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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Buggy as Hell?

    September 5th, 2006

    Consider that Apple sells more than four million computers a year. Now consider that a very small number of those computers develop defects of one sort or another. Now consider that everything Apple does is under a magnifying glass, that insignificant matters that would be ignored if it happened to any other PC maker suddenly take on gigantic proportions.

    So is Apple’s quality control slipping? Did they rush into Intel-land too quickly in order to avoid a sales slowdown, and allow all sorts of irritating problems to occur? More and more tech writers and bloggers are wondering, but I think it’s time to look at the matter in a more sensible fashion.

    Understand that I am not about to suggest that these problems don’t exist, but maybe it’s time to put them in perspective and see how they fit in the larger perspective.

    First, despite the simple, understated look that signifies Apple hardware, and the occasional use of exotic construction materials, the parts inside are more and more in line with industry standards. Today’s Mac uses the same processors, hard drives, optical drives and many other components that are used in a Dell, a Gateway or an HP. LCD displays are sourced from the same Asian suppliers. They are often built in the same manufacturing centers. So any problems that afflict a Mac are likely to afflict these other products as well.

    Take those infamous lithium-ion batteries. The ones that have triggered recalls in recent years come from such makers as LG and Sony, companies that also provide batteries for other PC makers. While some might suggest that such companies as Apple and Dell ought to test their OEM parts more carefully, don’t forget that the number of instances of smoking or flaming note-books is exceedingly small. We’re talking about a dozen or two out of the 5.8 million batteries that have been recalled. Even one incident too much, of course, but the production mistakes that caused these problems posed a low risk and were quite possibly easily overlooked. We are all human, after all.

    Then there are the recent reports of sudden shutdowns with some MacBooks. It’s not yet certain just how widespread the problem is, but remember, all it takes is a few vocal people to garner lots of attention really fast. The main cause, however, is still undetermined. According to MacWindows.com’s John Rizzo, “motherboards, heat and batteries” are being implicated. Another post talked of a software problem, so the issue still remains open.

    It is, however, a little premature to attack Apple; that is, so long you can get an affected MacBook serviced without complaint. Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, if there is a factory defect, it may take weeks to find out what it is, and additional weeks to find, test and roll in a fix.

    Remember that when a company is building hundreds of thousands of products, a few dozen or even a few hundred failures may seem like a lot, especially if many of those issues are reported online. But in the scheme of things, it’s perfectly normal. Annoying, but normal.

    More to the point, while Apple may seem slow to respond sometimes to reports of problems with their products, if there is a provable defect, they do extend warranties, where needed, and make sure that you can get your computer fixed if you encounter any of these problems.

    Look, for example, at the current listing of known recalls or repair programs and the problems they cover:

    Battery Recalls

    • 15-inch MacBook Pro
    • iBook G4 and PowerBook G4

    Repair Extensions

    • PowerBook G4 Memory Slot (15-inch)
    • PowerBook G4 Display (15-inch)
    • iBook Logic Board
    • iMac G5 (Video and Power Issues)
    • eMac (Video and Power Issues)

    Notice that only one of these special programs, a battery recall, covers an Intel-based Mac. You might say, with perhaps a little justification, that Apple was dragged kicking and screaming to institute these special programs. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

    If Apple rushes a solution into production, and it’s the wrong one, what would you say then?

    Yes, it may very well be true that Apple worked overtime to deliver Intel-based models into the store shelves, and I’m sure the pressure was very high. It may even be possible that they made a few mistakes along the way that had to be fixed later on. But as you can see, this is nothing new. When machines make all the production decisions, maybe things will be perfect. For now, although there are customer support lapses here and there, maybe it’s time to cut Apple a little slack.

    I know if you have a few war stories to tell, you won’t agree, and I would feel for you. In fact, I’d appreciate it if you’d post your tale of woe in our Comments area. But if you expect perfection from Apple, or anything close, it’s time to lower your expectations.



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    12 Responses to “The Mac Hardware Report: Buggy as Hell?”

    1. Angel says:

      I think this writer has gone off the deep end.

    2. I think this writer has gone off the deep end.

      Yes, but it’s a fun place to be 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Terry says:

      Hi Gene
      I have owned about 10 Apple computers over the years, starting with the much-loved Mac Plus. Along the way, I’ve
      owned a road Apple (Performa 520) but all of them worked.
      Right now I’m typing this on my self-upgraded original clamshell iBook. In May 2005, I bought myself a retirement present
      a G5 20″ iMac, with an extra helping of RAM. For some unknown reason, I purchased the Apple Care extended warrantee.
      This was a Rev. B machine and its serial number fell into the video/ power supply catchment. However, it ran well, with only
      a few hiccups (screen dark, fans roaring on start up) until early last month.
      It would seem that the logic board has failed. It’s still in the shop (2 weeks tomorrow) and I haven’t heard boo about it.
      Thank goodness for Apple Care. The technician said that a logic board is about $840 Cdn + installation.
      I’m beginning to harbor doubts about Apple’s quality control on this model. There was one other G5 iMac awaiting service, that
      I could see and this was in the bustling metropolis of Sechelt, British Columbia.
      I enjoy your articles very much – they are usually a breath of fresh air in the superheated world of Mac journalism.

    4. Andrew says:

      I must say I’m a bit jaded on this subject. While I’ve owned three 12″ PowerBooks (a Rev B and two Rev Cs) and had narry a hickup with any of them, my MacBook experience was anything but pleasant. My first one suffered from the random shutdowns and had some physical case issues (warped palmrest). After three weeks at the repair shop it came back with the shutdown issue fixed, but the case just as bad and the trackpad button broken for good measure.

      Apple replaced that first MacBook and the new one ran cool and quiet, but the screen was so washed-out that it was all-but unusable. Apple replaced that one as well as I was quite vocal about not going through the3-week repair process again on a computer I’d been able to use for one week.

      MacBook number 3 was mechanically perfect, and didn’t shut down, but it made the famous “Moo” noise and ran at up to 90 Celsius even on a light load (Safari and Mail).

      In the end, my return period had long since lapsed and I had a machine that ran so hot that it melted the varnish on my desk. Needless to say, I am no longer a MacBook owner and with the 12″ PowerBook being out of production and Apple having nothing else small enough for highly-mobile me, I’m using a ThinkPad now as my mobile computer. I’d buy another Apple portable if I could trust it, but with the currently shipping models I do not.

    5. Richard Taylor says:

      Gene,

      Two months ago my wife and I upgraded to the new Intel iMacs, one each. We decided to get factory reconditioned iron to save a little money. Hers worked right off. Mine wouldn’t burn media properly, leaving drop-outs. I sent it back. The second reconditioned iMac I received had a stripped screw in the ram access bay door. I sent it back. Snakebit now by “factory reconditioned” equipment, I ordered new. This machine wouldn’t burn media at all except at minimal speeds. The Apple tech was nice but suspicious as this was my third machine in two weeks. Hm. He suggested the problem might be the media itself. He said he would take the machine back and allow me to order a new one — which would have been the fourth Mac in three weeks — but first he wanted me to try new media. As I live in the sticks, not easily done. But I drove forty miles to the nearest town (San Louis Obispo) and bought a different brand of media. It worked. Problem solved. This is being written on that iMac.

      The day I confirmed my new iMac was working fine, my wife’s blew a motherboard. As it was past the fourteen day point of no return, Apple wouldn’t replace the computer. We dragged it down to SLO where the local Apple Store replaced the motherboard. We then drove down ten days later, picked it up, drove home only to discover the machine had no sound. Apple finally (reluctantly, as we hadn’t purchased AppleCare) sent out a tech who replaced the new motherboard with another new motherboard, and new speakers. Now it works as well.

      Through all of this Apple was exceedingly decent and patient. I do believe their quality control has slipped of late, but Apple makes up for it with extremely sensitive tech service. Would I ever leave the Mac for Windows? No. Not as long as Apple makes good.

    6. John Proctor says:

      I have a MacBook Pro 15″ week 19 build. No problems! The unit is as cool as my previous PB G4 1 GHz model. I have had a number of Apple laptops and all have had AppleCare on them. I only needed it once with a logic board failure in an PB G4 Ti 887MHz. I have had IBM and Dell notebooks as well and they were reasonably reliable as well. There will always be hardware failures especially as more and more sub-assemblies (like power supplies) are integrated in to the production line. It is how the company corrects those defects that is the true measure of quality.

    7. Matthew Dooley says:

      Well balanced article.

      My own experience – I have been involved with a roll-out of 70 Mac Mini’s that only had one hardware failure – a dud ethernet port. I have also been involved with maintaining 10 Intel iMac’s and Macbooks, and so far 5 out of 10 have had hardware faults. Apple service has been mostly good so far, I think its the resellers who are a bit tardy in the whole process.

      And my own Macbook has the random shutdown and is in for repairs. Our other ones don’t, but we have held off applying the SMC Firmware update as that seems to bring it on somehow.

      I think it is best to hold off on Intel gear until rev C.

    8. John Rizzo says:

      Gene knows his stuff more than most, but I have to disagree with him that this problem is just the same few bad apples that you’d find with any model Mac. The numbers of affected MacBook units are far higher than with your average Mac model, and far greater than a “few dozen or even a few hundred.” Look around the ‘net and you find a lot of expriences like Andrew’s above that indictate that this problem is widespread. For instance, one small site web site (http://www.macbookrandomshutdown.com/) has registered nearly 200 users with the problem. I received several dozen camplaints in a 2-day period at MacWindows.com, from people in four continents. The Apple discussion forums are full of these reports as well: one recently created thread on the topic had over 12,000 views (most Apple discussion threads have a few hundred views at the most)–that’s pretty compelling evidence of a wide-spread phenomenon. Count up all the web sites reporting this, and consider that most consumers don’t report problems to web sites, and you can guess that the problems are not in the dozens, but in the tens of thousands or more. I believe that Apple will eventually create a templated trade-in/repair program with its own web page like the one it once had for iBooks. I suspect they are developing such a program right now.

      The main problems being reported are the random shutdown syndrom (RSS), track pads that stop working, batteries that swell to alarmingly large size (the BBC has good pictures of this), hot batteries (like Andrew above), and the moo sound (also called the “whining” problem). They could all be related, though it’s hard to say. Apple has been replacing motherboards, batteries, fans, and trackpads, sometimes more than once. A trade-in/repair program should streamline all this for them and bring down the costs.

    9. Mark says:

      Apple can either try and compete on the basis of cheap computers like every other box, or continue along the path it had set as a stand-out easy to use, reliable and quality manufacturer. With the overwhelming demand for products like ipods, and with such a large base of users communicating via internet, stories with hardware problems do abound. I think that Apple needs to keep the focus on quality. Anything else may give short term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability.

    10. Count up all the web sites reporting this, and consider that most consumers don’t report problems to web sites, and you can guess that the problems are not in the dozens, but in the tens of thousands or more. I believe that Apple will eventually create a templated trade-in/repair program with its own web page like the one it once had for iBooks. I suspect they are developing such a program right now.

      It’s hard to gauge the numbers yet. True, John, it may indeed be sufficient to create an extended repair program to deal with the issues. On the other hand, it may only be a few bad lots on the production line (which can total a few thousand of course) and the repairs will be addressed through the standard warranty. But thanks for tracking this information and we all await news of how it all turns out.

      Peace,
      Gene

    11. Chris says:

      Does anyone remember the Powerbook 5300ce? It’s been called a Road Apple by some and it looks like the MacBooks are following suit. Sure, Gene is right that once in awhile there are rare, bad hardware reports that unfairly tarnish a product but there is also the rare, bad products that unfairly tarnish a manufacturer. To me, this appears to be a bad product and I won’t buy a MacBook. That being said, it won’t stop me from buying other Apple products. Like the 5300, I trust Apple to stand behind the MacBook and all of it’s other products. But like the 5300, I doubt this model lasts more than a year.

    12. Kathryn says:

      Well as the new owner of a MacBook – my first Mac ever – I was very concerned about the discussions re: random shutdowns and “mooing”. My MB arrived brand spanking two weeks ago and I played with it for the first two days enjoying it thoroughly. Day 3 is when the bad news hit…..shutdown….shutdown…no startup at all…ah ohhh! So I;m officialy a DOA and although AppleStore are replacing it with a new one I have to admit I am certainly peeved that I am out a computer (and $2k) for what will amount to over a month – and that replacements are simply being placed in line with new purchases….I think Apple could be a tad more proactive with the damage control here.

      BUT coming a PC background where blue screens of death and random shutdowns are the norm, I am not that concerned that the whole MacBook product is a lemon – just suffering a small case of the “Microsoft-flu” LOL. It is a new product, and like all new products, there is a settling time in which new problems will make themselves known.

      I just consider it “evil-fate” that of course mine had to have a problem! 🙂

      (I am of course assuming I just got a dud and my new one will be a-ok when it eventually arrives)

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