Can you help us with our laptop woes?
March 11, 2013 8:24 PM   Subscribe

My wife has an old MacBook that she is writing her Masters thesis on. I'm not exactly sure how old it is, but it is one of the white plastic ones with a smaller screen, probably 13". Regardless. She was using OpenOffice, but she said it kept crashing on her. The research I did said that LibreOffice is more stable, so I installed that on her machine, but that is also crashing on her. She is constantly afraid of losing her work, and is saving when she remembers, but sometimes it will just freeze up on her in the middle of typing and if she hasn't saved, she's fucked. I'm not really sure what to do.

As I see it, we have four options. I'm trying to figure out what is the best direction to go here. I'm just afraid that it might be the Mac and not the software that's dying, and even though we have a backup drive that she uses regularly, I'd like to avoid any unnecessary heartache.

1. Figure out why the software is crashing. Not really sure how to go about this. I have OpenOffice on my MacBook Pro and have never had a problem with it.

2. Move her thesis to Google Docs and have her write it online. She tried doing this once already, but her footnotes did not translate properly from OpenOffice to Google. It would be tedious work to transfer them by hand.

3. Buy MS Word for her Mac. The student price is something like $80, which is reasonable to me, but if it's her machine that's dying and not the software, it becomes an unreasonable expense.

4. Get a new laptop. I have no idea what is a good, inexpensive laptop to purchase for word processing, web surfing, and watching video. I first thought of suggesting a Chromebook, but she has an iPhone she needs to manage as well.

Which option(s) do you think are best in this situation?
posted by starvingartist to Computers & Internet (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Additional question: How's the learning curve on Windows 8? Most of the laptops I've priced tonight come with 8, and she's used to Macs.
posted by starvingartist at 8:30 PM on March 11, 2013

Do you have a budget for a new laptop? I'd recommend a 13" MacBook Air. It's very portable but big enough to be comfortable for long periods of writing. An Air will set you back about a grand, which isn't bad, considering how long it'll last. I love mine for school and writing and would get another in a heartbeat.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:33 PM on March 11, 2013

Can't afford another Mac. That's why I said "inexpensive" in #4. I'd really like to spend less than $400 if possible.
posted by starvingartist at 8:37 PM on March 11, 2013

Can she just type in text editor for a day? Don't worry about formatting or anything, just get content down. (It's what I do, but then again I use TeX.) If that's crashing, then she's got problems that different apps won't solve. It's possible she's got flaky hardware or her OS install has gone south (or both, the latter due to the former).

I assume you've already done the usual Mac troubleshooting things?

Dial auto-save down to 5 minutes or less.
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:43 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can she use a trial version of Word to figure out whether that would fix the problem?

Also, is she saving to a Dropbox or Google Drive folder? That will ensure that her external backup is always up to date.
posted by ripley_ at 8:46 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

At the very least, set her up a free Dropbox account NOW and have her start working on her drafts in that folder (as in, put everything in there, pronto). It'll sync pretty much every time she pauses typing. You can do that for tonight and tomorrow to hold her over.

I don't think Word is going to solve your problem. The machine's gone hinky, which might be salvageable from a reinstall standpoint, or might not. But any grad student who wants to preserve her sanity should be using Dropbox or Google Drive (warning: that crashes so bad on my MacBook I can't use it) or SOMETHING where she can fetch it from a loaner or the library or whatever.

If you're wanting to spend very little, you might get a netbook. The screen size is not fantastic (and doesn't get any better hooked to an external monitor) but it'll type and save in the word processor of her choice.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 PM on March 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

If she's used to OpenOffice/LibreOffice, perhaps a laptop or netbook with Ubuntu would have less of a learning curve than Windows 8 (which in my opinion has an utterly bizarre user experience), and might be cheaper as well.
posted by zsazsa at 8:47 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

She should be constantly afraid of losing her work if the only place it exists is on that one machine.

I'm worried that her hard drive is in the process of dying, or possibly that there is little or no free space left on it. Whatever you decide to pursue, you need to make sure that any important files are backed up (external hard drive, online, another computer).

If it were my machine I would reinstall OS X, with an eye towards replacing the hard drive if necessary. But please make sure her thesis is backed up RIGHT NOW!
posted by 6550 at 8:48 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

This sounds like a hardware issue to me - my macbook pro recently would freeze randomly - turns out it was the harddrive cable bracket that needed replacing. The time before I had a similar issue it was the hard drive itself that had failed.

I would backup as soon as possible, then take the machine to the genius bar at a local apple store (if you have one) - they should at least diagnose the machine for free.
posted by piyushnz at 8:51 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The backup drive is an external drive, and it's always plugged in. Don't worry, I made sure that she is keeping saved copies apart from the main hard drive.
posted by starvingartist at 8:59 PM on March 11, 2013

When my oldish Macbook started crashing whenever I was using Word and had any other applications open (which was all the time, thanks to grad school), it turned out to be because I hadn't upgraded my RAM in the five years I'd had the computer. If you haven't either, that may be all you need. I don't know if Open/Libre Office are memory hogs in the same way that MS Word is, but spending less than a hundred dollars on RAM made a huge difference in the performance of my computer. You can see how much you have by checking "About this Mac" under the Apple menu. I went up to 3GB, and that did the trick.

Also, since we're talking about backing up, it's worth noting that if she signs up for dropbox with a .edu email address, she'll get a fair amount of extra space for free.
posted by dizziest at 9:04 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Old machine is going hinky. Saving it may be too much work/pain/money.

How long does it need to last once fixed? A month? Two months? A year? It's almost certainly not going to last a year no matter what.

My guess would be bad RAM or not enough RAM and/or a full HD. I'd hope it was one of those, because those are basically the only fixable problems she might encounter on a MacBook.
posted by pmb at 9:04 PM on March 11, 2013

Yeah, i support a whole office full of semi-academic employees that spend all day in Word on the mac. The first sign you see when the hard drive is failing in an older machine is random, unexplainable crashes, usually when the auto-save tries to hit the drive. Replace the HD will buy you another six months to a year.
posted by Oktober at 9:06 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can bring it into the genius bar at an apple store they can run some diagonostics and see what the deal is. However, I strongly suspect the RAM isn't sufficient or the hard drive is full/failing. Definitely don't sink any money into fixing it--the machine is old, Apple hasn't even made the white macbook for a couple of years. If you need something cheap, get her an ASUS netbook. It's not going to be the same as her MB, but it will do in the meantime.

If her iPhone is up to date, she can use iCloud to back it up and download software updates automatically over wifi, so no need to really worry about "managing" the iPhone with the Mac anymore. If that particular scenario is sorted, you may also consider an iPad mini (they start at 329) with a keyboard she can use to type. She wouldn't have to relearn the interface and it would be in-budget.
posted by araisingirl at 9:16 PM on March 11, 2013

Can she use your Macbook Pro and you use whatever new machine you get? Is a used machine an option at all to stay with Mac?
posted by pixiecrinkle at 9:19 PM on March 11, 2013

If it is a failing hard drive or a simple matter of inadequate RAM, those are both less than $100 fixes, and assuming the laptop hasn't been otherwise mistreated it should buy a few years of use.

RE: cheap laptops - having just gone through a similar process, I rather liked the ASUS VivoBook x202E. If you catch a good deal you can sometimes find the Core i3 model for about $400.

Do try to get something running an Intel Core i3, if you can, rather than a Celeron, Pentium, or an AMD E- or A-series. In that price range, the display is going to be terrible no matter what.

Windows 8 is fine. I actually like it a lot, but I seem to be in the minority. Read this guide on arstechnica instead of trying to muddle through it without assistance. It addresses all of the "how does X work" and "where is Y now" questions. It will keep frustration levels down.
posted by zjacreman at 9:32 PM on March 11, 2013

First off - there's AbiWord. If there's actually a RAM issue or other problem caused in running OpenOffice and LibreOffice, maybe something that's just a word processor alone rather than an entire integrated office suite would place less load on the system. (Including older versions of AbiWord if it turns out to be a RAM or other capacity issue... I haven't used it regularly in half a decade but even back then it was serviceable, if basic. I don't think I ever tried to do footnotes but I was doing documents with dynamically-generated tables of contents so it's probably possible, especially after five more years of development.)

My second thought is: I'm in a somewhat similar situation with an old sometimes-crashy Windows laptop, but I also have a Linux desktop which is slightly newer but much more stable. I've switched to doing most of my work in Linux, but remotely over my home network from the Windows laptop because the desktop is pretty much on a shelf rather than at a desk where I could sit. When the laptop crashes it's annoying but all I have to do is reboot and reconnect and the desktop is still there with all the programs open and nothing lost even if I didn't save.

So maybe she could work on your MacBook Pro remotely or on another computer in the house via Apple Remote Desktop or an equivalent, at least for long enough to finish her thesis. (As long as ARD and OSX don't have the stupid crippleware anti-feature that Windows Professional has that shuts down the console when you connect remotely, to enforce only one person being able to use the computer at a time.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:52 PM on March 11, 2013

I am happily using an Aspire one netbook with Ubuntu (linux based) and open office for my thesis. It's a small laptop but I find the keyboard size ok and lots of jacks to plug in external if you wish. Cost less than $300 and you could probably get less with Ubuntu and not windows installed.

downside: no netflix. But if she is like me that is an upside per completion time on thesis.

It has automatic synching to ubuntu one, so my drafts are saved regularly without my trying and accessible to download on computers on campus (which are all windows computers) as I wish.

She allegedly can set up an ubuntu one account at and manually move her files to save back up wihtout doing any of the above. I tried synching it with my windows machine (they say it is possible) but I found it simply didn't install.
posted by chapps at 10:13 PM on March 11, 2013

chapps: Compholio's ppa packages for Netflix if you weren't aware of them. I haven't tried it out myself yet but I've heard good things and he's certainly at the yoke working diligently on them all the time. But Netflix is an option on Ubuntu or soon will be.
posted by XMLicious at 10:39 PM on March 11, 2013

Thanks XMLicious!
posted by chapps at 11:54 PM on March 11, 2013

I worked for a couple of years on an Asus eepc netbook hooked up to a giant external monitor. I don't know what Lyn Never means by saying the screen size doesn't get better hooked to an external monitor - of course it does!

The netbook cost about $400 (a few years ago, so I won't recommend that exact model) and was great for all my word processing needs. I only switched because someone gave me a secondhand macbook pro for free.

I don't think from what you and others say that LibreOffice is the problem, but if you come to suspect that it is, my husband helped develop LibreOffice so I could put you in email touch with him for some troubleshooting. (He's not a mac guy, though).
posted by lollusc at 12:44 AM on March 12, 2013

Can't afford another Mac. That's why I said "inexpensive" in #4. I'd really like to spend less than $400 if possible.

You can get a fine used Mac for that much on eBay. If she's used to macs, then get a Mac, especially while she's writing her thesis.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:50 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do you mean crashing? Completely out? Spinning beachball? So it freezes.. and then what? You force quit, or reboot, or pull out the battery to make it go dead?

How much spare space is there on the hard drive? I have an ooooold 13 inch ibook and it goes into some long beachball spins these days, but there is very little space on the hard drive (something like 650MB, which after several hours, dwindles down to almost nothing). I suspect if I cleaned most things off it, it would trundle along ok.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:58 AM on March 12, 2013

Another free word processor is Bean.
posted by D.C. at 1:03 AM on March 12, 2013

Completely with getting a replacement Mac. The white MacBooks regularly go for under $400.

That isn't some ancient machine not worth fixing either.

* Run disk utility in applications>utilities. Select the hard drive and click "repair". See if it mentions changing anything. I would suspect a permissions issue here. Also click "repair permissions" if you see that option.

* This may be a bad or improperly seated ram issue though, and it's easy for ram to get loose on MacBooks. If the answer to the next point is "yes", google instructions for upgrading the ram(it's VERY simple and intended to be done by basically anyone, there's a "door" for it) but just pull the ram out and push it back into place.

* Do other apps crash or just open/libreoffice. Both of those use a few weird Linux libraries/methods of operating that they bring with them.

* Also on the above note, and especially if disk utility threw any errors, the hard drive may be screwed up. This is a VERY cheap fix. We're talking $30-50, and you can do it yourself. Removing the ram door also gives you access to the hard drive.

My path, roughly would be do other apps crash?>disk utility>other writing apps>install OSX to a usb drive(any issues?)>if there weren't new hdd, if there were reseat ram, then try with one ram stick at a time

If its still crashing at the end of that, AND other apps are crashing, then maybe the main board is bad/another not worth repairing issue. But Jeeze, I wouldn't ditch it until I had tried a lot. MacBooks are seriously hardy.

I see plenty with just bad hard drives or other minor issues regularly, and people junk them way too often. I just recently got one for $80 that was "ruined" with a bad hard drive. $20 later it's good as new.
posted by emptythought at 1:57 AM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Another point I missed is that writing on a netbook or other cheap laptop is terrible and annoying. They have awful, cramped or just mushy keyboards. Ignoring the screen, using another unfamiliar OS, or anything else... That's a pretty damn good point if you're writing.

Macs have some of the best keyboards out there for laptops. Writing at length on a crappy laptop is one of the things I miss the least about the end of highschool/beginning of college.
posted by emptythought at 2:02 AM on March 12, 2013

Can she write her paper on Google Drive? Automatically backed up, off-site, with no concerns over hardware failures resulting in a lost copy, failed sync (as might happen with Dropbox, if the wifi was going bad), or the like.

Drive is the next iteration of Docs, and there have been some reasonable improvements to the word processing side of the package -- her footnotes might import properly now.
posted by ellF at 4:30 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would back everything up to the external drive, MAKE A COPY (this is key), then boot from the OS DVD, format (erase) the HD in Disk Utilities, and do a clean install of the OS. I like to do this to clear out the software cruft. Always makes things faster for me, and it often fixes issues I can't seem to fix any other way.
posted by supercres at 5:13 AM on March 12, 2013

Is it actually crashing? The only reason I ask is because I've been using Libre Office a lot lately, and when I first started I was frustrated because it often locked up. I came to realize that it has an auto save feature that is on by default. Every few minutes it will become completely non-responsive as it saves. Even on my fairly powerful computer, it often takes thirty seconds or more. Maybe that is what's happening?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:50 AM on March 12, 2013

Macs don't crash to the extent you mention. It is either the application, the OS, or the hardware. If it were the latter I'd suspect loose memory. Reseat it, and you should be good to go.
If it is the OS you can do several things. Zap the PRAM, run disk utilities, and correct permissions. The latter may require booting from a CD. If it is the App, then the Finder would most likely still be running.
posted by Gungho at 6:50 AM on March 12, 2013

To answer several people's question, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice actually crash. She says it happens randomly, sometimes when she is typing a lot very rapidly, sometimes when she is saving documents, and sometimes when she is opening other documents. She gets the beach ball for 15 to 30 seconds, then the application quits. I have tried the "deleting the user profile" trick. It didn't work.

The Mac has 2GB of RAM, and there is about 30% of the hard drive capacity free. I ran the Disk Utility this morning to repair disk permissions, and I also ran CCleaner on the thing.
posted by starvingartist at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2013

I would consider switching to Microsoft Word to see if it's a software issue - if your wife has a .edu email address through her school, she'll be eligible to purchase Microsoft Office for $13 (or less, as some academic institutions have negotiated even lower prices).

I had an older Apple laptop past the Applecare period which I squeezed another year out of by having the hard drive and logic board replaced, which cost $300 through Apple. They also replaced the keyboard while they were at it, not sure why. I took the machine to an Apple Store and after running some diagnostics they gave me the repair estimate, which I agreed to. Note that it took a bit over a week for me to get my laptop back, which wasn't an issue for me as I had other alternatives during that period. If you can't afford to not have the laptop with you for a week or two, this may not be an option.
posted by needled at 7:03 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

That Office purchase offer may not be valid any more; see if you or your wife are eligible for the Microsoft Home Use Program, another way to obtain Office inexpensively.
posted by needled at 8:16 AM on March 12, 2013

If you have an Apple Store nearby, bring the machine in and ask their advice, even if your AppleCare is expired. They can be surprisingly nice about these things if you're nice to them. I had very good experiences at the Fifth Avenue Store in Manhattan. YMMV but nothing to lose except your time.

On the slightly technical side of things, if you want to explore yourself (it's not too hard):

I would recommend, at least as a first step, closing everything and running all the maintenance scripts available in Onyx. I significantly improved the performance of at least two Macbooks of that generation (white & black) using Onyx.

Other random stuff I'd do:
- Use Disk Utility to Check/Repair hard disk
- Consider adding hard disk space and/or ram as suggested. Use About This Mac and System Profiler to check out the specs of your machine.
Go to the Apple in the upper left corner and select About This Mac, then click on More Info. When System Profiler comes up check the Model Identifier.
Then post back here, or google around to find the max RAM. I'm guessing it's 2 gigs (though you can actually get it to use three, see here).

Finally, feel free to memail me if you have other questions. I'm pretty sure I have a similar (much beloved) model black Macbook, near generation to your white Macbook.
posted by xiaolongbao at 8:35 AM on March 12, 2013

The Mac has 2GB of RAM...

4gb would be better. Do that and it'll be like getting a new machine.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:45 AM on March 12, 2013

How's the learning curve on Windows 8? Most of the laptops I've priced tonight come with 8

It's fine. You can just dispense with the fancy start screen if you don't like it and use the desktop exclusively (MS Office as well as Libre/Open Office all run only on the desktop, anyway. As does iTunes). Alternately, if you really don't like it, you can install Linux (Mint or Ubuntu are popular) on it.

Honestly, I wouldn't try to fix the computer right now. When I was writing my thesis, all I wanted was a computer that worked and was reliable. The anxiety of a crash and losing saved work was too much. A new computer would do that for less work than fixing up the old laptop or switching to another word processor when she already has everything set up for OO. (you could buy the new machine -- in the meantime, you can try to fix the old one by adding more RAM or whatever. if it works, return the new computer). So regardless of what OS you use, I would get something new (or gently used).

*If you do end up getting a Windows computer, Windows 8 has a thing called File History. It saves versions of your documents. It's not exactly like Time Machine on a Mac, but maybe it would be helpful for your wife.
posted by bluefly at 11:38 AM on March 12, 2013

Okay, so if it's just the Office suites crashing and not the operating system, and it's got 2 gigs of RAM and 30% of the hard drive free, then this is probably a crappy software problem, not a worn-out computer hardware problem. The system I was running AbiWord on five years ago without issues was a Windows XP system with only a single gig of RAM. And obviously in the nineties computers were running full versions of the Microsoft Office suite on much less than a gig successfully.

I tried OpenOffice/LibreOffice back in the last century when it was still StarOffice and it was horrendously crashy and slow back then, and while the functionality and performance have dramatically improved over the years it's still looked as unnecessarily bloated and crappy as any other Office suite when I've periodically checked it out more recently.

I agree that, apart from a few annoying things, Windows 8 is really no worse than anything else; but investing in a new computer seems unnecessary to me if money is tight for you. Buying a recent version of Microsoft Office doesn't seem like a good idea to me either because it'll be trying to exploit the multiple cores processors and speed and other hardware in newer computers. I would try AbiWord or Bean, or maybe even better see if you can get an old copy of a commercial word processor or Office suite that was released when the average computer had less than 2 gigs of RAM. (But follow all of the advice from the Mac people here too to clean the system up and make sure that the OS isn't getting senile.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:44 PM on March 12, 2013

You can buy an Dell Inspiron 15 right now for $350 (although I'd cough up the $400 for the one with the i3 processor). It's not pretty or sexy or any of that, but it will get you running on a new laptop that will run LibreOffice for as cheap as possible (and it'll probably be faster than your existing machine if it's a few years old).

Sign up for Dropbox so that her thesis automatically gets saved to the cloud to.
posted by markr at 4:27 PM on March 12, 2013

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