Getting it wrong: Troubleshooting mid-2010 Macbook Pro hardware issues

I've been using Macs since 1984 and have gotten pretty good at troubleshooting issues on the platform. From using ConflictCatcher on pre-MacOSX Macs (remember the joy of extensions?) to sorting out Firewire and USB connectivity issues with PeripheralVision to installing 3rd-party memory and drives to re-installing operating systems and applications countless times, I have a lot of experience solving MacOS hardware and software issues. Until recently, I thought I knew the difference between a hardware issue and software corruption.

If you don't want to read through the whole saga (don't blame you), jump down to The Big Reveal for the lesson of the story.

Genius Bar visit:
First troubled mid-2010 Macbook Pro:

My bosses at work take good care of my hardware needs and when I said I could use a new Macbook Pro with an i7 processor and 8GB of RAM, they said go ahead and get one.

The moment I got my new MBP I used the Migration Assistant to copy over all my data and was up and running within a couple of hours. Within a week, however, it was clear there was something wrong with my new laptop: hard freezes that accelerated in frequency until I couldn't have the computer on for more than a minute before I had to do a hard reboot.

To me this was clearly a hardware issue and the Apple employee at the Genius Bar who looked at my Mac agreed. Apple cross-shipped me a new Macbook Pro within a week.

When I got my 2nd new machine, I transferred all my data over (the ease of the procedure one of the things I love about the MacOS) and once again had everything working. The new machine worked great--fast compilations, allowed me to run Eclipse and Parallels simultaneously--for about a month...

Second troubled mid-2010 Macbook Pro:

Suddenly my new laptop started freezing again, though this time it was different. The first MBP experienced hard, nasty freezes--everything stopped, sometimes with screen artifacts, no reaction to mouse or keyboard input, hard drive spins but no data access taking place. That kind of freeze is usually indicative of a hardware issue--bad motherboard, physical hard drive issue or memory.

This second MBP, however, froze in a more software corruption kind of way: applications would individually fail, the Finder and/or Dock froze but I could still use the mouse and keyboard and switch applications, Restarting and Shutdown never completed.

Given that I had migrated my data over from at least 3-4 past laptops I thought it was time to do a clean install of everything, including manual installation of applications, plug-ins, utilities, etc.

I backed up my internal drive to an external one, popped in my retail Snow Leopard DVD drive and rebooted holding down the "C" key on the keyboard which tells the hardware to boot from the DVD drive.

The DVD drive spins up to speed, Apple logo appears.....then nothing.

Genius Bar visit (2nd mid-2010 MBP):
Hardware issue? My new MBP won't boot from the DVD drive.

I took my 2nd MBP to the Apple Store. If it won't boot from the DVD drive, that's a hardware issue, right? After running all kinds of hardware tests and drive cleanup scripts, the Apple Genius agreed with me. She sent my MBP to an Apple repair facility in Tennessee with the recommendation that I get a new hard drive, new DVD drive and new motherboard. The tech said she "had never seen that kind of behavior before".

While my MBP is being repaired, I boot off my backup and use my MacPro at home and a loaner MBP at work with no issues. The fact that I have no freezes on other Macs during this time gets me thinking that perhaps the issue isn't software based after all. (Being able to boot off an external drive on multiple machines is another thing I love about the MacOS, btw.)

I mention to the tech that this is the second MBP I've had problems with and that I've never had these kinds of issues with Apple hardware before in my many years as a customer. For my trouble she arranges to get me free Apple Care on my Macbook Pro. I'm grateful and impressed with the customer service.

Apple returns my MBP back from the repair facility via FedEx to my home after a very speedy 4 days (in on a Monday, returned to me on Thursday). The repair report says they replaced my hard drive and a bracket, but not the DVD drive or motherboard. Huh, so I guess it was a hard drive issue after all (something the tech had suspected, though there was no evidence that was the issue).

I transfer my data over using Migration Assistant and get back to work...for about a week, when my computer starts freezing again.

Okay, this has to be software-related, right? 

I resolve to re-install the OS. I get my trusty Snow Leopard DVD which I know boots my wife's Macbook and my MacPro, place it in my MBP....and nothing. It won't boot!
Genius Bar visit (2nd visit with 2nd mid-2010 MBP):
Laptop still doesn't boot off of retail Snow Leopard DVD.

This was a quick visit. The Apple Genius confirms that my machine won't boot off of my DVD, but confirms that it can be used to boot another Macbook they use for testing.

Conclusion: The DVD disc is good but my MBP has an issue and needs a new DVD drive and motherboard. This time they do the repair in-house which takes 5 days (went in on a Sunday, pick up repaired MBP on a Thursday).

The drive was wiped, so when I get home I transfer all my data over via Migration Assistant....and immediately experience freezing issues. I test if the MBP will boot off of my Show Leopard DVD...AND IT WON'T!

Genius Bar visit (3rd visit with 2nd mid-2010 MBP):
The Big Reveal

Apple Genius Chris listens to my plight carefully. He reads the repair reports. I tell him the whole saga. New hard drive, new DVD drive, new motherboard but my machine won't boot from a DVD. 

He asks what DVD I'm trying to use to boot my laptop. As I pull out my retail copy of Snow Leopard, I start telling Chris that I know the DVD is good, the previous techs confirmed the DVD is good--the problem isn't the DVD.

And he says: "Your MBP won't boot from this DVD, because your mid-2010 Macbook Pro requires a special build of Snow Leopard, which is not on the retail Snow Leopard DVD."

He further explained that the new, mid-2010 Macbook and Macbook Pros need special drivers to support the new chip sets in those models. Apple installed a pre-release version of Snow Leopard 10.6.3 that shipped on those grey DVDs you get with your computer (the ones I dutifully never use or open). That version of SL, not available on any retail DVD as of yet, is the only version that will boot those Macbooks and Macbook Pro. He also said that only occurs with the mid-2010 machines. Now you know why I kept describing my MBP as "mid-2010".

He confirms that my laptop is not broken by hunting down one of the grey DVD's from another MBP and booting my laptop from it. He also said he was going to let the other Apple Geniuses know about my experience as a take-home lesson on troubleshooting.

What I learned
  • This experience confirmed that most issues are software-related.
  • While Migration Assistant is great, when you start getting "weirdness" in your system it might be time for full, clean reinstall. This is especially true if you're on your 3rd or 4th migrated generation. You can't be sure you didn't bring something over from a past system that will cause your new installation to act up.
  • From now on, I will always use the installation discs that came with my computer as the basis for an initial reinstall.
  • Poor communication leads to a lot of waste.