MacBook Pro 13″: overheating causing graphics problems.

Posted: September 8, 2010 in Apple, computers, hardware
Tags: , , , ,

I love my MacBook Pro, but i have noticed that it does get quite warm. Most of the time it’s on my desk on a laptop riser, so its not an issue, lots of airflow around it to help it stay cool. The thing is, I bought a laptop. Or more correctly, I thought I did.
According to Apple it’s not a laptop – “it’s a portable computer, and not meant to be used on a lap.” Ah, great, thanks. I’ll just use my laptop computer on a desk then shall I? Sheesh. But i’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain the issue at hand that caused me to contact Apple Support in the first place.

I was getting strange pixelations in certain programs, but once they started they quickly spread to all the programs running in all “Spaces“. You can see what i am referring to in the screen-capture of my Dock. Imagine trying to read what you were typing when this pixelation is occurring. At first it was happening so rarely I chalked it up to running out of video ram, since the video card uses shared memory, and I had the MBP running for some time using numerous apps etc. Thats when i noticed it happening more frequently and always after using certain video intense and processor intense programs.

I called Apple. I knew I didn’t have AppleCare left, but figured this was a hardware issue and would fall under the standard warranty. After finally getting ahold of a tech, we discussed the issue and was assured it was not common. It seemed to be an isolated case according to Apple, and the only proposed solutions were to rest the PRam and Vram and see if that fixed it. Hmm, gee thanks. So don’t use my laptop on my lap and do a reset of the memory. That’s not a fix, its a bandaid.

I got to thinking, what is the common factor? CPU and memory strain causes heat, and heat causes all kinds of problems. So i started checking the fan speed and temp whenever the problem reared its ugly head.

A great program for stress testing your video card and processor is Second Life. I’ve been playing the game for years and have found some extremely graphics intensive areas that can make the average video card whimper. I decided to run it and check the cpu use and temps. CPU usage ranged anywhere from 35% to 90% and the temps steadily climbed without the fan kicking into a higher speed fast enough to compensate. Using iStat in my Dashboard was fine, but i wanted a constant readout of temperature and fan speed, so I installed smcFanControl which not only allowed me to see them, but also easily adjust the fan speed according to what i’m doing with my MBP. (check it out here)

Playing around with the settings, I tweaked them a bit to find an RPM that worked well, but was still so quiet as to be barely audible. 3600 rpm is pretty quiet and well suited for most uses and locales. The default 2000 rpm is dead quiet, although didn’t do much to cool the CPU. 4000 rpm and above I start to hear it in a relatively quiet room. As it turns out though, sometimes I need to max out the fan to 6200 rpm to keep the temperature below 70 deg C.

Taking all this into account, and with a little testing, it seems I can make the problem recur on demand by running a very graphics intense program or two and letting the fan run according to its defaults, typically within 10 minutes of use. As I mentioned earlier, the fan didn’t ramp up speed fast enough to prevent the graphics problem from occurring, and also once it has started, cooling off the CPU by increasing the fan speed never made the problem go away regardless of the temperature drop.

Unfortunately, the only way to clear the graphics problem is to restart. Argh. So until Apple reworks the fan speed control to react quicker, It seems I have two options, restart frequently or remember to boost the fan speed first before using certain graphic-intense programs. At this point, i’m not sure if mine is an isolated case or the norm for 13″ MBP, but I assure you this, Apple Support will be getting a follow up call from me with all my info and test results in hand to get to the bottom of this issue. Stayed tuned.


  1. Dale says:

    Im having the same problem.
    mostly when i run games such as counter strike.


    • tcg says:

      Thanks Dale, its good in a way to know its not just me. I keep checking up on this problem and found a few others on the Apple Support forums mentioning similar things. Maybe there will be a fix for it in the future. I’m going to go the extra step and have my MBP 13″ look at by an Apple Authorized Repair shop.


  2. Simone says:

    I’m also having this problem, mostly when I’m running World of Warcraft, but it happens sometimes even when I’m just browsing with Firefox and chatting on Skype. It started out slowly as yours, but it’s now happening several times a day, and I have almost given up trying to play even for a little time on my computer. Since I still have warrenty and am experiencing other problems as well, I’ll take my mbp in for repairs. And I thought switching my old Dell out for a Mac would rid me of problems like these *sigh*


  3. The macbook pro is great. I’ve had only a minor issue with the battery so far, but something that Apple quickly fixed. Overall, it’s a great laptop.


  4. Kristian Svalland says:

    wow, i thought i was the only one who had this problem, when i play world of warcraft and don’t switch the fan speed to a higher rpm from default, roughly 5 min into the game the video with slow down and then go back to normal every second….. and would get worse and worse till i pump up the fan speed…. i am wondering if i should take this thing in to get it looked at… i to have the 13″ MBP with the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M video card…. when i put the fan up in speed the frame rate issue goes away… but yeah, the cooling system doesn’t seem to keep up with the temp of the laptop fast enough… not cool


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