My Dirty Little Mac Pro

June 14th, 2008 | Posted in It's All Geek to Me!

You drrrrty, drrrrty little tramp.

Despite what Apple might want you to believe, Mac’s are not infallible supercomputers that “just work”. They are machines… and as such they break down, have technical problems, glitches, etc. just like any other machines. Hardware-wise they aren’t any better than PCs, and since you are severely restricted in what hardware you can use if your Mac has a design flaw of some kind it becomes a problem that cannot be easily corrected. That is one of the major drawbacks of using Apple computers… you have to take what Apple will give you with few, if any, other options.

Take my 2006 Mac Pro…. PLEASE.

I’m kidding about wanting to get rid of my Mac Pro. It’s a fine computer and has served me well for going on two years. In fact, after two years this is usually the time I would be thinking seriously of upgrading my PC. Not so the Mac Pro. I think this will last some years yet… or would if I could get a decent video card for it.

A few months ago I started having weird problems with my Mac Pro. The system would crash with that seriously annoying (but elegantly designed) Gray Curtain of Death that would suddenly roll down my screen and display the message that I need to reboot my Mac, sometimes costing me time if I had not recently saved whatever I was working on. In fact, this has continued to happen with increasing frequency in the last few months. I ran all sorts of utilities and such on it, but nothing seemed to solve the problems. My computer also stopped putting itself to sleep, and would run non-stop unless I shut it down. Then I had this problem.

In the last few weeks, weird lines of colored pixels have been appearing at random on both my Apple Cinema display and my Cintiq. This was very disturbing, and it signaled to me that the video card may be having problems. Some Google searching revealed the issue… apparently a common one with Mac Pros. The ATI Radeon X1900 video card, which BTW was an upgrade from the standard video card at the time, is notorious for getting it’s fan grill and fan blades clogged with dust and debris, and causing it to overheat. This made sense to me, because I thought I noticed my Mac being a lot noisier lately, which was the fans vainly trying to keep the temperature down inside the machine. The video card was overheating and likely the cause of all the problems I was having.

So this week I opened the Mac, removed the video card and disassembled it to get at the fan blades and grill. The picture above is not of my video card but one from an article I found describing the problem, but that’s about what it looked like… clogged solid with junk. Using compressed air and a vacuum cleaner I cleaned it all out and reassembled. Bingo! Nice, quiet Mac again and so far no weird lines or Gray Curtain of Death. My Mac also sleeps again. Nice.

Mac Pro users have been complaining about this card for some time, but until recently there has not been a reasonably priced alternative available. About two months ago NVidia came out with an 8800 video card that was compatible with the original Mac Pro, but while it was good for gaming it was actually found to be slower for applications. Finally on Thursday AMD announced the imminent release of the ATI Radeon HD 3870, a new card that hopefully will give Mac users sick of the problems of the X1900 an alternative. Of course installing a newly released video card is only for the very brave or very stupid… video drivers are notoriously buggy and it’s wise to wait for at least 3 to 6 months for all the kinks to get worked out before you trust your computer to a new video source.

That’s one of the things that frustrates me with Macs as opposed to PCs. If you are having troubles with some piece of hardware or software on your PC, there are at least a dozen alternatives out there waiting to be sold to you. With Apple, they are far fewer and usually behind in the R&D department. AMD has put out many upgraded video cards in the last two years… but none that work with the Mac. This is one of the first in two years to be released.

So now my dirty little Mac is all shiny and spiffy, and running well. When was the last time you cleaned out the fans and air intakes in your computer and video card?


  1. seeing how now you have fixed the problem I am just going to tell you that if something ever happens I call dibs on your 2006 MacBook Pro!

  2. syzygy6 says:

    Actually, if you ever decide to upgrade, I’d love to buy it from you. Right now I’m at the point where my computer is just incapable enough that I’m ready to buy a PS3 and try to make a workstation out of it by installing Ubuntu and The Gimp (maybe even Blender3D) just to be able to afford something. But you, you bloody professional bastard, have a fully equipped Mac Pro that you’re planning on tossing with all the fancy programs that chumps like me rely on fairly less legal means to use (i.e. The Pirate Bay).

    But, I guess Sir Drawz has dibs. I’m always about eleven hour too late. What a shame.

    P.S. I don’t have to pay you, you could always just box it up and send it to me as is as a birthday present or something. I’d love you forever and even subscribe to your magazine.

  3. I hear ya on that. My iBook has a slot for an Airport card(the FIRST model), but they don’t make it anymore. I’m tethered to an ethernet cord.
    There are currently 3 options for me: see if I can find an old & rusty Airport card online(Last seen at over $100), or buy one of TWO compatible USB wireless dongles which both cost more than a Windows-compatible one. I decided long ago that I’d rather put my money toward getting a new computer than upgrading this one.
    (currently using a wireless keyboard with a Windows key on this iBook, because it’s ergonomic and was the best)

  4. SteveH says:

    Tom it’s refreshing to hear your overview on Mac computers in regards to this problem. As you know, I switched last Christmas and encountered a whole bunch of problems that were the result of Leopard being released with bugs. This is very frustrating as Apple clearly hype on about how ‘perfect’ they are and yet, as you rightly mentioned, they are just another computer. Yes they are good and I do prefer my iMac to my old PC’s but the Mac has simply not impressed me in comparison to my PC experience of software and hardware. In fact it is true to say that my first 6 months of the Mac have given me more problems and issues than I ever had with any PC. But I still prefer the Mac! Glad to hear the MacPro is back to normal after your spring clean of the video card!

  5. LorenS says:

    Isn’t it amazing how much junk gets into your computers internal workings. Working in screen print shops were the lint from the printing and embroidery areas was outrageous. In that type of atmosphere blowing the gunk out was a every two week thing. But working at home there are no presses, or large conveyor dryers spewing heated polyester lint all over (the worst oily gross stuff there is), spray tack, and other nasty floaties in the air.

    After reading your latest post I realized my computers fans were running a little harder than usual and it didn’t sleep as soundly as it used to. So last night I opened it up and was blown away by how much lint,dust, and UPOS, were in there, and I just had it cleaned out 4 months ago after a check up. Looks like I will be doing it more often. I am sorry to hear about the problems with the newer Macs, having always used a Mac, the first being an SE in 1986, up to my current pre intel G5 quad, which is three years old and has been flawless. In all these years have had only one hard drive go out but was able to recover everything and it was under warranty, and one die but it was was manhandled in a move. It is good to hear yours is back to normal, as is mine, cannot hear it running at the moment.



New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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