MacBook: The mooing noise disaster

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 4th, 2006 • 5:27 pm

Dear oh dear…

I am afraid we are going to send our brand new MacBook laptop back to Apple. And we’re not going to get a replacement either. Here is why.

Based on my own experience with noise problems, and on all the on-line reading I had been doing about noise issues in Apple hardware in the past five years, I was a bit concerned about what the noise levels would be with this new MacBook.

After all, the Titanium PowerBook G4 might be slow by today’s standards, but at least you can’t complain about the noises it produces. Simply put, in normal daily use, the fans never kick in, and all you hear is the continuous, low-level noise of the spinning hard drive. In five years of using this TiBook, I have only heard the noisier internal fans kick in on a handful of occasions, and it was always in rather extreme conditions (very warm weather, lack of air flow, intensive use, etc.).

So when I got this new MacBook and turned it on for the first time, I was a bit apprehensive. And the initial impression did little to reassure me. The MacBook booted up as expected, and then immediately launched the set-up assistant. During the set-up phase, there was a step designed to let you create a personal user icon based on a digital picture taken by the internal iSight camera (instead of using one of the default icons included in Mac OS X). As soon as I reached that step, I heard a weird kind of noise where it sounded like the MacBook was trying to start one of its internal fans, but was failing to do so repeatedly.

The noise stopped as soon as I got past that step with the internal camera, and I was able to complete the rest of the configuration process without any problems. Then, once the machine was up and running, I launched the Photo Booth application, to see if I could reproduce the problem. Sure enough, as soon as I launched Photo Booth and started using some of the funky visual effects, the weird fan noise started again. And as soon as I quit the Photo Booth application, the fan noise stopped.

At that point, I figured that the Photo Booth application was obviously a CPU-intensive application requiring quite a bit of processing power and that would cause the Core Duo CPU to heat up and trigger the fan activity. It was also a rather warm day and the laptop was sitting on my messy desk next to my own screens, where it wasn’t getting the best air flow around it.

I was a bit concerned about this noise, but I thought that, if it was a noise that only occurred with CPU-intensive applications such as Photo Booth or GarageBand, it wouldn’t be much of an issue for my wife in normal daily use, since she was only going to be using non-intensive applications such as Mail, MS Word, MS Excel, etc.

So I finished configuring the machine, transferred all my wife’s stuff, and then set up the machine on her desk, where it would sit on the old ALZAmela PowerBook stand that we had for the PowerBook G4 and where the new MacBook still fit. My wife’s desk is usually uncluttered, and I figured that the stand would definitely provide sufficient air flow to avoid any over-heating issues.

My wife then started using the machine on a daily basis for her work. Initially, everything went reasonably well. She didn’t have that much to do on the computer anyway, and we had a series of very nice days this week where the weather was sunny, but nice and cool in the mornings and evenings, with a good breeze. With the window open, there was no question that the air flow around the MacBook on her desk was optimal, and she didn’t have any significant noise issues.

Meanwhile, I continued to monitor various on-line forums and blogs for other people’s reactions to the new machines. I also found a small utility called CoreDuoTemp that lets you monitor of the CPU temperature on the MacBook. (Most other similar utilities don’t work with the MacBook yet, because they haven’t been properly updated.)

I read about Daniel Jalkut’s distressing experience with his MacBook Pro, where he described various noise issues, including a “mooing motors” problem that sounded very similar to the noise I had noticed, except that on my MacBook (not Pro), it appeared to be coming from the top-left corner of the machine rather than the bottom-right. As Daniel says, “the fan never seems to come on and stay on, it ramps up and then dies.

But I still figured that, as long as this “mooing” noise only occurred very occasionally in daily use, it wouldn’t be a problem.

In the first couple of days with the MacBook, I also noticed another rather annoying noise, but this one coming from the power adapter of the MacBook, not from the laptop itself. It was a constant “sizzling” type of noise coming from inside the power adapter, and I didn’t feel it was normal. In fact, it sounded a bit scary, because it sounded as if the power adapter was about to catch fire or something. So I got on the phone with AppleCare, and did a little bit of experimenting while talking with the girl on the phone, during which we discovered that the noise would only occur when the power adapter was connected to the laptop and charging it. If the power adapter was only plugged in, but not connected to the laptop, there wouldn’t be any abnormal noise. After consulting with product specialists, the girl said the noise was not normal, and organized a replacement shipment.

Since I had her on the phone, I thought I’d mention, in passing, this mooing noise that I had noticed on occasion. She confirmed that it was indeed a “normal” noise and that it would occur when using certain CPU-intensive applications, such as Photoshop, or Photo Booth, etc. She could hear it on her own machine too, she said. At that stage, I felt reasonably confident that, if this noise was indeed “normal,” we would at least be able to minimize it, since my wife almost never uses CPU-intensive applications (and I only plan to use this MacBook myself when on the road, which is not often).

I also saw that Daniel Jalkut mentioned CPU temperatures beyond 80 degrees Celsius on his machine. According to the CoreDuoTemp application that I had installed on the MacBook, the normal temperature range in normal operations on the MacBook was between 50 and 70 degrees Celsius when not using Photo Booth or an application like that, so it didn’t look like my machine was getting abnormally warm.

Then today disaster struck.

The day was particularly damp, with constant rain showers, but the temperature was also not very high, and my wife kept her window closed. She had quite a bit of work to do in Word and Excel, and had to listen to some MP3 files with QuickTime Player.

Soon after she started working, she called me to inquire about this weird noise that the machine was making. I came to take a closer look/listen, and of course the noise that she was referring to was that mooing noise that I had noticed myself. Except that now it was doing it all the time.

I launched the CoreDuoTemp application, and the temperature range of the CPU was between 65 and 75 degrees Celsius. Apparently, that was enough, in today’s weather environment anyway, to trigger the mooing repeatedly. Yet all she was running was Mail, Word, Excel, and QuickTime Player. And she wasn’t doing several things at the same time. She was just doing the stuff she normally does, i.e. listen to MP3 recordings of her students’ work in QuickTime Player, then switch to Excel to enter marks or to Word to work on a document.

She was understandably quite concerned about that noise, and I tried to reassure her that it was only an occasional noise that could be due to high CPU activity. Yet I was also looking at Activity Viewer on the machine, and it was not indicating any abnormal CPU usage. With the few applications that she was running, the CPU % was around 10 or 15 percent. Nothing shocking, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Yet the left-hand side of the machine was indeed quite warm to the touch, and clearly the situation was enough to trigger the mooing fans.

I asked her to continue working and keep me posted. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours, the situation was still the same. She was still doing the normal, usual stuff, and still the mooing continued. She was now getting rather distressed, because, like me, she’s quite sensitive to noise, and she was used to the TiBook which, for five years, didn’t make any abnormal noises.

We tried putting the laptop to sleep, waiting for a few minutes to let the CPU cool down, and then turning the machine back on. The CPU temperature was then in the 50-60 range, which looked more normal to me, and didn’t trigger any noises. But after a few minutes of work in Word and Excel, the temperature jumped back to the 65-75 degrees Celsius range, and the mooing returned.

Now my wife was getting very concerned. She clearly couldn’t work with such a noise. And there was no sign of it going away! She understandably didn’t want to open the window behind her desk, because it wasn’t particularly nice outside, and besides, the temperature in her room was perfectly normal. She didn’t have any heat on, so it was probably around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius.

I decided it was time for me to get on the phone with AppleCare again. I did just that, got to talk to a representative named David, and he immediately recognized the noise I was describing, and immediately stated that this was a perfectly normal noise, and that it was to be expected.

I tried to explain that we didn’t feel that it was a normal noise, but he insisted that it was normal, that of course today’s laptops ran warmer than the TiBook did five years ago, and that occasional fan noise was normal.

I had to explain this to my wife, and she was not particularly impressed. She tried to continue working on the machine for a while, but the noise was clearly getting on her nerves, and I find it quite understandable. It’s not like it’s a constant, low-level fan noise. It’s a start-and-stop sound that keeps coming and going, and there’s nothing more irritating or distracting than that. We live in a very quiet rural environment, and value this quiet environment very highly. We don’t have any significant office background noises in our house, and my wife certainly doesn’t have any in her room. (I have the constant purring of my G5, of course, but at least it’s constant and fairly reasonable, compared to the noise the G4 MDD used to make.)

Even in my room with the background noise of the G5, the MacBook’s mooing would be noticeable. So of course it was all the more noticeable in her room, where she has no background noise.

At that stage, my wife had to be quite frank with me and tell me that this was an unacceptable situation. She was not about to sacrifice her five years of office tranquillity just for the sake of getting a newer, faster, slicker machine. She indicated quite clearly that, if this mooing noise was normal and nothing could be done about it, then we would have to return the machine and she would have to go back to her trusty PowerBook G4. And I had to agree with her, because I would feel exactly the same way if it were my machine.

So back on the phone I was with AppleCare, and I got to speak to another representative. We went through the usual spiel, and his first response was that this noise was probably “within specifications” (i.e. to be expected), but that if we felt it was abnormal, we could go to our local Apple repair shop and get a specialist to take a look/listen.

I explained that the closest specialist was a three-hour drive away, and that this was probably not worth the trouble if the noise was within specifications, and the machine didn’t exhibit any other abnormal behaviours, such as an abnormally high temperature or something like that. He then said he would go speak to a product specialist to see if there were any “emerging issues” about this brand new model.

When he came back, all he could say was that this was as expected, that the noise was within spec, and that there was probably nothing that could be done about it. I then said that, in that case, we would have to return the machine and ask for a refund. He then asked where I bought the machine from (the Apple Canada Educators Store) and asked for my web order number. He said he would put me on hold and contact a “sales admin” person and get back to me to hook me up with this person.

After a few minutes, he was back, and transferred me to this sales admin person. I explained again what the problem was and that we felt we had no choice but to return the machine and ask for a refund. He then looked up my order and told me in no uncertain terms that, since I had selected a “built-to-order” configuration (I had added 512 MB of RAM to the default config of the black MacBook), the sale was final and I couldn’t return the product and get a refund.

I was flabbergasted. I said that I had no idea that there was such a policy. He told me that he could point me to a web page outlining this policy. I said that I was sure that there was a policy somewhere, but that it certainly wasn’t clear at the time I selected a built-to-order option that I was doing something that would prevent me from return the machine if I wasn’t happy with it. It is not like there is a big warning in bold letters about this when you do actually select a built-to-order option.

On the contrary, the Apple Store web site makes it very easy to add such built-to-order options, and doesn’t warn you about such consequences in clear terms at the time you do choose such options. I was sure that there was some fine print somewhere, and indeed, the “Shopping Agreement” that you have to go through when you use the Apple Canada Educator Advantage Store does state:

Custom Configured Product
We are pleased to offer product custom configured to your specifications* and encourage you to review your order carefully. Since the product is built to your specifications, the order cannot be modified, returned or cancelled once your order is in production.

But of course like most people I had only had a cursory look at this “Shopping Agreement” to ascertain that I was eligible (I am). This still qualifies as “fine print” to me, and I find such conditions rather outrageous—especially considering that the only thing that I had added was a bit of extra RAM, since the default configuration always has insufficient RAM for anything other than the bare minimum.

At this point, I was getting rather hot under the collar, and my wife, who was listening to my conversation, was getting quite agitated herself. She’s usually better at keeping her cool in such situations, and it was her machine, so she took over and proceeded to make it quite clear to the sales admin person that we felt that this was quite unacceptable. She asked to speak to someone higher up.

He put her on hold, and came back to us within a few minutes with a proposal to let us return the machine and refund it, but with a 10% restocking fee, and we would have to pay for the shipping.

I am afraid that we felt that we had no choice but to take that option. So that’s what we are going to do. I am going to install Tiger on her PowerBook (which thankfully we had not yet resold to the friend with lesser means who was interested in it) and transfer all her stuff back. (I had already reformatted the hard drive of the old machine and erased everything.)

And this mooing black MacBook is going back to Apple, because the noise is, quite simply, unacceptable in a laptop product used for simple computing tasks such as e-mail or word processing.

It is a very sad and disappointing turn of events. I am a long-time fan of Apple products, and have spent tens of thousands of dollars on Apple products. I provide tech support and computer advice (including computer purchasing advice) to a variety of Mac users in the region. But I am starting to feel that Apple has been erring on the abusive side of this relationship a bit too often in recent times.

First there was the atrocious AirPort reception of the TiBook, which was clearly a bad design flaw (and, even with some improvement, still continues to plague MacBook Pro models today as far as I can tell).

Then there was the atrocious noise problems with the G4 MDD, which triggered an international petition campaign that eventually led to a Power Supply Replacement program.

And now this?

Of course, I have limited experience with other recent Mac laptops. This MacBook is our first new laptop since the PowerBook bought in 2001. I realize that the technology has changed in five years, that processors have become more powerful, running hotter and requiring more engineering ingenuity. But I thought that the switch to the Intel processors (with all the associated headaches and expenses for end users) was precisely so that we could enjoy improved performances in laptops with appropriate CPUs that would not burn our laps to a crisp.

It is also quite possible that we are being “punished,” once again, for being early adopters, that this is a problem that will be eventually fixed in subsequent revisions of the product or even possibly through a firmware update.

However, at this point, I don’t feel that we can take the chance and keep the product in case this might happen in the next few months. There is very little indication coming from Apple that their engineers do actually take noise issues seriously.

On the contrary, you really do have to wonder what the MacBook’s engineers have been thinking. Do they really think that such a start-and-stop kind of noise is preferable to some kind of constant, low-level fan noise? I am all for “smart” technology that adapts to circumstances and makes additional fans only kick in when they are required. But when they are required most of the time (and it certainly looks like they are), it makes no sense to make them optional, with all the extra noise associated with starting and stopping a mechanical engine.

I am afraid that, at this point in time, I have to say I have no trust left for Apple when it comes to noise issues. If they really feel that such a noise is “normal,” is to be “expected,” and is something that most people can easily get used to, then I am afraid that they might experience a surprisingly high percentage of product returns—in addition to getting a bunch of very peeved customers finding it hard to believe that just adding some RAM to a product makes it ineligible for returns!

I am not sure what we are going to do now. We’re definitely not buying another new machine right away. And, when it comes time to replace the TiBook because it is actually dying (which could happen any time, unfortunately), I am really not sure what we are going to do. I certainly will never buy another built-to-order machine from Apple again unless they change this policy. (How hard is it to remove the extra RAM to turn the machine back into its default configuration?) I thought I was doing them a bit of a favour by giving them the money for the extra premium that they charge for extra RAM. They are never going to get another cent from me in that respect.

And when we do have to buy another laptop, I doubt very much that we’ll buy it on-line. We’ll go to a store, and take whatever demo machine they have there through a whole battery of tests, in a quiet environment if need be, to make sure that its noise levels are acceptable.

But again, if Apple really thinks that it can get away with this kind of lousy treatment when it comes to noise issues, it runs the very real risk of losing me (and therefore a significant bunch of pretty hard-core Mac users) as a customer. Such lousy noise management engineering is not worthy of the quality products that Apple purports to be selling. We are not talking about occasional problems here. We are talking about the very ordinary, day-to-day computing experience of ordinary users doing ordinary stuff with their machine. If Apple can’t even make a machine that does that stuff properly while running cooly and quietly, then I am afraid that they don’t deserve my money anymore.

This whole ordeal will have cost us over $200 (not counting the brand new AirPort Extreme Base Station that I ended up ordering because AppleTalk printing over AirPort wouldn’t work properly with the MacBook), and we’ll chalk it up to experience. “Live and learn,” as they say. But I am starting to find that there is a limit to the amount of learning that I am willing to do for Apple at my own expense.

33 Responses to “MacBook: The mooing noise disaster”

  1. AlanY says:

    Rough story. I’m planning on getting a MacBook at the end of August, and I hope they release a firmware update that solves this problem by then. I’ve seen the videos online with the fans turning on and off. It’s a shame too, because the fans themselves are very high quality, with cast magnesium frames. Apple didn’t cheap out there, but it seems the current firmware controlling them is not up to snuff.

    If you do switch over to Windows, I’d recommend staying away from Dell if noise is an issue. My current Dell laptop sounds like a small vacuum (admittedly an exaggeration, but certainly an annoyance if quiet is an issue for you). ThinkPads are supposed to be very good, though they come with a price premium similar to the MacBook Pros, and some of the newer Core Duo ThinkPads (T60 in particular) have had similar reports of whine.

    If you haven’t returned your MacBook yet, one thing you might try is disabling one of the cores. That should reduce temperatures and quiet things down. It’s an experiment worth doing anyway, just for interest’s sake. I’ll probably end up doing that when on the move (there’s no reason why I need two >1GHz cores for basic tasks).

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions. I did try disabling one of the cores with CHUD, but even with only one core, I am still able to exceed a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius far too easily, just by taking a look at a few pictures in iPhoto (not editing them or anything fancy, just looking at them).

    I am afraid it’s just not good enough. Whoever at Apple thinks this is “acceptable” and “within range” doesn’t deserve his engineer’s job. It’s utterly ridiculous to think that people would want to subject themselves to this kind of noise in a normal, quiet home environment.

    I am not considering a switch to a Wintel laptop at this point in time, though. We’re going to continue with the TiBook for the time being, and see what happens. If I ever do consider a switch, however, you can be sure that I will do a lot of preliminary research on noise issues!

  3. Daniel Jalkut says:

    Hi Pierre – I’m very sorry to hear about your troubles. Though, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit happy that you’re corroborating the experience that so many of us have had with the MacBook and MacBook Pro. I hope Apple will take the problems more seriously, as more and more people speak out about the issues and identify them as completely unacceptable.

    By the way, one of the ironies of disabling a core on the MacBook Pro, at least, is that it *decreases* battery life. I think these CPUs were made to full-bore.


  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Daniel. I am of course sad and disappointed with the situation, but, having been through a situation somewhat similar to yours with the G4 MDD, I know how you feel and I am “glad,” in a way, that I am able to corroborate your experience. The more people speak out, the more there is a chance that Apple might eventually take these issues really seriously. I am not quite at the stage where I’d want to give up on Apple altogether, so I still hope that this situation can somehow be corrected and we can enjoy many more years of happy Mac computing in this household. But something drastic will need to be done about noise issues.

    As for the CHUD thing, based on my experience yesterday, turning one CPU core off really doesn’t help all that much anyway.

  5. HandyMac says:

    If you haven’t seen it, you might be interested to read John Siracusa’s remarks on Mac noise problems; although the problem he’s talking about is different than the fan noise you discuss, his general conclusions on noise are well-stated.

    As both you and Siracusa remark, it seems that Apple’s engineers (and those of other companies, e.g. Dell) simply consider noise annoyance a “normal” cost of “laptop”
    (assuming you have an asbestos lap) computer use these days. It’s a cost I find very stressful.

    Last fall I upgraded from my previous “Pismo” PowerBook to a 1.5GHz 17″ PB, whose frequent fan activity has been driving me nuts, especially now that summer is here. Though its fans are relatively quiet compared to the Pismo’s screamer, I still — after 15 years of silent computing since my first Mac Portable — just can’t get used to it. Like a ringing telephone, it feels like an emergency situation that demands a response, no matter how often I tell myself it’s “normal.” Never knowing when the fan’s going to come on has added an element of constant paranoia to my computer experience.

    I have Temperature Monitor showing the CPU temperature in the menu bar, and Activity Monitor in the Dock (“Show CPU History”); anytime CPU usage strays above 50%, the temperature hits 58 degrees and the fans come on. All I can do is quickly close any complex web pages, never copy more than one or two files at a time, leave the room when running DiskWarrior, etc.

    I gather that the ability of any application to aggressively hog the whole CPU is supposed to be a “feature” in OS X, but I wish there were some kind of “governor” I could use to rein in this behavior. The big screen is nice, but the feeling that I can’t use this fancy $2000 PowerBook for more than the simplest tasks without it going crazy is a considerable disappointment.

  6. Daniel Jalkut says:

    I gather that the ability of any application to aggressively hog the whole CPU is supposed to be a “feature” in OS X, but I wish there were some kind of “governor” I could use to rein in this behavior. The big screen is nice, but the feeling that I can’t use this fancy $2000 PowerBook for more than the simplest tasks without it going crazy is a considerable disappointment.

    You may have some luck “governing” the CPU use by adjusting your power consumption settings. For instance, you can turn it to “Best Battery Life” or something even when you’re plugged in, and it might help.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    HandyMac: Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s quite insightful, because it applies to a PowerBook G4, i.e. before the switch to Intel chips. Like I said in my post, my only experience when it comes to daily use of a laptop computer was with the 5-year-old TiBook. I suspected that things had gotten worse in the intervening period—otherwise the behaviour of the MacBook would be utterly unacceptable to most laptop users—and your experience seems to confirm it. It sounds like laptop engineers have decided that fan noise is something we have to live with, and, based on current sales trend, it sounds like most users are accepting this as an inevitable thing.

    Like you, however, I find myself utterly unable to accept it. I simply cannot ignore noise, especially not when it’s intermittent and, as you said, induces paranoia in your daily computing tasks, because you’re always afraid that too much activity is going to trigger the noise. I would MUCH prefer a constant, low-level fan noise that never changes.

    Now, whether you and I are just part of a small group of abnormally sensitive users or of a larger group of dissatisfied users is obviously something that we cannot determine from our end. I suspect that Apple only looks at the bottom line, and, unless a large enough number of people start returning their machines and making it clear this situation is unacceptable, nothing will change.

    If I remember correctly, the stink we managed to raise about the G4 MDD noise fiasco three and a half years ago did ultimately lead not only to the Power Supply Replacement program that eliminated the most unbearable noise in the machine, but also to the hiring of a noise specialist (audio engineer or something) by Apple, and a few months later they came out with the brand new G5 tower and with claims of much improved acoustics and much more reasonable fan noise levels.

    Can we achieve something similar for the laptops? I don’t know what it would take. Do we need to organize a petition? Are there really enough dissatisfied people like us? I don’t monitor the discussion forums closely enough to determine this myself. (I am still on dial-up, and browsing Apple’s Discussions site is a royal pain with a slow connection.) But maybe we do need to start getting organized.

  8. Warren Beck says:

    I wonder if there is a way to underclock the Macbook and Macbook Pro? The Intel mobo community usually figures out a way to hack the firmware to overclock motherboards to achieve even better gaming performance. Underclocking would slow things down, of course, but there would be less heat generated.

    When I purchased my current 15in G4 powerbook, I had the choice of either the then maximum clock speed of 1.5 GHz or the previous generation’s 1.33 GHz. I purchased the 1.33 GHz machine because I figured that it would be cooler, and I have been happy with that choice–the fan turns on only during prolonged backup runs, which apparently generate a fair amount of extra heat just from the hard-disk activiity. I would like to purchase a Macbook Pro next year, I guess, and I would be happy most of the time with essentially the same performance level. That would require, I’ll bet, only about 1.0 GHz out of the Core duo processor, and that would probably not lead to very much fan activity.

  9. Jay Artz says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your issues with the mooing noise. I myself have not experienced this issue. I use my MacBook (2GHz white) daily while lying on the couch for either surfing the web or playing World of Warcraft. Occasionally, the fan will come on (it is fairly loud) but I expect it due to the fact that World of Warcraft taxes the processor and memory. I have not had issues with it coming on and then going off continuously. Perhaps in my case I’m either using it not enough (surfing the web) or very hard (playing games) such that it is never in the state where the fan turns on and off.

    I totally understand your situation and how frustrating it must be for you. I’m a little surprised that Apple didn’t have something they could do to help you with the situation. I just wanted to provide my experience as another data point.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    Warren: The only way that I am aware of to reduce CPU usage is either to turn off one of the cores with CHUD (which we have tried, to no avail) or to select the “Better for Battery Life” option in Energy Saver even when the power adapter is plugged in.

    I have tried this Energy Saver option as well, and, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t make a significant difference. I can still get the mooing noise just by looking at a few pictures in iPhoto, which does not qualify as “heavy use” in my book.

    There might be unsupported hacks that can reduce CPU usage even further, but I am not interested in unsupported solutions. I didn’t spend $2000 on a brand new machine only to have to hack it in order to make it usable. (In other words, I am not the kind who’ll take his laptop apart and void his warranty to reapply a coat of thermal paste in the hope that it might improve things.)

  11. Pierre Igot says:

    Jay: Maybe you are right about the difference between your experience and mine. I too have heard the “real” fan come on on occasion, when the machine was getting quite hot because of lack of air flow and intensive HD activity (when I was copying files). This was a continuous fan noise, and it was indeed fairly loud, but it was not this intermittent mooing noise that I am describing here. So maybe in your usage patterns you are just going from one extreme to the other without experiencing the in-between situation.

    I also think that Apple’s tech support staff is well aware of this mooing noise. The first representative I talked to immediately recognized the mooing noise I was describing as a “normal” noise and “within spec.” So clearly he knew about the noise himself and had clear instructions about how to deal with customer complaints about that noise.

    The second representative I talked to was not as abrupt, but ultimately after consulting with product specialists his diagnosis was the same. So as far as I can tell Apple knows about this mooing noise, and considers it normal and “within spec.” Why not everyone experiences it, I am not sure—but clearly Apple doesn’t appear to be willing to do anything about it at this point.

  12. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre: did you check for the little piece of plastic that covers the heat vents on some shipping MacBooks and MacBook Pros? There is an article on TUAW.

    Also, see this Apple support document.

  13. Pierre Igot says:

    I had read about this plastic strip and it’s one of the first things I checked on the new machine. But my MacBook didn’t have this extra plastic strip that Apple forgot to remove on a small batch of machines. Unfortunately, that’s not it… Thanks for checking.

  14. chrispl says:

    Hi Pierre,

    I’m sorry about the difficulties you have experienced with your Macbook. As a recent Windows to Mac switcher, I bought a stock Macbook 2GHz from a local Apple store, hoping that all the problems that I had been reading about wouldn’t show up in mine. Well, all the problems that you had were in mine as well.

    While low on battery and charging, the power adapter would sizzle and whine quite loudly in a quiet environment (let’s say the library for example). Even the magsafe connection area buzzed and whined, but just not as loudly compared to the power adapter.

    Then, once my Macbook reaches temperatures around 64C-69C, it would moo to no avail. To be honest, if I were just using it at home, I probably would let it go, but in library/lecture settings, I think the noise would disturb everyone around me! I’ve tried “breaking the fans in,” as one person suggested on the Apple forums, and resetting the PMU, and re-installing everything, etc. but nothing worked!

    This laptop also runs quite warm–unbearable to touch when doing intensive tasks such as installing Windows XP or burning a lot of discs. I mean, all I do regularly is web surf, have on a few chat programs, and maybe some music running, and even that brings the Macbook up to the mid-high 70C’s, as reported by CoreDuoTemp, but it feels much warmer on the bottom. I personally think it heats up way too quickly.

    Anyways, I called Applecare about this, and the technician only documented my problems, gave me a case number, and said that he couldn’t do anything for me and that I would have to take it into the store for a Genius to look at.

    Well, after reading some more posts (some people have actually said Applecare told them the mooing was only in a few defective Macbooks, something about quality control issues, and also that the sizzling was not normal, and many people reported being able to exchange/return their Macbooks), I decided to give Applecare another try before I went into the store. This guy also said that he couldn’t verify that there were any such known problems.

    So off to the store I went. The first Genius told me the moo is absolutley normal, and that Apple had designed the fans to turn on that way, but since it seems to be more of a hinderance now, that he’s almost positive that Apple is working on a fix for it. But all he could do for me, was tell me to write letters in to Apple to let them know how I feel to hopefully speed up the process of the fix that they’re supposedly working on. Then he took my Macbook to the back of the store to listen to the sizzle/whine of the power adapter. He came back after a few minutes and told me he could only hear a little bit of sound, but that he would still waive the 10% restocking fee for me since I was within the 14 day return/exchange period. I also overheard another conversation between a Genius and a Macbook owner who was unhappy with the heat. The Genius said that it’s not meant to be used on the lap, as stated in the user manual, and that the Intel Core Duo processors are designed to run hot, and even potentially burn you! Since when should a notebook have the potential to burn?

    Well, that was at a store 1 hour away and at the time I didn’t have the box and other things with me. So after going home, I went to a closer store to talk to a Genius. When I told this one about the fan, he too said it’s completely within spec. I even showed him a recording I had made of the moo, and he simply replied “that’s just the fan going off” so no help there. Then he took my Macbook back to listen to the power adapter sizzle, and came back saying that he heard the sounds, but it was within spec as well and that he couldn’t do anything for me.

    Well, I love this laptop and its look, speed, etc. but just can’t stand the heat, buzz/whine, and moo! I’m also a little disappointed by Apple’s customer service, which I thought was supposed to be top of the line. I mean, they suggested me to buy the extended Applecare plan, but so far, I haven’t been able to see the usefulness of the phone support.

    Needless to say, I’m taking this back for a refund, in hopes that Apple will work out the problems soon so that I can give it another try. But I must admit that this experience leaves me a little fearful of purchasing another laptop from Apple. What if I experience problems again and am denied the waiver of the restocking fee because everything is “within spec”? I hope Apple sorts out its priorities and improves its customer relations department soon.


  15. Pierre Igot says:

    Chris: Thanks a lot for taking the time to share your own story. It is very helpful in that it confirms my own experience and conclusions, and convinces me that there really is no point in taking the machine to the closest repair shop (a three-hour drive) only to be told that everything is “within spec.”

    I am of course sorry that you had a bad experience, especially as a switcher coming from Windows. If you have another Mac computer (it’s not clear from the post if this is your very first Mac machine) then hopefully you have had a better experience with that one.

  16. pecosbill says:

    Another thing to consider: if you used the Migration assistant to copy files over (started by default when first setting it up), you may have inadvertently (read: Apple didnt’ think this through) copied over a lot of code that is not universal. You might try backing up then reinstalling the OS & set aside the existing OS. Then, don’t add any kernel extensions (Symantec or other) that are not universal. Also, by running a Rosetta app (MS Office), you are looking at increased processor demands. Nonetheless, pulsing the fan like that shouldn’t be so jarring.

    Rumors have it that Intel did all of the hardware circuit design. No idea if they are to blame for bad fan management or if Apple did it. Still, it should notice if it is pulsing the fan and switch to running the fan on low. (It could be pulsing up to low.)

  17. Pierre Igot says:

    pecosbill: No, I didn’t use the Migration Assistant, so no weird stuff was copied over from a PowerPC machine. The only PowerPC applications I installed on the MacBook are the Microsoft Office applications, and that was from the original CD (with subsequent updates).

    As for the increased processor demands of Rosetta, they don’t seem to be all that high. I have kept an eye on the CPU activity during various activities, and Universal applications cause CPU activity to jump up just as easily as Rosetta applications do. Of course, I am talking about iPhoto (Universal) vs. Microsoft Word (Rosetta) here. You cannot really compare. But normal use of Microsoft applications by my wife didn’t cause any abnormal CPU activity. It certainly doesn’t take much for the activity to trigger the mooing noise.

    I find this mooing noise totally puzzling myself. What’s the point of ramping up a fan only to turn it back off almost right away? Does this really help with the cooling? Of course, only an Apple engineer could answer that question…

  18. chrispl says:

    Yea, this is acutally my first Mac. I played with a friends 1.33GHz PowerBook while I was trying to sell it for her, and I had a pleasant experience. I thought with a faster processor and all, that the Macbook would be equally satisfying, but these little sound and heat issues are really quite annoying. Hopefully, they’ll work out some of these issues soon. For now, I’ll be hopping back onto the Sony Vaio train until the kinks of the Macbook are worked out. It’s a great machine otherwise though! Too bad Apple let these things slip out of the QC department. *sigh*


  19. AlanY says:

    It’s a shame there’s no practical way of comparing the noise levels and frequency spectra of various laptops. It would be fantastic to have a single website that compared machines from each of the major vendors, so you could spot which vendors placed the most emphasis on silence, etc. Moreover, you could plot the historical trends. Processor power consumption seems to be increasing which means greater cooling demands (according to the laws of thermodynamics), but it would be interesting to see hard data on what that means with respect to actual average noise levels. I know Toshiba had a set of water vapor cooled laptops a while ago, but they seem to have abandoned the technology. The previous generation Pentium M seemed pretty decent in terms of heat and power, but the Core Duo seems like more of a pig (of course it’s a lot faster though and has two cores). It will be interesting to see what the future brings.

  20. Pierre Igot says:

    chris: Yes, I fully agree that it’s a great machine otherwise. My wife loves the new keyboard, and the glossy screen is not a problem for her. But the noise is simply unacceptable.

    Alan: It’s always interesting to think about the future, but unfortunately we’ve been hearing great promises for a bit too long IMO. First it was the Pentium-smoking PowerPC. Then it was the national security hazard that was the G4. Then it was the G5 that never happened (on a laptop). And then it was, let’s switch to Intel and everything will be great. Now I am starting to think that maybe IBM could have come up with a decent chip for laptops!

    Of course, the sad reality might just be that the machine we are dreaming of (powerful, yet quiet, i.e. not unnecessarily powerful to a point that forces to sacrifice the quietness) cannot exist in today’s industry. But I am also starting to think that the whole computing industry has gone a bit gaga. Why do we need such powerful CPUs? Because the software that everybody uses (Adobe, Microsoft) is so poorly written in the first place! And Mac OS X is starting to get that way too… More and more features, less and less efficiency and compactness.

    So we get all this power-hungry software (can you really believe that Word 2004 runs no faster on a G5 Quad than Word 5 did on a Mac SE?) and so we need all these powerful chips to run it. And so we get all these heat/noise issues, and no solution in sight…

    Now, don’t get me wrong. There is software out there that is well written and efficient and still does need all the power it can get. Audio/video editing, complex image processing, advanced music making, etc. And I am all for Apple providing powerful machines for such purposes. But the MacBook is supposed to be a low-end machine, something for people for whom the quality of ordinary, daily computing tasks such as word processing or basic digital picture management is much more important than the ability to run ultra-complex software—and people who are not willing to endure constant noise as the price to pay to be able to run such software that they don’t need!

    There’s clearly a gap in the product line here, and it looks like Apple has failed to fill it. I don’t know if any other computer manufacturer has a product like this, or if they all in that same race for speed, raw power, etc. I suppose you are right that there might be a market for a site/service that actually provides useful comparisons between various product lines by various manufacturers.

    But that’s way beyond my competence—and my entrepreneurial skills :).

  21. pecosbill says:

    Sadly, I don’t think the mooing is universal. I listened to three models in the Cherry Creek, CO store and none seemed to be doing that. I didn’t pound it to get the processor to the right temp. Sadly, it is going to take people returning them in droves or filing class action lawsuits to get Apple to wake up. As you said, pulsing the fan is really pointless if the time gap between ramp up is short. On my Pmac G5, the gap varies which makes more sense. And, conserving power isn’t as high an issue (though nice). When I run the G5 in reduced speed mode, it never pulses the fan and is delightfully VERY quiet.

  22. Pierre Igot says:

    One way to test MacBooks for the mooing sound is to turn Photo Booth on and fiddle with it for a little while. It’s also easy to install the CoreDuoTemp application without admin access, I think. I would definitely want to do that to make sure the machine doesn’t moo. It’s possible that not all machines moo. I don’t know. But I won’t be able to find out. Mine does, and that’s all there is to it. I can’t get it fixed or replaced with one that I am sure won’t moo, so it’s going back.

    As for the G5, I have had my G5 Quad since November 2005, and I haven’t heard the fan noise change once since then. It stays constant. It’s not as quiet as I would like it to be, but it’s pretty quiet compared to the G4 MDD :).

  23. Justin Blanton | Apple, you’re killing me says:

    […] I want a laptop, not a cow. […]

  24. danridley says:

    Third time’s the charm, hopefully. I had an angle bracket standing in for “less than.” Sorry for the noise of the extra comments.

    I’ve had my MacBook (1.83) about a week now, and I’ve been watching carefully for signs of any of the widely reported problems — mooing, discoloration, etc.

    I prepared for fan and heat issues by buying one of those notebook cooler pads. I got the cheapest generic one I could find on (USD $12) — it has three blowers and supposedly puts out less than 22 db — certainly loud enough to notice in a silent room, but much quieter than a G5.

    Without the cooler pad, and on a flat surface, the MacBook runs pretty hot. CoreDuoTemp says 80-88 degrees Celsius most of the time. The “mooing” appears to be present, but I think it’s quieter on my system than most — I’m very, very sensitive to fan noise, and I don’t find this one especially annoying. A very quiet fan turns on and off every few seconds, but it’s among the quietest fan noises I’ve ever run across — quieter than the hard drive, for instance.

    Even under normal usage, the top left of the computer, and the area around the vent under the screen, get too hot to touch comfortably.

    Under load (I frequently keep it at 180-200% CPU usage for hours at a time, running background DVD encodes while multitasking), the temperature goes up to 95-105 degrees, and above 100 degrees Celsius, the fan kicks up to full speed, which is LOUD.

    However, with the cooler pad, it doesn’t exceed 70 degrees even under hours of heavy load. The fan comes on only rarely, but more subjectively importantly, the area around the vent and the upper left corner stay quite cool to the touch. Overall, I think it’s quieter this way, because the MacBook’s fan is quite a bit louder than the cooler pad under heavy load.

    I’m reasonably happy with this situation, but the fact that I was aware of heat and fan issues and planned for them from the beginning plays into this. If I’d found after the purchase that I’d have to do this, I’d probably be upset about it.

    None of the other reported issues appear to affect my MacBook — no sign of discoloration after a week of very heavy use, no sounds or excess heat from the power adapter.

    Having now heard the mooing on my notebook, I’m hoping that I get a chance to hear, in person, one of the notebooks that has somebody upset.

    My guess is that mine is “normal” — where the fan does in fact start and stop repeatedly, but only in a low-RPM mode where it’s insanely quiet. (This MacBook has a fairly quiet hard drive, but the hard drive noises are more audible than the fan when it’s in this mode. Even my iPod’s hard disk noises are louder.) However, it’s clear that yours (and others) must be making a great deal more noise. Given my historic sensitivity to fan noises, I doubt that this is simply a case where I’m either oblivious or can’t hear it.

    If that’s the case, it would partially explain Apple’s “it’s normal” default response.

    Anyway, this turned out to be a really long comment, but I thought you might be interested in my findings, particularly as regards the cooler pad as a possible workaround. Now that your MacBook is returned, and given the lousy service you received, I certainly don’t expect that you’ll rush out and buy a MacBook and cooler — and I don’t think it’s right and proper that such a thing should be required. But I’m happy enough to consider the problem solved for myself.

  25. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for sharing, Dan. 105 degrees Celsius is a very high temperature indeed! I am a bit amazed that we are in a situation where this is considered normal…

    I suppose it is possible that the mooing is not as loud on your machine as it was on ours. It’s something that will be pretty hard to establish, though. But the fact that you are sensitive to noise and that this doesn’t particularly bother you does seem to indicate that it’s not as pronounced on yours—unless you have lots of constant background noise in your room. For the record, in my room with the G5 Quad, I could still notice the mooing. It was obviously not as loud as the G5, but it was still noticeable.

    I don’t think I can imagine using a cooler pad on a regular basis in my wife’s situation. I am glad it’s working out OK for you, but my wife doesn’t need to run at 200% CPU for hours—not even for a few minutes, for that matter. So she obviously has significantly different and much simpler needs. And at this point it doesn’t look like Apple makes a machine that meets those needs.

  26. danridley says:

    And at this point it doesn’t look like Apple makes a machine that meets those needs.

    That seems like a very astute assessment of the situation. I like the machine, but it’s not really suited to everything it’s being marketed for, and there’s a significant part of the iBook niche that sits unfilled in the current lineup.

    Since I do computer support, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to sample other mooing MacBooks at some point. I’ll comment again if I come up with interesting data.

  27. Pierre Igot says:

    Dan: I would be very interested indeed to hear more about your experience with other machines of the same generation. Keep us posted!

  28. danridley says:

    After the 10.4.7 update, I noticed that my MacBook seemed to be running cooler. Without the cooling pad, running more tests, I’m coming up with temperatures of about 55 Celsius under “normal” load (iTunes playing, 5-7 apps running, varying 10-40% CPU usage) and 84 or so under very heavy sustained load (simultaneous DVD encode, “yes” in a terminal and SETI@Home, for 200% CPU and lots of disk and graphics activity, for about 25 minutes). These are both about 20 degrees Celsius below the temperatures reported a few days ago.

    Under normal load, subjectively, it doesn’t seem *much* different, but it seems like there’s generally less heat right above the keyboard and more at the vent, so that the fan is moving more air out of the case at speeds so low I can’t hear it.

    With the cooling pad, the behavior under heavy load is about the same — it takes a few seconds more to come up to speed, but the loaded temperature and noise level are about the same. Under normal load, it brings the temperature down a bit — 48-50C — but I’m now wondering if it’s worth the noise.

    What’s interesting is that when the temperature does climb into the 70s, the fan ramps its speed up in tiny, perceptible shifts — not turning off and turning on, but moving from a very low (imperceptible unless I really try) speed to a slightly faster/louder speed and up to a G5-like hum at full load. I can’t get the temp up to the 100C range now, so I can’t get it up to the super-loud fan noise I heard just a couple of days ago.

    What’s odd is that there’s no mention of MacBook fan changes in the 10.4.7 release notes, and in the forums and blogs I’m not seeing much consensus on whether 10.4.7 changed anything. It’s quite noticeable and backed up by numbers here, but some people are recording events just as well as I am but aren’t seeing any changes.

    On the other hand, my temps seem to have been higher than average to start with.

    I’m not sure what to conclude from all this. Maybe CoreDuoTemp is inaccurate. Maybe Apple slipped in a silent fix in 10.4.7. Maybe some MacBooks shipped with something tweaky in the power management driver, and the recaching of kexts with the system update has returned them to expected behavior.

    I haven’t heard a “moo” since the 10.4.7 update, but I haven’t had time to explicitly try to create one, and the room has to be really quiet for me to hear it on this system (so it pretty much has to be when the kids are gone).

  29. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the update, Dan! It certainly makes you wonder… I really do wish that Apple would discuss these issues more clearly in ther release notes, but I guess they just cannot “afford” to acknowledge problems in the first place, and therefore cannot really comment on these problems being fixed either.

    I’d be very intrigued to know whether you can reproduce the “moo” at all in 10.4.7 or later. Because essentially it’s the main problem for me. I think I can leave without any problems with a continuous fan noise that gets gradually louder when the machine gets warmer. But this “moo” sound was what was driving me/us insane.

  30. After thought » Whining about the whining says:

    […] Update: Pierre Igot seems to be having similar problems, and in fact with a MacBook, and is quite unhappy about it. He is returning the machine and, to add insult to injury, he found out that he will have to pay a 10% restocking fee because his computer was “custom made”, i.e. had some RAM added! Initially they were actually refusing to take it back at all!! […]

  31. The Cool Macbook Pro blog / MacBook: The mooing noise disaster says:

    […] Read the rest of this post […]

  32. danridley says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the “moo” twice more since the 10.4.7 update, both in extremely hot circumstances (95+ degrees F.) under light load. When the heat is coming from the system load instead of the weather, it’s spinning up and staying on for a while, rather than mooing.

    I still use my external cooling pad when I’m running a video encode, because it’s a touch quieter than the MacBook’s fan at its loudest (and with the cooling pad running, the MacBook fan doesn’t have to come on at all). However, when I’m not encoding, I leave the pad off and everything has been running fine.

    I’ve also had the opportunity to hear two other MacBook fans in action. The first was from a user that said it had never mooed. He couldn’t hear the fan when it was running at low speeds, where I heard it quite clearly, so it’s quite possible it mooed and he didn’t notice. Its overall acoustics were very similar to mine.

    The second was from a user who said it had mooed frequently in 10.4.6 and still sometimes in 10.4.7 — hers was a good deal louder than mine when the fan was spinning up, but about the same when it was actually running. There was a sort of rumbly, motor-y noise associated with the fan spinning up which doesn’t happen with mine. This would have made the mooing a great deal more annoying.

    I didn’t spend a great deal of time with either of those systems, just fired up Photo Booth to get the CPU usage up and listen to their fans, so I can’t personally confirm how much or little they mooed, just how their fans sounded in comparison to mine.

  33. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks for the update, Dan. It’s much appreciated. The MacInTouch report on MacBooks and MacBook Pros seems to confirm that the problems vary from machine to machine, which your experience would also seem to indicate.

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