History of an ill-starred, mid-2012 15″ Retina MacBook Pro


Nothing is perfect, we all know that. There’s nobody in here who didn’t experience at least once how’s it like to have a malfunctioning computer. That’s definitely my case: I had countless hardware failures throughout the years with all kinds of computers, even though my trusty 15″ Retina MacBook Pro, year 2012, has a story that deserves to be told. The first iteration of Macs that shipped with a Retina display had its own share of troubles, some even recognized by Apple. Honestly I wasn’t expecting Apple to “fail” that much while assembling my computer: anyway, I was expecting even less the exceptional treatment I received by Apple’s Support.

Enough talking, lets get to business. I purchased my MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display back in 30th December 2012 directly from Apple Store Fiordaliso. I was used to the iPhone’s Retina Display, but seeing that kind of sharpness on a 15,4″ display was gorgeous.

I used it for quite a long time, before exchanging it with my father’s 2011 iMac 27″ (that also had its own share of issues…) who was in need of a portable computer. A couple of years passed, and I couldn’t help but notice how the MacBook Pro’s display had an awkward image retention issue. In a few words after a couple of minutes you could literally see the ghosts of the windows still being displayed on the monitor, which would gradually fade out. Anyway, I wasn’t the one who was using the computer back then, so I didn’t care too much.

Some time later, in early 2015 I had my MacBook Pro back: the iMac was sold and my father bought for himself a top-of-the-line iMac 5K. This time I had to deal with the image retention thing: funny enough he never cared for the issue, in spite of the fact that no monitor should behave like that. I indeed ran an image retention test, which consists in displaying a fullscreen black and white, checkboard like image for ten minutes, then change it to a grey background. If you can see the ghosts of the checkboard, your monitor is likely defective.

At this point you might have noticed that unless I had AppleCare (and I hadn’t), the warranty had expired on 30th December 2014, at least that’s how free warranty works in Italy. The only thing I could do was bringing the Mac back home to the Apple Store for a repair. The Genius who assisted me ran the exact same test and, as expected, the gorgeous Retina display was in need of a replacement. However, even if the warranty had expired the previous month, they told me they would have replaced the entire clamshell for free. I was curious, so I asked why would they do that: it’s not that I wasn’t grateful! The Genius told me that after the warranty had expired, there were three months more or less in which these kind of issues were still covered.

There were many users that on the web who complained about MacBook Pros with Retina displays affected by image retention. Turns out that LG and Samsung were the manufacturers who have been producing them. Samsung’s were perfect, LG’s… not quite. As you can expect, mine’s LG and I have been unlucky enough to get a defective one.

So I left the Mac at the Apple Store, and three days later it was ready for pickup. Happy for the replacement I thanked them and went back home. However, once I turn on the Mac, for some strange reason the Bluetooth wouldn’t work. I couldn’t pair nor the Magic Mouse, nor the iPhone’s hotspot. I got in touch with Apple Support, and an employee remotely connected to my Mac to help me troubleshoot the issue. I’ve reset the SMC, probably the NVRAM as well… something else, deleted Bluetooth preferences from the Library, nothing.

I began wondering if the issue had to do with the recent repair: it had to, it was too much of a coincidence. In fact the clamshell didn’t only house the Retina display, but also the WiFi and Bluetooth antennas! Once we found out that the issue wasn’t software related, both I and the representative I was talking to agreed that I should have brought the Mac back to the Apple Store. So I did.

Days later I came back again to Fiordaliso: they once again listened to me very carefully and asked me to re-open the chassis in their lab to get a deeper insight into the issue. The Genius came back (without the Mac, go figure!), and calmly explained: “We opened your computer, and unfortunately we found out that the new clamshell we installed was defective as well. There is a small cable that passes through the computer’s hinge [where the clamshell is connected to the Mac’s aluminium chassis] that connects the bluetooth’s antenna to the logic board. It’s not working indeed, that’s why you’re having problems” – “Anyway! Good news is that we have the component already. If you give us a couple hours, you can come back and pick it up later this afternoon”. I cracked a smile; thankfully I hadn’t to live without my Mac for another week but that also meant one thing… For two hours I was forced to go around in the shopping center. For a man, like me, that’s one of the worst thing that can happen to you!

So Mac’s repaired, what a blast! At the Store they’ve been professional to say the least, and I finally had a working computer!…

…or maybe not. One day I decided to install Windows 7 through Boot Camp. After some time, I noticed something strange. At 75° Celsius (167° Fahrenheit)  the Mac would dramatically downclock the CPU speed from 2.3 GHz to 1.1 GHz (read: a MacBook’s CPU base frequency). I did an extensive search on the Web, and found that it was a well known issue: even Apple acknowledged it.

While no one can be 100% sure what was causing it, we can make assumptions. Back in September 2012, Apple had released an EFI update for the Retina MacBook Pro 15″. After that date, a lot of users popped out reporting insane performance drops since the update, especially while running Windows with Boot Camp. Some time later Apple noticed it, but only in October 2013, an year later, an official fix came out.

Unfortunately some managed to solve it, some didn’t. I was one of those who still experienced those issues. I made sure that the SMC and Boot ROM were up to date with the latest EFI update, but no luck. Since the EFI cannot be touched by the user, I had no choice but to try resetting SMC and NVRAM. The former, System Management Controller, controls pretty much everything: fans, keyboard backlight, power, overall system performance. If it gets corrupted your Mac might behave a bit like crazy, but it can be reset to default. The latter, Non Volatile Random Access Memory, stores some settings that can be quickly accessed by the Mac, including the speakers’ volume, screen resolution, startup disk selection, eventual kernel panic details… one may even wonder what it could possibly had to do with the CPU speed, but desperate situations require desperate measures!

Of course resetting both did not work. I managed to get my hands on a retail copy of Tomb Raider (2013) to try pushing the MacBook Pro to its limits. Luckily it has a Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU, and using GeForce Experience I’ve set the game to run at the presumed optimal settings. As expected it did run a great Full HD with really good graphics and high frame rates: I was genuinely impressed by how a three years old computer could run the game that good. For the first couple of minutes everything was fine, but once the temperatures crossed the 75°C the throttling kicked in.

While the FPS indicator was still displaying between 30 to 60 FPS (depending on the complexity of the environment), it wasn’t smooth at all. At random, very short intervals, the game micro-stuttered like crazy. In a few words, you could see the game go smooth a few fraction of seconds, freeze, go smooth again, freeze, rinse and repeat. Keep watching that for a few mins and you’ll get a nice headache! Tomb Raider also included a nice benchmarking tool that’d monitor the frame rates and tell you the highest, the lowest and the medium frame rates achieved by your GPU during a short test. The results were good: average was often above 40 FPS, even though it was totally unbearable due to the stuttering.

As I kept browsing the web in search for an answer, I stumbled upon two alternatives: a MagSafe 2 port unable to give enough power to the hardware, or a defective logic board (on which are housed RAM, GPU and CPU among the other things). This time however I noticed something curious on Apple’s website: MacBook Pro Repair Extension Program for Video Issues. – my Mac was eligible, so I brought it again to the Apple Store Fiordaliso. It was June 2015.

This time however things didn’t go as expected. The Genius ran a GPU test and did not find anything wrong with it, so he told me “the GPU’s good, so whatever the issue may be, you’d have to pay for an eventual replacement of the logic board”. Price: 450€. There’s no way I would ever pay that much, so I took it back with me. I tried several times to solve the issue by myself but, with me going only so far as a user, things didn’t change and I lived with it.

Three months later, in early September 2015 the Mac had its first kernel panic. You know, one of the funny restarts that happen when something fails! They hardly ever happen on OS X, but when they do it means that probably something isn’t right. Intrigued by the sudden restart I saved the log and kept using the Mac. Two weeks later, while I was doing some basic tasks in OS X and listening to music with iTunes, it completely froze. The MacBook Pro was no longer receiving inputs, the song I was listening to kept repeating the last few instants played before the crash. Just when I thought it was dead, it rebooted on its own. No kernel panic log, and no clue on what happened. Two days later, it crashed again. I kept repeating to myself “Come on, it can’t be! It’s OS X!“. Against all odds, and well aware that the warranty had expired since a long time, I brought it back to Fiordaliso… yes, them again! Probably they got used to me!

This time I provided every detail I knew about the issue, told him about the sudden reboots and expressed my concern of a defective logic board that should be replaced under extended warranty for the aforementioned Video Issues (in which sudden reboots are mentioned as symptoms). The Genius had a look at the kernel panic log: “I don’t like the sound of this… [to the Mac] why didn’t you like it…“. He re-ran the same GPU test but this time he stopped it and told me: “I’m seeing that this particular Mac underwent several repairs already… that’s… impressive. […] In spite of all the possible tests we can do, I can’t ignore the fact that the Mac indeed restarted multiple times. As far as I’m seeing, there is something it doesn’t like regarding the hardware, and probably has do with the logic board. So, what are we doing? I’m taking your MacBook Pro with me and we’re applying the Quality Program: we’re recognizing the issue and replacing the logic board, free of charge for you as your Mac is eligible for it. We have the component already, so it shouldn’t take long to repair.”. Finally!

The next day I received a call from the Apple Store in the morning; the Mac was ready for pick up. Just in time for lunch, I was home with the Mac… for the last time. No image retention, no more sudden downclocking and crippled performance. At last the Mac was working as intended; the throttling in Windows disappeared, the stuttering was gone.

An ill-starred 2012 Retina MacBook Pro 15″ finally had won its fight.

So, I finally have a working computer! Anyway it wouldn’t be fair to end this story without a huge thank you and an applause to Apple for the treatment. I honestly can’t imagine another manufacturer who’d assume that kind of responsibility for a defective product, even less for an entire lineup. It’d have been nice to not have these issues in the first place… but you know, weird stuff happens! All I know is that, in a way, I kind of got attached to my MacBook Pro.

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