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  • The State of Mac Reliability: Where Do We Stand?

    June 4th, 2007

    When I saw that recent issue of Consumer Reports containing a reader survey that lumps Mac note-books together with their PC counterparts when it comes to reliability, I felt serious concerns. Does this mean that Apple is losing its knack for great quality control?

    Certainly you can easily come to that conclusion. After all, the first production runs of MacBooks and MacBook Pros had particularly irritating problems of one sort or another. The former had the issue of cases developing stains, and let’s not forget about those swelling batteries, or just some that would stop holding a full charge. In fact, I had one of the latter, although it was promptly replaced under warranty.

    You can add to that equation the complaints that they all run a little too hot, although ongoing firmware updates that are designed to make the fans run more efficiently may have helped some.

    When you add all this to the various and sundry extended repair programs for earlier Mac note-books, you can see why the survey results aren’t so favorable anymore.

    Now I don’t pretend to know just how accurate those Consumer Reports surveys might be. They are evidently sent to all paid subscribers, so it hardly qualifies as a random sampling. The exact demographics in terms of how many own Macs and how many own PCs should not have any impact, however. After all, it’s all based on a percentage of the owners of a product reporting some sort of debilitating problem.

    I’ve responded to the survey myself from time to time, and while the questions are, typical of Consumer Reports, overly general, I fail to see any evidence of an innate bias towards one product or another. You report whether the product has encountered problems or not. Period.

    But when it comes to Mac OS X, you can’t really find the answers to its reliability in any magazine I know about. Instead, you go online and check out the sites that carry troubleshooting information, or just look over Apple’s own discussion boards to see what’s going wrong and, sometimes, why.

    But those reports, troubling as they may seem, don’t carry the weight of a product reliability survey. You see, folks who don’t encounter any difficulties, or just minor ones, have very little interest in visiting such places, unless they are morbidly curious. They are otherwise occupied using their Macs rather than complaining about them.

    I know that I still provide onsite guidance to a small number of Mac users in my area, and I can’t recall that any of them have reported even a fraction of the issues that rear their ugly heads on Mac troubleshooting sites and discussion forums.

    This isn’t to say the reported problems are not real, that some Mac users — or maybe a few Windows users hoping to start a little trouble — are telling tall tales just to stoke the fires. I’ll assume that, in large part, the issues are genuine. At the same time, they may only represent a subset of a subset of the Mac user base.

    More to the point, you’d probably have to do a really thorough statistical analysis, with plenty of random surveying, to get a true picture about the state of Mac operating system reliability. That would hardly be a casual undertaking, and it’s probably one that is not likely to exist outside of Apple Inc.

    Indeed, I’m fully convinced that Apple pays very close attention to every single complaint they receive or perhaps read about. Maybe the customer service people will claim ignorance of many problems that seem persistent, but it all goes into the database. Apple’s quality control people are keeping close tabs on these matters, and if there’s a trend — or perhaps the threat or the actual filing of a class-action suit — you can bet something will be done to address the matter.

    You only have to witness the ongoing extended repair programs, system updates and so on and so forth to see real evidence that Apple is doing what seems to be necessary to rid itself of worst issues, and satisfy customers of course.

    Alas, the process of gaining satisfaction isn’t always so easy if there’s no immediate software update or hardware fix. This isn’t to say Apple doesn’t care. Anything that potentially hurts customer satisfaction with their products — and certainly the bottom line — will be taken seriously.

    When a real problem is found, sometimes it’s not so easy to find a solution, particularly one that doesn’t create its own set of troubles. That makes sense, but sometimes I feel Apple could react just a little faster to some situations before they seem to get out of hand.

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