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MacBook Honeymoon Over, Apple Still Shines

Welcome To Apple Support

Day 4 of being a new Mac user and so far it is going well, considering.

My Hidden Talent

For people that don’t know me very well my “hidden talent” is the ability to break ANYTHING related to technology  with astounding efficiency.   All of my seasoned developers at the software consulting business I ran a few years back knew it well.    Whenever someone felt their project was ready for the customer one of my lead tech guys would say “let Lance play with it, if he doesn’t break it in less than 3 minutes you are close”.     Suffice to say that I don’t recall a single project that passed “the Lance test” on the first go.  Or second for that matter.

My favorite anecdote and my crowning achievement to date was breaking a regular ATM machine, and I’m not talking a 30-year old one build on Windows ME but a modern nearly-new ATM, within 30 seconds.  Pull up to the drive-up ATM, put in card, withdraw…wait…no… check balance (while withdraw screen is rendering)… POOF… system crash.   A BSOD on an ATM machine.  Sweet!

Sad Technology
Windows 8 Frowney-Face. Yup, that about sums it up.

I give that background because it applies to my MacBook experience for a few reasons.  First, I have become VERY familiar with technical support lines with every type and size of technology company on the planet.    Second, I have  also learned that there is NO technology I cannot break, even without trying, no matter how solid the platform may be.    My high-end HP laptop, less than 24 hours.   My teched-out 2014 BMW?  Less than 6 hours.    If something lasts more than a day under my full-fledge “run this thing at full throttle abuse” that is impressive.

Macs Are Not Lance-Proof

My MacBook Pro?   Lasted just over 48 hours.   That is somewhat impressive given the fact that I want from vanilla MacBook Pro setup to upgrading the packages software, adding proprietary Logitech unity wireless drivers, proprietary Wacom table wireless drivers, 3 external monitors on 2 display port adapters and a HDMI connection, a 5-year old inkjet, added a pro backup service, 3 virtual box machines, a security dongle, an Android phone, and installed several developer-heavy software packages in that time.     The MacBook survived all of that, ALMOST.

It Worked Great, At First

The AMAZING part is all that stuff worked exactly as I expected with minimal fuss.    Getting 3 external monitors (2 display port and 1 HDMI) on an HP notebook with a docking station SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED to run “5 monitors (sales lie, it really can only do 3)” took over a month including a BIOS update, video driver update, and 3 days of level 2 technical support on how to configure and hook everything up.   MacBook?  Plugin in all 3 monitors and BOOM… they are all up and running including a FOURTH if you included the laptop display.  Sweet.

Adding the 4-port USB monitor hub on these HP monitors to the MacBook?  No problem?   Cascade them with monitor 1 USB into monitor 2 into monitor 3?   No problem.   It shouldn’t be.  USB buses, when powered like these HP monitors are, should be able to daisy chain up to 128 units on a single USB chain.      With the HP?   It rarely could find devices on the first 4-port monitor hub.   Daisy chain them?  NO WAY.  NOTHING would be found and the system would crash corrupting files along the way.   The MacBook handled it with aplomb and to put the icing on the cake it recognized a 5-year old inkjet printer, installed it with the right drivers, and was printing through the 3rd hub on the 3rd external monitor in less than 30 seconds after connection.    Under Windows it was a bitch just to get the thing to print in under 10 minutes and only with a direct printer-to-laptop USB connection. Anything else was futile.

Overall I am impressed.

Breaking A MacBook Pro

But I DID break the MacBook Pro.

Somewhere along the way one of the software updates or installs (I’m fairly certain it is software related) caused my external monitors connected to the display port connects on the MacBook started to “flicker”.   By flicker I mean go completely black for 1 or 2 seconds then turn back on.  Sometimes this would happen once every hour.   Sometimes it would happen once every 5 seconds for 5 minutes straight.       When that didn’t happen I got what the Apple community has coined as “video ants”.   “Ants” are horizontal or vertical bands of pixel artifacts that are similar to “snow” you would find on analog TV years ago (for the young kids that don’t know what analog TV or “snow” is, go look it up… I’m sure YouTube has a video).     Needless to say, these issues made it impossible to use my external monitors and get anything accomplished.

Apple’s Stellar Support

What I found was that Apple Support, thus far, outshines Microsoft and just about EVERY vendor in the Microsoft-centric hardware space that I have ever used.    I’ve purchased top-of-the-line equipment from Sony, Dell, Toshiba, HP, Asus, Acer, and Lenovo.   Few can compare to the general engineering finesse of Apple but NONE can come anywhere CLOSE to Apple in regards to customer service.   NOT EVEN THE SAME PLANET.

I did some homework and tried various online remedies.  Nothing worked.    I decided to take advantage of Apple Support that comes FREE for the first 90 days with any Apple computer purchase.     I got online and opened a chat session.     This is where Apple starts to blow away the rest of the market when it comes to support.    Just getting started with support was painless.      Because I took literally 30 seconds to sign up for an Apple ID when booting my laptop I only had to enter my email and password for that ID and Apple could start building my support case.

It only took a minute and involved 3 simple questions before I had someone on  live chat.   The questions start with “your Apple serial number”.   This is easily found from an on-screen menu in the OS.  No flipper over the laptop, or looking under a desk at the back of a tower, or rebooting to the BIOS.  Just go to the main menu and look at System Preference/More Info.   There it is plain as day.  Now THAT is an novel idea… ANYONE in the Windows world paying attention?   The other questions? Your name and a brief description of your problem.

Support Personnel Using English?

So I have someone on chat.  Guess what?   They actually READ AND WRITE PERFECT ENGLISH.  Holy cow, does Apple actually employ Americans for support?    Maybe.    If not they do a GREAT job training people how to communicate in perfect English for the American users like myself.    Not that I’m a xenophobe but I just cannot stand reading blatantly horrid streams of grammatical and syntactically incorrect English for an entire 20 minute chat session.     I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to not be reading or listening to “Yoda-speak”.   I had ENOUGH of that with Microsoft premium customer support for their cloud services last night.   “If you press now please button on computer” or “Hold now down the control button, you shall.”   Really?

And Can Use Their Brain?

Guess what else?  They are ALLOWED TO USE THEIR BRAIN!   They actually are REAL PEOPLE WITH A REAL BRAIN.   I just about had a God-damned heart attack when they literally said “Can you tell me what debugging you’ve already done?  I don’t want to ask you to do things you tried already.  Your time is too valuable to be wasted.”.     HOLY FRIGGING CRAP… YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!  That is NOT how customer support works in 2014.   APPLE…  do you realize you are completely screwing with the customer support paradigm?   This cannot possibly be good for business!!!     That one simple interaction, that has now happened not with ONE but with TWO Apple support people in a row is one HUGE reason why I don’t think I’ll ever stray from Apple from this point forward.  Not unless they decide to be just like everyone else on the planet and go to a 100% check-the-box-while-reading-the-script support model.

I told them all the steps I had taken from swapping cables, ordering new cables, swapping monitors, uninstalling software, reboots, swapping ports, and a myriad of other options.     They read it all, and actually came up with some things I DID NOT TRY.     They did so nearly instantaneously.  Like they actually knew what the hell they were talking about.       Yes, they did have me reset PRAM which did not help.      They also had me reset SMC and run the Apple Hardware Test (AHT) which did not show any errors.      MAYBE the SMC reset did help, though at first I was not convinced because the login screen immediately showed screen flicker, but I will tell you that as soon as I powered off all 3 monitors, turned them back on after trying one more cable swap trick THE MONITORS WORKED.

What is not most impressive is the fact that my monitors are now working again as expected but the fact that I was not asked a bunch of dumb-ass questions or told to “did you reboot”, “did you power off for 30 seconds”, or other obvious options.     They could tell I know a little something about computers and went STRAIGHT to the uber-technical stuff.    They came up with some new analysis and debugging steps nearly immediately.    I was truly impressed.

Just as impressive was the team communication.     After my first contact with Apple Support I was told “this is your support ID in case you need to call back so the next person can pick up where I left off”.   True enough, the next support person after my system reboot and PRAM reset did not work picked up EXACTLY where he first person left off.     That person never needed to ask for my case ID, they looked at the history and said “is this related to the monitor issue”.  Yes.   Moving on to the next item.       That is how support should be.

Hey World – Copy This!

In my book, Apple knocked it out-of-the-park when it comes to technical support.  Why?

  • 30 seconds with a FEW simple questions to get registered for online support.
  • No more than a 2 minute wait for a LIVE support person.
  • Support people are ALLOWED TO THINK, they are not script-driven.
  • Support had a CLUE even with a less-common problem.
  • Support ALWAYS made me feel like they WANTED me to use the service.
  • Every support person said “please let us know if this doesn’t fix it, we want you to be 100% happy with you Apple experience and won’t stop working on this until you are”.
  • They actually UNDERSTOOD the problem and came up with what appears to be the right solution.

Not This!

After a month of dealing with Asurion to get my HTC phone fixed and an entire evening with Microsoft Azure support  I am absolutely blown-away by the fact that Apple has real old-fashioned technical support.

Asurion?  100% script based to the point of absurdity. “I just did a factory reset an hour before calling you, it didn’t help.   them: That doesn’t matter sir, if you DO NOT do a factory reset now I cannot help you.   If we don’t see the phone re-register we will not proceed.  me: Can you see it re-registered 90 minutes ago?   them: sir that is irrelevant, if you don’t do it again now while I am on the phone I cannot help you.”

Microsoft? 4 techs, 3 time zones and at least one guy that my disk failure problem was related to an IP address change (WTF, really?) Don’t forget this guy too: “I am not an expert in that area, I will refer you to someone that is” from the guy that I was originally referred to as an expert in that area.

Apple Fan Boy?

A month ago I thought Apple users where just zealots that had buried their heads in the sand and ignored the myriad of problems that come up on their devices.      I used to think “well they are not overly technical and just don’t push the systems like I do”, but that notion was dispelled a few years back as some of the uber-geeks I know were also raging Apple fans.      Now I’m getting a taste of the Kool-Aid.    If this support experience is any indication of what it is like being an Apple Fan Boy, I’m all in.

And just as I finish writing this… the first monitor flicker on my display port devices in over 3 hours.  Maybe this is not 100% fixed so we’ll see just how deep the Apple Kool-Aid Punch Bowl is.    But wait, it looks like it was the VirtualBox guest going into and out of sleep state while in full screen on my other monitors.    Very like just a VirtualBox bug not an OS/X or MacBook hardware issue after all.

 

 

 

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Becoming A MacBook User

After 25 years of system crashes, dozens of laptops failing under warranty, months of lost productivity in patches, system reboots, and restores I have finally had enough.    You might call it being stubborn.   I call it 25 years of retained knowledge that I refused to let go.   All the Windows shortcuts.  The black magic required to find system files and bend them to my needs.   Navigating system security.   Knowing nearly any app that existed so I could find the right tool for the job.

Then came Windows 8.   Half of that knowledge was now useless.    Even the decades-old F8 key press on system boot to get to safe mode to recover a broken PC was gone.   I learned that last week when my HP laptop went AWOL for the FIFTH TIME since December.    A $2500 high-end enterprise class HP laptop turn out to have been my second all-time productivity killer right behind my $3800 Asus top-of-the-line gaming laptop I bought a few years ago.    Lesson learned: It doesn’t matter how much you spend on a Windows Laptop it will break and the more costly it is the longer it takes to get parts to fix it.

The Camel Surrenders

This weekend was the last straw.    I literally spent nearly every hour of the past 4 days trying to get my primary development system, that HP laptop, back online.    What did I do to break it?   Installed a CRITICAL HP security update from their laptop-specific HP Support Assistant software.    When it rebooted the only thing I got was the Windows 8.1 version of the “Blue Screen of Death” (BSOD)… the inevitable frowny-face which means 2 more auto-reboots to end up at the “Restore Your System” state.    Sadly system restore, system fresh, and even the Factory Restore Disk applications did not work.    That last one, Factory Reset was the best.  The ONE application that is the “nuke it all, restore the system to Day 1 status” did not work.   It could not run because there was a problem with the primary Windows installation.  AWESOME.   Why do you think I wanted to do a Factory Restore?  Because I was bored?  Because I had so much fun installing 5 days of downloaded apps to get my system setup the first time around?    Because I’m a glutton for punishment.

Windows 8 Frowny Face
Windows 8. Yup, 🙁 just about sums it up.

Well, that last statement may be true given my opening remarks in this article… but I digress…

I had now added SIX MORE FULL DAYS of lost productivity to my lifelong count of 1,356.9 days lost trying to restart a broken windows PC.

Midway through day FOUR of lost productivity I had enough.    I called the local Apple Store to see if they had the newest MacBook Pro available.   Sadly they were out of stock, but my favorite online shopping site, Amazon and their Smile charity program, had the laptop I wanted and at a LOWER PRICE even after the $5 overnight Prime shipping!

New Toys

Today the MacBook Pro arrived.

My old HP laptop, that sat their in defiance all weekend with that damned frowny-face on EVERY ONE of the 18 RESTARTS, I wish I was exaggerating, booted up like nothing was ever wrong literally 90 SECONDS after I opened that MacBook Pro box.    I swear I heard a wav file playing from it’s speakers in  whispered-voice that sounded an awful lot like “Oh shit, he wasn’t kidding when he said 25 years of Windows was enough!”.

MacBook Arrives And HP Plays Nice
As soon as I booted up the MacBook and took the HP out to take some size-comparison pics the HP decide to play nice. Too little, too late HP-Z. It was real… and by that I mean a real PITA.

The Apple Package

My brand new MacBook Pro 15″ laptop.    I had forgotten the great job Apple does packing their products.   I remember being impressed the first time I opened my first-generation iPhone some years ago.  I did notice other companies started to copy the “Apple style” for gadgets-in-a-box and I thought the most recent laptops and phones I got from other brands were “just like what Apple was doing”.   Turns out Apple has pushed the envelope even further as they continue to refine the product packaging.    Yes, it is a small thing, but it show how Apple seems to iterate over every element of the customer experience until it is perfect; until tomorrow when they come up with something better.

Apple Packaging
Apple packaging is clean & simple. Others try to mimic but Apple just has that little-something extra.

A Laptop For Laps

Immediately I noticed how THIN this new Apple laptop was.   It has just about the same technical specifications as the HP ZBook 17″ I’ve been lugging around.     Nearly identical processors,  identical RAM, the same video ports, and a 512GB SSD drive (far faster) on the MacBook versus a 768GB SATA on the HP.   The MacBook screen is a touch smaller at 15.4″ to the HP 17″.    But DAMN is this Apple machine so, so, so much smaller and lighter and easier to tote around than that HP.    Even bringing the HP into the living room to hack around was a chore and after 15 minutes on my lap I could feel my legs going numb from the weight and the heat that thing throws off.

Lightweight MacBook Pro versus Heavyweight HP
This MacBook Pro is going to be SOOOOO much nicer to haul around. A true portable PC. It’s been a while. I’m looking forward to it. Come to think of it I just decided I want to travel more…

This Apple is going to be FAR easier to travel with this fall.     I’m going to truly enjoy how much less size and weight I carry around both around town and to the various conferences I hope to get to around the country this year.

External Displays

I must say that the Windows display system is far more flexible than the OS/X system.   However the OS/X display system in this MacBook actually WORKS right out of the box.     Within minutes I had 2 external HP ZR2440W monitors, which are really nice monitors by the way, connected with the proper resolution and display placement.   What did I have to do to get my 3-up display system working on the new MacBook?  Plug them in.    That’s it.    Nothing more.

On that high-end HP laptop that claims “out of the box support for 5 monitors”?   Turns out that is a lie.   It can handle 3 monitors.   Even with the “simple” 2 external monitors + the laptop display, same setup as my new MacBook, it was far from “plug-and-play”.    I had to download and install a new BIOS on the brand new HP laptop.   Then I had to install a new Video BIOS.   Then I had to install new drivers.  Upgrade Windows.   The entire process required 3 reboots and even then it did not work properly.  Any time the system went into sleep mode one of the  monitors, a random one each time, would not come back.    I got a patch from HP 2 months later for that, which required another download and reboot process.

3 Displays No Problem
3 Displays. No driver installs. No BIOS updates. No reboots. Winner? Apple by a mile.

The Out Of The Box Display Support winner is the MacBook Pro 15″ by a mile.

The next display test?   Connecting THREE external IPS displays to the MacBook.   Rumor has it this is “no problem” according to the Apple Store.   When my mini-displayport to display port cable comes in later this week I’ll let you know, but we’re off to a good start.

External USB Ports

The MacBook Pro is a bit shy on USB ports.   It has a couple, but that’s one less than I need and one less than my HP laptop.     Actually 5 less if you count the HP docking station but I’m sure I can buy a $300 Apple accessory that adds more ports if needed.     Instead I tried to do something that NEVER WORKED properly on the HP laptop; use the 4 USB ports that come with EACH ZR2440W monitor.

With my older HP laptop I went through over a DOZEN USB driver updates, monitor driver updates, and even had a full monitor replaced before I could get even HALF the USB ports working that are built into the displays.    Supposedly you can connect a USB cable from the laptop to the monitor and immediately have all 4 ports recognized by the USB bus.    The high-end HP enterprise-class laptop connected to a high-end HP enterprise monitor was a bust.     When the ports did work only half would work properly and any device attached would drop off the USB bus at random intervals.    I could never use my keyboard or mouse with that setup.   I had to buy that HP docking station to give my system 4 additional STABLE USB ports.  The ports in the monitors were useless.

With the MacBook Pro I decided to give it another shot.  I connected a port on the laptop to one of the monitor ports.   I connected my keyboard, Logitech unify dongle, and Wacom table dongle to the monitor.     Everything worked beautifully, perfectly, and with ZERO configuration on my part.     I’ve now written this entire article without a single dropout from the keyboard or mouse.

External USB device support winner?  Apple.  By a mile.

Getting My Stuff

Over the past few days I’ve had my development environment scattered between the Mac Mini, a broken HP laptop, and some USB drives.   Now I need to get tens-of-gigabytes of files, install packages, and data over to my new laptop.

Getting ANYTHING on Windows 8.1 to talk to anything else is a disaster.    It has been since all the way back to Windows 7 when NT server-class security technology crept into the desktop OS.    Getting any Windows PC to share anything is an exercise in patience.    That is why the entire hokey “Homegroup” sharing thing came about.   It work, but it is SLOWWWW.   Somehow Windows managed to find a way to throttle their own Windows-To-Windows network transfers with some fancy restart-where-you-left-off transfer protocol.  The entire thing is FUBAR.

On the MacBook Pro I found that getting anything from my Mac Mini was blissfully easy.    HOLY SHIT why can’t Microsoft make it this easy.     On the MacBook I went to Finder and immediately found my MacBook mini (where I had turned on File Sharing from System Preferences early in the week by checking a box… no driver or security configurations needed).    Click on that MacBook Mini listing and it asks for my username and password on that system.    I turn it on and guess what?   All my shit is there.    Quick, easy, and accessible.

Installing Sonos From Remote Mac
Honestly, I never expected it to work. I guess that is the norm for a shell-shocked Windows user, but installing things from my older Mac Mini downloads folder was quick and painless.

So what did I try next? Something super crazy that just NEVER WORKS RIGHT on Windows systems.   I decided to run the Oracle VirtualBox and Karabiner installs from off that Mac Mini without copying the files over to my MacBook Pro first.    It ran fast as heck and perfectly, just as if I had run it from the local disk.     HOLY CRAP.   I though for sure it would barf all over itself and require a system reboot and restore like so many remote Windows installs I tried over the past 25 years.

Bluetooth Sharing

This is something I tried to do for months with the HP laptop, and several other PCs before that.   Send a file using bluetooth from my Android phone to the laptop.    On the HP I could get the devices paired and the send/accept file started but it NEVER finished the transfer.  It always aborted no matter the file size.

On OS/X Mavericks?   Pair the devices.  Go to sharing in System Preferences and check “Bluetooth sharing”.    Go to the phone and share via bluetooth.    The “accept file” dialog shows up on OS/X and guess what?  The file actually APPEARED in the downloads folder just like it should.    No extra drivers to install.  No security warnings.  It just plain worked.   Nice!

Summary

Yes, this is all little stuff, but in my first HOUR of working with the MacBook Pro I am already impressed.   Yes I’ve used OS/X before but never have I had much interest in getting things DONE quickly and exactly the way I wanted.   My prior forays into OS/X have been purely as a secondary system to my Windows development boxes where OS/X only existed to supported some IOS development as needed.    But this time around I’m going “all in” and thus far I am impressed enough by the “simple little stuff” and how much better it is than the Windows experience that I had to share.

Yes, all things will likely go to hell soon enough.    I have a unique ability to break ALL THINGS that use spinning electrons to do their magic. But so far I’m liking this new toy.  If it holds together for more than a week without my breaking it I will be truly impressed.    We shall see how good this Apple deal really is.

If it doesn’t work out you may find me tending bar somewhere around town in the next few weeks.

If it does work out, on the other hand, Apple may have just converted another Windows user and I could be one of the biggest “Apple Fan Boys” yet.