The MacBook Pro Dilemma

A few days ago my Macbook Pro wouldn’t turn on. It had been working fine. The last time I used it was a day or two before I had closed it up and set it to the side. I didn’t turn it off or anything, but now it was acting as if it had a dead battery and wouldn’t boot. It had been plugged in the whole time. I checked the power connection and noticed that the little two prong adapter had slipped off the power brick a few millimeters, but not enough to seem like it would have cut power.  I also noticed there was a bit of browning on the USB-C cable end connected to the brick. Maybe the cable got fried somehow? We’ve had a few storms lately but the power never went out and the brick has been plugged into a surge protector the whole time.

After re-securing everything with no success, I tried a different wall outlet. Still nothing.
Lacking a second USB-C to USB-C cable I decided to try my iPad power brick with my GoPro USB-C to USB-A short cable. Considering the 13 watt output of the iPad brick compared to the 87 watt output of the native MacBook Pro power brick, I figured I would give it a half hour or so to charge up before attempting to turn it on.  But even then, nothing. So I got an idea. I would use my USB-C to USB-A dongle that I normally use for hooking hard drives and other things to my MacBook Pro, and connect it to the GoPro cable. The result is a makeshift USB-C to USB-C cable that I could then plug into the 87 watt brick.
The second I plugged the computer in, it chirped and flashed a 100% battery charge icon center screen.

What the heck?!
If it had 100% battery power already, why wasn’t it turning on?

I have no idea but it booted right up, reopening everything that had been open before and it’s been working ever since. That was two or three days ago. That said, I immediately backed up all of my data off the machine, just in case.

After thinking about it later, I realized I hadn’t even attempted to try booting it up without any power cable plugged into it. I had just assumed the battery was dead, so I wonder if a cable being plugged in had prevented it from booting off the 100% charged battery. I wouldn’t think so considering the computer still runs if it’s on and you disconnect the mains power. It just switches to battery immediately. So I would think the same would be true for booting, but I don’t know.

The messed up thing is that I later reconnected the original USB-C to USB-C cable and it recognized it immediately and started charging the machine. So apparently nothing is wrong with that cable. And that’s the scary part. Either this was all some big fluke or I have a potential motherboard issue with the laptop. Let’s hope it was just a fluke. The machine is only four years old and it was the most expensive computer I’ve ever bought, it already had to go in for servicing once a couple years ago when the battery started swelling on it. Apple fixed it free of charge, they even fixed the keyboard issue I was having. I’m pretty sure I even got a whole new case with it, since the scratch I had on it was also gone. For all I know they could have given me a whole new machine and just transferred all my data over from the old one. I have no idea what they did to it in the three weeks I was without it. All I know is that it came back pristine and had been working great for the last couple of years, until the last couple months where the keyboard issue started to rear its ugly head again. My L key is still problematic and barely wants to press down. Now this power issue, which hopefully was just a one time thing. Although after reaching out and posting about this on a mac forum, another user chimed in saying they had a similar problem and after a few days of messing with the power cable, the machine crapped out on them completely. I haven’t had to mess with power cables at all after that initial issue, but I also haven’t moved the machine since, nor powered it down or closed the lid on it. It’s been sitting open on my end table and I just dimmed the screen. I even used it the last couple of days to do some video encodes and a bit of web browsing and it was working fine. That was after backing up over 300GB of data off of it when I first got it powered back on. So… so far so good. Fingers crossed and all of that.

Still it got me thinking, What happens if it does die, what are my options? The only real option is to send it in for service with Apple, but out of warranty and with no Apple care on it. That means seven or eight hundred dollars to get the mainboard replaced. After a quick ebay search, that’s about the price one of these machines goes for on the used market. And sometimes with more SSD space than mine has. So not really worth it. Plus how long would I be looking at it lasting after service, another two years? It’s already redeveloped the keyboard issue that plagues these machines. So even if that got fixed with a new servicing it would likely happen again. They just aren’t the best designed machines to begin with.

When I bought this machine in 2017, I had originally intended to switch from Mac to Windows. Although I like MacOS, I was already getting worn out on the Apple ecosystem at the time. I had switched from iPhone to Android again and was working on a Window box at my day job anyway.
Before switching to Mac exclusively for my personal machines in 2010, I had been a PC/Windows user since somewhere circa the early 1990s when my dad brought home a 386 machine. I did my first PC build in 1998 when I wanted my own computer and the old 386 was just too outdated for what I wanted to do. While I had toyed with Macs from the early 2000s, briefly owning a few here and there, I made the switch in 2010 when I traded my newly rebuilt desktop PC to my girlfriend for her late 2008 model MacBook.
At the time she wanted to game and I wanted something portable and Mac. I had a white MacBook a year prior that I sold and I missed it. My intention had always been to buy another, but after selling it, money got tight and I hadn’t replaced it. She had originally bought the machine for going back to college but then realized they had labs with machines and her Mac at the time wasn’t very compatible. So this swap worked out well between us.

That first MacBook was a great machine for me. I used it as my only machine until 2013 when I got my Mac Mini, and even then continued to use it as my only laptop up until mid 2017. I even went back to using it for those three weeks my newer 2017 MacBook Pro was getting repaired in 2019. In fact the old MacBook still works today, although without a working battery in it, it runs off wall power only. I just turned it on about a week ago to check a DVD in it. It has a built-in superdrive (DVD Burner). A feature my new MacBook Pro sadly lacks. The new machine should have a Blu-ray burner in it, but I’m biased toward optical media.

That’s the thing though, the old MacBook has a DVD burner in it and a user replaceable battery, as well as a whole variety of ports, including an ethernet port, mag safe power adapter, full sized USB ports, a headphone jack AND a mic jack, both with digital optical capabilities as well as analog ability. It also has user replaceable ram and a hard drive. Both of which I upgraded; going to a SSD for a number of years. Although I put an HDD back in it, now that it’s just a spare backup machine. I repurposed that SSD to my Mac Mini.

The old MacBook also has a keyboard that feels great and never gave me any issues. That little MacBook even has an nVidia GPU in it, and it isn’t even a pro machine.

When I bought my Macbook Pro in 2017, the only machines coming with dedicated GPUs were the midrange and higher 15 inch models that started somewhere around $2500 or so.

Sure the 2017 MacBook Pro has a bigger, brighter, higher resolution screen, a faster CPU and GPU, USB-C connectivity and longer battery life. It’s also a thinner machine. All of these things are nice on some level. But there is zero user upgradability. Power selection is compliant on your dongle supply and those aren’t cheap usually. Mag safe is gone. Optical drive is gone; which for me is a loss. So is the loss of optical audio ports. I actually used those for transferring digital audio to my Minidisc recorders. So it’s missing a lot of features the older smaller non-pro model had back in 2008. And at over twice the price. Which is all disappointing.

So why did I buy it?
At the time I had actually bought a Lenovo laptop for half of the cost. Somewhere around $1300 brand new from Best Buy. I liked the machine. It had a fifteen inch 4K touch screen on it and could be flipped around and used as a tablet. I also believe it came with and nVidia 1050 GPU in it, but with only 2GB of VRAM. Nothing too powerful, but enough for what I do.
However I started noticing a thin black line at the top right of the screen. After looking it up, I discovered these particular machines had an issue with them where the LCD panel might shift inside the casing. That was happening on mine, and it was not even two weeks old.
I realized I was a bit out of my depth. I had only owned a couple of used PC laptops in the past and not for that long. My PC experience was mostly with desktops I could work on myself. I didn’t have a way of fixing this and wasn’t sure how tech support was going to be or how long I would be without a machine. I had read horror stories online about various PC manufacturers and people being without their machines for months. I didn’t want to deal with all of that for a machine I just bought. And what would happen two or three years from now after it was out of warranty? So I returned the machine to Best Buy, as I was still within my return window. I then went and spent twice as much buying the MacBook Pro, losing the 4K resolution, touch screen, and nVideo GPU in the process. Although I did get an equal if not better 4GB AMD GPU. And two years after having bought the MacBook Pro I had to take it in for service. I was able to easily walk it into one of my local Apple stores. So I feel like I had made the right choice at the time, even if I spent a ton more money and didn’t end up leaving the Apple ecosystem as I had originally intended.
A year later I bought a new iPhone and was fully back in the Apple eco system, and have been there since.

So why switch now?
Well, I’m not. Not yet anyway. And who knows, maybe not for a long time if ever. But despite cooling my jets about making the switch back to PC after buying the MacBook Pro, I had still been considering replacing my aging Mac Mini with a new PC desktop machine. In 2017 when I bought my MacBook Pro, my Mac Mini was still fairly new. Only a few years old. But as of last year (and now), it’s seven and now eight years old. I mention last year because that’s when I really started ramping up the idea of building a new PC again. I almost pulled the trigger on it last summer (bought a base model iPad instead) but decided to wait to see what kind of Apple silicon machines would be released. As Apple themselves were making the switch from Intel CISC to ARM based RISC. So I sat and waited. A few months later they announced their new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro lower end 13″ model, and Mac Mini. All of which underwhelmed me, despite everyone falling all over themselves saying how fast they are.
This year we got the new M1 iMac announcement. Again, eh!
And while I have since recently reconsidered the M1 Mac Mini, mostly as a result of peer pressure from fellow video professionals who think I’m crazy for wanting to build a new PC in the era of the so powerful M1 Mac Mini (especially being a Mac user already), I haven’t pulled the trigger on one since I’m still not thrilled with it. As time goes on we just keep inching closer to potential pro machine announcements, including some rumors (maybe outdated now) of a pro Mac Mini. So again, I found myself waiting. Not just for that, but the 2021 computer parts shortages (especially GPUs) have put a stop on any ability to just run out and buy a bunch of parts and throw a new machine together. So I wait. Again.

But this new MacBook Pro issue has me on a tight rope. If it fails on me soon, I’m going to be bitter and mad and not want to buy another Mac ever again. However if it was just a fluke and I get another four plus years out of it… well then the reality is that all my Macs have been long lasting and worth it. At which point maybe I should have bought a new M1 Mac Mini or whatever new pro machines they might announce in the coming months instead of a PC build.

There is also the consideration that I don’t really need a laptop anymore. I enjoyed having one that I could take with me into the office every day or on the occasional (rare) work trip I made, but for the last couple years I have been working from home. My home is my office and my work machine is mostly my Mac Mini, which is on my desk in my family room. My laptop has been living on my coffee tablet in that same room. Barely leaving it. With the introduction of the new iPad last year, I get even less screen time with the MacBook Pro. I take my iPad with me when I go sit outside or use it on the couch a lot or in the kitchen. There are times the Macbook Pro just sits there for days doing nothing. And while I made sure to get it with a good dedicated GPU and CPU so I could use it as an editing machine as well, my Mac Mini has still served that purpose, despite being older and less advanced.
So one way or the other, the need for a laptop is less (if at all) and the need for a newer editing desktop is more.

So why not just switch the Mac Mini and the MacBook Pro roles?
As in, use the MacBook Pro as my new editing desktop machine. I tried it. For one I have a lot hooked up to my Mac Mini, which would mean a lot of dongles for my MacBook Pro, but also there is just a psychological barrier where it feels like a waste to me to keep the MacBook Pro tied to a desk constantly. Even though it kind of is on my coffee table. But I have moved it occasionally. That wouldn’t be as easy to do with ten hard drives connected to it and  and two monitors and an ethernet port. And I don’t want to spend $100-$300 on one of those fancy dock port things for thunderbolt. Especially not with it acting up like this, I don’t want to switch it to being my main work machine.

All of that said, I also just want to be out of Apple’s clutches. Even if my MacBook Pro continues to work and works great without any further issues and the keyboard L key magically fixes itself, I’m still faced with the fact that all of Apple’s new machines are non-upgradable. A fact I pensively walked into when buying my 2017 MacBook Pro and still dislike about it. The new Apple is all about computers you can’t work on yourself and barely gives you any ports to connect things without dongles.
Granted I’m not thrilled about the idea of jumping back into a problem laden Windows environment either. I don’t miss the days of reformatting my C drive once every year or so to clean it out and getting it running smooth again. Having to reinstall everything again. But my girlfriend still runs a PC. I helped her do some upgrades last summer, with a new GPU, case, and Windows 10 upgrade (from 7). She plans to do some new upgrades in a month or so. New mainboard, CPU and ram this time. I’ll be helping her with that and it just might be enough to kick me in the pants and make me want to do my own PC build.

I guess time will tell. For now, I’m still a Mac user.  And depending on how things go with my MacBook Pro here, I could continue to be, or get angry and suddenly make a sweeping switch to PC.

Update August 23, 2023
So it’s been just over two years to the month since I wrote this. In fact I even had started a draft in November of 2022 going over computer ideas again. I never published that one for some reason, and I’ll need to check it out. But I figured the best place to talk about the Macbook Pro would be on the article specifically about it.

Things have been hairy with it over the last couple years. I hadn’t experienced that power issue I wrote about above. So that was apparently some fluke that just happened once. Which is good.
At some point I decided enough was enough, I needed to start using it more. So I decided to finally get my act together and use it as a replacement desktop machine for daily use, including video editing. This was in December of 2022. What this really meant was buying a new matching external hard drive to go along with another I had, and then using that as a main drive and backup drive for all my work projects. Plus getting all of my other external drives organized as well. Considering I now had something like eleven drives, this took some time. But my goal was to keep my Mac Mini as a media server and keep just the drives needed for that hooked to it, and then get the others organized and hooked to the MacBook Pro. That also meant getting a second USB-C to HDMI dongle and another USB hub.
I went with the Apple HDMI dongle that includes an extra USB-A and USB-C plug on it. That way I could utilize all four of my USB-C ports for external drives and accessories. Instead of one being used exclusively for the power cable. I also used the other off brand USB-C to HDMI cable I had, which I was hesitant to use, because last time I had used it was just before my battery had swelled up in this laptop. But I did it anyway, rather than spending another boatload of money on an official Apple HDMI dongle. I could never directly tie that cable to my swelling battery issue anyway.

I was all set up and began using that machine as my daily desktop, with my Mac Mini relegated to a media server.
But this didn’t last more than a few weeks or so.
I believe my battery had already been slightly swollen for the last six months or so. I can’t say for sure, as it’s hard to remember now. If I remember right I wasn’t sure it was swollen, but it seemed like wasn’t laying flat in the corners anymore, but then it would cool down after shutting it off and it would lay flat. Then it wouldn’t anymore after while.
I mostly kept the laptop open, so it was hard to tell, but after a while I was pretty sure it was swollen. There was now a couple millimeter gap in the corners when closed and the trackpad felt like it was bowing. But I still wasn’t (and still am not entirely) convinced it was the off brand HDMI to USB cable. Mostly because I think it had been swelling before i began using it again. Did it possible make it worse, who knows? Will I ever use that cable again. Probably not.

I looked up a replacement battery on Apple’s website and it was $200. An amount of money I really didn’t want to pay for a machine already over five years old and worth barely more than that on the used market. I considered just continuing to use it as is, as I always just kept it plugged into the wall and open anyway. However after talking to some people on the MacRumors forum I decided it wasn’t safe to keep doing that. So I unplugged the computer and had it run its battery down as much as I could, closed it up and let it sit there. Doing nothing. Switching everything back to my Mac Mini as both my daily desktop and my media server.

It sat there for six months, knowing I needed to eventually replace the battery. But unsure how I was going to do that. Would I pay the $200 and send it to Apple, or find a cheap replacement battery and try to replace it myself. Just recently I settled on the latter. I picked up an off-brand battery on Amazon for $71 out the door with all the necessary tools included. Surprisingly it turned out to be same day delivery (which seems kind of strange for such a niche item) and I followed a Youtube video to replace it myself. I even recorded the whole thing on my iPad and some on my iPhone before it’s battery petered out on me. That’s another device that’s pretty old at this point and needs a new battery as well.

This all happened two and half weeks go on Friday August 11th. So far so good. I’m even typing this update on the Macbook Pro, on my coffee table. This battery swap took me an hour and fifteen minutes. Mostly because I was also recording video and playing and pausing a Youtube instructional video showing me how to do it. And yeah it was definitely swollen. Big time. Once I had the screws off, the back cover just popped up on its own. No need to have to use any kind of pry tool in those corners.It’s now sitting in an open box and I’m waiting to take it to a local recycling day event that’s held in my county a couple days from now. Where I can recycle it for free. Because I was surprised to discover how much money it can cost to recycle it otherwise. One store wanting $40, another only store charging something like $70 or more for a special cardboard box they send you for you to put it in and send it back. That’s crazy. If they want people recycling lithium ion batteries, there needs to be more free and easily accessible ways for people to do it. Like what my county is holding. Even then I had to wait a few weeks for that event and I kind of lucked out with it, because they only hold them a couple times a year. So good timing on my part I guess.

I don’t really know how long this new battery will last. My hope is at least a couple years. But these cheaper off brand batteries seem be all over the place. With some lasting only a few weeks or months and others, who knows how long. People don’t usually come back to report on that, or it hasn’t been long enough for them to. But after and initial power up to 100% and then discharge on battery down to something like 7%, I plugged it back in and haven’t unplugged it since. I know that’s probably not the right way to use it and might have been what has led me to go through two official batteries in this machine already, but I haven’t really had  need for this thing to be a portable laptop in years. I don’t want to have to keep unplugging it and then watching to maker sure I plug it back in again before the battery runs out. I want to use it plugged in all the time like a desktop. I don’t want to have to worry about that. That never seemed to be and issue with my old Macbook, why it should be and issue with a newer more advanced and more expensive Macbook Pro is beyond me.

The other thing is, this battery probably doesn’t last as long just running off battery power as the OEM batter from Apple would. I’ve heard people say something like only three hours of usage or something compared to what used to be, I don’t even remember six or seven hours for this machine when brand new?
But again, I just want to use this as a desktop, so I don’t really care about that. I just wanted to make sure I had a battery that wasn’t swelling, causing interal motherboard/trackpad issues and being a potential fire or explosive hazard. So long as it stays in some kind of working, safe, non-swollen state, I’m happy if it only lasts and hour or two on battery power. Although it would be nice it it went longer for those rare occasions I might decided to running off battery. We’ll see.

I have yet to hook it back up as a desktop replacement for my Mac Mini again. I’ve just been keeping in on the coffee table and using it here as a daily driver. Partly because I forgot how nice the screen is on it. It’s bright and sharp and colorful and it’s nice to get some use out of it again. Once it’s on my desk I’ll be back to using the two bigger screens and third smaller screen just becomes kind of an annoyance, too much screen real estate and two small compared to the other two. I like matching screen sizes when I’m working with multiple monitors. So I shut it off or don’t use it.
But I also need to get another Apple branded HDMI adapter for that second monitor. I’m not trusting that off-brand USB-c to HDMI cable anymore. Even if it possibly didn’t have anything to do with the battery swelling each time, the last two times. I’m not taking that chance again.
So that’s another, what, $70 at least for another Apple HDMI dongle. Not money I’m running out to spend. Even though between it and the new battery, the total $150 or so it will less than buying or building a new desktop machine. But, again this is still a six year old machine now.

Which is why I’m still sort of dragging my feet. I’m not entirely sure anymore how I want to use this machine. I haven’t been sure for years now. It’s been this sort of awkward and problematic computer, that has had a number of issues and really doesn’t want to be a desktop, when I’ve tried to use it like that, because that’s what I really need. So part of me is still looking at new PCs, either buying at now M2 Mac Mini or building a new PC or buying a mini PC. I’ve been checking those out recently. I like the idea of small form factor low power consumption PC. It’s hard to imagine going back to a big power hungry tower after using my Mac Mini for a decade now, and this laptop. Not to mention the other Macbook I using exclusively at home between 2010 and 2013 when I bought the Mac Mini. So technically I haven’t used a big tower at home since 2010. Over thirteen and half years now. It’s been quiet lower powered requirement devices.
Plus I’m really not sure I need the big desktop tower either. I’m not a PC gamer. I just got back into playing some Cities Skylines on this Macbook after three years of not opening that game up (can’t believe it was that long). That’s been fun and I’m interested in the sequel releasing this fall, but beyond those I’m just web browsing and video editing mostly. And my 2012 Mac Mini has still been serving me well for video editing. That’s eleven plus year old hardware design. So I’ve sure any modern mini PC could probably handle my requirements. And then some.

So I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to do. I’m still trying to decide if I want to upgrade the OS on this Macbook Pro. I’m still running Mojave on it. Just like the Mac Mini. I’m pretty much ready to make the upgrade. But part of me also wonders why I should bother when I like this and it does everything I need it to do. I think sometimes we forget that machines are tools that serve a purpose. So long as they work to do what we need, they don’t need to be new or fancy. And after a while Apple doesn’t let you upgrade the OS on older machines anyway. It’s not like you just throw them out. At least I don’t. They don’t suddenly lose the functionally they always had. Well, sometimes they do. Chrome lately has been bugging me to upgrade my OS, saying it’s going to stop supporting this one soon. Oh well. Maybe that will get me to make the leap.

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