The Mac Hardware Report: A Warning to Apple

November 8th, 2006

You know, I’ve been pretty lucky with Macs over the years. I’ve never had one that was dead on arrival, and, except for a certain PowerBook 5300ce, didn’t have to repeatedly return them for repair. But the more I read about extended repair programs and ongoing issues, the more concerned I become that Apple might squander some of its newfound popularity.

First impressions count for a lot, and second chances are difficult to come by. Sure, that’s a cliché, but it’s very true. Apple is, after a long drought in promoting Macs, fighting hard for real Windows switchers. Based on the results so far, they have begun to succeed. Market share is up, at the expense, in part, of such huge PC builders as Dell.

Even better, tech pundits extol the virtues of Macs, and some even report their own experiences ditching their PCs in favor of Apple’s products. In almost every case, despite obvious skepticism, they become more and more accustomed to things just working, at least most of the time. Apple never had it so good.

At the same time, I am troubled. Despite getting reasonably high ratings for reliability in Consumer Reports and elsewhere, it seems hardly a day passes where you don’t see reports of still another hardware defect even in Apple’s most expensive professional desktops.

The latest tale of woe confronts users of the final generation of the Power Mac G5, and the system is the failure to start. In a posting at Apple’s site, you learn the raw, unvarnished truth about the matter, that power supplies are covered for an extra year as a result. But this isn’t the first time the power supply has crippled a Mac. Some 20-inch iMacs sold between May and October 2005 are susceptible to startup and intermittent shut-down issues. In that case, Apple offers coverage for three years to replace the bad parts.

Both power and video-related issues affect some eMacs, and there are, alas, ongoing battery, display and other troubles affecting the iBook, PowerBook and even the MacBook Pro.

If you are curious, you can check the special posting that covers all the affected models. Moreover, if you were one of the early adopters of the MacBook, you might confront that issue with discoloration of the cases of the white versions, although there’s no special repair program in place on that model; at least not yet. The sudden shutdown issue, however, appears to have been addressed with a recent firmware update, so you no longer have to bring your MacBook in for repair on that score.

In the foregoing situations, folks who paid for repairs will get refunds, and if your computer doesn’t exhibit any symptoms, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about, at least for now. But you have to worry if the click isn’t ticking, and something might go wrong at the most inconvenient time.

Now I suppose you can say that these special repair programs and the various Knowledge Base documents covering hardware defects are examples of a proactive company. Apple acknowledges its mistakes, and they are going out of their way to make sure that you are satisfied should something go wrong.

To be perfectly fair, Macs are built by the same contract manufacturers as PCs, and use many industry-standard parts. So if those parts fail in a Dell or a Gateway, they are likely to fail in a Mac as well. I’m sure that readers who own those products can probably point to various and sundry reliability issues as well.

Besides, when you build hundreds of thousands of almost anything, things sometimes go wrong, despite all the good intentions in the world. And it’s not cheap to have to take back a product after it’s sold and replace a major component. More than likely, it wipes out the profit margins on the affected units, although that doesn’t seem to bother some companies that rank way low when it comes to long-term reliability.

But Apple wants us to believe that it has the better product, that it can run trouble-free for years and years. No doubt that’s true for most of you, but even a small percentage of failures may seem too much when troubleshooting sites are littered with complaints. Remember that the potential Windows switcher is likely to read the same information that you and I read, and when they discover these problems, it must give them pause. It may even result in Apple losing sales.

So is there any way to improve quality control, to select better parts that won’t fail in large numbers after a few months or years? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I welcome your ideas. I’m sure you don’t want Apple to wreck its golden opportunity either.

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8 Responses to “The Mac Hardware Report: A Warning to Apple”

  1. Perry Lund says:

    This is a timely topic that hits close for MacBook Pro owners. Our company purchased a unit last April at our local Apple Store for our lead web developer, who was a UNIX / Windows guy. His experience with the laptop has been frustrating to say the least. Since I am accustomed to near perfect reliability on past Apple products, it is frustrating for me to see the MacBook Pro be such an under achiever in terms of reliability and heat dissipation.

    To compound the problems, Apple gave us a fight when we sent the MacBook Pro in for repair for a structural failure around the SuperDrive enclosure. My business partner esculated the case with supervisors until Apple covered the repair under warranty. Now, 1 month later, the MacBook Pro’s hardware diagnostic is give a failure code related to the SMC and fans causing steady 64 degree Centigrade temperature readings. The MacBook Pro is headed back to the Apple shop.

    My feedback to Apple would be to slow your rush to market with products and make sure the product is ready for prime time. A faster Intel laptop was good for headlines in early 2006, but the resulting issues have make more headline in the negative columns of bad press and frustrated new and loyal Macintosh users alike.

  2. gopher says:

    The only way for Apple to avoid this problem is for it to run its company like a Japanese auto manufacturer like Toyota or Honda. While even those occasionally get lemons, they do their own manufacturing, and their own designing of parts from the ground up. It would have to lessen its margins even more, and on top of that, design a just in time production system. What’s more it would finally have to offer accident insurance, which Dell has been doing for a period of time. People drop their computers all the time. Unless Apple were to surround their machines with rubber, and find to cool around the rubber, there is no way they could make their machines truly drop proof. It needs to design in more cooling paths for its machines. Also it needs to put in an anti-static dust shield inside the machines to prevent dust from accumulating in the machines.

    Software wise, they need to realize that the hard drive running full on capacity is not at 1 GB free, but more like 10 GB free, and make a warning message appear when it reaches the capacity when it is too full to run. Mac OS X needs more space free. Spinning beachballs do nothing but concern the user that something is wrong with their machine when in reality they have simply reached the point of too much data on the machine.

  3. Joe says:

    This is an important and multifaceted issue. Apple can not afford to set up their own plants until they hit much larger, say 40% market share. Right now, Dell HP, Gateway, Levenco etc are paying for 90% of the plant capitol costs. I also think that the Intel switch has magnified this problem. There is no substitute for experience, even help from Intel. Apple pushes the envelope and it shows. At the same time, the company I worked for had less than wonderful reliability from Dell. All eight of the boxes had to have their power supplies replaced withing 18 months. One of the boxes got so wonky that it had to be replaced, even after complete reinstalls. It is true that increased volumes will magnify this issue.

  4. Dana Sutton says:

    I don’t think that Apple can do more than a limited amount to achieve anything approaching 100% hardware reliability, certainly not without doing things that would make Macs prohibitively expensive. And I expect that the great majority of consumers understand this, so that hardware reliability problems per se aren’t fatal to Apple’s reputation. What is more crucial, however, is how Apple handles these problems when they arise. It greatly helps their image when they immediately acknowledge the problem and initiate a repair/replacement program for fixing it. It greatly hurts their image when for a long time Apple pretends the problem doesn’t exist, although the Web may be humming with complaints and horror stories, until an enormous amount of bad publicity forces them to acknowledge it long after it should have been addressed. This is something that it well within Apple’s control. (And when you call Apple technical support, you should get to talk to somebody in Cupertino who actually knows Macs and might be able to help you, not somebody in Bombay who only knows how to refer you to your local Apple repair shop, as happened to me not too long ago).

  5. Jon says:

    This just amplifies one of the issues with reporting things on the web, where it is just too easy to complain about something, particularly a perceived problem.

    This reminds me of the situation with crime statistics many years ago. The initial conclusion was that certain crime rates had dramaticly and alarmingly increased, but after some analsis it turned out that it was just the reporting that increased and that the actual crime rate was pretty much the same or had declined.

    Are the rates of defects in Apple products actually increasing, or are we just hearing more reports? They aren’t the same thing. After all, it’s the nature of the beast that all you’re going to hear about at troubleshooting sites are complaints.

    To the pessimist, a glass is half empty. To the optimist, half full.

    The realist just pours himself another glass of water and wonders what the fuss is about.

  6. stevew says:

    It seems clear that there have been more issues with Apple’s products in the last couple of years. That said, I must admit that considering the huge amount of notebooks Apple has sold with intel processors I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of an outcry.

    The worst thing Apple does is remain silent on new issues. Silence will never get you anywhere and in an internet world where silence is most definitely not golden. We need for Apple to designate a liason officer to channel feedback from specialist web sites and for that person to remain independent.

    If a user does encounter an issue then Apple should bend over backwards to solve it in a period of time bound by contract. The extra cost that we, the users, pay should warrant such effort on Apple’s part. AppleCare should be for four years and include on site repairs using new parts. I find it amazing that for what they expect you to pay for AppleCare they tell you that they may use re-conditioned parts.

    The EU effectively makes it a consumer right to have a two-year warranty (although the second year is only valid if the user can demonstrate that the product was defective and the claim has to go through the retailer etc).

  7. Andrew says:

    The MacBook was clearly brought to market too quickly. My first one went to the shop for over a month and still wasn’t fixed. Two replacements were no better, and so I finally ended up returning the MacBook for a refund. The design of the product was right, the features, performance and value were right, but the quality control just wasn’t there.

    Is the MacBook fixed? I certainly hope so, but I won’t know for a long time as I’ve moved on to another brand of portable until the dust settles and my next upgrade cycle hits.

  8. Joe W says:

    I’ve had Macs since 1987, and have had plenty of troubles that didn’t match with Apple’s wonderful reputation.

    My first Mac was an SE (dual floppy), which served me reliably for more than 5 years – even after I installed a 3rd party internal HD (20mB!!!)

    In 1992, I purchased a new LCIII with a Color Display, and also a PowerBook 100. The LCIII was a nightmare for nearly a year. My troubles consisted of the machine running slow, slower, and still slower until the OS was reinstalled. This continued after dozens of support calls, a non-warrantied $100 repair at the CompUSA where it was purchased, and an onsite visit by an Apple Tech. To their credit, they sent out a Tech yet another time, and finally a replacement motherboard resolved the problem. But I could have spent the 100+ hours, effort, and money I paid for that hardware to become a certified on Macs (and PCs).

    The PowerBook 100 was a charming little machine, but not without its hardware flaws. The DC power jack was infamous for detaching itself from the motherboard. A standard fifty-cent part off the shelf, but not suitable for the stresses associated with repeatedly connecting and disconnecting the straight-in power cord. Thank goodness I am handy, and I quickly overcame my fear of completely disassembling the machine (a 3 minute job) and soldering on the motherboard. In the end I repaired my own machine 2 or three times along with nearly a dozen others over some 6 years. Others PB100’s seemed to have inferior trackball, but mine was smooth as silk. Wore out one hard drive after 3 years and replaced it with the largest (was it 160MB???) 2.5 SCSI available. Unfortunately, the fate suffered by nearly all PowerBook 100 owners was that the video card began to fail, intermittently at first, and then completely, resulting in no visible display whatsoever…

    In 1997 I bought a PowerComputing PowerBase 240 just as that company went out of business (Apple bought them). Terrific machine, but had a hard drive (Western Digital) problem the first week. PC sent me a replacement, and I was off and running. Later upgraded it to a G3-400 processor. A wonderful feature was the presence of BOTH ADB and PS/2 ports. I was able to connect a simple PS2/VGA manual switchbox and run both my homebuilt Windows NT server and the PowerBase with a single mouse, keyboard, and monitor. BTW, the PowerComputing 15Åç monitor is still working great after nine years.

    I contrast this with my SONY VAIO 505F, purchased new in December ‘98. I broke the LCD in less than 4 months, but talked SONY into replacing it under warranty. Still running Windows 98 from a March 1999 clean install, though it got cloned to a new hard drive about 3-4 years ago. There were two or three driver updates in the first 6 months, and that was it. A couple of batteries have gone by the wayside. One vertical row of red only pixels near the right edge of the LCD. BUT IT STILL WORKS GREAT – unlike the Mac laptops which gradually and painfully become paperweights.

    Now I am back to Apple and hardware difficulties. I bought an iBook G3900 as it was just about the last new hardware that would also boot to OS9. Thanks to the extended service (2-year) program on the dualUSB white iBook G3s, I have been able to have the motherboard on my last Apple laptop replaced 3 times. Turns out that the case is just a bit too flimsy. Pick up the machine regularly using just one hand, and you can expect about 6 months of life. Failure mode – intermittent/flickering video or no display at all. Apple never “fixed” the problem. They just refurbish the boards and swap them out. My latest replacement has three or four MAC address stickers for the built-in ethernet glued one on top of the next! After reading posts on the web, I realized shortly before the last failure that I would have to be very careful and always pick up the iBook with both hands, especially since the extended replacement program has now expired. As for the iBook, it is a nightmare to disassemble. Thank goodness for a benevolent posting of a 14-page procedure by a good Samaritan. I takes nearly 2 hours to replace the hard drive (I have done this three times – but not to my own machine yet). Apple has been pretty good about overnighting the iBook each time. But add the hassle of performing a complete backup, not just docs and personal info, each time and this has been annoying, to say the least. And I know that one day I will open the iBook and see the screen flicker and got out for the last time.

    Add to this the frustration after my Mac OSX crashed (YES – it does this more than you think), the OSX could not complete booting up. I went through several hours of repairs, special modes, utilities, commands, etc – and finally a $50 onetime Apple Service call and another hour-and-a-half on the phone, only to be told that I would have to reinstall OSX from the original disks on top of itself. No worry, only “some” of your settings and the registration for about half of your software will be lost.

    And don’t forget the added bonus of an OSX operating system which is continuously changing and making all of our machines and software quickly obsolete, with backward support ranging from as little as one year to certainly no more than 3 years.

    IMHO, there is a very high price to pay for Apple’s definitely high style and exclusivity. Oh well, my 2-bits and thoughts on the matter.

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