Reality Check: Do Mac Troubleshooting Sites Help or Hinder?

November 9th, 2006

You can imagine the scene: Just as soon as a new product arrives from Apple, be it hardware or software, you can bet that a few complaints will appear on various and sundry support sites. It may be chronic system crashes, noisy audio ports, excessive fan noise, and, no, I didn’t invent any of these simply for the sake of this commentary. All these and more have been reported about one Mac or another over the years.

In the old days, such matters would be confined to the private message boards of such places as AOL and CompuServe, and the information reached a rather restricted audience. Newsgroup message boards picked up some of the slack, but even there, regular participants amounted to a few dozen or a few hundred visitors.

But as the lines of communications opened, and it became easier and easier to post information online, a single message with a reasonable amount of information could have a huge impact. Once it appeared on Google, anyone could find it, and a few innocent comments might take on a level of importance far beyond what you had the right to expect. Imagine walking into the studio of a popular TV station in a large city and delivering the same story and you might get the picture.

Now consider the state of the mind of the average Apple customer. If you buy a new Mac, a copy, say, of iWork, and perhaps an iPod, you’re apt to find that everything works just fine out of the box. So you get to work transferring your files, installing your new software and, once all is said and done, synchronizing your music library and finally plugging your music player into your car’s audio system.

The point being that there’s nothing to write about, because everything works as advertised.

But suppose iTunes crashes the first time you launch it, or while downloading files to your iPod. Now maybe if it happens just one time, you don’t take it too seriously. Crashes happen. But if the unfortunate episode repeats itself, suddenly it takes on a far greater level of importance. Are you alone in your misery, is it something you did wrong? No, maybe not, maybe it was Apple’s fault all along for building buggy software. If you’re active online, you do a little searching and you find a few sites where Mac users with problems report their experiences, and you see if anyone else has reported a similar experience.

Whether they have or not, you will feel inclined to write your own report citing the various troubles you’ve experienced. However, you may or may not know the cause. Was it really the software, a hardware defect of some sort, or just something you did wrong, such as installing a third party system enhancement that you forgot about, but which can cause havoc?

Now a responsible site such as MacFixIt will write back to try to get some more information, to see if there’s a consistency among the various reports it receives about a problem. They won’t just publish the information without checking it first to make sure someone isn’t just putting something over on them, or misinterpreting a situation that may not be as serious as it seems to be.

When you read about such things, you’ll want to put everything in perspective. There are literally thousands of possible system combinations on a Mac. While the situation is nowhere near as complicated and troublesome as on the Windows platform, there’s still plenty of room for mischief. You can bet that almost everything will fail in one situation or another.

On the other hand, if lots of people are reporting the same problem, such as the issue with sudden shutdowns on the first generation MacBook, you have to take it seriously, very seriously. Certainly Apple did when it got a number of complaints on the matter, and they finally came out with what appears to be a workable solution, a firmware upgrade that regulates cooling fan speed differently.

The long and short of it is that a site that simply regurgitates what it receives is nothing more than a public message board. It may be entertaining and all that, but it’s not something you should take seriously. However, when the site has editors that take the time to actually examine information and take care in reporting news accurately, you’ll want to pay careful attention.

Such sites that are devoted to troubleshooting serve a dual purpose. First they provide an avenue for you to report your problems, or learn about the experiences of other readers. More important, you learn about solutions in the form of system workarounds, special repair programs and all the rest. So rather than suffer on in misery, or pray that technical support will provide solace and not confusion, you can feel confident that help is really out there. At least most of the time.

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