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The Apple Hardware Report: Design Screw-ups?

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.