Asleep on the job

One of the best movies to come out of South Africa is Tom Hooper’s Red Dust, which tackles South Africa’s most fundamental problem, of rebuilding a society and nation from the bitterly-opposed parties in what was effectively civil war.

In addition to a gripping and meaningful story, convincing performances by stars and a large supporting cast of fascinating cameo characters, and evocative music, Larry Smith’s superb photography captures the grand beauty of the Great Karoo, and features an extraordinary compositional sequence of Chiwetel Ejiofor swimming.

Without wishing to trivialise the harrowing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Courts, there are times when I wish that we could get Apple to sit down and come clean over long-standing issues that still generate a steady stream of emails, in the past for MacUser’s Q&A, and still for this site.

For sheer historical persistence and infuriation, top of the list is sleeping. Ever since we were first able to put 68K Macs to sleep, they have been refusing to wake up, crashing when trying to awaken, and suffering other untoward problems. Apple’s current guidance on sleep is here, and its troubleshooting advice is here. However, search Google for ‘os x sleep problem’ and you should see over 9 million hits spanning 10.0 to 10.10.

Under OS X, of course, sleep is a mixed blessing. Whilst it puts a laptop into a power-saving mode that is particularly convenient when moving from one job to another, it is less well-suited to overnight rests, as it can prevent (OS X 10.4 and below) or delay (OS X 10.5 and later) standard routine housekeeping from taking place. Perhaps the best arrangement for a laptop user is to shut down overnight, which also prevents routine tasks of course, and then use a utility to schedule or perform housekeeping during the waking day: The X Lab details several solutions.

Desktop systems are still less likely to find full-blown sleep of benefit, although in theory getting the zeds in could save significant amounts of power.

So the formula that I normally recommend for desktop systems is to put the screen to sleep but leave the processor(s) and disk(s) active, with the Mac left running 24/7. This not only ensures that the housekeeping tasks can occur in the normal way, in the wee small hours of the morning, but usually helps the hardware last longer. Most electronic and electro-mechanical devices suffer greatest stresses and strains when starting up and shutting down. This is particularly true of hard disks, although many models are designed to cope better, for example those designed for use in laptops that of necessity will do that.

If you do leave your Mac on overnight, and particularly over weekends, it is essential that it is powered through a high-quality uninterruptible power supply (UPS) that has sufficient capacity to ensure an ordered and orderly shutdown if there is a longer interruption to the electricity supply.

UPS are not simply for servers, although I am repeatedly surprised at how few workstations are properly protected. A decent UPS ensures that a brief brownout does not blow away your day’s work before it gets copied back to the server, and because it also filters most potentially damaging spikes in power supply, it provides good protection from most everyday (and everynight) power problems.

But if we do all the right things, we should be able to rely on our Macs following suit. Over the years in MacUser’s pages, on troubleshooting sites such as MacFixit and every bulletin board and mailing list around, there has been a steady stream of problems with sleep. I had wondered whether the switch to Intel-based motherboards would make power management more robust and reliable, but judging by the continuing stream of problems, it has not.

There are times when I wonder whether the most important engineering requirement in power management is just to obtain an Energy Saver rating, rather than function in the way that we expect it to. The time is right for a reconciliation.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 21 issue 19, 2005. Amazingly, over those ten years, the problems have continued. Surely the time must be right now!