Updating Mac Software: Use Extreme Caution

To cut to the chase about what the headline of this post means, just click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below. If you want backstory, continue on, dear reader. In my last post, I mentioned that I had a few problems setting up my new editing system. For the most part, it was fairly straightforward. Still, there was at least one big headache. Right about the time that I had everything set up (MacPro, LCD and CRT monitors, RAID, and HD capture card) I started having problems.

What kind of problems? For one, Final Cut Pro kept freezing on startup, and -- if I was lucky enough to get it loaded -- FCP would freeze upon my first attempt to monitor footage off of my Multibridge. Oh, and I had a dreaded kernel panic or two. If you've never seen a kernel panic, consider yourself among the lucky. (For the uninitiated, here's a photo of Mac's equivalent of the "blue screen of death.") To say that my excitement about this uncompressed workstation was dampened would be an understatement.

I suspected that the root of these problems was either a conflict between hardware components or just a plain ol' dead piece of equipment. After all, this new editing system has many more elements to it, and the longer the chain, the more likely it is that one of the links is weak.

I wasn't the only one to believe this. After spending an hour on the phone with a knowledgeable representative at Blackmagic Design (the folks that make the Multibridge) the rep said, "Yep, it's dead. Send it back."

That was last 5pm on a Friday, of course, which meant I could do nothing about it over the weekend. I couldn't even ship the Multibridge out. All I could do was reflect on what else could be causing the problems. And, being the obsessive-compulsive person that I am, that's what I did. Surprisingly, this was time well spent.

I decided to spend the weekend troubleshooting every thing possible. I tested cables, I tested drives, I tested RAM, I trashed preferences, I repaired permissions, I ran UNIX maintenance, and I swapped cards into different PCI slots... you name it.

Finally, after several hours of troubleshooting, including a complete rebuilding of my editing system (including uninstalling and reinstalling of LOTS of software) I discovered that the problem was not the hardware, but a software problem.

I have no way of knowing for certain, but it appeared to be a software conflict between Multibridge and Apple's QuickTime and 10.4.10 OS updates.

As best I can tell, the problem might have stemmed from the way that I had used Apple's "Software Update" to update my OS (i.e., using Software Update) and because I had applications running (like Final Cut Pro) while doping so.

After several fixes and reinstalls, everything seems okay now (knock on wood), but here are, for me at least, the morals of the story:

1) Use Extreme Caution when using Apple's Software Update tool. The appropriately titled Shock and Awe: How Installing Apple's Updates can Render Your Mac Unbootable and How You Can Prevent it article explains the hows and whys of this. The problem?

When you see the "Optimizing System Performance" phase of a software update, Mac OS X is really updating prebinding. Updating prebinding has a very, very nasty bug in it....If multiple processes are updating prebinding at the same time, then it is possible for a system file to be completely zero'd out. Basically, all data in the file is deleted and it is replaced with nothing.

The solution?

When 'Optimize System Performance' appears during the update process do not touch your computer and definitely do not launch any applications. Just back away from your computer box as if it were a swarm of bees.

But don't take my word for it. Read the article.

2) Avoid using Software Update. Instead, download the updaters from Apple's Support Downloads site and install manually. You can disable Software Update in Apple's System Preferences.

3) Resist the urge to update your software. There are, of course, reasons to update software -- new features, security fixes, etc. But before you begin that next download ask yourself, Do I really need (or can I even use) these new features? This is especially important to ask when in the middle of editing a project.

In sum, If it ain't broke, don't fix it.