Is Apple’s shutdown fix crippling MacBooks?

October 26, 2006, 9:49 PM UTC
Fortune


Macbook_both

Apple Computer (AAPL) issued a software update Thursday to fix a problem that caused hundreds of newer MacBook laptops to shut down suddenly — but one longtime industry analyst suspects Apple’s solution might force the computers to run more slowly.

An Apple spokeswoman would not provide details about what was causing the shutdowns, or how the software update corrects it.

According to the site MacBookRandomShutdown.com, which emerged over the past few weeks to document the problem and draw Apple’s attention, more than 1,500 MacBook users have had their laptops suddenly turn off. Many took the time to list their names, MacBook models, and serial numbers on the shutdown site.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, said that based on user comments in Apple’s online support forums he suspects the laptops have been shutting down because of overheating problems with the main logic board and “heat sink,” a device that’s meant to cool the machine.

“What they appear to be doing is doing a firmware update to step down the processor,” Enderle said. “If you can step down the processor, say, 5 or 10 percent, you can lower heat dramatically.”

But if indeed Apple is doing that, another result is decreased laptop performance. Enderle likened it to throttling back a V8 engine to make it behave like a V6. It won’t get as hot, but it won’t go as fast either.

“It would be really good to see if we can find someone who’s gotten the problem and measure the performance before and after the firmware update,” Enderle said. Unless support forum users are misinformed about the logic board and heat sink being the issue, “the only way you can fix a problem like this without physically taking the machine apart is to step down the processor.”

Either way, Enderle said other PC makers wouldn’t get away with releasing so little information about what caused a laptop malfunction — but because this affects mostly individual consumers, Apple can choose to stay relatively tight-lipped.

“Typically if Dell (DELL) or anybody else has a component problem, they’ll explain what the component is that caused it,” he said. “Their corporate customers demand it.”

I became aware of the MacBook random shutdown syndrome — nicknamed “RSD” or “RSS” by its sufferers — on September 19. When I called Apple to ask for details, company representatives wouldn’t say what caused the problem, or how many people are affected.

I called again on Tuesday, and spokeswoman Teresa Weaver said she would

get back to me. Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. PST, Weaver called back to say

that Apple had just issued a firmware update that should fix the

problem. When I pressed for details on what the problem had been, she said Apple would not release that information, and emphasized that only a “small percentage” of MacBook users had been inconvenienced. (Apple said during its earnings call last week that it shipped 986,000 MacBooks and MacBook Pros last quarter.) Weaver also e-mailed a statement. It reads:

Jon,Per our conversation, the new MacBook has been a big hit with customers since its introduction. Apple has identified an issue that causes a small percentage of MacBooks to shutdown intermittently. Today we released a downloadable firmware update that addresses this issue, and eliminates the need for customers to send their systems in for warranty service. Apple recommends that all MacBook customers download and install the MacBook SMC Firmware Update v1.1 now available on the Apple web site at http://www.apple.com/support/downloads/.

Best,

Teresa

Of course, it could be too early to assume that Apple is throttling back MacBook processors to fix the problem, though Apple so far won’t detail what the firmware update does. Below is the text of the firmware-related instructions on Apple’s support site:

MacBook SMC Firmware Update 1.1

About this update

The SMC Update improves the MacBook’s internal monitoring system and

addresses issues with unexpected shutdowns. This update is recommended

for all MacBook systems, including those that received warranty repair.

Note:

If your MacBook is running Mac OS X 10.4.6, you won’t be able to install the SMC Update until you update to Mac OS X 10.4.8.

MacBooks running Mac OS X 10.4.7 will be able to download and install

the SMC Update, so it is not essential that you update your system

software, although Apple always recommends updating to the latest

version of the system software.

After this update has completed successfully, your SMC Version will be: 1.4f12.

Installation:

The updater application will be installed in the /Applications/Utilities folder.

Please follow the instructions in the updater application to complete the update process.

Here are the instructions within the updater:

To update the SMC firmware on your MacBook:

Your computer’s power cord must be connected and plugged into a working power source.

1. Quit all other open applications.

2. Click Restart in the MacBook SMC Firmware Update window and wait for your computer to restart.

The SMC firmware update starts automatically. A status bar indicates

the progress of the update. During the update your computer fans will

run at full speed, but will return to normal once the update completes.

Important: Do not interrupt the update.

Your computer restarts automatically when the update is completed and opens the MacBook SMC Firmware Update.

3. Click OK. The SMC firmware is now up-to-date.

If these instructions appear on your screen again, the SMC firmware update was not successful. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

For detailed information on this update, please visit this website: http://www.info.apple.com/kbnum/n304308.

The detailed information link adds:

If you continue to experience trouble with your MacBook after applying

both updates or if your MacBook is in a state that will not allow you

to install the updates please contact AppleCare for further assistance.