apples and lemons

Any Mac that breaks down after three years would rightly be considered a lemon. But apparently, that's exactly what original iMacs do. Sure, mine waited almost four and a half years to do it, but the result was the same; dead iMac.

It started about three weeks ago, very occasionally I would hear an electrical arcing noise from somewhere within my Mac. As much as I love the design of the iMac, it doesn't make for easy troubleshooting, and all my efforts to crane over the back and get the actual location of this arcing were in vain. It was so intermittent, you see. Each spark made the screen jump a little, a thin streak of un-screen for just a fraction of a second, then everything normal, until the next spark. I knew that whatever it was, it wasn't a "good" thing. And I knew it would get worse before it got better.

As an old friend of mine, a mechanic (who's formula one career was cut tragically short by a job-offer he couldn't refuse), used to say, "just let it develop". So I did. And about two weeks ago the arcing sparking sound was starting to get fairly regular. I noticed too that it happened more often when the room was very warm it. Heat-related. Hmmm.

Last weekend the arcing sounds started to join up, into 'crackling', which is altogether another level of scary noise. Somehow I did know, as I put my mac to sleep on Friday night and headed for bed, that would be the last time I would see its happy smiley face. The next morning, my worst fears were realised.

that's right. it's been a couple of months since the thought first appeared in my mind. I'd been living inside BBEdit for a few days when it occurred to me; "what would I do if my Mac broke down?" I remember catching my breath and putting it out of my mind. There's a few machines here, Linux boxes, peecees, but for some work, certain creative work, you need a mac. Mac users know exactly what I mean. No one else can argue about that.

I banged the mousemat, a morning ritual, and woke up all the desktop machines. The mac made a weird buzzing-crack sound and promptly rebooted. Not a good sign. After the familiar "chime" (gawd! I love that noise!) a few seconds of self-checking and stuff, it did it again. I reckoned, right at the point that the screen was about to power up. And then again. And again. Oh shite!

I made an audio recording of this cycle. I planned to let eminent online hardware specialists hear it.

My first thought was "the power board". it's the first place I expect to find things that spark, transformers and what-not. I disassembled my mac.

This is no simple task, as anyone that has opened an iMac will tell you. The design is so tight, it's like aliens did it. Even having a wire lolling the wrong way will mean you won't get it back together again. Armed with a screwdriver and a space on the desk to lay the screws in a rough mirror of their original locations (which would, days later, be strewn with manuals and components, and cups, and papers, and that mirror idea reduced to a "pile of screws", och well), and a large cup of coffee, I set to work..

I imagined that if something had been sparking for a fortnight, it's gonna be easy to spot. Sparking leaves scorch marks. Find the mark, replace the part. No problem. Problem; no marks. Damn!

A few components did look a bit on the charred side, and I removed them, one at a time, tested them (ok, ok, ok, ok, damn!) and put them back. I investigated the analog board in a similar way with similar results, although I didn't remove that. Ever since I pulled the HT lead out of an old twenty-six inch television as a kid, got thrown all the way across the room, and blew up the telly in the process; I've got the heebie-jeebies just thinking about that big red sucker thing.

Well, if I couldn't locate the component, looks like I was going to have to replace the whole board. This would cost more. I googled a bit. First stop, welovemacs, for a replacement power board. I guess one hundred and fifty bucks, plus shipping ain't too bad. If it really was the power board that was faulty. The analog board is even dearer! What I really needed first was better advice. I decided to try a little closer to home.

Sadly, in the north of Scotland, Mac dealers are fairly thin on the ground. The beige days just killed the scene up here, and it never really picked up again. The department stores stock them now, great prices, useless support. I made a few calls. What I really wanted to know was, which board needs replaced. Surely some hardware tech dude would listen to the symptoms, dig my MP3, and know exactly what needed fixing. The more calls I made, the grimmer the whole story became..

It was definitely the analog board. That would mean pulling out the big red plug thing. Oh yes, apparently there was a design "foible" with the original iMacs, very common it is sir. Damn! And quite possibly the power board will be fried too. To cut a long story short, I was looking at a four hundred pound repair, and I would first have to send apple my old boards. What?

I had another coffee. At times like this it's always wise to have a break, take stock, and seek a little guidance. I had the disassembled iMac face down on a stool in the middle of my workshop, and so it seemed natural enough to pace around the thing, look at it from all angles, and ask it a few questions. Pretty soon I got to..

 "what if I unplugged all the video stuff, will you power up then?" This was a good question. I pulled the plugs that connected the video board and CRT, slammed in the mains..

Tada! The Mac booted fine. Of course I couldn't see anything, but it came alive on my LAN and allowed me to grab some data off the hard drive, like my 200MB Entourage email database. (does anyone know how to import that into anything else?). So all was not lost. Generally I don't keep data on my Mac, "just a workstation" I tell people. But when your workstation disappears, it's amazing how much data you miss!

I wasn't going to believe that the "part" of the power board that supplies the video board was broken, I'd already pulled enough components off that to know it was in great shape, and it was powering all the mac-bits just fine. But the video board was definitely not right.

I played around with external monitors for a while, trying out that old mac-to-peecee video adaptor from my IIsi. No joy, though I did get a weird scrambled, overscanned image of my aqua desktop. Not much use for anything except giving a false sense of hope. I even considered getting a nice video adaptor and putting the "Mac" parts of my iMac into some sort of other case. But none of these ideas really sat well in my brain. In the end, it looked like I was gonna have to cough up a couple of hundred bucks and get a replacement analog board. I searched for suppliers, toyed with customisation ideas.

A few days passed. Fortunately it was an uber-busy week, so they passed real quick. I got a chance to work on some things I'd been neglecting, songs. Other stuff I didn't need a mac for. I moved some tasks to the peecee, others to the Linux server, and generally got on with it. I didn't have much time to wail and moan, though searching that entourage database for text brought me pretty close.

I was midway through my Nth Thursday evening coffee when it occurred to me that someone else "out there" must surely have stood right here. After all, the dealers told me it was a "common problem" Someone must have a better solution, I thought. I'd already spent a good few hours in the usual mac IRC channels looking for wisdom, but getting idiocy in return, as often happens on IRC. But I'm ever confident that all the information we need is out there somewhere, if only we can locate it. I googled again; this time looking for humans, peppering my search queries with words like "frazzled" and "crackled", the kinds of words that humans use.

Bingo!

It didn't take long to find this page, which describes the deadness of my iMac to a Tee! And what? it's just the flyback Transformer?? Awa! I punched nikko electronics into my browser and homed in on the exact part. W00H00! £24 + P&P. That'll do me! And I ordered the part first thing Friday morning. (they do an "original" part too, by the way, if you like branded stuff inside and out)

The part arrived the Saturday morning, 7.30am. By 8am I was standing next to my possibly-fixed mac with a power cord in one hand, the other visibly shaking; the acid test. I plugged it in.. Chime! .. w00h00! .. then nothing. Damn! But at least it didn't reboot, a good sign. Hmmm.

Then I remembered the article, and those wee "screen" and "focus" adjustments on the flyback transformer. Donning my safety goggles and electrically insulated gloves (yeah yeah) I slammed a screwdriver into the thing and gave it a twist.

Wo0Ho0!

And there it was! My login Screen! To say I was smiling at this point would be vast understatement. My smile had forced my ears up onto the top of my head where they wiggled and touched each other. Happy Maccer I was, am.

So here I am! Back on my Mac, enjoying Aqua, getting back to work, and wondering, in the tally of it all, if this event was really such a "bad" thing. it's been a great learning experience, not just the tech, though that was enlightening enough, but the real stuff; how easily we do presume; how information is cash-valuable; how even some mac folks are motivated purely by profit; how it really doesn't matter which screws you use, so long as they are tight; and the big question..

What would I do if my mac broke down?

Answer: Get on with life, and fix the mac.

;o) Cor

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