Diagnose my sick laptop?
May 4, 2010 3:26 AM   Subscribe

Please explain to me exactly what is going wrong with my laptop, why doing a particular thing fixes it, and what I need to do to keep it from continually happening, or getting worse.

I have a Macbook Pro from a few years ago, running OS X 10.4.11. I'm knowledgeable enough about software, have a basic understanding of how computers work, and can follow directions, but I'm not so great with Macs despite using them for 8 years now. All of my geeky computer friends are gamers and/or they work for Microsoft, so when it comes to Macs I'm self-taught.

Once in a while, my laptop (named Majel, natch,) will just blip out. The screen will go black, not even backlit, and the little white light on the front set into the button to open the computer will blink off and on, fairly fast. To fix this, I've discovered that first, I have to hold the power button for a while to force it to turn off. Then, I turn it back on, and simultaneously hit command+option+P+R, holding until I hear the startup chime a second time. This apparently "resets the PRAM"?

It happened once a few months ago, then last week, then the day before yesterday, and later that night. Uncool! I've got backups, and there's never any lost data whenever this happens, but obviously there's something horribly wrong.

Additionally, although I have a battery that was brand new (and in-store tested to be perfectly healthy) from this past fall, my laptop likes to just turn off when not hooked up to a power supply at random percentages of power left, with no warning or indication that anything's wrong. I usually have somewhere between 5 to 20 minutes to get my laptop plugged in before it goes poof. It didn't do this when I first got the new battery, I had about three months of normal operation.

So, my questions are:

-What's wrong with my laptop? I mean, what is actually going on in there?
-Could you please explain, using language that someone who learned about computers in the mid 90s and has the working knowledge of someone who could assemble a computer from parts but has never programmed a line of code could understand, what resetting PRAM is and why it "fixes" my computer? Be detailed! I'm super curious.
-Should I expect my computer to dilapidate further?
-What should I do to keep this from happening again, and are there any Mac maintenance tips I should know?

Thank you so much for your help and the generosity with knowledge for which Metafilter is so well known.
posted by Mizu to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lose connection maybe? I wouldn't trust anything on an untrustworthy computer.

Why don't you take it to an Apple store and let them have a look?
posted by devnull at 3:44 AM on May 4, 2010

Because, devnull, I want to learn! Not just make it go away. I want to know why it's happening and why doing this specific thing fixes it temporarily and frankly, I've never met an Apple store employee who would indulge my desire for detailed explanations without charging me a few hundred bucks. If I need a new part, so be it, but I want to know why I need a new part and what that new part does.
posted by Mizu at 3:57 AM on May 4, 2010

The screen will go black, not even backlit, and the little white light on the front set into the button to open the computer will blink off and on, fairly fast.

Isn't that just sleep mode? Doesn't a simple tap on the power button bring it back?
posted by flabdablet at 4:22 AM on May 4, 2010

Sleep mode is a slow pulse in and out. Fast flashing is "I've fallen over and I can't get up" isn't it?

It might be worth running a hardware test but intermittent faults often don't show up.

NB. Does your MacBook have an Nvidia graphics chip? NVidia had a very bad time a couple of years ago & manufactured a lot of video chips that went on to fail. It might be that if you take your MacBook into an Apple Store and describe the symptoms they'll arrange to get the logic board replaced FOC.
posted by pharm at 4:33 AM on May 4, 2010

Oh, and this sounds like a hardware fault btw, not something that futzing around with the software is ever going to fix. Futzing around can be fun in its own right of course!
posted by pharm at 4:34 AM on May 4, 2010

This sounds like a problem with your motherboard or some other hardware. You could fix it yourself in theory, but those parts are prohibitively expensive because they're salvaged from other MacBook Pros. If it's still under warranty, take it in.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:45 AM on May 4, 2010

I don't know much about Macs but I can pretty much guarantee this is a hardware fault. Possibly a heating problem, possibly a glitch in the power supply.

P-RAM is apparently a type of non-volatile RAM (Random Access Memory). Generally speaking, RAM is where a computer stores information while it is being used or worked on. So when you've got Firefox and a spreadsheet and iTunes open, their "working space" is within the RAM. It's done this way because it's faster than a hard drive, which physically has to spin back and forth to access information. With most types of RAM, or memory, when you turn off the computer all the information stored in that memory is zapped into the nether. It's "volatile" because I guess it gets drunk and throws plates and then it's sorry oh my god I'm so sorry baby I love you.

But non-volatile RAM actually keeps the information for ever and ever. Non-volatile is teetotalling reliability! I'm just hand-waving here but P-RAM sounds a lot to me like a standard PC BIOS (Basic Input Output System), which is a little chip that sits inside your computer that stores a bunch of information about your machine's configuration (clock speeds and other hardware-side stuff) as well as the date and time. It's the little kernel of code that you need for all the bits of your computer to be able to get along with one another and function the way you paid for them to.

So that being the case, if indeed it is, it sounds like what's happening is your P-RAM is, possibly, getting corrupted somehow during the normal function of your machine. This is going to be because of a glitch in the hardware or, maybe just possibly, because of a virus (because BIOSes and P-RAMs are, I'm thinking, read-writeable). So for P-RAM to be losing information and causing your Macbook to shit itself, hey, I just thought maybe it's because you need a new battery on your board? Or the battery is leaky or just faulty? Hmm! You see a BIOS/P-RAM doesn't have its own energy source and it needs to draw power from somewhere, and that's done by a teensy-weensy little battery on your motherboard, a lot like a watch battery.

Can people pop their own Macs open these days or is there still some magical iTool you need to use? If your machine is out of warranty and you've got all your data backed up and can afford a replacement, you could do worse than to pop the fucking thing open and see if it's not full of bees or dust or something, or battery acid all leaky through its gizzards.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:21 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Run disk utility repairs and create a new user account and work from that for a while. It might help if it was a software problem without having to reinstall or create new partitions. If you are using an express card or pcmcia card it may be that causing trouble. I had similar problems in my old powerbook g4. It would almost definitely be the battery if you are having problems maintaining the correct date and time. Aside from all those you are looking at replacement of logic board. There are plenty of sites online that will guide you through the process. I would just ebay it. They have tremendous resale value.
posted by bravowhiskey at 8:02 AM on May 4, 2010

meant to say *cmos* battery for date anf time trouble
posted by bravowhiskey at 8:04 AM on May 4, 2010

This is probably not related to your major problem, but the battery meter needs to be recalibrated regularly. See here: http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1490
posted by bashos_frog at 1:37 PM on May 6, 2010

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