Recent updates in 'Geek'

Tulip

Testing the new camera...

Testing the new camera...

Setting the Vista Taskbar to Autohide from Delphi 2009

Banged my head against this for quite some time. What I really wanted was a fullscreen app that appeared over the taskbar. While it appears that this is simple in XP, in Vista not so much. However, setting the form’s FormStyle to fsStayOnTop and WindowState to wsMaximized in combination with the code below to turn the Taskbar’s auto hide flag on achieves what I needed, and a bit more pleasantly as well (the Taskbar animates nicely out of the way).

Here’s the code from the FormShow event handler (you’ll need ShellAPI in your ‘uses’ statement):

procedure TMainForm.FormShow(Sender: TObject);
var
  AppBarData: TAppBarData;
  AutoHideOn: boolean;
begin
  //check if autohide on already
  AppBarData.cbSize := SizeOf(AppBarData) ;
  AutoHideOn :=(SHAppBarMessage(ABM_GETSTATE, AppBarData) 
       and ABS_AUTOHIDE) > 0;

  OrigTaskBarParam := -1;

  //if it isn't, then we will turn it on temporarily
  if not AutoHideOn then
  begin
    AppBarData.hWnd := FindWindow('SHELL_TRAYWND', nil);
    //we'll also save the user's taskbar settings and 
    //restore them to the way they had them when we close
    OrigTaskBarParam := SHAppBarMessage(ABM_GETSTATE, AppBarData);
    //now we'll set it the way we want it
    AppBarData.lParam := LParam(ABS_ALWAYSONTOP or ABS_AUTOHIDE);
    SHAppBarMessage(ABM_SETSTATE, AppBarData);
  end;
end;

Now, to be nice we’re saving the user’s original taskbar settings (before we fucked around with them) in a private field (OrigTaskBarParam) of our form. We’ll use this again in the form’s destroy handler:

procedure TMainForm.FormDestroy(Sender: TObject);
var
  AppBarData: TAppBarData;
begin
  //if we modified this we'll set it back to the original state
  if OrigTaskBarParam <> -1 then
  begin
    AppBarData.cbSize := SizeOf(AppBarData) ;
    AppBarData.lParam := OrigTaskBarParam;
    AppBarData.hWnd := FindWindow('SHELL_TRAYWND', nil);
    SHAppBarMessage(ABM_SETSTATE, AppBarData);
  end;
end;

Apple confirms NVidia video flaw effects Macbook Pro

In a support page posted on Apple’s website, Apple confirmed yesterday that the NVidia graphics chipset defect impacted the Macbook Pro’s. More from AppleInsider.

After repeated trips to the Apple Store to convince them of the problem, I got mine replaced a couple of months ago and so far the new one is working like a charm. Glad they finally confirmed what many of us already knew from ugly experience…

Dean Allen’s “A DSLR Catechism”

From Dean Allen’s Textism: “A DSLR Catechism”:

“Which camera is best?
The model a step up from the one you just bought.

When will the right camera for you be available?
Probably next year.

When will it be affordable?
When it is obsolete.

What camera do ‘fools’ buy?
Yours.”

Read the rest here.

Replacement Macbook Pro Good (for now?)

My replacement refurb Macbook Pro was shipped to me by Apple and arrived at my doorstep on July 29th. For those new to the story, this replaced a previous refurbed Macbook Pro (2008 model, 2.5Ghz, 512mb VRAM) that was purchased at the Apple Store online. I had this laptop for about two weeks before the video started to go to crap just about every time I was running on battery. The video problems I described following my first of three visits to local Apple Genius Bar and then further after the 2nd and 3rd visits and the follow-up call with Apple.

Although, I’ve had this system for about a week and a half I’ve really only tested it out for about four days of that. The wireless Airport card didn’t fully function and only allowed periodic and very slow wireless connections. I took it to get fixed under warranty at a local certified Apple repair vendor (the two nearby Apple Store Genius Bars were all booked up) but this was a slow process. I probably could’ve (and maybe should’ve) just insisted Apple send me another laptop as this one clearly failed out of the box, but as the video seemed to work I thought it better not to press my luck.

However, I was disturbed with how long it took to get resolution of the wireless problem both on the phone and at the repair place. Apple makes some decent tools (like Network Utility) for troubleshooting this stuff and there are a lot of other third party tools that will let you analyze your wireless signal strength. But I was never asked to try any of these. Even though I made it clear that my other wireless clients were working fine, both sets of people I talked to wanted to blame it on the router (an Apple Time Capsule) or some sort of interference. A quick look at the output from Ping while on wireless about 5ft from the router would’ve showed that there was a problem, especially when compared to an example from a working system in the same location.

— 10.0.1.1 ping statistics —
20 packets transmitted, 7 packets received, 65% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 3.582/435.349/2004.191/727.535 ms

The 65% packet loss and 2000 millisecond return trips would’ve been a big indicator that there was an issue with my particular system, especially as my wife’s crappy and ancient Toshiba had no packet loss and less than 2ms replies from the same spot. Of course, I only thought of this after I’d already spent an hour and a half on the phone with Apple and then taken 3 trips to the repair place. In the end they replaced the Airport card and behold the problem was fixed.

So now I am a happy yet somewhat apprehensive Macbook Pro user. The video updating issues I had seen with Webkit and list views have not reared their ugly head again so far. Scrolling in iTunes no longer looks like this (thankfully). But, though I am hopeful, I know that my problems took a couple of weeks of usage before they surfaced…

I also know that there are still lots of other users plagued with these problems. More information is continuing to come out about the NVIDIA chipset flaw that may or may not be related. For a good recent example see APC’s recent (August 1st) post NVIDIA DISASTER: thousands of GPUs faulty (to which NVIDIA responded) and also check out the post at Macrumours in their page 2 discussions and all the comments.

There is also increasing traffic at the Apple support forums for the Macbook Pro display. Some of these seem to be started by people not seeing any errors but just freaking out over the NVIDIA news, but many others are from people with real problems. The failure modes being reported are not uniform in all of the complaints but many are similar to what I have seen. And many have not been able to get any resolution so far (see the comments on my 3rd post for a couple of examples).

So now we wait. I wait to see if the display glitches come back (and I begin cursing my favorite computer maker again). Many others are still waiting for a fix to the problems with their Macbook Pro. And all of us will undoubtedly wait (and wait, and wait) to see if Apple (and maybe NVIDIA) will actually give us some in-depth information about what they plan to do about all this…

If there’s any lesson to be taken away from my experiences, it’s that buying a refurbished Macbook Pro is a bad bet right now. I gotta wonder a bit whether it’s ever a good bet with any of the Apple refurbs given my failed wireless card. I’m willing to cut them some slack on that, and if it had just been the wireless card I doubt I’d be all that concerned about them. But the display problems are another issue. Of course, these seem to be an issue with the brand new non-refurbished models as well, but I have to suspect that there may be more of these that were not fully diagnosed and fixed in their refurb stock. If Apple still has it’s head in the sand regarding this problem (and there’s no external evidence that they don’t), some of these refurbs might be returns like mine that have not been properly diagnosed with the display issues and thus not really repaired and proven free of them.

Update on Macbook Pro (working so far)

Quick update on Macbook Pro. I got the wireless fixed (finally) yesterday and am now up and running regularly again. So far no signs of the display corruption and redraw problems on the replacement system, though I really haven’t used it extensively yet. I will put it through it’s paces and update by the weekend with the results…

New Macbook Pro doesn’t work either (but not for same reason)

I got a replacement Macbook Pro from Apple late yesterday afternoon. I shipped the last one back on Friday and had a new (refurb) system on Tues. Not bad turnaround.

I’d like to say I’d tested this one out and either did or did not see the same graphics display issue as on the previous system (preferrably did not see). However, I haven’t been able to get too far with this one. The Airport card seems to be hosed, with problems getting a reliable wireless connection. The signal and contact with the Time Capsule router is fluctuating wildly and dropping constantly (like every 10-20 seconds). So instead of getting work done, I’ve spent a substantial part of the day trying to get another expensive hunk of aluminum and silicon working right.

I spent a wonderful hour and 20 minutes on the phone with Apple during which time they disconnected me twice while trying to transfer me to others. I was somewhat unamused. In the end I agreed to take my laptop to local 3rd party certified Apple service technicians because the two local Apple Store’s Genius Bars were completely booked up for the next week. The theory from Apple support being that my Airport card is defective and needs to be replaced. So now I am without laptop again for at least another day or two. For this I am also unamused and am beginning to have some serious buyer’s remorse here…

There was some news on the graphics issue front. It appears Dell has released some BIOS patches that are supposed to limit damage from the NVIDIA flaw… Looks like HP is also acknowledging the same issue now. I wonder if Apple will do the same. I gotta say the shine is coming off of my geek love for them…

Back to the Apple Store… (more Macbook Pro fun)

Display glitch in Mail.app\'s message list view

Display glitch in Mail.app's message list view

I went back the Apple Store’s Genius Bar for my third visit yesterday in an attempt to get resolution to the display glitches I’d been seeing (the first visit is described here with additional information on the issue in general, the second visit is noted here). The last visit resulted in a fresh install of Mac OS X and a promise to replace my laptop (now only just over a month old) if there was no resolution to the problem.

I left my first two visits feeling hopeful and appreciative of the helpful attention I’d been paid by the different techs I’d talked with. Although the solutions I’d been offered were pretty much what I’d expect from just about any tech support attempt, I at least felt that they understood the problem and sincerely wanted to fix it.

My third visit felt nothing like this. Instead I was left with the feeling that the tech I was speaking with had no comprehension of the issue and was also made to feel like I was kind of a dumbass for expecting so much.

Of course it didn’t help that I couldn’t reproduce the problem while sitting there, but I had come prepared with about 10 different screen captures showing it in action. And I’ve got to say the guy I talked to on my second visit was willing to promise a replacement system on just these screenshots.

Instead, I was made to feel first like this was something I was causing by scrolling web pages before full loaded (despite the screen shot showing the problem in a list view as well). I said that was not what was happening and also noted that it was a system-wide problem and that I’d seen the flashing of video symptoms as well. I’ve seen elements of this in Mail, Safari, Twitterific, iTunes, iPhoto and the Finder. Here’s a video of the glitch as it appears in iTunes (Quicktime;7mb). Quite annoying.

His fall back position was that it was probably a software problem and that there were a lot of bugs still in Leopard and Safari. Now, I’m willing to buy that it’s a bug, but I’m not convinced it’s in the OS and I know it’s not in Safari (too many other apps affected). Looks like a video HW problem or possibly an NVIDIA driver issue… About this time another Genius Bar employee walked by and commented that he saw someone else with the same problem just yesterday, mainly in Word (which I don’t have installed). Wish he’d stuck around so I could ask more but as usual the place was hectic and he went off to help someone else.

In the end my guy said he’d be willing to replace the logic board but he didn’t think this would fix it and again made me feel like this was a normal behavior I was seeing. I again called bullshit. This is not normal. My previous laptop (a 2005 12″ Powerbook also running Leopard) showed no signs of it, I’ve never seen anything like it on any computer I’ve used over the past 15 years of being a computer geek, and if it was normal the Mac press would be up in arms with complaints about it. No way this is normal. No way this normal for an expensive high-powered laptop with a high-end 512mb video processor. Uh-uh.

So I was given the options of letting them take my laptop for 2 weeks to replace the logic board or to try this guys other suggestion, which was to call Apple and call foul on this particular system, say it’s been a problem since I got it and get a replacement. He said he couldn’t do a swap in store because it was a refurb that I’d purchased from the online Apple Store, but he felt that if I called 1-800-MY-APPLE they might be able to take care of me more quickly than he could (turns out this was a very helpful suggestion).

I was willing to buy this and since I live just a few minutes from the store (and could easily come back for more abuse) I was also willing to go home and call Apple and see where that got me.

On getting home, I decided to first take another shot at trying to find and answer myself. I started digging into the console logs on the system. This only led down a short blind alley. Briefly I was hopeful that the issue I’d been seeing was somehow caused by the numerous kernel extensions that were installed by Parallels’ and VMWare’s demo software. Although removing all of these did result in a much quicker boot, within a few hours I saw the problem again.

So, with no resolution, I called Apple today to see what they had to say…

After a brief on hold wait, I got through to seemingly nice, friendly guy who took my name and serial number and looked me up. He immediately brought up my info from the Genius Bar visits took a look and said he’d like to put me on hold for a few minutes while he reviewed it. When he came back, he immediately said that it looks like I need to get a replacement computer shipped to me, put me on hold again and then came back a few minutes later with an additional person from the Apple Store customer support to arrange for the swap. Less than 20 minutes from the time I dialed, I had the procedure explained to me and they were sending me shipping labels for the return of this system.

Nice. No argument, no asking me to try stupid resets, nothing but immediate attention and promise to fix the issue. Even the guy at the store who I’d thought was being such a dick turned out to be offering good advice. Satisfied again, I await the replacement laptop (and hope like hell I never see this display issue in it!!!)…

Update on Macbook Pro Display Corruption Issues

I took the Macbook Pro in for a second visit to the local Apple Store’s Genius Bar on Friday night. Much busier this time around (apparently mid-day visits are a better bet). After a good wait I finally got called up for a seat at the bar. I explained to the Apple tech guy what the issue was and what had been done on the previous visit.

As an aside, let me say here that I have nothing but respect for these guys. Especially after watching all the attractive yet technically ignorant people that jumped in front of line and pestered them with iPod and iPhone questions. These guys handle it all with great professionalism and calm. And best of all, they never seem to start the conversation assuming they’re talking to a dumbass. I really doubt I could do the same.

So after the previous visit’s disk repair, PRAM and SMC reset, the proposal this time was to do an Archive and Install of the Mac OS X. They offered to do it there in the store and make sure it was up and running before I left, which they did (the Netboot install went pretty quickly). They also promised to replace the Macbook Pro if this didn’t fix it (assuming it was a stock configuration and it is). I was not hopeful that the reinstall would fix it, but kept my doubts to myself and said I was more than willing to try whatever they thought might work.

But, no, this didn’t fix it.

I mostly stayed off of the laptop over the weekend, too busy with other stuff. I briefly popped it open Saturday to see if I could duplicate the problem and all seemed well then. I then left it plugged in but asleep for the rest of Sunday before getting back to work on it this morning. Immediately I knew the display problems were back by the telltale flashes as it tried to render the Apple home page and further in the scrollbar of Twitterific. Playing around a little bit shows there has been absolutely no change in behavior of this issue, still seeing display corruption of Webkit views, slow redraws and occasional misdraws of list views and flashing on playing video.

There seems to be a lot of activity on the Apple Support discussion forums about this issue, but I won’t pretend to know how widespread of an issue it really is. I’m sure something like this always seems more widespread to the people who are experiencing it. That’s just the way humans work: problems affecting us are magnified, while those affecting others are minimized. In any case, I hope it isn’t a universal issue with all recent Macbook Pros and not tied to the NVIDIA GPU issues. I suspect it might be, but I really have nothing to base this on. NVIDIA certainly seems to be denying the problem is really as big an issue as has been rumored (see the recent ArsTechnica article from which the screenshot above was taken).

So far I have no complaints with the way Apple is handling this. Again, nothing but professional tech support people that seem to really want to help and I’m still hopeful that they can…

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