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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Talk About Hot

    September 3rd, 2005

    Is there any single development that cemented Apple’s decision to dump IBM and cast its lot with Intel? Well, one factor may have been the iMac G5, which is probably Apple’s best-selling desktop. You’ve probably heard the statistics and the numbers don’t vary very much. Although Apple has a stellar rating for product reliability, at least twice as many first generation versions of the current iMac have catastrophic suffered hardware failures.

    The statistics are not the sole province of one Mac Web site. Even Popular Science magazine, which uses Macs in its editorial department, reported serious troubles, usually related to overheating. It’s not that Apple has ignored the problem. If your first-generation iMac G5 suffers from certain specified video or power supply issues, it’ll be repaired up to two years from the day you bought it. And if your iMac’s original warranty is now coming to an end, I suggest you run, not walk, to your local Apple dealer and shell out $169 for an AppleCare policy, which protects you for three years.

    The failures at Popular Science were heat related. In their case, some 40% of their iMacs had to be sent to Apple to repair or replace. Ouch! Now maybe they keep the temperatures real hot over at the magazine’s New York-based offices. Maybe their cubicles aren’t well ventilated. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Apple’s first stab at stuffing a G5 into close quarters didn’t work out quite as planned. To be fair, the second-generation iMac seems to be faring well from a reliability standpoint, so it does seem as if the problems have been largely overcome.

    At the same time, you wonder if the problems with those iMacs sent Steve Jobs over the edge and into the arms of Intel. That, of course, and the problems in stuffing the G5 into a PowerBook. Sure, maybe IBM does have a low power G5 coming on board, but enough is enough, particularly in light of Intel’s new emphasis on developing cool running processors.

    Now I am not going to accuse Apple of being short-sighted or cutting corners in the iMac design. Even months of testing might fail to reveal problems that will crop up in the real world when you and I get our hands on the product. Frankly, there could have been design mistakes too. Maybe Apple’s engineers were so enamored with the form factor that they ignored some of the potential dangers of stuffing a G5, a hard drive and other parts in such close quarters without vast amounts of cooling capability.

    Whatever the reason, I’m glad things seem to have settled down. Apple doesn’t need the specter of unreliable hardware right now, especially with a growing market share and the first chance in years to make a big imprint on worldwide PC sales. At the same time you still have to wonder whether Apple has been shaving a few quality control dollars here and there, and whether its computers are as reliable as they used to be. You see, it’s not uncommon to see folks using Macs that are over 10 years old to run their businesses. One of my clients, a package designer, still has a Power Mac 7100, circa 1994, on his home office network.

    So has Apple’s quality control really deteriorated? From time to time through the years, we’ve run “war stories” columns, suggesting just that. On the other hand, if you examine the history of various Macintosh models, you’ll almost always find a part or two that’s prone to early failure. It is totally unrealistic to expect perfection in a mass produced product and when you have hundreds of thousands or even millions of a particular make and model in daily use, even a failure rate in the single digits can add up to a lot.

    In fact, I rather think things haven’t changed all that much. Through the years, I’ve seen other Macs with notable trouble spots. Take the venerable IIcx/IIci. Some regard it as one of the most elegant Mac form factors. It was small, light, elegant, and easy to upgrade and service. Just pop the cover to add memory or replace a hard drive. What could be easier? But it was also prone to power supply failures, with the typical symptom being a random failure to start. And don’t get me started about the floppy drive, which was one huge dust magnet.

    Moreover, do you recall the “cursed” PowerBook 5300 series, which was originally introduced a decade ago? It was the first Apple portable to have a PowerPC chip and was late to arrive and perennially troubleprone. Things got off to a bad start because the batteries began to smoke on a few early production units. Once they got into the field, it was clear they were overpriced and underperforming. I remember paying over five grand for the high-end 5300ce.

    In the end, I returned the unit to Apple no less than four times, as I recall, for repairs of various and sundry problems. There was even an extended warranty program to address a number of potential failures, including the logic board. Sound familiar?

    One particular irritant was the buildup of some substance at the bottom of the screen bezel. I finally sold it to a friend, feeling confident that the worst of the ills had been eradicated, but he sent it for warranty work one more time before he gave up and sold it to a third party. Thank heavens he never held me responsible.

    So the iMac G5, despite its teething problems, is not the first relatively unreliable Mac, nor will it be the last.



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