickering again. I did a forced shutdown. This time, though, when I rebooted, I got a failure message saying that I had to reboot. I wasn’t happy about this. In between various successful reboots, failures, and flickerings, I did Google searches and tried every suggestion I could find. I reset the PRAM. I took out the RAM and put it back in. I tried using the laptop without the battery. I tried using a lower screen resolution. Nothing worked. After a certain point, the display just totally died. No flickering. Nothing. Dead.

At that point, both my wife and I had considered the laptop gone. $2000 down the drain, and after only two years and a bit. It was past the manufacturer’s warranty, and we didn’t have Apple Care (as a matter of policy, we do not buy service plans, because they are generally a waste of money, and if we added up all the money we would have wasted on all those service plans, we could easily just purchase a new whatever-electronics-device-is-broken). I decided, since we gave up on it anyway to do just a little bit more Google searching, and I came across this Apple support article: MacBook Pro: Distorted video or no video issues, which says:

In July 2008, NVIDIA publicly acknowledged a higher than normal failure rate for some of their graphics processors due to a packaging defect. At that same time, NVIDIA assured Apple that Mac computers with these graphics processors were not affected. However, after an Apple-led investigation, Apple has determined that some MacBook Pro computers with the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor may be affected. If the NVIDIA graphics processor in your MacBook Pro has failed, or fails within three years of the original date of purchase, a repair will be done free of charge, even if your MacBook Pro is out of warranty.

I wasn’t too hopeful Apple would honor this, but I figured I had nothing to lose. It was a dead laptop. If Apple wouldn’t honor this article, I would still have a dead laptop. If they would honor it, though, I would have a resurrected laptop.

The Genius Bar
I went to the Apple website, created an Apple ID account, made an appointment at the Genius Bar for a couple of days later. Then my wife and I went to the Apple Store at the appointed time. I was perfectly ready to be condescended to. I was perfectly ready for them to treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, no such thing happened. The “genius” (I forget her name) was friendly and simply asked me what was wrong. I explained that the graphics card was dead because of this problem (I handed her a printout of that support article) and that I had already tried resetting the PRAM and was pretty confident it was the graphics card, since the laptop still made the bootup noise and the Caps Lock light could turn on and off. She seemed to believe me but just wanted to run one quick test. She plugged in a firewire external hard drive into the computer and booted up the laptop while holding down the S key, explaining to me that she was just running a graphics card test on it. She then plugged the external hard drive into another computer, opened up a log file, and confirmed that the graphics card was indeed dead. She asked if I had Apple Care. I explained nervously that I didn’t need it (according to the article, I shouldn’t). She said she knew I didn’t but just wanted to know if I had it. Odd.

So she printed up a work order for $0.00, and I signed it. She said the part wasn’t in but would be in a few business days, and that the store would call me when the repair was done. That was Saturday.

Today, the store called and said the laptop was fixed. I picked it up. Painless process. It’s working fine now. That’s how customer service should be. I had a very pleasant experience with the Apple Store Genius Bar. I don’t know if they’re actually geniuses, but they sure are friendly. That said, I am disappointed that Apple appears to blame Nvidia for providing a bad video card, and then when Apple replaces the dead video card, guess what they replace it with—exactly the same video card. So the offending graphics card is the Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT. And after the Macbook Pro was fixed, the new graphics card is also the Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you replace a faulty model with the same model, it’s likely to be faulty again. Hopefully, we can get at least another two years out of this thing…