Someone once said that a dog biting a man isn’t news, but a man biting a dog is. When it comes to product reliability, you can’t just say everything is hunky-dory, because that would be what you ought to expect.
Indeed, you should read this alarming title carefully, just to be sure what I’m getting at. You see, Apple rates very high when it comes to product reliability in every survey I know about. Yet, from time to time, I’ve run “war stories” about issues that perplex varying numbers of people.
So why should this be? Well, for one thing, there is clearly no such thing as perfection in any mass-produced product. When there are hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of something out there, even a small percentage of failures may seem extremely high. Indeed, you may take your brand new Mac out of the box, turn it on and it won’t work. It doesn’t happen terribly often, but it does happen.
On occasion, the failure may not happen right away. The computer in question may function perfectly well for days, weeks or months before something stops working. The source of the failure may be different from unit to unit. Certainly hard drives, being highly mechanical despite their advanced technology, are fairly high on the list. That’s one huge reason why I keep pressing you to backup your files regularly, and not after something has gone wrong.
Power supplies also break down from time to time, and logic boards. In a few extreme cases, Apple has begun an extended repair program when the failure rate seems to become higher than normal. Of course, you don’t really know how Apple defines “normal,” since those numbers are going to be held close to the vest. Steve Jobs surely doesn’t want Michael Dell to know, but I’m sure most knowledgeable industry people have a fairly good idea anyway.
The iPod? Well, if you drop one of the hard-drive based models once or twice, you’ll see how quickly they stop running. No, I don’t suggest you try it, but if you are a particularly clumsy sort, or you want something that’ll survive the daily jog, buy the Flash-based models, the iPod nano or shuffle. But make sure it’s not run over by the family car if you drop it in the wrong place.
Now Apple doesn’t really build most of the stuff you find in its products. They use contract manufacturers, and many parts, such as processors and drives and such, come fully assembled before they are put into Apple’s gear. Even if all the engineering specs are followed to the letter, something can indeed go wrong.
I won’t even start with software. There is really no industry-standard set of reliability specifications, other than that you hope things will run most of the time without crashing or behaving erratically in some fashion. I could say that Microsoft wouldn’t allow such a thing, as it would be a major offender. But that’s not completely true. Apple has had problematic upgrades, and so has just about every other software developer.
It is also very true that people are not apt to be inclined to talk about things when they just work. That is what you expect, and while you will see favorable reports too, online discussion forums and troubleshooting information sites are going to be heavily-weighted towards the problem reports. If something goes wrong, particularly at an unfortunate time when you need to get something done on your Mac to meet a deadline, you will get angry about it, and that’s understandable. You will be inclined to complain, and perhaps loudly.
It’s also fair to say that some of you love customizing your computers. Your Mac can take only so much abuse before conflicts among different species of software arise, and suddenly you feel abandoned.
Of course, when you read the online chatter, you can get a pretty discouraging picture of the entire situation. So much goes wrong, you wonder how you can get anything done before the problem bites you too. Is it all really worth it or are computers just the playthings of a small number of power users who can handle all that abuse?
Over the years, I’ve had my share of failures. A hard drive here and there, and one PowerBook went back to Apple several times before I sold it. Even though I thought everything had been fixed, the new owner sent it back as well, and it finally reached the hands of a third owner who apparently never complained. Or just gave up!
For the most part, I’m able to get my work done with nothing more than the normal daily distractions. My Macs seldom crash, and usually that only happens when I’m running something that’s experimental. It hasn’t reached the toaster oven stage of reliability, of course, and I’d like things to be better, but I’m pretty satisfied as it is.
But anyone who thinks Apple can’t build them reliably any more is wrong, in my opinion.
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