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Fix MacBook Pro sound distortion

I have had a MacBook Pro 15" i5 (2010) for a number of months.

Since it was new, it's had a horrible distortion of sound at low volumes. Very noticeable on headphones and with quiet music. I had resigned myself to having a faulty computer and just putting up with it.

Well, it's not faulty. It's a software setting. I suspect there are millions of frustrated MacBook Pro owners in the world who are putting up with this for no reason.

The fix is to open Audio MIDI Setup (Applications/Utilities) and flip the format to "2ch-32bit" while playing something that causes the distortion. "2ch-16bit" mode is broken.

The improvement should be instantaneous.

I am somewhat upset at the number of months I've put up with poor quality for no reason.


A few weeks ago I bought myself an iMac.

My primary server developed faults which became too much for me to fix (it would lock up regularly). A second server also developed faults which led to the loss of a 220GB RAID5. The first machine was a proper server, with IPMI, watchdogs, multi-SCSI ports and a huge, well built chassis. But it was only a dual P3, capable but very slow for a primary machine.

So the decision was made to repurpose an existing desktop machine into a server and virtualise as much as possible onto it with VMWare Server. It's a consumer grade 939 motherboard in a 7 year old ATX case, with an Athlon X2 3800. It maxes out at 4GB of RAM, but that'll do for now. It's not bad in terms of speed, but I'm getting spoilt by some new dual Xeon Dell 1950s in work which are stunningly quick in all respects (we're talking 12GB/s disk buffer compared with 1GB/s on my machine, and Gentoo emerge --syncs which complete within seconds rather than minutes).

The replacement for this machine on the desktop was to be a Mac.
I wasted weeks deciding which to choose: a highly specced Mac Mini or an iMac. Both had stuff going for them:
* A highly specced Mini would cost as much as the entry level iMac, yet be less well specced and have a slower, smaller hard disk, and of course not include a 20" TFT.
* I have more than one machine on the desk in question, but really only want one monitor. You can't plug other machines into an iMac's screen.

Anyway, I obviously went for the iMac.
I should have pondered for another week. Exactly 8 days after I placed my order, Apple refreshed the iMac range. I could have had a 2.4GHz processor on a faster bus instead of the 2.0GHz 667Mhz machine I have. But never mind.

The iMac is fast. Although the basic spec seems very much similar to my MacBook, it is much faster in every respect. I suspect this is mainly the hard disk (the display is quicker on the ATI chip, but I'm talking launching programs and the like). Naturally the 3.5" SATA2 disk in the iMac is going to be quicker than the 2.5" laptop SATA2 in the MacBook. But it really does pervade everything you do.

The build quality is excellent. Everything about the iMac says high quality; the metals and glass used in the external construction are solid and really give the impression that you've got yourself value for money. The aluminium keyboard looks initially as if it would be flimsy, but it's not - it feels like a slab of aluminium with good weight to hold it on the desk and good key feedback. Although essentially the same as the MacBook's keyboard, it's more solid. The MacBook keyboard suffers from being mounted in plastic, which can flex while typing.

On the Mighty Mouse:
* It's smooth, no problems with movement of the pointer on screen. The tracking is high quality.
* It feels very plasticky, because it is.
* The ball - the replacement for the wheel - is excellent! 2D scrolling is well implemented.
* Touch sensitive buttons: left clicks work fine. Middle clicks (on the ball) work fine. Right clicks can be very awkward - you must remove your fingers from the left side of the mouse completely. As a one button mouse, it's good, but the touch sensitive top needs work.
* Side squeeze buttons: do not work as advertised. Apparently, you should press both together to activate. Not on mine. If either are pressed a click is registered. They are very sensitive and right under my fingers, so I found myself sending spurious clicks constantly. If you really did have to squeeze both, it'd be fine. Maybe my mouse is broken? Anyway, the buttons are disabled in System Preferences.
* You can't hold both left and right buttons down together. This is a problem if you want to run (e.g.) an Amiga in emulation.

I virtualised the old desktop PC into a VMWare machine using the Converter software (as it was my mother's machine, it primarily ran WindowsXP). It was painless to do this. I bought VMWare Fusion with the iMac and WindowsXP runs really well in it - faster than on the AMD processor in the old machine! Unity mode, where Windows applications are brought onto the iMac desktop, is good but you can tell the windows don't belong as they slice and stutter when moved about. My mother mostly uses Windows - still :( - and tends to stick to the full screen mode.

I got 1GB RAM in the machine, Apple's costs for upgrades were very high at the time. I bought 4GB from work, using the free Apple SODIMM to bring my MacBook up to 2GB. I obviously don't push my Macs much as the only place I see a difference is in VMWare, where obviously two operating systems fighting over the same 1GB of RAM will cause swapping and slowdown.

So, my opinion of the iMac? Given that I've always built my own PCs and work at a company which has a strict "no Macs" policy (I've even inadvertently had companies switch from Mac or Linux servers to Windows 2003 - I hate that I am now part of the problem)?

Buy one. They are flippin' great.

But a caveat: my servers still run Gentoo, or FreeBSD, CentOS, Mandriva, ... :-)


MacBook, review part 2

Battery life and Charger heat

The battery life of the MacBook is an improvement on the Powerbook but not an earth-shattering difference. I get a good four hours out of it while the Powerbook was good for 2.5 hours (the battery was a few years old though). Very light usage will see five to six hours. Charging seems to take an age, but that's an illusion. It charges rapidly to 80% then switches to a trickle charge. This is why the PSU light seems to remain on orange for so long before going green. The charger gave me a bit of a scare the first time I used it. When under full load, i.e. changing a battery from nothing, it'll become very hot. Too hot to hold in your hand in fact. In normal use where you charge before losing power, it never gets beyond warm. This seems to be the normal behaviour.

The magnetic attachment on the power connector is genius - I've pulled it out accidently a few times and cursed it, but the question is would I have otherwise damaged it in those circumstances?


The MacBook does feel like the electronics run warmer than the G4 Powerbook. That is, there's always a lot of heat around the back where the fans exhaust is. On the G4, I found that the hard disk was a major source of heat in normal use but the fan did not usually kick in. This may have been because the HD was a larger replacement. I can't feel any heat from the MacBook's hard disk.

When putting the machine under a bit more stress, so that it needs the fans to keep cool, the MacBook is much better than the Powerbook. The Powerbook had a habit of running the fans on for a long time after the CPU intensive work had ended. The MacBook is in comparison much more responsive. It'll spin the fan up and down almost in sync with the CPU monitor in Activity Monitor! It also has a wider working range. The G4 may have remained off for a lot longer, but it had a minimum speed as soon as it was going. The MacBook will spin the fan almost silently when required, but it does seem to be turning more often.


I've not had any of the reported problems that earlier MacBook owners have reported. No 'mooing' fans. No click of death from the hard disk. No screen problems (well, there's a dead pixel or a bit of dust in the title bar area of the screen).

But I do find the plastic case poor. It flexes a lot - if I pick it up by one corner, it bends - so much so that if the fan is turning you can hear the fan blades start to rub on something inside. The keyboard itself I'm still happy with - it's got a very nice feel and responsive keys - but there must be a tiny bit of flex on it's plastic mountings - there's something there that doesn't quite feel as it should.

Perhaps this is because I'm so use to the aluminium Powerbook. I do find it better than the myriad cheap PC laptops out there. But not better than the PC laptops of equal cost - remember, the Mac comes at a premium. In all areas but for the case, the premium is worth it.

Please Apple, bring back the 12" pro notebook - I suppose I'm just asking for a 13" MacBook Pro really. Hmm, isn't that really what the Air is? No, the Air is a really good idea and certain to change the laptop market in the long run but I need those ports down the left side and that CD slot on the right.


The last little note for today relates to the keyboard layout. Apple have screwed up here, along with not being able to hold mute to stop the startup bong.

The older MacBooks shared the Fn keyboard layout with the Powerbooks. You had all the Expose features, screen brightness and sound along the F keys. Apple have changed this on the new models so that they now look like a cheap PC 'multimedia' laptop from long ago. The Expose buttons have gone, replaced with a single Expose button on F3. There original functions are there still, but you need to hold the Fn button. The sound control are now on F10-F12. On F7-F9 are three new keys: rewind, pause/play, fast forward.

This ranks as the most trivial, useless and annoying change to a computer platform that I've even seen. I have a remote control with these functions on! Why duplicate them on the keyboard! I've effectively lost the most used key from my Powerbook, the 'show desktop' Expose function.

I will quickly grow use to it, I suppose. Until then, a curse on whoever approved that change.


MacBook, review part 1

The MacBook arrived on Wednesday, 9th January. Delivery took three working days, five days including the weekend - longer than I was expecting, but an inspection of the delivery notes on the box reveal that it was sent to me in the UK, by Apple, from Shanghai. Not bad really for such a distance to travel, especially with free shipping. The courier turned out to be TNT - but I'd tried the Apple courier tracking number with TNT and they found nothing.

The packaging is up to usual Apple standards. The box is a fraction of the size of that in which my Powerbook G4 12" came, which is a good thing.

First impressions of the machine (13", 2GHz, white MacBook with 1GB RAM and 80GB disk - the cheapest currently available):

It is fast. It is close enough to my Athlon 5600X2 running Linux as to make little difference. My simple test case is a huge OpenOffice spreadsheet - a manual recalculation takes something like 5 seconds on the Athlon, perhaps 7 or 8 seconds on the MacBook. Impressive enough for me.

It is very plastic. My aluminium Powerbook makes it look very cheap. There is constant attraction of dust as the outer plastic is prone to generating static charges. The outer plastic is also shiny and smooth and as such attracts greasy finger prints and constantly looks dirty - Apple know this, as the machine comes with a cleaning cloth. Good grief. The front edge of the machine (where your wrists rest) is very sharp. The magnetic latching of the screen when closing the case seems like a good idea a first, but feels cheap in action. All this basically means that if you can afford a MacBook Pro, go for it - I really want a small laptop, and a MacBook Pro 12" or 13" would seriously tempt me.

The glossy screen is actually very good. I was terrified that it would reflect badly, but I've never seen one reflection from it yet while powered on. When off it's like a mirror, but this changes completely when in use. I also got a VGA adaptor so I can plug into my large monitor next to the DVI Linux box; I've just been watching a documentary on the large monitor while 'working' on the laptop itself and had no complaints at all (except for Quicktime not wanting to play full screen while I'm working on the other screen). VGA is a little blurry at 1680x1050 but that's expected. I do wish more monitors came with two DVI inputs.

It's a fair bit wider than my 12" Powerbook - probably an inch so despite the screen being in a widescreen aspect. There seems to be a fair bit of border around the screen and keyboard compared with the G4. On the other hand, it's significantly thinner which makes up for that when packing my laptop carry case.

The keyboard - firstly, the layout. Some keys have moved around and it has a tall, rather than wide enter key. Option has disappeared, I think this is now labelled 'alt'. My Mac inexperience is probably showing there. Worst, the function keys have useless play, pause, rewind where the keys for the expose functions should be. I can't show the desktop with one key press any more (Fn-F11 is now the shortcut)! This is a major problem and I'll have to find a workaround.

Secondly, the feel: at first, it looks depressingly like something off an 8bit computer. Thankfully the keys are quite light, direct and well spaced. Time is really the method of test here - this review is the first large text I've written on it. It's going well so far.

The start up bong can't be muted. On the Powerbook, holding mute when switching on would silence it. Otherwise, you'd hear it - which can be very useful if you're somewhere noisy already as it tells you that the blank screen is the machine booting, not a call to press power again. Well, I've had to install "Psst" and kill it off completely.

Migration - I don't understand why the migration tool requires a firewire cable. I don't have one. One doesn't appear to be provided in the box. I do happen to have a large, fast and expensive ethernet network. Never mind though; it turns out that migrating is actually quite easy on a Mac. Mount the remote drive using AppleTalk / File Sharing, and simply drag over whatever you want. Beautifully simple. My home directory and all the applications I wanted just came straight off the PPC based machine onto the x86 and worked well first time. Some clean up of the home directory was required (such as login startup items) but otherwise I'm happy with it.

The trackpad is great - the two finger scrolling is simply wonderful. It works naturally and is immediately understood and made full use of.
PowerPC applications run on the 2GHz Core 2 Duo at about the same speed as on the 867MHz G4, which is absolutely fine. There is little now that isn't universal.

Leopard I will gloss over as I want to concentrate on the hardware - let's just say that I don't buy a Mac to run anything other than Mac OS.

That will do for part 1. I'll give it a week of good use and think of something to write for part 2.

This, by the way, is the model I've bought:

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