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Apple laptop users may experience data glitch

Some users of Apple iBook and PowerBook notebooks may have trouble after rousing their computers from sleep mode.

An obscure glitch may corrupt data on some of the latest iBook and PowerBook notebook computers when they come out of "sleep" mode.

A number of customers have posted complaints to Internet sites of problems--which Apple has confirmed--with iBook computers. Their computers go into the notebook's version of a coma--they can't restart the system from the low-power mode notebooks go into when they aren't being used.

Late last week, Apple posted information on its site acknowledging the problem with some iBooks as well as the recently revised PowerBook systems.

"In rare circumstances when available memory is low, putting an iBook or PowerBook (FireWire) to sleep with this feature enabled can cause some critical file system data to get overwritten. This will result in a flashing question mark the next time the computer is started up," Apple said in the document. Apple representatives could not be reached for comment.

"That's nasty," commented Dataquest analyst Chris LeTocq, who deems the possibility of having to wipe a hard disk clean severe enough that Apple should consider paying for cases where people have to take damaged computers to the shop to have their data recovered.

For those worried about the problem, LeTocq advises (as does Apple) disabling the function that preserves the computer's memory when put into sleep mode. Unfortunately, that means any data that hasn't been saved will vanish if the battery runs out of power, which in turn means that users must remember to save the data, he said. "What we have here is a requirement for users to change their behavior," he said.

However, such problems haven't been characteristic of the Apple portables, LeTocq added. "Apple is held to a higher standard," he said

Essentially, something causes the computer to be unable to load the operating system, rendering the computer useless. The glitch appears to be related to a piece of software which is used to store the contents of memory in a file on the hard disk drive when the notebook is placed in "suspend" mode. Various comments posted at sites such as Macintouch, a widely read Macintosh-focused online publication, have indicated that the data corruption problems seem to stop after disabling the software.

Apple promises a software fix by the end of March it thinks will solve the problem.

It is unclear at this time how many users have been affected by the problem. It is the first case of a serious, though apparently rare, problem for Apple's consumer portables, which were introduced last year to much fanfare. Since its introduction, Apple's iBook has been a hit at home and abroad. In U.S. retail stores, the iBook topped PC Data's top-seller list in November 1999, although it has since slipped back.

Oddly enough, news of Apple's notebook memory glitch comes on the heels of a similar problem with Dell notebooks sold in 1999.

In Dell's case, 200,000 to 400,000 users could experience problems "when returning from memory self-refresh mode and/or when resuming from suspend mode, potentially resulting in data loss and/or corruption," Dell warned in a letter sent to customers. In Dell's case, the problem stemmed from certain defective memory modules, not a software issue, as appears to be the case with Apple.

In other notebook news, Apple has also noted on its site that there are eight models of Sony digital camcorders incompatible with Apple's Final Cut Pro video editing software on the new PowerBooks. Apple has touted these notebooks as portable movie editing studios.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.