Thursday, May 09, 2013

Workaround: Mac Mini outputs no video signal with DisplayPort-DVI adapter (and some amazing customer service)

Executive Summary / tl;dr

  • A Mac Mini might produce no video output when connected to a ViewSonic or Dell monitor via a DVI-DisplayPort adapter.  Try using a DVI-MiniDVI adapter instead.
  • For incredible customer service, buy Mac stuff from eBay seller dvicetech.

Although I’m a longtime Windows user when it comes to desktop PCs, over the past couple of years I have developed a strong liking of Apple’s iPod Touch as my “always-in-my-pocket” device of choice (as an inexpensive smartphone alternative).  With 3 young kids in the house, my free gaming time is increasingly spent on the iPod, as that platform is conducive to 10-15 minute play sessions; however, the particular game I’d like to play is not currently on the App Store, so being a programmer, I decided to write it myself!  (Hopefully, more to come on that topic in a future post on this blog!)

Being brand new to iOS development, I did some research, and ended up with the conclusion that unfortunately, using my existing Windows PC would not be a very good idea; Apple really wants you to be using a Mac for iOS development.  Being on a fairly constrained budget for discretionary purchases – again, see “3 young kids” above! – I opted for the “Mac Mini from eBay” option, as suggested on StackOverflow.

After examining the available options, and (as always with this type of purchase) looking for a sweet spot in the trade-off between price and performance, I opted for a so-called “Early 2009” model Mac Mini, with 2.0 GHz dual-core processor, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB HD, and the as-of-now latest OS, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, from eBay seller dvicetech.  This Mac Mini cost $444.50, including shipping; using my existing keyboard, mouse, and monitor, that was the total cost for the Mac.  (Definitely a more economical option than going with a new MacBook, which seem go in the $1100 – 1700 range.)

When my Mac Mini arrived, I hooked it up, connecting a USB mouse, USB keyboard, power, and my existing DVI monitor via a DisplayPort-DVI adapter included by the seller.  I turned the machine on, at which point the “power” light on the front of the Mac Mini turned on, I heard the Apple startup chime from the Mac’s built-in speakers, and… nothing at all appeared on the screen.  The monitor’s status indicator light remained yellow, as though no input source were connected.

This monitor, a ViewSonic, did work fine with my Windows PC; I had just unhooked it from that PC in order to use it with the Mac.

I checked the standard set of things that I could think of to check:

  • Monitor powered on?  Yes, the yellow status indicator light was on.
  • Mac powered on?  Yes, the power indicator LED was on and I heard the startup chime.  I could also toggle Caps Lock on and off via the keyboard and see the Caps Lock indicator light on the keyboard turn on and off.
  • Video cables connected tightly to Mac and to monitor?  Yes.
  • Monitor configured for DVI input?  Yes, verified.  I’d also been using this monitor with my Windows PC via DVI with no problems.
  • DVI cable okay?  I swapped it out for a different DVI cable that I had on hand, but got the same results.

At this point, I disconnected the ViewSonic monitor, connected my other on-hand monitor (a Dell), and rebooted the Mac Mini.  This also produced the same results: Mac Mini appeared to power up okay, but no display output whatsoever.

So at this point, I concluded that the problem was either with the DisplayPort-DVI adapter, or with the Mac Mini itself.  I Googled using some general terms (“mac mini no video”), and came up with a Apple support article for this specific problem, which had several suggested solutions.  Unfortunately, when I tried the solutions, including several new-to-me troubleshooting actions like “reset the parameter RAM” and “reset the System Management Controller (SMC)”, none of them resolved the problem.  (Also, I was unable to try at least one of the listed solutions, which was to put the Mac to sleep by pressing Option+Command+Eject; the PC keyboard I was using with the Mac Mini in accordance with the Mac Mini’s advertised B.Y.O.D.K.M. feature didn’t have any of those keys!)

Having run out of troubleshooting steps to try, I contacted the eBay seller, dvicetech, through eBay’s nice dispute resolution site feature and described the problem, in hopes of being able to either get help in resolving the problem somehow (although my hopes for that were limited at this point), or else exchange the Mac Mini for another one, or get a refund. 

The seller, dvicetech, immediately suggested shipping me out a replacement DisplayPort-DVI adapter, at his own expense. This really pleased me, since combined with dvicetech taking on this extra cost, it seemed like a very reasonable next step to try – hopefully the problem would turn out to be with the adapter, not the Mac Mini itself. 

Unfortunately, when the new DisplayPort-DVI adapter arrived and I hooked it up, it didn’t resolve the issue. 

As a last-ditch troubleshooting attempt before I contacted dvicetech again with the bad news and to ask for either a replacement or a refund – I was leaning toward the latter, as at least then I’d have the option of spending an additional $200 or so on a new Mac Mini and engaging Apple Support if something were to go wrong with that – I brought the Mac Mini and the DisplayPort-DVI adapter into the office to try it with the monitors there, on the wild theory that there was some problem with both the ViewSonic and Dell monitors I had at home where those monitors worked fine with Windows 7, but didn’t work with the Mac. 

To my shock, this worked!  When I connected the Mac Mini to the Samsung DVI monitor that I had at work – using the same Mac Mini and DVI-DisplayPort adapter that had previously failed to produce any video signal on either the ViewSonic or Dell monitors that I had at home – I did get signal on the Samsung monitor.  I was able to watch the Mac Mini boot to the MacOS desktop with no issues.

I contacted dvicetech with this news.  At this point, dvicetech wowed me further with his great service by shipping out not one but two additional display adapters to try: A miniDVI-DVI adapter, and a miniDVI-VGA adapter – along with a postage-paid return envelope for whatever display adapters I didn’t end up using!  I hadn’t even realized that using something other than a DisplayPort adapter was even an option.

When this third round of display adapters arrived, I connected the Mac Mini to my home office ViewSonic monitor via the new miniDVI-DVI adapter, and bam! – instant video signal!  The Mac Mini booted up and worked just fine at that point. 

So I put sent the three remaining, unused display display adapters back to dvicetech using the envelope that he had provided.  I was seriously blown away by the customer service dvicetech provided – excellent, prompt, polite communication; smart troubleshooting suggestions; and multiple packages shipped back and forth at his own expense – which I daresay beat out even what I would have gotten from Apple directly, had I purchased a new Mac Mini.  At a minimum, I would have been spending $5+ in gas money per round trip to the nearest Apple store, which is about 30 minutes from my home.  My advice is when shopping for parts on eBay, buy from dvicetech if possible – I certainly intend to do so in the future!

I’m somewhat less happy with Apple, with all of the time and hassle it took me to get the new Mac Mini working.  When I use some more specific Google search terms like mac mini viewsonic no video, there are lots of other similar problem reports.  This wasn’t exactly an “it just works!” experience.  My takeaways are:

  • For Mac video adapters, MiniDVI-DVI is a more reliable option than DisplayPort-DVI, although limited sample size is certainly a caveat here;
  • Don’t assume everything will be instant sunshine and roses with Apple hardware, especially when interoperating between Apple hardware and standard-but-non-Apple hardware (although again, sample size caveats apply).

Still, in the end, the Mac Mini is now up and running, and I’m well along in coding up my new game in Xcode, Apple’s IDE for iOS.  It’s turning out to be a big project, so I’m several months away from even being ready to beta the app (particularly since I’m almost exclusively working in 90-minute-per-day chunks at the end of the evening after my kids are all in bed and other chores are all done), but I’ll certainly make an announcement here when I have something ready to show!

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