Mac Musings

Shot in the Foot Again

Firmware Upgrade Disables RAM

Daniel Knight - 2001.03.25 -

Before I even knew there was a firmware update for my PowerBook G4, the Mac Web let me know that a lot of users were having problems with it.

These updates were posted late Friday, March 23. By Saturday morning, sites like Accelerate Your Mac, Mac Observer, MacCentral, and MacFixIt were reporting big trouble for some users. Big trouble.

Some third-party RAM modules were no longer recognized after the firmware update - but some non-Apple memory worked just fine. Apple branded memory (at about 4x the price) appears to be unaffected by this problem.

The updates (v4.1.8 for Power Mac G4s, v4.1.8 for Cubes, v4.1.8 for PowerBooks with FireWire, v4.1.7 for slot-loading iMacs, and v4.1.7 for iBooks) are supposed to improve FireWire target disk mode, network booting, gigabyte ethernet (on models so equipped), and system stability. Note that this is not a required update.

In reading the TIL articles about these upgrades, there is no warning that they may disable memory that has been working flawlessly in your computer until now.

If the price of increased system stability and improved FireWire target disk mode is the possible loss of some or all third-party memory in your computer, it's a price not worth paying. In my case, all my RAM is third-party, so I could end up with a completely nonfunctional computer. I am not trying the update.

As MacFixIt notes, there appears to be no way to test memory in advance, no way to know whether you'll get burned by this update or not. That's a risk no Mac owner should have to take.

Call to Action

Apple had better make this right - and fast. At the same time that they've released the most impressive new OS of the millennium, they already shot themselves in the foot by "missing the boat" on CD-RW and not having a DVD player ready. To shoot themselves in the other foot with a blunder like the firmware update makes the "missing" OS X features look minor.

Why in the world would Apple create an upgrade that cripples some computers?

It's not the first time Apple has done something like this. Sometime in 1999 they released a firmware update for the blue & white Power Mac G3 that made the computer incompatible with G4 upgrades. Not only did they remove that capability, but they never warned users that the update would do anything but improve system stability. (See Why the G4 Uproar?)

I believe they made similar "updates" to the iMac, removing support for the floppy controller and other parts of the early iMac. However, all this pales in comparison to disabling seemingly perfect memory modules.

Anyone with a Power Mac G4, FireWire PowerBook (Pismo or TiBook), Cube, slot-loading iMac, or iBook with third-party memory is at risk - even if the RAM has been working perfectly for years.

We must call Apple to act quickly. They need to pull this firmware update immediately and replace it with one that provides the other improvements but allows us to continue using our memory. Whatever the level of risk (whether it's 0.9%, 9%, or 90% of users with third party RAM), we should not be at risk of losing some or all of the memory in our Macs because of a firmware update.

My suggestion is that Apple give the replacement firmware update the same version number to avoid confusion. (If 4.1.8 fixes your iBook, why does my TiBook need 4.1.9?)

They also need to do something for the poor guinea pigs who installed the update over the weekend and completely lost the use of their computers. Some of them may be without the 'Books and desktops for several days while their dealer or Apple's central 'Book repair facility fixes them.

Apple shot themselves in the foot with this one. They need to deal with this emergency immediately or risk further alienating their user base.


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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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