Core i7 MacBook Pros kernel panicking with NVRM read error

A number of people are noticing their 2010 Core i7 MacBook Pro systems are crashing with kernel panics in ways that coincide with a black-screen issue these same systems are having after upgrading to OS X Lion.

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
2 min read

A number of people with 2010 MacBook Pro systems configured with Core i7 GPUs and Nvidia graphics cards are reporting an issue where the systems periodically crash with a kernel panic. The screen shows the classic kernel panic message instructing users to hold down the power button to restart the system, and when the panic log is shown it mentions an error stating something similar to the following:

panic(cpu 2 caller 0xffffff7f809a52bf): NVRM[0/1:0:0]: Read Error 0x00000100

In addition, the kernel extensions that were loaded and being accessed when this error occurs are aspects of the video-processing system, including Nvidia drivers, and Apple's graphics and IOKit frameworks.

This panic error coincides with recent findings of the same systems displaying black screens at times such as when waking from sleep, and some of the descriptions of how these problems seem to manifest are very similar between the kernel panic and the black-screen issue:

  1. Happens on clean OS installations
    Some people have had their systems serviced and Apple representatives have claimed since the problem could not be reproduced that these issues are from third-party software; however, the problem is intermittent, and continues to occur even for people who have formatted their systems and reinstalled a fresh copy of OS X, indicating the problem is either in the hardware or OS configuration.

  2. Happened periodically in Snow Leopard, but more frequently in Lion
    People noticing this problem have found it seems to occur more frequently after they have upgraded to Lion, but the issue still happened a few times before upgrading. This suggests an OS or hardware configuration is more to blame than a third-party configuration.

  3. Triggered by specific events, generally when handling windows
    The problem is intermittent, but people have been able to spurt more frequently by doing specific tasks like opening a specific application or activating a specific function in a program (including those provided with OS X like Apple's Mail).

  4. Seems to be helped by turning off graphics switching
    Apple's systems contain two graphics cards, and by default the system will switch between them based on computing demands; however, people who have used the GPU manager "gfxCardStatus" have found that setting the system to only use the onboard "intel" graphics processor seems to greatly reduce the problem, if not eliminate it altogether.

These issues suggest a very low-level problem either in the OS or in the hardware (such as the firmware of the systems) is resulting in a periodic conflict that can either lead to a kernel panic or to a frozen system that displays only a black screen. While Apple may initially suggest third-party software problems as a cause, Apple has claimed to be looking into the black-screen issue so hopefully that will also include those that are having kernel panics.

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