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  • The Apple Hardware Report: Design Screw-ups?

    July 18th, 2006

    Just so you know where I’m coming from, I am not a world-class industrial designer. I’m just a lowly scribe, and I don’t pretend to have degrees in art or architecture, or even engineering. So when I point out what I consider to be something screwy about an Apple design decision, take it as nothing more than a layman’s opinion.

    But since I’m both a commentator and a customer, I think what I have to say ought to have a little weight, especially since I have more than a few people reading these words, and sometimes you even agree with me; sometimes.

    So how can a company that has been lauded for its wonderful, flashy, memorable designs mess up? That, my friends, is not something I am able to answer. But I’ll list a few nonetheless and let you decide if something is wrong.

    Take the most obvious example, the model that has sold thousands and thousands of putty knives, and that’s the Mac mini. Yes, I know it’s tiny and cute, and the parts are packed tightly inside, but why devise such an insidious method for opening the case? Wouldn’t four screws attached to the bottom — so they don’t get lost — be sufficient and result in far less damage? To make matters worse, the Intel-based model also requires removal of a hard drive assembly to get to the RAM slots.

    I just wonder how many Mac mini cases have been scratched and bent as a result of this decidedly eccentric case removal requirement. Yes, I suppose you don’t want your customers to go inside willy-nilly, but is this the best deterrent? Besides, shouldn’t a memory upgrade be as simple as possible?

    One of the most infamous examples of internal upgrading gone wrong was the original iMac, which required almost completely disassembly to add RAM. It wasn’t quite as insidious as a certain series of minitowers, but I thought that was long ago and far away.

    When the iMac’s descendant, variously described as having a base that, to some, resembled a fancy lamp upside down, appeared, you would have thought RAM removal was an easy process. As I envision for a modified Mac mini case, the screws on the bottom plate stayed put even after removal, so you couldn’t lose them. But you could only get at one of the RAM slots; the other was hidden behind a delicate assembly, one that no doubt even made the technicians cringe.

    When Apple’s design team came up with an iMac that, for all intents and purposes, looked like nothing more than a slightly thick LCD display, tech writers like me lauded them for allowing easy repair. If a component failed, you took off the rear of the case, removed the module, and exchanged it with a good part.

    But rather than let a good idea survive, the product’s successor, first introduced last fall, confined easy upgrades to the RAM — period! What a step backward, and the Intel-based version is little different.

    This isn’t to say that Apple always gets it wrong. The MacBook allows for fairly easy removal and installation of hard drives, which is a boon for the IT people at a school when repairs are required. But don’t try that trick on a MacBook Pro, where, like other Apple note-books, you need tiny or extremely flexible fingers to properly navigate through the thin cables to avoid damaging something. Well, at least RAM installation remains an easy process.

    I’ll leave the Power Mac and Xserve out of the question, for they are relatively easy to handle, and I trust their forthcoming successors will continue in that tradition.

    In the end, maybe Apple doesn’t concern itself with adding extra features for fast and simple upgrading, beyond memory, except for the aforementioned Mac mini. Just keep it sleek, and that is especially true for the iPod, which continues to sell in the millions. But we won’t know how many millions in recent months until Apple releases its financial statement on July 19th.

    Talk about user hostile! Is there no way to conceive of a method to allow you to replace your iPod’s battery without going through an elaborate and often harmful process of prying the case apart? Yes, there is a cottage industry of repair shops who would happily do the job for you, and maybe they’d prefer to keep their businesses thriving.

    But when Apple begins to roll out the new generations of iPods, I wonder if they’ll give more than a few moment’s thought to the possibility that a simple method to pop the case and replace the battery really makes sense. I’ll expect UFOs to land on the White House lawn long before that happens, however.



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    18 Responses to “The Apple Hardware Report: Design Screw-ups?”

    1. Jack Beckman says:

      “When Apple’s design team came up with an iMac that, for all intents and purposes, looked like nothing more than a slightly thick LCD display, tech writers like me lauded them for allowing easy repair. If a component failed, you took off the rear of the case, removed the module, and exchanged it with a good part.”

      Have you ever actually *tried* to replace any of these parts in the first-gen G5 iMac? Trust me, just because Apple said it was easy, it wasn’t. It was a nightmare – I was less worried disassembling my Cubes!

      “Talk about user hostile! Is there no way to conceive of a method to allow you to replace your iPod’s battery without going through an elaborate and often harmful process of prying the case apart? ”

      Well, I replaced the battery in my 3G iPod and it wasn’t “elaborate” nor did I come close to scratching the case. The kit I bought included a soft plastic tool to pry the case apart. It *was* a royal pain in the butt, though! Prying the case apart was certainly no fun.

      Don’t take this post to mean I disagree – it would be nice if Apple made things easier to upgrade/repair. I think they’re designing for assembly, with repair as an afterthought – like most modern cars seem to be designed. I can’t say I like it any better there, either.

    2. woz says:

      Looks to me like they just want you to go out and buy another iPod instead of changing only the battery. How about the iPod nano and iPod shuffle? Can they even be opened?

      Bytheway, talk about design errors: overhere in europe we’ve got some nice cars: For the Susuki Wagon R+’ you need to take off the entire back-bumper to replace a broken light. As for the French cars: The Peugot front lights can only be relaced by jacking it up so the front wheel moves away from the chassis. You need to open a special little ‘door’ above the wheel and try to squeeze the light section through there.

    3. Poster says:

      This above article is why the site has gone downhill — it’s a self-referential attempt to be hip, and a painfully obvious trolling for hits. Previous articles used to be thoughtful, considerate, and deliberate. You’re losing your touch, Gene and you’re losing your audience.

    4. William says:

      For most Macs, I’ve found that once I’ve done it a few times they are pretty easy to work on. The main exception to that rule is the iBook, changing the hard drive is a royal pain. I’ve been in all the models of the G3 iMac and they really are not bad to work on. The original iMacs 233/266/333 had the most of the internals on a tray that slides out once the bottom cover is off (one screw as I recall). It’s really not so bad. iPods aren’t so bad to work on either

    5. This above article is why the site has gone downhill — it’s a self-referential attempt to be hip, and a painfully obvious trolling for hits. Previous articles used to be thoughtful, considerate, and deliberate. You’re losing your touch, Gene and you’re losing your audience.

      Actually, my friend, it contains factual statements about what I regard as faulty designs, because they are user hostile. The computer that “just works” can become a horror show for even the simplest upgrade. Tell me that the Mac mini is easy to manage, particularly the Intel-based model, and I’ll agree with what you say 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. gopher says:

      I’ve replaced the hard drive and the RAM on a first generation iMac G5, while not difficult, I had a couple of gotcha moments with it like realizing that bending the back the wrong way would cause the latches to get bent (they should have made it of metal clasps thick enough not to get bent by human strength), and noted that for the first time the captive screws do not appear to make it out of the same level the hole they are inserted in. So you might not realize you’ve unscrewed it all the way and start turning it the wrong way if you aren’t careful. Ended up ruining the threads of one of the screws on mine!

      Fortunately when it came to logic board and power supply replacement they had little trouble doing that for me even though had they looked closely those threads were damaged in that one screw. I did hold on to the original hard drive and RAM just in case I needed to send it back. Found out the Apple Store won’t even look at it if you have upgraded your own hard drive and RAM.

      But I do agree Gene, upgrading these consumer Macs would be so much better if more parts were user accessible. Hey I’ve waited for years for an upgradeable graphics card on Powerbooks. Villagetronic has done that partially for 16 MB of VRAM Powerbooks and lower at last though:

      http://www.villagetronic.com/e_pr_vtbook.html

      Hopefully 64 and 128 MB PCMCIA cards aren’t far behind.

    7. Andrew says:

      Gene,

      You did say “I am not a world-class industrial designer. I’m just a lowly scribe, and I don’t pretend to have degrees in art or architecture, or even engineering.” – which may be true. However, the tone of this, and the implication of the article, was that you weren’t doing any research or even trying to understand the technical aspects, which caused Ms. Poster to conclude “the site has gone downhill”.

      Certainly, your site’s earlier reports gave the impression of a higher standard of journalism. The reply to Ms. Poster “it contains factual statements about what I regard as faulty designs, because they are user hostile” reinforces the impression. If these are things that are “what I regard as faulty designs” then they are opinion, not “factual statements”, and you as a journalist or even a “lowly scribe” should know the difference.

      In fact, I do not agree with the points made by Ms. Poster. I do think that you have actually raised some significant points. The problem is, some of these points would have benefited from journalistic research and a level of understanding of the technology that might be expected from a technology commentator.

      As someone who has a lower level of understanding of the technology and is not a technology commentator, but is “a world-class industrial (not computers) designer with degrees in architecture and experience in art and engineering”, I can think of several obvious factors that you might have considered.

      There is good and bad design. There is not right and wrong design. The only way you can say that a design was a “screw-up” (mistake) is when it failed to meet the design goals. There are obvious trade-offs in setting these goals and evaluating their achievement. In the case of the various Apple-made computers mentioned, the trade-offs include:
      letting users change things;
      preventing users from changing things;
      production costs.

      In the case of the PowerMac G4 Cube, no expense was spared to make it easy to change every component. The result was a beautiful slide-out, fold-out mechanism, but very few people bought it. In the case of the Mac Mini, getting the lowest price was an over-riding goal. In between, various PowerBook, MacBook, iBook and iMac models have allowed varying degrees of user-serviceability. In general, Apple seems to be improving its designs in allowing unskilled users to change the things that they can be expected to want to change by themselves.

      Back to the Mac Mini, the industrial design has resulted in a PC that originally was not user-serviceable at all. The “puttey-knife” method was an unofficial work-around. In this case, Apple’s design priority was reducing production costs. Apple may also have decided not to place a high priority on letting users change things, or it may have wanted to prevent users from changing anything at all.

      Considering only the design trade-offs between lowest cost of production and not placing a high priority on letting users change things, there may have been an option that was lowest-cost but couldn’t be opened by anyone, users and Apple Support alike. The current solution, with small plastic tags to make assembly easier but disassembly very difficult but not impossible, maybe this adds several cents to the production cost per unit. The solution you suggest, adding screws might add several tens of cents per unit, making these captive screws might make this a dollar or two. Obviously good value if it was a Pro model, and people were prepared to pay for this capability. But given all the mark-ups along the chain, a few dollars per unit might turn a $499 box into a $549 box.

      Another point to bear in mind, Pro purchasers might factor in the cost of a problem (they may be buying hundreds at a time, for example). The typical user just wants to spend $800 rather than $1,000. If something goes wrong, and they have to spend $250 to fix it or else junk it, they will have no choice.

      My Mac Mini, not an Intel-based one, is easy to manage. That’s because I also manage my expectations. When I needed a bigger hard drive on my Cube, I opened it up and popped a big one in. When I needed a bigger hard drive on my Mini, I knew I could not open it up and instead bought a Mini-format housing. Yes, extra expense when it was “free” on the Cube, I know, but I had already enjoyed the “low” entry fee.

      In a way Ms. Poster is right. In the old days, when we logged on to your website, we got all of the thought, consideration and deliberation, already fully packaged and included whether we thought we needed it or not. Just like the Cube. Now, we can get this stuff much more easily, but we have to do a lot of the thinking, considering and delberating ourselves. Like the Mini.

      So can we expect you to deliver Mini-sized opinions with Cube-sized thinking?

    8. In a way Ms. Poster is right. In the old days, when we logged on to your website, we got all of the thought, consideration and deliberation, already fully packaged and included whether we thought we needed it or not. Just like the Cube. Now, we can get this stuff much more easily, but we have to do a lot of the thinking, considering and delberating ourselves. Like the Mini.

      So can we expect you to deliver Mini-sized opinions with Cube-sized thinking?

      It’s easy to put labels on things and assume the labels mean something, but the key points remain. I believe Apple can do more to make their products easier for you to upgrade. That remains undisputed. Expectations? Well, I suppose we could say that Macs just work, unless you want to upgrade them 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    9. Step says:

      I’m a recent, partial switcher. That is, my latest home computer is a Mac Mini. But my work computer is Dell (blegh) and my old emachine shares the monitor with the Mac Mini. Though I’m still convinced that OS X is a far superior OS, there seem to be more hindrances to switching than I thought there would be. Perhaps this is why the Mac market share isn’t shooting up, even with all the ridiculousness of Windows. The hassle of switching is more than the hassle of dealing with Windows, even if the hassle of switching is short-term vs. the never-ending hassle of Windows.

      Anyway, point is that your point about the upgradeability is point on. (Could I fit more points in a sentence?) It is a little frustrating that I would have to lobotomy the Mac Mini to upgrade the RAM. I wouldn’t really accept that in a machine I paid more for, either a laptop or a desktop. So let’s hope Apple moves this concern a little higher up their priority list for future releases of their machines.

    10. Ivo Wiesner says:

      First of all, I would like to know how it has suddenly become fashionable to nit-pick everything Gene says in, what is after all, his column. Every child ought to realise that he is expressing his opinion, based on his experience. By definition, opinions are subjective. A line such as “You’re losing your touch, Gene and you’re losing your audience” is simply and obviously manure, and not worth the screen-space it occupies. Go, get a life or troll someplace else.

      As for our “world-class industrial (not computers) designer with degrees in architecture and experience in art and engineering”… Good grief. Aren’t you too busy raking in awards for your undoubtedly masterly works, instead of wasting your time on tech blogs? Or perhaps you do have a lot of time on your hands, which should give you ample opportunity to actually read the nonsense you are posting here. When Gene suggested that messing around with putty knives might not be such a good idea, you came back with razor-sharp logic: “Adding screws might add several tens of cents per unit, making these captive screws might make this a dollar or two.” A dollar or two for four screws? And from there you seamlessly progressed to assert that adding more minute design improvements can “turn a $499 box into a $549 box.” At which point I stopped reading your post.

      What is the matter with you people, are you not capable of either saying something original, relevant and insightful, or keeping your fingers off your keyboards? Say something that is useful to others, not just to your own ego. (Rant over).

      Nice article, Gene. My own original, relevant and insightful contribution is going to be that I’d like to see the UFOs on the White House lawn any day, never mind the scratched iPods. Have a nice day.

    11. Joe says:

      The 9500 was a major pain. Adding memory required disassembly and removal of the motherbord. Yech. The recent designs maintain a long Apple tradition. My old IIx was quite pleasant to work on. I plan on upgrading the meory of my Mini, but I will pay Apple to do it.

    12. bsm says:

      I’ve own(ed) an SE, and and 8500 – both of which were horrible to upgrade. (The later model 8600 I think added a side panel and flip out mobo, but was ugly.) The later products I have (G4 tower, iMac G5 Rev A and TiPB) are all relatively easy to upgrade things like memory or disks, and even CPU if you can afford it.

      It’s interesting to note that there doesn’t seem to be any consistency to any of this – some revisions are a beauty to behold inside and out, and others make you want to throw the machine against the wall (if it wasn’t so darned heavy and expensive!) It’s almost as if there are two design teams, a “good team” and a “bad team” each hell bent on out doing each other in terms of greatness/nastiness. The reality is they probably sometimes have to push things out the door and so cut corners they otherwise wouldn’t normally do. Who knows except those who work there.

      From various articles/books I’ve read, it appears Steve prefers things to be applicance-like (another way of saying “closed”), which is why the consumer products don’t have slots. This may also be why products aren’t easily upgradable at times.

      It does also have nice side effects – they can charge more for RAM and add service fees for example. In the worst case, it may subtly force you to upgrade your machine rather than deal with the hassle, as with the iPod.

      I think the reality is that we’ll see more of the same – some models will be relatively easy to upgrade, while others won’t be.

    13. Chris says:

      This is what makes Apple, well Apple. It’s not a kit. It’s not a base model that you add to later. It’s everything you need in the box. It doesn’t happen to satisfy you. Boo Hoo, you’re not the demographic. The HUGE demographic is the person that wants a computer and wants it to do everything they want it to do out of the box.

      You want configurability? Get a professional Mac, an XServe or a G5 tower. You want an appliance? Get an iMac or a Mini. You ever tried to change the heating elements on a toaster oven? (Mine are too wimpy, so I upgraded to 1/2″ 2000 watt elements, now my frozen pizza heats in femptoseconds. 🙂 )

      The iPod example is a GREAT one. Yes, they traded off the ability to change the battery for an awesome sleek design. You can buy an MP3 player that has a battery door, but they look like TV remotes, not cool personal statements. Guess which sells?

      Apple knows this. They know that you’ll be pissed that you have to either pay Apple more to install memory at the factory or risk gouging your Mini, but they also know that the sleek design SELLS; sells to THEIR demographic; to people who want an appliance, not a maintenance chore.

      OK, so you are in the Apple demographic, you do like the Mac and all that is OS X and Apple appreciates that. They know you’ll whine, but you’ll still buy.

      And trust me, it just sounds like whining from here.

    14. One of the reasons I buy Macs is that Steve Jobs sells complete systems for consumers and prosumers. People always notice the Dell special of the day, $500 for a “complete” system, and wonder why Apple can’t match that. Then, they go to the Dell web site and start adding components to get themselves something useful like an iMac or a MacBook and the price balloons to match. The Dell basic system is perfectly usable for a certain kind of user, but if you want to edit 1,000s of big pictures, make movies, cut and paste text and graphics as easily as you can cut and paste text, then you need a certain level of hardware. Apple computers ship with enough hardware, so they really don’t need much upgrading.

      I’ve been using Macs since 1982, back during the prototype phase when they shipped to a handful of select sites with a 5 1/4″ disk drive, and in those 24 years I’ve added memory and once upgraded a disk drive, and that was a lark so I could use one of my old machines as a hot backup. When I need more disk storage, I add Firewire disks, and more Firewire disks. I’d add a bigger screen, but at 17″ it’s almost a hassle moving from the left edge to the right edge as it is. Oh yeah, and I used a little piece of expoxy gunk to cover up the iSight camera on my MacBook Pro. Though the video phone demo at the 1964 World’s Fair was kind of neat, I still haven’t found a reason I might want to video conference.

      Maybe I’m a real odd ball, but do people really go around upgrading their processor cards or graphics boards on a regular basis? I haven’t been to a 7-11 lately. Do they sell supersized L2 caches next to the Big Slurps? Most of the stuff I’ve seen people upgrade to has involved USB, Firewire or PCMCIA.

      I do have sympathy for the folks who do systems support. Fixing a modern computer can be like fixing a modern car. Every square inch of air flow coming in through the grill is accounted for and fought over, as is every cubic inch of space. The old Volkswagen Beetle acquired a following because even an ordinary boy, or a slightly stronger than average girl, could lift out the engine and transmission if they took a little care and remembered to lift with their knees, not their back. You could fix anything with just a screwdriver, and often, you could get buy with a dime and a quarter if you had forgotten your toolkit. I think I needed more tools to work on my bicycle.

      The VW Beetle set a pretty high standard. It even got 20 miles to the gallon. There are SUVs out there, though not the largest that get 20 mpg, and that includes air conditioning, twice the horsepower, power windows, airbags, and power cup holders. How do they do it? How does my Honda, with AC, power everything, more leg room in back, and a bigger trunk, get nearly 40 mpg? Look under the hood. My Honda has 40 miles of cabling and tubing. It’s assembled like one of those Incan stone walls where you can’t slip a knife blade between the blocks. The layout is like a Chinese wood cube puzzle, except with more parts than there are chopsticks in Shanghai. Changing the spark plugs, something you could do without even opening the engine compartment on the Beetle, requires a $300,000 piece of machinery and 50,000,000 lines of application software. If I even tried to get the equipment I’d need to replace my Honda transmission with a snappier model I’d probably run afoul of Homeland Security and the UN Disarmament Council.

      This, is the future of computing. Computers will get faster and more reliable, but this will be at the expense of accessibility and customizability. At some point, the complete computer system itself will be the building block, and only a handful of people will have more than a clue as to what is going on inside.

    15. Ivo Wiesner says:

      Hmm… I do appreciate that today’s computers are awfully complicated pieces of machinery, and I also understand that Macs are supposed to ‘just work’ and not to be messed around with. All that makes perfect sense.

      However, if we let Apple completely off the hook and never complain when they introduce a design flaw – such as replacing simple screws with inaccessible plastic latches – we do ourselves, and all other customers, a disservice. This has nothing to do with whining, but a lot with encouraging excellence. An innovative company such as Apple ought to be capable of designing computers that are more than just pretty. (I also expect them to excel with regard to environmental issues, for example). After all, we are paying for the supposedly higher quality with a premium.

      I really cannot see why exchanging memory, or replacing internal drives, are anything other than routine procedures. Why should that be difficult? Why should it be easy on some models, and a right pain on others? Exactly, there are no valid reasons. So when Apple goofs up, they need to be told. Otherwise, we have only ourselves to blame if built quality goes down, rather than up.

    16. Chuck Middleton says:

      Gene,

      I agree with you and several posters (Ivo, especially) who take Apple to task for a few poor design choices for the new Intel Mac Mini. Just because I truly love using Apple computers doesn’t mean I have to agree with every design decision. We’re not required to be Apple apologists, are we ?

      I just went through the experience of upgrading the RAM in my new Mac Mini Duo. And I thought the original Mini’s RAM was a little too hard to replace because of the inexplicable lack of screws to hold the case together. Even conjectured that some Apple designer had bought some stock in a company that makes putty knives ! But at least the single slot was accessible without disassembling the whole machine. That risks breaking something major just to add more RAM.

      A little access door on the side or back with a screw or a snap could have saved every user a lot of trouble. And, holy cow,
      use a single 512MB module and leave a slot open, not 2 256MB modules. This means I have to toss a perfectly good RAM stick away and end up with less that the 1.5G I thought I was upgrading to. This recalls the single slot that the original Mini had. You had to toss the memory you pulled out when upgrading. Unless, of course, you had somewhere to use it.

      Being a hardware and software designer for over 30+ years, I realize that Apple probably made these decisions conciously. They were not accidents. That makes it even harder to understand why a great company like Apple with a history of making the most user-friendly products imaginable would do such a thing. And it’s not a matter of cost. It would have cost a lot less to design an accessible case with screws rather than those plastic snaps all around the edge…

      So yes, we should always demand (as much as a user can) better designs. We pay for the computer and we deserve the right to easily upgrade it. Especially when it comes to RAM.

      If Apple really wants to make non-upgradeable consumer products with no slots at all, then ship it with the maximum
      amount of RAM already installed so noone is tempted to
      upgrade !

    17. Mac-Guyver says:

      [Comment ID #598 Will Be Quoted Here]

      Thanks, William. Yours was the first explanation of the original iMac that I found on either the Apple support site or the web at large. It is reasonably easy once you get it. One screw takes off a long bottom panel. Then unplug the data and power cables from the hard drive. Then, there is a mysterious sheet-metal lump with a cable going ito it. Don’t try to unplug the cable, unscrew two screws holding the lump down and the whole lump pulls up–it’s a connector to inside the sliding tray. There is a plastic handle on the tray for sliding it out. Two screws need to be removed near the handle to allow it all to slide. Not as easy as the later iMacs with the RAM lid, but on them, it’s easier to drop screws into the case when going for drive replacements.

      In my experience, Apple almost always tries, and usually succeeds in making things accessible. Nothing like those infuriating PC cases that cut your hands and refuse to go back together. The iBook hard drive and screen cable are the worst. ( http://www.dttservice.com does those fixes for reasonable rates. ) The disappointing cases are only disappointing next to Apple’s own typical cases.

      Making a part accessible or replacable raises the price. Sometimes a socket costs more than the part being plugged into it!

    18. Mac-Guyver says:

      I have to add one more thing about the iMac G3 333 MHz Rev. D. William’s comment in this thread got me so far and then I got stuck again. Here’s the rest of the story:

      Once you take the guts tray out and turn it upside down, there is a visible memory slot on the board, but the correct expansion memory doesn’t fit in that slot. (They’re both 144 pin but in a different arrangement!) That slot is for video expansion memory.

      Ignore that, and remove the metal cage that covers the processor board and system memory. At that point the “user-installable” slot is visible. It accepts either high-profile or low-profile SO-DIMMs. You must remove the processor board to get at the “AASP-installable” slot on its underside, and that slot will only accept the low-profile SO-DIMMs. OWC (macsales.com) sells both high & low profile 256 MB SO-DIMMs. Here’s a nice set of instructions OWC support pointed me to:

      http://www.transintl.com/technotes/installram_imac.htm

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