Ugly Display Glitch with Macbook Pro

After much research and ridiculous amounts of indecision, I finally upgraded my old 12″ Powerbook to a bright shiny new (well almost, more on this in a sec) 15″ Macbook Pro. The FedEx man delivered just under a month ago, and I quickly moved over files and applications. Much geeky happiness ensued…

When I shop, I tend to go for the bargains. This is hard to do on Mac’s but they do exist if you’re willing to get an older model or a refurbished unit. Now, I’ve been getting refurbs of things for years (stereos, VCRs, TVs, printers) and had not yet had a problem, so saving several hundred on a current model laptop seemed like a no-brainer. This enabled me to get a little more than I would’ve been able to afford normally, so instead of a 2.4Ghz new laptop, I was able to get a 2.5Ghz with better graphics and bigger HD for about the same price.

Then about two weeks ago the glitch began. The video card began to fail to fully redraw portions of windows and views. This is most apparent when scrolling a window and seems to occur most visibly on views that are WebKit views (like Safari, or the store view in iTunes). It’s not limited to these (I’ve seen it in list views as well), but I suspect I see it most in these because this is where one would most easily notice a redraw issue.

This is what the view corruption looks like on a fairly uncluttered page layout (Favrd):

And here is an example on a more dense layout (NY Times):

Most amusingly, here it is on the Apple main page (note the repeated links and text in the middle):

And for good measure, here it is in a list-type view:

Another symptom of this is some pretty extreme white flashing when viewing video (mostly on web pages) and also extremely slow rendering and flashing when displaying web pages with background images.

The first thing I did was try to figure out when this happened and see if I could make it stop by myself (muttering please stop, please stop)…

It was quickly apparent that it happens only on battery and mostly after the laptop’s gone to sleep (i.e. the lid closed but not powered down) and then opened up again. And it doesn’t happen at all when it’s plugged in.

So, I could work around it if it was a desktop (and thus always plugged in). Unfortunately, there was a reason I paid a premium for a laptop and that was so I could work unplugged and anywhere I chose to sit. And no, I don’t want to carry my cord around with me wherever I go. This things got pretty nice battery life (especially compared to the old Powerbook) and I’d like to take advantage of it.

Researching this online turns up several mentions of the same problem, some stretching back into Feb. of 2008. There are a couple of articles about this, for example this one at ArsTechnica, here at APC Magazine and this one at Macsimum News. More here at AppleInsider. And more here, here, and here… There is also much discussion on Apple’s support forums of this problem. The point of all this is that it is pretty well documented that this problem exists. There’s some recent speculation that the problem is related to the newly announced Nvidia GPU chipset problem, though no confirmation of this exists and Apple is, of course, keeping mum. My laptop has an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT with 512mb of VRAM.

After trying a few of the things others had suggested online and failing to fix it, I took my laptop into the Apple Store’s Genius Bar. I had little faith that this approach would work but was willing to try.

I was easily able to demonstrate the issue to the technician and he immediately tried a couple of things to see if these would fix it. These are sort of standby fixes for just about every Apple laptop hardware problem, reset the PRAM and failing that reset the SMC. He also did a Disk Repair to see if anything was amiss there. All was clean on the repair (I’d already tried this myself of course) and the PRAM reset did nothing (also tried this). The SMC reset, on the other hand, seemed to do the trick. The problem went away despite all efforts to duplicate it again. Although I was a bit dubious, I was also hopeful and left tentatively satisfied.

About 22 hours after my visit, the problem was thoroughly back, making the use of this otherwise incredible machine a serious Lose Weight Exercise in frustration. Maybe it was a mistake to get a refurb, but I suspect based on the forums that there was a good chance of seeing this with a brand new machine as well. I’d also guess that Macbook Pro refurbs are a seriously bad bet at the moment.

In any case, this won’t work as it is… so back to the Apple Store we go…

UPDATE: Last visit and resolution described here, and replacement discussed in this post

3 Responses to “Ugly Display Glitch with Macbook Pro”

  1. Are you still in the return period?

  2. Nope, two weeks past it I’m afraid…

  3. Updated with additional screenshots and description of other symptoms of the problem.