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The Mac Hardware Report: A Warning to Apple

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.