21 May 2020

2018 Macbook Pro 13" and Screen flickering problem

I bought a new MacBook Pro in early 2019 (May 4th to be precise, it was a refurbished 2018 model).

Some background on my experience with Macbooks

I have been working with MacBooks for a while and they have been a significant step up in terms of overall reliability from other devices, with the likes of Dell, HP, and Acers. 
I own another MacBook Pro from 2013 and touch wood, it has been running steady like a workhorse. No problems at all!

So, to supplement with a dedicated device for my official work, I decided to buy another MBP (obvious choice). 
At that time, the biggest debate was around the faulty keyboards but early 2018 devices were less fraught with the issues. 
So I found the right type of device and placed my order.
[I use Apple's refurbished program as I have had excellent success with that program]

Fast forward, Oct 2019, and something from my nightmares came true!

My keyboard started acting weird and after a day or two, it became clear that It has developed a significant issue with mostly its E and I keys. It's amazing when a small thing breaks, it shows you how everything is inter-connected and just one screwed letter on the keyboard is all it takes to bring a device and its usage down.
I could have continued with an external keyboard, but the problem had to be fixed. This was less than 6 months old device and it was a shame that it had developed this issue. Long Story Short, the device spent about 10 days at a service center and when it came out, I had paid 0$ for a brand new keyboard install. More about this experience later.

Where it all began

Further fast forward to May 18th, 2020.
Heavy rains and a thunderstorm passing by. 
Around 3 pm in the afternoon, my laptop's display begins flickering like a sci-fi movie, as if someone is taking over a network.

via Gfycat

My first impression of this issue


The thunderstorms were right above our place and my first impression was that something was interfering with the displays [magnetic source] and I unplugged the laptop from the power and my desktop monitor and moved to the living room while I put my mac away. I didn't think much of it.

After spending some time with my daughter, I came to my MacBook and started working again. This is when I noticed that flickering was continuing to happen and now, my heart started to sink. 

The flickering intensified, with frequency going up. Some times the whole screen would flicker. some times, a band on the screen would flicker.

As a techie would do, especially those who have spent time with windows in early life, I restarted my machine.

The Re-start did solve the problem. The flicker was gone and I sighed of relief.

However only for 5 mins!

The flicker came back and now my heart sunk. My laptop was broken.

Another obvious thing which any techie would do, I start searching on google and checking on forums on why this might be happening. 

Hence began my ordeal where I would read countless posts on various forums on the flickering problem with MacBooks.  To my surprise, I was not alone. There are a significant number of people who have been facing issues with MacBooks, especially in the flicker department.

Some had resolved it through various steps, some were still complaining and some were hoping that Apple will address these issues [they already know these issues]

Anyway, I could not get any help from any of those videos, forums. I will share the link of all the helpful things which you must go through if you are facing these issues.

That day ended at 2 am, with now fully and deeply engaged in resolving this issue. Meanwhile, the flickering continued, sometimes sparse and sometimes heavily which would make my heart sink and beat faster.

At around midnight, I also decided to log a twitter complaint to apple, and by the time it struck 1 am, also logged a case with apple support via their website.

I shut the laptop down and went to sleep thinking it's going to be a brand new day tomorrow.


Apple Support and those 2.5 hrs

As I woke up the next morning, my subconscious was still focused on the MacBook. With my cup of tea, I went and booted the laptop. 
The first few minutes were peaceful. Probably the device just needed a good night's sleep.

However, it lasted a few minutes and the flicker returned.

Now, I was feeling tired, angry, and a little helpless. I had tried a lot of steps including resetting SMC, resetting NVRAM, and whatnot! 

Around 9 am I called the apple support and now started a session which would last 2 hrs and 30 mins. however, this is what we went through the session:

  1. Confirmation on the OS. She figured this issue was happening with Catalina
  2. Basic diagnostics- system updated or not, which scenario it happens, etc
  3. Then We went through the process of resetting SMC
  4. after a reset, we went through the process of re-setting the NVRAM
  5. Went into Diagnostics mode or Recovery mode of MacBook to run First Aid utility and identify if there are any hardware related issues. None were found
  6. Then she got in to screen share and went over :
    1. All the apps in the start-up sequence. We removed everything sitting in there.
    2. All the apps in the Applications folder for any rogue app
    3. All the system information to see anything unusual
    4. browser extension (safari, even though I use chrome only)
Finally, when nothing else worked, she advised doing a re-install of the OS.

I quickly took a backup of important stuff, and we initiated the re-install of the OS. This was my first install of the OS on my MacBook pro ever. These buggers are stable!

The re-install took about 30 mins from start to finish and I promised the agent to call the apple support if the issue returns.

Meanwhile, before she dropped off, She figured which would be the nearest service center if I were to take my device in since she was running out of options after the re-install was done.

And since my device was just coming out of warranty, she also ensured that there were notes left on my account so Apple could provide their best possible support on this case. I was worried that Apple repairs can be crazy expensive.

By the way big shout out to Apple Support and sticking along with wanting to resolving the issue.

Finally, after the computer booted up after the re-install I began observing and no issues could be seen for a few mins. My spinning head was starting to feel stable, at least a little.

I went and hooked my laptop to the monitor and began with my work routine and decided to keep a watch and if this issue returns, to probably take this to the apple store or their service center.

The day went past smoothly. I was getting over this fiasco!

My accidental reproduction of the issue

During the night, as I sat down for my studies my mind wandered for a bit and i realized that my google photos were not syncing up. I had recently bought a lot of cloud storage from Google and the app was syncing up photos to the cloud. I re-started that application.

Then I got back to my training.

In a few minutes, the flickering returned.!!!

was the google app doing something?

I went and exited the app. 

The flickering stopped too.

It looks like we were on to something.

Now, I began testing this assumption. I opened the activity monitor and re-started the Google backup and upload the application.

and Yes, the app was consuming crazy amounts of CPU and maybe, just maybe the reason why the flickering was happening.

After being able to reproduce this few times, I began testing with reducing the network bandwidth the application consumed, that stabilized things a little but the flickering still would happen.

So, after 30 to 45 mins of experimenting and reproducing the issue, I concluded that the Google App was the culprit in probably consuming crazy resources and causing the flickering problem! Probably a clean install of the OS helped its bit, but the App is buggy or has some issues.

Since then, I have actually deleted the application from the laptop and not going back!

Enjoying the flicker-free life until it persists.

Lessons learned

So, here are some tips for everyone who may be struggling with this issue:

1. Observe any applications and programs which you may have installed/downloaded recently when the issue started happening.

2. The SMC reset and NVRAM reset are recommended by Apple as well, so you must try it out

3. Safe mode is another learning for me. You could go in the safe mode and observe if this issue is happening there as well

4. Finally, booting the laptop in Recovery mode provides you with an opportunity to detect any hardware failures.

I hope this helps you!

Links to useful resources

  1. Apple: how to reset SMC
  2. Apple: how to reset NVRAM
  3. Apple: how to get into diagnostics mode
  4. Apple: how to boot into safe mode
  5. A really funny video which explains their ordeal and how they fixed their issue
  6. other not so helpful videos: https://bit.ly/2WMyRVZhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLft4N54zvU&t=474s

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