Tagged: MacBook Pro

All My Microphones, Compared

This post contains affiliate links to Amazon. I could receive a referral commission if you buy something through those links.

In the Age of the Virus, I’ve been teaching remotely. This has given me two new tasks that require decent audio: video conferencing and recording classes at home. I would never call myself an audiophile, but for whatever reason, bad low-fidelity audio bothers me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I want to do better.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of different ways of recording sound on my computer, and I thought it would be fun to test each of them to see how they preformed.

I used the following six microphones for this test:

  1. The internal microphone of my MacBook Pro,
  2. AirPods connected wireless via Bluetooth,
  3. EarPods connecting deprecated mini-plug via the headphone jack in my MacBook Pro,
  4. The microphone that dangles from a pair of AKG K545 headphones,
  5. Blue Snowball condenser microphone, discontinued by the manufacturer, that I set on my desk,
  6. the very popular Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone with an attached pop filter.

I couldn’t try one of my oldest microphones—a Blue Snowball. I left that at my office at NYU, inside Bobst Library, and the entire building is inaccessible to non-essential employees like myself.

For each recording, I used Sound Studio for Mac and recording using an early 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro. (Yes, the one that many considered to be the last great MacBook Pro until Apple came out with last year’s 16-inch model.) I did some slight editing on each recording: I trimmed my reading of each sentence, inserted a half-second of silence between each sentence, and normalized the sound. I did the latter to control for loudness; most of us are biased to think that louder sound is a better sound.

Harvard Sentences

I read aloud the following ten Harvard Sentences into each microphone. I used “List 5” from this list of Harvard Sentences for those who want to reproduce this test at home. For the most part, I read the phrases as written, although I did flub a couple of them. The sentences are…

  1. A king ruled the state in the early days.
  2. The ship was torn apart on the sharp reef.
  3. Sickness kept him home the third week.
  4. The wide road shimmered in the hot sun.
  5. The lazy cow lay in the cool grass.
  6. Lift the square stone over the fence.
  7. The rope will bind the seven books at once.
  8. Hop over the fence and plunge in.
  9. The friendly gang left the drug store.
  10. Mesh wire keeps chicks inside.

Here are the results of testing each microphone.

MacBook Pro early-2015, Internal Microphone

The internal microphone of most MacBook Pro notebooks near the keyboard.

This is the most convenient way of recording sound on a Mac. It requires nothing more than the Mac itself. The result is pretty solid.

I have my MacBook Pro slightly elevated at tilted towards me since it is perched on a laptop stand. Remember that sound, especially the human voice, is very directional. Perhaps titling it towards me helped get good sound. If memory serves, the internal microphone on a MacBook Pro is located near the top of the keyboard.

One thing to consider is that I wasn’t using my speaker. I always find it annoying to hear feedback on conference calls that noticeably degrade the sound quality.

AirPods, Handsfree via Bluetooth

My trusty and dusty AirPods can record audio.

Apple’s AirPods is one of my favorite devices. Before All This Happened, I used my AirPods on a daily basis, listening to music and podcasts as I walked around town. But as we are all staying home as much as possible, I’ve been using them a lot less.

Using AirPods for phone calls—over the cellular network or VOIP—is unmatched in terms of its convenience. It doesn’t require your hands and don’t have a wire to get in the way. You don’t even have to have your device on your person—as long as it’s not too far for the Bluetooth radio. This is probably why you see late night TV hosts and some newscasters use AirPods to record themselves.

However, in terms of sound fidelity, they fared the worst.

It sounds like I’m talking through a machine—as it doesn’t sample enough of my sound—or if it used a lossy compression algorithm at a very low bitrate.

I was surprised that it was actually worse than recording through using the MacBook Pro’s internal microphone. I learned back in college that even the worst external microphone was still better than using the on-board microphone in my field recorder because the recorder makes some noise that will be on the recording.

To be fair, I think the poor sound has to do with my Mac. Listening to music on my AirPods doesn’t sound as good playing from my Mac as it does playing from an iOS device, such as an iPhone or a iPad.

Wired EarPods with a Mini-Plug

These EarPods are at least five and a half years old.

I actually have a couple of pairs of these EarPods lying around. They might be from my iPhone 6 (2014) and maybe even my iPhone 5 (2012). I used these instead of the newer ones that came with my iPhone 11 Pro because I can connect these to my MacBook Pro.

The sounds was also pretty solid—good depth and warmth—and it didn’t sound compressed like the AirPods. It also sounds marginally better than “going bareback” on my MacBook Pro.

AKG K545 Headphones, Handsfree Wired

Testing 1, 2, 3… checking levels on the cable microphone on my AKG K545.

In late-2014, I was engaging in some retail therapy and listening to a lot of sad music, and these headphones were the result of that.

I expected these would fare better than the EarPods simply because they’re more expensive than EarPods. But they capture more of the room echo than the EarPods.

Again, to be fair, these are primarily headphones for listening—not microphones for recording. As far as headphones sound, they’re pretty good, but are heavy. And because they have a closed-back design, they isolate ambient noise. A lot of people prefer these kinds of headphones, but I don’t. I get fatigued wearing them for any substantial period of time.

Blue Snowflake on My Desk

I bought this Blue Snowflake microphone over ten years ago to record my lectures, a practice that didn’t last long.

The Blue Snowflake is a portable USB microphone. Despite its small size, it’s a great little microphone that I picked up at the end of 2009. It is meant to sit on a desk or clipped to a computer monitor to provide better sound during voice conference calls and for field recording. It is an omnidirectional microphone so it captures a lot of other sounds. This is good if you are in the audience and want to record a lecture or a band playing live.

I really like how it sounds. It doesn’t seem to get too much of the room echo while still clearly recording my voice.

Again, recording voice from a person speaking nearby is exactly what the Snowflake was designed to do. It performed great.

Blue Yeti with Pop Filter

I couldn’t resist to buy a Blue Yeti in midnight blue because why not…?

I expected this to make the best recording, and it did. The Blue Yeti is a very popular USB microphone. It is marketed to podcasters who don’t want to mess around with a XLR cables and a USB preamp. It’s been a while since I bought this microphone, but I think I bought the Yeti because I like the design of Blue microphones. They just look cool.

I also added a basic pop filter to this microphone to cut down on the popping Ps and other noises when you make when speaking close to the microphone.

The sound here is terrific. There is no room echo, largely because I’m speaking into the microphone. The recording has high fidelity: my voice sounds like it should if I were in the room with you.


Of course, the Blue Yeti performed best of all the microphones I have on hand. It is meant to record podcasters and other spoken word, and it does this really well.

The other microphones were more interesting. Honestly, I was surprised how well the built-in microphone in my MacBook Pro worked. For this you don’t need anything, and it records quite well. I think that if I were using the built-in MacBook Pro microphone for videoconferencing or VOIP, I would I use a set of headphones to prevent the feedback.

In fact, I think it would be useful to use the configure AirPods for sound output but use the internal microphone for sounds recording. This way you can have the convenience of wireless earphones and a decent microphone.

But, of course, in the Age of the Virus, no one expect studio-quality sound.

Rain Design’s iLevel Laptop Stand, Reviewed

IMG 3369

When All This Happened and I realized that I would be toiling from home for the foreseeable future, I received an email newsletter from The Wirecutter recommending gear that would be useful for working from home. Talk about great timing!

Within a few days of working in this new always toiling-from-home environment, I recognized that looking down at my laptop for hours on end would be an ergonomic disaster waiting to happen. I should probably get a laptop stand to raise the display.

The Wirecutter’s top pick was the Rain Design iLevel 2 laptop stand. There were other, cheaper options, but I figured spending an extra $20 would be worth it considering the hundreds of hours I would spend working on my laptop at home. In the Age of the Virus, I wouldn’t be working at coffee shops and brewery taprooms any time soon.

Let’s get it from Amazon!

As we know, The Wirecutter makes money from referring customers to Amazon and other online retailers. (By the way, I do the same thing with this website. So please shop liberally!) Their recommendation for the iLevel 2 refers you to buy it from Amazon. Of course, the Wirecutter’s commission is fair for all the testing they did. “Fine. Let’s get it from Amazon,” I thought.

Apparently, everyone else had the same idea: “order everything from Amazon!” As has been well-documented, Amazon deliveries are taking a long time. The iLevel wouldn’t arrive until late April.

And as of this post’s publication, it doesn’t even show up on Amazon. Eeek! Maybe you can find it, and if you do, I might get a commission if you buy through this link.

However, I was able to find the iLevel from Rain Design’s website. It would arrive in a week from their East Bay headquarters via free–UPS Ground shipping.

Portable Desktop

After receiving the package, I disinfected the contents because that’s the age we live in now. I installed the sanitized laptop stand, and started working. Almost immediately, I noticed that my MacBook Pro would bounce with each keystroke. It would spring up-and-down when I typed a number or anything in the home row. This wasn’t going to work.

I looked at the Feature photo on Rain Design’s website and noticed that the iLevel is pictured with a keyboard and a mouse.

Rain Design's ILevel laptop stand photo features

Fortunately, I usually use a mouse with my MacBook Pro when I’m at home, so I had one handy. I also had a Bluetooth keyboard that came with an iMac I bought in 2009. At some point, I upgraded the keyboard to one with a numeric keypad for the iMac—and I kept the wireless keyboard to use with my pre-Pro iPads.

My MacBook Pro was now effectively a portable desktop computer. It’s also cool that the iLevel’s aluminum body perfectly matches my MacBook Pro. [Chef’s Kiss!]

The New Normal

I’ve used this setup for two full weeks, and it’s been great. I don’t have any physical discomfort from working hours on end at the same desk, although I do take frequent bathroom breaks because I drink a lot of water—both flat and fizzy. That was the primary reason for getting the laptop stand in the first place.

The other cool benefit is that the stand’s height is adjustable. In the Age of the Virus and all the videoconferences—Zoom, Meet, Teams, you name it—it really helps for me to raise and lower the laptop’s front-facing camera to find a flattering angle for my mug.

One thing I am considering replacing is my keyboard. It feels a little stiff, as if I have to tap extra hard for each keystroke. Part of this might be because I just had the top case replaced on my 2015 MacBook Pro, and the built-in keyboard is new and feels pleasantly responsive.

But as far as the laptop stand, it’s been great. I’m just not sure if my iLevel is the same as the iLevel 2 that The Wirecutter tested.

Rain Design’s iLevel 2 Laptop Stand

A sturdy adjustable laptop stand that is a perfect match for a MacBook Pro in the age of toiling from home. Also, much cheaper than buying an iMac.

The 2016 Mac Notebooks Can’t Take “Crumbs in the Keyboard”

It’s been a year since Apple released the 2016 models of the current MacBook Pro and MacBook notebooks, and it looks like the new butterfly-switch keyboard suffers from a major design flaw that allows a piece of dust—or a crumb in the keyboard—to render it useless.

This is not something I’ve experienced firsthand, as I own a 2015 MacBook Pro. That was the first one to offer the new 3D Touch Trackpad, but it still used the legacy scissor-switch keyboard.

Apple blogger John Gruber has taken up this cause and rightly argues that a notebook computer keyboard should be “totally reliable. So reliable that it’s confusing when something does go wrong.” He also notes that Apple laptop keyboards have been “totally reliable” until the release of the 2016 notebooks, although I can point out a different experience with my second Apple laptop—a 15-inch Aluminum PowerBook G4, released in early 2005.

This was a great laptop, and I used it from 2005 to about 2009, when I sprung for a unibody MacBook Pro that I used for another six years. One major part of its longevity was that I was able to upgrade the RAM after a couple of years, and after running out storage, I was able to replace the hard drive with a larger one. Waiting a couple of years for these upgrades allowed the price of memory and storage to drop.

But this particular laptop did have one notable flaw: the keyboard. The keys were a bit spongy, and they lacked a satisfyingly quick “tap.” This was more or less typical of Apple keyboards before the Aluminum keyboard from the late-2000s. Another issue with this keyboard is that the key caps would break.

I experienced this on multiple occasions, but at the time, I could take my Powerbook to any Apple Store, and a Genius would replace the key cap at no charge. This took about ten minutes. As with the easy upgradability of the memory and the storage, the easy repairability of this Powerbook model made this a very long-lasting machine.

This was also true of my 2009 MacBook Pro. Because I could open the case and remove parts as needed, I was able to rescue it after I spilled seltzer on it by opening the case. And when I broke the fan cable in trying another repair, I was able to solder it back on to the logic board.

However, this is not true of the current MacBook and MacBook Pro lineup. Apparently, if a single piece of dust or a crumb gets underneath the key cap, you won’t be able to type. And removing the offending scrap of food could require replacing the entire top case.

Over the last decade, Apple has made their laptops much harder to repair in order to shrink their size and weight. Many of these steps offered other benefits. For example, when Apple stopped making batteries that you could remove and swap with a spare battery, the life of the new built-in battery increased: from three hours to about seven. Yes, the laptop became thinner, but it offered such a dramatic improvement in battery life that no one missed carrying (and charging) a spare battery.

However, these steps have now gone too far. Apple has prioritized the lightweight and thinness of their notebooks over the repairability and upgradability. At first, they made the memory permanent. Whatever memory you have for your MacBook or MacBook Pro notebook is basically all you will ever have. Upgrading the storage is also next to impossible. But those are solid-state components, and it’s unlikely that you will need to replace those under normal circumstances. As my dad told me when I was kid, solid-state parts don’t break, but moving parts do.

Curiously, the keyboard is the only part of the MacBook and MacBook Pro that moves and it is just as important as the memory and the storage. For that reason, it needs to be both functional and serviceable. Sadly, should you be eating lunch while working on your MacBook Pro might be render the keyboard to be neither functional nor serviceable.

May It Suck Less

Yes, I am aware that this site went all of April neglected like a dissertation chapter and a pile of ungraded, poorly written undergraduate. I didn’t get to update it much because I’ve been preoccupied with a few things:

  1. Yes, I did get that MacBook Pro with Retina display. As you know, I decided the newly updated 13-inch model was the best computer for me…as long as we define “a computer” as a Mac portable. That turned out to be a curse because the computer and I have been inseparable since then. As is common at this time of the year, there’s a lot of work to do. A lot!

  2. I made two, two, two trips to California in April for a couple of weddings. Despite being very sour on flying recently, I kind of enjoyed getting back in the air. If one can be in “mid-season” form going to an airport and boarding a plane, I was in it. Personally, I hate taking taxis to an airport, especially by myself, because of the disproportionate cost in traveling five miles to, say LaGuardia, compared to flying 2,500 miles to Los Angeles. And the chances of crashing are much higher in an Uber on the BQE than sitting in a Boeing six miles above the ground. Thus, I prefer to save some bucks and go multi-modal, using the subway and bus. That results in some just-in-time arrivals, which I don’t mind because it spares me from the gate lice. My friend Mark, a multimillion-miler on American Airlines, concurs with this approach.

    Of course, the trips themselves were fun, too. I saw a lot of people, including lots of friends and family. I ate King Crab on a pier in Santa Barbara and fried scallops in the warehouse district southeast of DTLA. I even got to go on a bike ride.

    And the weddings were great, too. I realized that, despite my earlier reservations, I like going to weddings. It helps that I don’t have to hear Sarah’s friends criticize every aspect of their own friend’s wedding, such as “can you believe this food?” and “this has to be the worst one yet!” Also, since there’s no immiment threat of staging my own wedding, I don’t feel that sense of failed dread I had when I was a teenager riding in my friends’ cars before I had even had my learner’s permit.

  3. The weather is finally nice enough to enjoy cycling. Aside from crashing my bike on East Third Street in late March, I have really enjoyed being out on a bike. That crash, which happened on my way from Brooklyn to NYU, was bad enough that since then I’ve been unable to fully bend my knee. I can extend it just fine so I can ride a bike as far as ninety miles with almost no pain, but tying my shoes has been an entirely different matter. March was an especially miserable month for bicycling, and we had to two rides shortened because of icy road conditions. However, in the last few weeks, we’ve stepped things up and have been riding 80-90 miles on a single weekend day.

  4. It’s softball season. Softball really is like the mob. No matter how hard I try to get out, I can’t not play. The only possible ways I can see “getting out” is to relocate to a far-off, remote place where no one knows I ever played softball… or to die. I wound up on four teams again, although I have missed a lot of games to that nagging cycling injury and because of my other commitments. However, it’s nice being out there again doing something I’m relatively good doing.

Now that I’m becoming accustomed to this new pace, to carrying around a heavy backpack and a light sweater, I’m genuinely excited about breathing and such. No, seriously. Not only has it been a hard eight months, but over the winter, it literally hurt to breathe that bitter, icy air. I’ll settle for the occasional allergy attack.

About Apple Watch, About MacBook, About Face

Almost immediately after the Apple Event on March 9, I had formed two basic opinions about the two most noteworthy products introduced that day. First, I was ready to jettison my trusty old 2009 MacBook Pro for the new 12-inch Macbook with Retina display. Second, now that Apple had announced more details about the Watch, including pricing, I was intrigued but not convinced I could use one. I was also interested by the third big announcement, regarding HBO Now as a standalone product, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the runaway hit some had predicted it could be. However, in the two months since the Apple event, I have almost completely reversed my thinking on all these fronts.

The Apple Watch now seems like a must-have device

Many of my Apple-obsessed friends listed having a “Dick Tracy watch” as their primary reason for wanting an Apple Watch. They might be disappointed as some early reviews judge the sound quality as, shall we say, suboptimal. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, I realized the utility of the Apple Watch after taking a bike ride. It will save me from having to fetch my phone from my pocket or bag: something we do, according to David Pogue, over a hundred times a day.

The new MacBook seems like an overpriced and underpowered device

I have to admit that, despite keeping up with iOS devices and knowing a bit their specs and performance metrics, I am relatively uninformed about recent Mac desktops and portables. Sure, I know that these things were getting thinner and lighter. Yes, I knew that Apple had banished the optical drive and spinning hard disk from most of their notebooks. And, of course, I was absolutely convinced that a Retina display would be a must-have feature for my next computer.

However, I didn’t know exactly how much had changed since 2009. RAM has not only become more capacious, but also a lot faster. Apple has ditched SATA for a much faster PCI Express bus with multiple “lanes” for increased throughput. And for all that performance, it is now common to get through ten hours of work on a single battery charge, compared to four hours with my 2009 MacBook Pro. All of the reasons I liked the new MacBook were already available in a more powerful device: a Retina MacBook Pro. However, the most compelling reasons for getting a MacBook— the remarkable thinness, the lightweight two-pound frame, and fanless design—all come with a stiff performance penalty.

Despite sacrificing performance for portability, the pricing is not all that different between a new MacBook and a Retina MacBook Pro. Consider that the new MacBook retails for $1299 for 8 GB of RAM and a paltry 256 GB drive of storage. For $300 more, you get a more reasonable 512 GB of solid-state storage with a slightly faster processor. I would have only considered the latter model because that small storage can’t be upgraded.

On the other hand, the top-of-the-line 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with a much faster processor, similar battery life, 8 GB of RAM, 512 GB of storage, and lots of ports, retails for $1799. But a lifetime of computer ownership has taught me to get as much RAM. Because Apple solders the RAM to the logic board, you are either stuck with 8 GB or you have to shell out another $200 to “future-proof” your computer with 16 GB of RAM. Upgrading to 16 GB of RAM is not possible on a new MacBook.

Product Display Max RAM Storage Battery Weight Price
MacBook 12-inch Retina 8 GB 512 GB 10 hours 2.0 lbs $1599
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina 16 GB 512 GB 10 hours 3.5 lbs $1999

Andrew Cunningham, of Ars Technica, has come to a similar conclusion when reviewing the new 12-inch Macbook:

if you want better battery life and don’t mind the screen, go with the 13-inch Air. If you want a nice screen and don’t mind the weight, go with a 13-inch Pro. If you want a Mac on a (relative) budget, try the 11-inch Air. If you want the size, weight, and screen and can live with the dongles, performance, and battery life, that’s when the MacBook becomes a viable option.

I fell into the second camp: the user who really wants a nice screen and doesn’t think 3.5 pounds qualifies as heavy. And, although I do have an elegant solution, I hate carrying dongles!

Yet, the most compelling reason for going with the Retina MacBook Pro instead of the new MacBook is that Apple quietly updated the 13″ MacBook Pro on March 9. Not only does the Early-2015 13″ MacBook Pro come with a faster Intel Broadwell U processor, faster RAM, and an improved PCI Express bus for speedier solid state storage, it also comes with that intriguing Force Touchpad. It’s hard not to get excited about this first-generation MacBook, but at this stage, I’d prefer a more mature product over a completely new one with a lot of promise.

Or at least I do prefer that with computers. I already ordered an Apple Watch, and I’m running through the first-month trial of HBO Now.

This is Why I’ve Waited to Replace My MacBook Pro

As a bonafide Apple nerd and someone who spends no fewer than five hours a day tapping away at a computer, I’ve been surprisingly passive in upgrading computers over the last decade. My current MacBook Pro is from mid-2009, replacing a late-2004 Powerbook G4 that measured 15 inches, weighed nearly five pounds, and was the object of ridicule from an undergraduate student. In the course of a decade, I’ve had only two Mac portables. That really would have surprised the twenty-year–old version of me.1

Mid-2009 MacBook Pro 13"

My Mid-2009 MacBook Pro still gets it done six years after hitting the market.

The 2009 MacBook Pro was the first 13-inch notebook in the Unibody design, and it has aged well. It not only looks like a recent computer, it preforms reasonably well. It’s responsive, and I almost never get those dreaded spinning beachballs. Undoubtedly, upgrading the RAM to eight gigabytes and replacing the spinning-disk hard drive with a solid-state drive have forestalled its obsolesce.

As I’ve chronicled here, this computer has taken some lumps over the years, and I constantly dread its inevitable demise. I’ve not only spent quite a bit of time and money upgrading this computer, I’ve also sacrificed dollars and hours repairing it, including soldering the fan to the logic board and replacing the keyboard. I’ve stubbornly continued to do so because I knew someday Apple would release something fundamentally different to my six-year–old MacBook Pro.

Yesterday, along with a cheaper AppleTV and the new HBO Now streaming service, Apple announced the new MacBook. I am almost certain it will be my next computer. It has everything I would want in a portable. It is light and thin, it has a Retina display, and it promises all-day battery life.

The new 2015 MacBook

So svelte!

Of course, there are some sacrifices to making something so light and thin.

  • The display is an inch smaller than my current 13-inch MacBook Pro and, in 2x mode, will have fewer pixels than my current 1280 x 800 resolution,
  • There is no SD card slot, which I regularly use to import photos from my DSLR and mirrorless camera,
  • There is only one USB-C port,
  • The only other connector is an audio port,
  • The Intel Core M processor is not an i5 or i7,
  • The maximum storage is 512 GB, and maximum RAM is 8 GB.

These are not deal breakers, though. I rarely work with anything connected to my Mac other than the power supply and maybe a pair of headphones. Aside from connecting my cameras or SD cards to import photos, I usually only plug-in a VGA adapter for work and my Garmin Edge GPS for play. I’m sure that in due time I will find a cheap USB 2.0–USB-C adpater to upload and import my bike ride data and photos. And as for presentations, I can go back to presenting from my iPhone or iPad until Monoprice releases the requisite VGA/HDMI adapters.

I look forward to getting my hands on a MacBook on April 10, because, unlike the Apple Watch that also ships next month, this new MacBook makes sense to me.

Or maybe I should see what they do with the MacBook Pros later this year…

Update: If you’re looking to sell your old MacBook Pro, Gazelle is offering a $20 bonus on any MacBook Pro valued at $50 or more. As an affiliate, I get a commission on your transaction.

The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links, I will earn a commission fee.

  1. I also bought an iMac in 2009 that I sold in aftermath of my “divorce”. 

That Time I Had to Reset My MacBook Pro’s SMC to Slow Down the High-Speed, Whirring Fan

Last night, I came home after a long day and found that my MacBook Pro would not wake from sleep after I took it out of my backpack. This is an occasional problem with my aging notebook, but after a reboot, it usually operates as it should. But this time, after I rebooted the machine, the fan spun to full speed, making that disconcerting whirring sound, despite the fact that the computer was not running any applications and was cool to the touch.

I opened up the computer and found that the outermost RAM DIMM had popped out of the slot. That would explain why, after letting it boot earlier, it reported only 4 GB of RAM. After reseating the RAM and securing each connection, I rebooted the machine again, but the fan kept spinning at maximum speed. Fuck!

This computer has been through a lot. I not only spilled seltzer on it, followed by black coffee. Eventually, the liquids damaged the keyboard, which I had to replace. And, let’s not forget about the time I had to solder the cable connecting the fan to the logic board. I suspected that whatever dislodged my RAM must have damaged the temperature sensor, and I dreaded that it would finally be beyond repair.

But then I noticed that MagSafe Power adapter, which was connected to my computer, was not illuminated—whereas it is always either green or amber. Moreover, the battery status lights also did not illuminate to show the charge level. Those additional symptoms led me to the underlying problem. The System Management Controller was corrupted, and I needed to reset it.

Key sequences: Resetting the SMC and Zapping the PRAM

Resetting the SMC is the new Zapping the PRAM. Image from Chickaboo Designs.

I’m old enough now to remember when our Macs would develop unexplainable problems, someone would advise us to zap the PRAM. In my over twenty years of working with Macs, zapping the PRAM never once fixed any mysterious problems. Would resetting the SMC do any good?

The Apple Support page outlines the steps for resetting the SMC for particular kinds of computer, such as portables with removable batteries, portables with sealed batteries, and desktop computers. In my case, I needed to shut down the computer, hold down ShiftControlOption with my left hand and depress the power button with my right hand at the same time. Once I did that, the lights on the MagSafe adapter came on.

Once again, I rebooted up the computer with baited breath. This time, as it had done countless other times, the fan came on at the normal speed.

While zapping the PRAM was for me pretty ineffective, resetting the SMC had a different result. It did indeed fix something!

MacBook Pro: Memory Slot 0 and Slot 1

My aging MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid-2009) has developed a new problem. The memory sometimes “disappears” and one of the two 4GB DIMMs stops working. The problem manifests itself when trying to wake my computer from sleep: it won’t wake up! The computer is still running. I can hear the fan running and feels warm to the touch, but the display stays black. A hard reboot always brings the computer back to life, although this is not an ideal solution.

A few weeks ago, when I tried to reboot the computer, I got the dreaded three beeps. I removed the bottom case, removed the memory, swapped their locations, and reinstalled it. That fixed the problem. Both memory DIMMs were registering but one of them was reporting only 7.75 GB of RAM. System Profile reports Slot 1 as empty, but I couldn’t tell which one was Slot 1. As far as I can tell, the slots are not labelled.

When you look in “About this Mac” and select the Memory tab, it shows that my MacBook Pro has two memory slots. One on the left, with memory installed, and one on the right, which is empty.

MacBook Pro Memory Banks

Which memory slot is which? On the logic board, the memory sits vertically, one on top of another, not side-by-side. After removing a few DIMMs and placing them in different memory slots, here’s what I figured out.

Bank About this Mac Physical Location
0 Left Closer to Bottom Case
1 Right Closer to Logic Board

When the computer is upside down, you can see both slots. One is at the bottom and closer to the logic board. That is Slot 1. Slot 0 is the one that’s closer to you and the bottom case.

This should help you concentrate your efforts in determining whether you have a bad DIMM, a bad memory slot, or the DIMM is just loose.

What I Fixed, But Broke, But Fixed

My poor MacBook Pro has been through a lot lately. After spilling seltzer on it in July and then coffee in November that would require me to solder the fan back to the logic board, I had to do some additional unexpected repairs. To complicate matters, I also opted to replace the optical drive with a solid state drive and upgrade my 5400-rpm 500 GB hard-disk drive with a 7200-rpm 750 GB hard-disk drive.

Before I list all the parts I had to repair, a big shout-out is due for L2 Computer in Hell’s Kitchen. I’m glad to see that a computer repair and parts shop stills exist in Manhattan for cash-and-carry business, although judging from their pile of Priority Mail packages, it appears that a sizable chunk of their business is through the web.

  1. MacBook Pro Keyboard

    As I mentioned, it appears that the coffee I spilled took its tool on my keyboard. After six weeks, the entire home row of Latin alphabet keys stopped working entirely. Without plugging in an external USB keyboard, my computer became entirely unusable because I use a combination of those keys to log in to my computer. I took apart the entire computer and “cleaned” the keyboard with some rubbing alcohol. It’s not something I recommend doing, but it did help restore the keyboard to health for almost three months. Whatever corrosion the coffee caused must have returned because those same keys stopped working in mid-April.

    Someone on the web said that fixing the keyboard requires replacing the upper case. That’s hard and expensive. The iFixit Guide lists forty-two steps for removing the upper case and putting it together requires the same steps (in reverse). Also, the case lists on iFixit for just under $300.

    Since I had already removed the keyboard once, back when I cleaned it, I was brave enough to see if I could just find a keyboard to replace the bad one. L2 sold me one for less than $30. Replacing it took about ninety minutes.

  2. SuperDrive SATA cable

    When I replaced my optical drive with a solid state drive, I used one of these adapters so I can fit a 2.5” drive in the large optical drive bay. Since the day I installed the SSD, I had gotten intermittent I/O errors. Sometimes, after taking the computer from one place to another, the computer could launch any apps. If the computer was off, the ominous folder with question mark icon would greet me at startup instead of the reassuring Apple logo. The only way to “fix” this problem was to open the case and secure the cable back to the optical drive. I basically had to carry a #00 Phillips screwdriver with me like a big dork.

    In short, I had to buy a new SuperDrive SATA cable to replace the one that was either broken or I broke myself.

  3. MagSafe DC Jack

    In putting together the computer after replacing the keyboard, I drove one of those tiny screws securing the logic board into DC jack cable. In short, the computer would not receive any power from the AC adapter. To replace it, I cycled to L2 Computer and bought a used one for about $15. You can also find one on Amazon.

  4. Battery Indicator cable

    And as a last straw, when I was replacing the MagSafe DC Jack, I severed the battery indicator connector. I had thought that the indicator wasn’t a critical function so I had just let it go, but it turns out that the cable also controls the sleep and wake functions on the computer. Have you noticed that every time you “close the lid” on your computer it goes to sleep and when you raise to open the display, it wakes up? The battery indicator connector is critical for that function to work. Again, I rode my bike to L2 and replaced the battery indicator connector and cable with a used one.

My dad is an auto mechanic. When something broke on one of our cars, he would visit the local junkyard to find the part he needed. I remember when I lived in Santa Barbara and the fuel pump on my car stopped working, he came by one day to fix it, but we first went to the local junk yard to find a replacement. Yes, I am following his lead, but I should keep in mind that he didn’t break anything when replacing that part. I did.

The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links, I will earn a commission fee.

Walnut MacBook Pro Keys


Wooden Keys for my MacBook Pro?

Bring the tactile beauty of walnut wood to your keyboard with Lazerwood Keys! Created to perfectly compliment the sleek style of Apples MacBook Pro keyboards….

This mod takes some nimble fingers and patience but the results are stunning. The thin adhesive-backed wood pieces adhere to the keys firmly and the characters and symbols are laser cut with beautiful precision.

At first, I thought these were replacement keys for the MacBook Pro. Part of me was very upset that I had just cleaned out the keyboard in my MacBook Pro and reassembled the entire notebook last week.

But now I see that this set of keys are really adhesive covers for the keys. I’m still intrigued, but a little less excited.

(Via MacWorld.)