September 10th, 2006 • 3:06 pm
Well, after many twists and turns, I think I can say with reasonable certainty that my 10-month old G5 Quad is now truly dead. Here’s a quick recap of what happened.
I bought my G5 Quad back in late November 2005. The machine included 512 MB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and AirPort and Bluetooth connectivity. I immediately added 4 x 1 GB of third-party RAM (Samsung brand) and a second internal hard drive (Seagate 500 GB). Later on, I replaced the G5’s 250 GB hard drive with another Seagate 500 GB hard drive. Along with the G5 Quad, I also bought a 30″ Apple display, and began using the G5 Quad in a dual-monitor set-up with the 30″ display as the main monitory and a 23″ Apple display as the secondary monitor.
In January 2006, I got the G5’s video card replaced under warranty, because I was getting some annoying artefacts on the secondary screen. The video card was replaced under warranty by an authorized repair shop, and the artefacts vanished.
After that, the computer worked fine for about 8 months. I had some recurring problems, but they were mostly software issues with Mac OS X itself or third-party software, and not hardware issues. I always kept it up to date with all the latest system software updates.
About one month ago, my G5 Quad started experiencing freezes and kernel panics on a regular basis. When I say regular basis, I mean every 48 hours on average—sometimes less frequently, sometimes more frequently. After some basic troubleshooting steps (zapping the PRAM, etc.), I got on the phone with Apple, and the first step recommended to me was to remove all USB and FireWire peripherals, except for the mouse and keyboard. I did that, and still experienced freezes.
Instead of getting back on the phone with Apple right away, I did what any reasonably experienced Mac troubleshooter would do. I tried to eliminate potential causes. One of the first suspects was the third-party RAM I had added. I ran the G5 Quad on only 512 MB of RAM for a few days, which was a rather painful experience, especially until I turned off some third-party utilities I was using.
With only 512 MB of RAM, I didn’t get any freezes for about four days. This seemed to confirm that the RAM was the problem. I then tried to identify the defective RAM module. Since the G5 Quad requires RAM installed in pairs, I tried various combinations of 2 1 GB modules in addition to the default 512 MB of RAM. I also ran the memtest utility on three of the four RAM modules. The memtest battery of tests didn’t identify any problems with the RAM modules. But I tried all six possible combinations of two RAM modules, and I still got freezes or kernel panics each and every time, usually within a few days. (I once went six days without problems, but then got a kernel panic just the same.)
At that stage, I started to suspect that the problem was not the third-party RAM. It is, after all, rather unlikely that several different RAM modules would become defective all at the same time. It was also quite possible that the reason why I didn’t get a freeze with the default 512 MB of RAM was that I didn’t wait long enough. Out of curiosity, I tried running without the 512 MB of RAM and with only the third-party RAM. I still got freezes. I also tried turning AirPort off altogether on the machine, and using an Ethernet connection to my LAN itself. I went five days without a freeze, but then the machine froze again. (For the record, I am not distinguishing between freezes and kernel panics here, because when they happen while I am away from the computer, it’s impossible to tell whether it was a freeze or a kernel panic. In both cases, after a minute or two, the fans start running at full speed. Since my monitors are asleep most of the time when I am away from the computer, I cannot tell whether the screens are frozen or there is the kernel panic overlay. In any case, I once got a freeze where Mac OS X started drawing the kernel panic overlay, and then froze after drawing a few lines. So I suspect the difference between freezes and kernel panics doesn’t really mean anything here.)
Then yesterday (Saturday, September 9), I wanted to rip a few audio CDs—something that I hadn’t done in a while. For some reason, this caused the G5 Quad to freeze several times in a row. After a few freezes and hard resets, I had significant trouble even getting Mac OS X to run properly. So I booted from the system DVD and ran Disk Utility, which found errors on most of my hard drives (both internal and external)—which was not really surprising after all these freezes and hard resets of the past month or so. Disk Utility was able to repair all the disks, and I was able to restart the machine and get it to work normally again. But then I easily managed to make it freeze again by trying to rip more audio CDs. Eventually, I stopped ripping CDs and tried to do some work. The machine ran fine for the rest of the evening.
Then last night during the night, the machine froze again. I was woken up by the fan noise and went to my office to turn everything off and then went back to sleep. This morning when I tried to start the machine, it wouldn’t even start. I would get the normal grey start-up screen, but then I would get a black screen or Mac OS X would start switching the screens to blue but then freeze mid-way through. I tried booting from the system DVD, and that didn’t work either. The booting up sequence would just freeze after a while. Clearly something was very wrong now.
That’s when I noticed something physically wrong with the machine: there was a red glow around one of the digital audio ports on the back panel. I had never seen this before, but then usually when I look at the back panel it’s when the machine is off and I need to unplug the cables to get the machine out from under the table and open it up. So it’s quite possible that this red glow around the digital audio port has been there for a while (maybe even since the problems started a month ago) and that I just hadn’t seen it until now. Further testing showed that the red glow would not come as soon as I switched the G5 Quad on, but after the machine had started booting the system.
That’s not all. The G5 Quad also has a red LED somewhere on the front panel of the G5 Quad, behind the metallic grid. This red LED usually comes on, producing a red glow behind the grid, when the machine is frozen. But today, I noticed that the red LED in the front would also come on soon after turning the power on, and stayed on even while the machine was attempting to boot up.
In any case, I am no longer able to get this machine to boot at all. If I try to boot either from the startup volume on the internal hard drive or from the system DVD, the red glow in the front comes soon after turning the power on, and the red glow around the digital audio port in the back comes on later on during the booting sequence, before the machine freezes. It usually freezes just when it’s supposed to change from the grey startup screen to the blue background and start showing the progress window. When trying to boot from the system DVD, it freezes even before that.
I am, however, able to start the machine in FireWire target disk mode, and I can mount all the volumes via FireWire on my G4 MDD. I can copy all the files and do whatever I want with the volumes. So the problem is obviously not with the drives.
Out of curiosity, I restored the G5 Quad to its default configuration, with the 512 MB of RAM and the original 250 GB hard drive that I had kept on a shelf. I still get the same symptoms. Clearly something is very wrong with the computer, and more than likely with the logic board itself.
I sincerely hope that all these symptoms (freezes/kernel panics, red glow in back, red glow in front) are part of the same problem. But all I can do at this point is take the machine to the authorized repair shop and let them try to diagnose what’s wrong and repair it.
Unfortunately, going the repair shop is a six-hour round trip to the provincial capital Halifax. I had a trip scheduled this Friday (September 15) anyway, so I am going to try and make an appointment for Friday afternoon. I already have another trip to the city scheduled for the following Thursday (September 21), so I am really hoping that they’ll be able to identify and fix the problem between the 15th and the 21st. If not, I will have to make a third trip later on, I am afraid.
What this all means is that I have had to switch back to my “trusty old” G4 MDD, which I was using mostly as a test machine these days. I am certainly glad that I kept it instead of trying to resell it. Otherwise, I would definitely have been stuck. Unfortunately, this means that I have to switch back to my 23″ display as my main display (and a 17″ display as the secondary one), because the video card on the G4 doesn’t support the 30″ display.
I spent most of the morning copying all my documents and restoring a proper work environment on the G4 MDD, and that’s what I am using right now. It’s not awfully bad—it has 1.5 GB of RAM and three internal 120 GB hard drives. Running Mac OS X 10.4.7 on that machine is more than acceptable. It is certainly much better than trying to run Mac OS X 10.4.7 on the G5 Quad with only 512 MB of RAM!
Still, I am going to miss the extra screen real estate of the 30″ display and the extra hoompf of the fully functional G5 Quad with 4.5 GB. But I guess that things could be worse and I could be without a computer altogether.
Sadly, this turn of events confirms that I have now experienced major hardware problems with each and every machine that I have bought from Apple since 2001. This particular problem will obviously be covered by my AppleCare warranty, but the cost in lost revenue (all the time that I have spent troubleshooting this problem is valuable) and travel expenses is still substantial. Am I just particularly unlucky or is there a significant problem with hardware quality at Apple these days?