Friday, July 23, 2010

Technology: Computer Issues

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that it has been behind in publication essentially since I returned to Toronto more than three weeks ago. There's a simple explanation--my computer suffered a major failure just before my flight back, and I've been fighting it ever since. This blog is my lowest priority (well, maybe captioning pictures is even lower in priority) of computer activities, so if I have to spend time maintaining the computer, then I don't spend time blogging.

To be frank, I'm not very happy with Apple Computer right now. I've had some great Macintosh computers in the past, and some great service experiences with Apple over the years. My first laptop, referred to yesterday, was a Powerbook 5300cs that I would ultimately take all the world. It never had a serious performance failure, and when the case cracked, I took it to the local service center for repairs and even though it was way past warranty, they fixed it with all new parts for no charge. In an era in which I was seriously thinking of switching to Linux or even Windows to save money, that action won me over as a continued Apple customer.

My next computer was another great one. The iBook that I purchased in 2000 lasted for five years with no serious issues--in a time when most people figured on getting no more than four years out of a desktop computer, I managed to get five years out of a laptop. In fact, I probably could have gotten more out of it, but at the time I was financially secure and decided I was pushing my luck with it and decided to get a new one.

Since then, my experiences have not been as good. The 2005 iBook G4 that I purchased had a quirk right from the start, not being able to see wireless networks as well as my older machine. That could be an issue when traveling, but otherwise that computer was fine until suddenly in summer 2008, a full year before I had any intention of searching for another machine, the trackpad slowly stopped working. First, the button started sticking, then it wouldn't work at all, and then it wouldn't move the control icon.

A Genius at the Apple store tried to work with the issue for quite some time, but it appeared that the problem was the logic board--a mouse plugged in to the computer suffered from the same issues, so there was no bypassing the problem. Already, that computer design was obsolete and four years old (even if my system was less than three years old), and Apple actually couldn't offer to get me a logic board, no matter what I was willing to pay. I would have to find a service dealer that could find one. I decided I didn't want to deal with that and just bought a new MacBook--that basically put me back on my original four-year cycle. I figured I'd get the old computer fixed when I had disposable income again.

Unfortunately, the 2008 MacBook has been a lemon. A portion of the casing chipped within months, before I had even done any traveling with the machine. That was a purely cosmetic problem, and I suspect Apple probably would have fixed that under warranty, but I didn't want to be without a computer during a job search, and never had that addressed. Then, starting about six months in (as I now realize), the hard drive started to fail. It would just randomly corrupt a set of files. Usually, they would just be data files, and I would have to go back to my backup and restore files. Sometimes the files would be new since my last backup, and I'd lose a few pictures or have to spend a couple hours recreating work.

However, starting last fall, occasionally system files would become corrupted. This was a much larger problem. I've had to completely re-install the system software four times since, as the computer would not boot after these events. After the process was done, I'd discover that all my data files on the computer would be intact, so I had mostly lost a lot of time through these incidents.

Since the failure before my latest return to Canada, though, things have been much worse. The system software apparently didn't install properly the first time, as I could not run System Update. About a week later, I pulled an all-nighter re-installing it again, and this time it at least updated with the latest security patches. However, last night, it completely lost my default profile. Fortunately, I had the foresight to see that coming and had backup profiles already available, and I write this piece after logging in to one of those alternate profiles. However, who knows who long it will be before this profile becomes corrupted.

Most of this time, I haven't been sure what was the actual root cause of the problem. I thought there might be a specific program or even a virus causing the file corruptions. However, the presence of "I/O Errors" in the system log concurrent with the events and their random nature even after I turned off suspect services like Spotlight seems fully consistent with a genuine hardware failure.

This means that I need to buy and install a new hard drive, and I don't like doing that without a backup computer to use. I have little choice now, so if this blog disappears for an extended period of time, it's pretty clear what's going on--my computer died and I'm trying to fix it.

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