Thursday, September 4, 2008

Steve and I have been wrong

I bought my first Mac (the 128k variety) in January 1984. As part of the rationalization for spending $3,000 for a computer toy, I promised my wife I’d find a way to make money off of it — so I wrote a book on Basic programming. (Which wasn't published, but that’s another story).

Of course the Mac reflected Steve’s uncompromising vision of what “insanely great” was. One thing where he was notoriously inflexible was on the question of a cooling fan. The advantage of the fan was that it would keep the computer from overheating and malfunctioning; the disadvantage was that it made noise.

The original Mac 128/512 and Mac Plus all lacked the cooling fan, and the quietness of the computer I found appealing, at least at first. (After Steve left Apple, the Macintosh SE and SE/30 in the same case did have a fan.)

However, I found in the summer of 1984 — writing my book nights and weekends in Southern California — that without a fan that once the room temperature was about 85° or 90°, the computer would malfunction in unpredictable ways. To be able to work under typical summer conditions, I cobbled together a solution with velcro and a fan from a surplus parts store, and later bought one of the sleek add-on products sold by third parties.

Fast forward 24 years and probably 20 Macs later. Between 4-6 p.m. this afternoon, my MacBook Air was acting strangely. I kept rebooting and closing applications but it would take 15 minutes to do something that should take 30 seconds. I finally gave up and did something else.

On tonight’s TV news, I found the answer: record temperatures from our latest heatwave. The high today in San José was 99°, and 101° for the reporting station closest to my house. I’m guess it was above 90° inside today in my home office. (Of course there’s A/C at work, but none at home).

My use of the Air over the past 6 months has shown a consistent pattern that when the computer gets hot, the computer seems to slow down — consistent with older power management schemes of reducing power/cycles to the CPU to reduce its heat output. So today the computer got slowed down to avoid overheating. Months ago I put the Mac on a box roughly 4"x4"x1" to increase the cooling and heat transfer under the case, but that obviously wasn’t enough.

Mac users have been complaining (like Steve) about fan noise for years, including on the MacBook Air. Still, the computer needs an aggressive variable speed fan that goes full blast when it’s needed.

Apple claims

  • Operating temperature: 50° to 95°F (10° to 35°C)
  • Storage temperature: -13° to 113°F (-24° to 45°C)
but I don’t buy it. It’s not much use having having a portable computer that gives up before I do.