“Late 2008” unibody MacBook Pro screen flicker problem

After Apple announced the unibody MacBook Pro about a year ago, I walked into the San Francisco Apple Store that night just to “check them out”, of course, I walked out with one. I’d owned a large number of Apple products and I kindda knew getting one of the first batch of a brand new design was probably not the best idea, but the unibody construction was just too cool to pass up at the time. Plus, Apple did the right thing in the past when our “dual-USB” iBook G3 failed.

The first batch of the “Late 2008” unibody MacBook Pros, and I think MacBooks as well, have a fairly common screen flicker problem. If you google “macbook pro screen flicker” you will find a ton of information at various forums about this issue. It bothered me some, but it wasn’t really that bad. However, after upgarding to Snow Leopard, the problem got MUCH worse. So bad that I made an appointment at the Genius Bar to get it looked at. The flickering happens pretty often, and even though I am usually plugged into an external monitor and only use the MBP’s display as an “extended desktop” display, the flickers bothered the hell out of me even in my peripheral vision.

When I got to the genius bar this morning, of course the machine wasn’t flickering at all, I explained that it had been widely reported online, and told him the facts like it does not happen with the discrete video card, and only happens on the built-in display, not external monitor. The genius then said since it didn’t happen on the external display it must not be the graphics card, I was like, well, I’m not sure about that and probably wouldn’t rule out the graphics card because of that. He was being pretty helpful and offered to take the machine in and have someone research the knowledge base and see if there was a fix for it. I agreed and said I’d leave the machine there for the day and would pick it up before they close.

At around 6pm a guy from the store called, and told me that he had seen the problem before on the early unibody laptops, but there isn’t a known fix for it. He said he had submitted the information to engineering and he was hopeful that there will be some kindda fix later, and if after a couple of months there was still not one then I could bring it back and talk to a manager and see what he would be able to do for me. He said since I reported this problem now, even if I don’t get AppleCare they would still be able to take care of it after the 1-year mark. I thought that was pretty reasonable so that’s what I’ll do with that machine. (I haven’t had the best luck with genius bar or Apple products lately, btw)

After my genius appointment this morning I went and looked at the antiglare MacBook Pros, the glossy screen had always bothered me, it pretty much renders the machine unusable in a lot of conditions, and it’s pretty scary when you have to do things like edit color photos. I work from coffeeshops pretty often and the glossy screen absolutely sucks when there are windows or just when using the machine any time except at night. After thinking about it for half a day and checking out resale values of my other macs on eBay, I decided to get another 15″ with the antiglare display, and I’ll keep the glossy one around in hope for a fix later, and I’ll sell my older (10/2008 rev) MacBook Pro. That machine is in really good shape, but we just don’t need 3 macs. It’s pretty cool how the MacBook Pros got so much cheaper now, I remember my first PowerBook was close to $3k, my first MBP was $2k but I got the “lowend” version, my first unibody was $2.5k, now you can get a 17″ for under that! Pretty amazing.

Anyway, the main reason I felt like blogging about this was that while I was migrating data between machines, I found some information I can add to the screen flicker issue:

  • the screen flickered when I had the machine in Target Disk Mode, this means the problem is most likely not software related, when in TDM the OS isn’t even loaded
  • the flickering happened during Snow Leopard clean install, again, the full OS X was not loaded when I booted to the install DVD directly (by holding option key when machine starts up and choosing the DVD)

So I can pretty much eliminate any user or even OS software from plausible causes. I really hope a EFI/firmware upgrade would fix it, there might be a loose connection somewhere, but I highly doubt that. Worst case it will be a faulty graphics chipset (it’s not uncommon to have yield problems), that would require a logicboard replacement, but a few people posted that the issue remained after they had their logicboards replaced. If Apple doesn’t acknowledge this problem and come up with an official fix, a class action lawsuit for something like this is not unheard of (right? @seoulfully I’m looking at you).

In case you’re wondering, no, I have not seen any screen flicker on my new MBP. If I ever see one I will be very upset. btw, I really like the silver bezel around the matte display:

matte screen ftw

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25 Responses to “Late 2008” unibody MacBook Pro screen flicker problem

  1. Timothy September 28, 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    I have the new 17 inch fully loaded unibody mbp and today mine started doing the flicker; so if you figure something out let me know there isdefinitely something wrong with that; I also get tiny spots where my mouse freezes for like 2 seconds……not sure why? So what could be going on?

  2. Tom October 17, 2009 at 3:41 am #

    I have had the same problems. MBP late 2008. I took it to the apple store and first they replaced the logic board. Second they replaced the screen. It still flickers and it a pain in the butt. I'm trying the dedicated video now. So well see what happens. Although I don't think it's cool to buy a $2400 laptop and have any issues with it. This just sucks.

  3. Cavit Erginsoy October 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    I've had exactly the same problem with the same late 2008 MBP, but it only happens when I have "Better battery life" selected under energy saver. It's totally fine when "higher performance" is selected. Did you try this?

    • Marco Hennings October 21, 2009 at 6:29 pm #

      This information has totally saved my day.

      I had it since the snow leopard install and could not find out any reasonably source for the combination of that effect and snow leopard.

      BUT i had chosen higher performance before the upgrade so its quite clear that i obviously unintentionally fixed it before.

      As an addition i can add that my flicker is only after the machine went to standby for the first time.

    • A_Z February 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

      That info just made my day too!
      My problem was anyhow different, with some kind of color "waves", but that switch to "higher performance" fixes it completely.
      Anyway, I wonder: is this a guarantee-issue to completely fix? How much does this option low the battery performance?
      Thanks a lot!
      PS: late 08 unibody mbp, 2.53.

  4. Rogerio Almeida October 21, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    This flickering is very annoying. I have a late 2008 MBP and have recently upgraded to Snow Leopard. I am very disappointed….

  5. Dean October 27, 2009 at 5:53 am #

    I took the macbook pro in before I knew about the "Higher Performance" setting workaround. They replaced the LED screen and naturally that didn't fix the problem. The apple store employee ran a graphics card tester program from a share drive on their network and claimed that this exonerated the graphics card because the test was supposed to force the screen the flicker for graphics card problems.

    Anyhow, now I know about the "Higher Performance" setting workaround. That should help them fix the problem. But at least I get by through my next round of deadlines. Either way I will give them a heads up that the problem was not fixed.

  6. @efalcao November 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    i can totally vouch for your experience. flicker exactly like your video used to happen from time to time, but now happens a few times per day after clean leopard install. "late 2008" 15" MBP is what i have also.

    Thank you for chronically this issue, hopefully we'll see it fixed

  7. Richard November 19, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    "High performance" mode? I am in Energy Saver and did not see such option. I only see a couple of sliders for Computer and Display sleep time, plus a few check boxes. I am using the new MBP.

    Recently experiencing some flickering problem when the MBP wake up from sleep. Very annoying…

  8. dAlen January 16, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    heh, it happens for me – constant wave as it were – in high performance…
    In low performance its a random black flickr… go figure.

    And to top it off, it seems my dvd drive wont work after the dvd drive update back in sept.

    [first generation unibody]d

  9. A_Z February 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    Also, I do have some flicks, but just when using certain programs, Word, for instance.

  10. Sam February 17, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    Hi Mac users I have this problem also that my screen is flickering but I don't know how to fixed it?
    Who are can help me on this problem? I used MBP 15 late 2008?
    Please help me?

  11. BOB June 13, 2010 at 3:34 am #

    Just to clarify the "Workaround" and describe the problem further

    MBP has two graphic cards
    Higher Performance setting uses the 9600M GT card
    Better Battery life uses the 9400M card

    Screen Flash/Flicker happens exclusively on the 9400M card. Video out via mini display port running on the 9400M card does NOT produce this flicker, tho.
    Flicker happens randomly – more frequent occurings when stressing the gpu out, letting the MBP heat up, using different angles or not connecting it to a power source can not be confirmed definately.
    Flicker comes in three sizes in my case, about 1/5th of the upper half of the screen, about 1/3rd and a large one of about 3/4 of the whole screen.
    Most of the time the flickers occur roughly on an hourly basis with some hours in between where you'll get around 2-3 flickers. All in all so randomly that some days you'll get a few work hours with no flicker at all and others where you'll get the 2-3 flickers within the first hour.

    I had my logic board replaced for overheating issues with the 9600M GT card as the MBP froze from time to time. Not sure if I already had that flicker problem at that time but after the replacement I started to use the 9400M card more often and became aware of that flicker problem.
    Brought it to the store for repairs a few weeks ago and they replaced the logic board again (for free after 1.5 years w/o Apple Care).
    Problem still not solved, even tried a clean install two days ago, confirms that it probably ain't software related.

  12. Noc June 13, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    Thank you so much for posting this video! This is a difficult problem to demonstrate to a Genius.

    May 2010 I took my Late 2008 15" unibody MBP in to the genius bar because it wasn't waking from sleep. They replaced the logic board and suddenly this problem started for me. It is exactly as described in the post and the comment by Bob above. I lived with it for 4 weeks and then brought the laptop back. They replaced the logic board again and it didn't help. It seems like there is no fix at this time. I booted off a clean install of 10.6 and the problem persisted.

    There is a thread at Macrumors that implies that "Apple engineering is aware" but no definitive solution has been found.

  13. @seoulfully August 3, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    So you'll see 40 weeks ago I had a logic board replaced that seemed to solve the screen flicker issue. Oh, no more. While I no longer had the random white artifacting/blips, I started to get the flickers again. Though this time instead of 3-4 quick flickers that were across the top 1/3 of my screen, I would get a quick 1-2 flickers across roughly 2/3 – 3/4 of my screen. I let it go for awhile, but it started happening more and more frequently, not tied to any event, pretty randomly. So finally I decided it was happening too much. I mean I purchased Apple Care for what, if not things like this. So I set up a Genius Bar appointment, tried in vain to video the flicker and took it in. I told them what was going on, they watched my screen for 1-2 minutes, saw nothing. They saw in my file that I had a display and logic board replaced (in October) to try to remedy the problem. I let them send my MacBook Pro in for diagnostics. I received it today with a fresh new, second (well third total, second replacement) logic board. In the 4 hours I've had it back, no problems so far. But then again, that's how it happened the last time. So I remain hopeful that the second time's a charm, however unlikely.

    Though I'll tell you what, I'm not angling for a replacement or anything, but had I purchased this computer from crappy Best Buy and bought their crappy warranty, I'd have a new MacBook Pro by now. But I chose to give my business to Apple, so I hope they do right by me if this repair doesn't work.

    • ayn August 4, 2010 at 3:25 am #

      I should bring my first unibody MBP in, Sherry has it now and she's used to the flickering, but it's definitely there and happens *all the times*! I didn't get AppleCare for it, but last time the genius at the SF store told me since I brought it in for repair for this problem during the first year, they will fix it when there's a fix later for the same problem. Let's hope they would honor that. Not that I got it in writing or anything, but it should be in the records for that S/N.

  14. @JoshVamos October 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I have the same issue and left the Apple Genius Bar dejected. Hopefully this does get fixed soon. I hope the situation doesn't degrade.

    Josh

  15. @seoulfully March 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    So you can look, 32 weeks ago I had a logic board replaced. What, wait!? Did I just copy and paste that line? Did this blog just re-upload a comment? Nope. It's that time. I guess 30-40 months is the window. With my Late 2008 Unibody MacBook Pro on the lower GPU, I've started to get the screen flicker across the top third or so of my screen again. No white artifacting/blips this time (yet, though I fully expect them to start). I suppose it's time to schedule another Genius Bar appointment. Have to decide if I'm going to go to the same store (my preferred) or one closer to my place now. It's really quite annoying. If they replace the logicboard, there's so many issues with reauthorizing iTunes and being able to access certain drives, etc. Takes awhile to get the machine back to right afterwards. It's really very annoying.

  16. vuong March 22, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    There is a definite problem.. I already had the entire lcd assembly replaced, now the MoBo too.
    Repeatable problem with a stressed cpu/ gpu (very easy to replicate with integrated video. I have to use integrated 9400 nvdia because the battery life of the late 2008 is horrible with the descrete video card.

    I just got it repaired at the send in apple repair facility, on the caveat that they will replace the entire laptop if the problem still exists.. annoying.. especially because I am often giving presentations with the annoying flickering

  17. the piano lady May 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Thank goodness for Apple Care

    I went in with my flicker and they persisted until the issue was resolved.

    Apple first tried by updating my OSX – still a flicker
    Then replaced the back monitor – still a flicker
    Finally after replacing the Logic board the flicker has not returned yet.

    Hope this helps others

  18. @seoulfully May 3, 2011 at 4:25 am #

    To @vuong and @the piano lady – You'll need 3 repairs before Apple Care will replace. And trust me, it'll happen. Look for my comments in this thread. It's almost clockwork on the problem reappearing. Apple finally set me up with a replacement MacBook Pro rather than replacing the LCD or logic board (again).

  19. Andrea February 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Apple released and EFI firmware Update today to resolve this issue!!! Incredible!

    • ayn February 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

      Thanks Andrea, that's good to know! A lot of us have already moved onto newer Macs because of this problem, now @sherryberry's dad has the 2008 blinky MBP, will install the EFI update on that later to see if that fixes it.

      -Andrew

    • ixenakis February 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

      I think the new update works fine so far!

  20. Kelly August 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    I noticed last night a flicker when using world of warcraft on the better GPU while ive applied the updated EFI on my macbook Pro late 2008. Im so scared its broken 🙁 I wont afford to have it repaired if it breaks down..

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