Be Very Careful About Troubleshooting Sites

February 25th, 2008

Imagine this scene: You set up your new Mac and, like millions of your fellow Mac users, everything works fine, or the problems that you do have are easily solved. Now would you post a message to a troubleshooting site or one of Apple’s forums and say everything is just peachy?

Not likely. You are probably too busy getting on with your life, doing real work on your computer, and perhaps having some fun doing it.

On the other hand, if something goes terribly wrong, as it sometimes does with almost any tech product, you will be upset, particularly if a solution isn’t quickly found. You may complain to your friends, a tech support person, or go to the most convenient Mac troubleshooting site to voice your frustration. More than likely, you’ll do all three plus anything else that you feel necessary to find help or vent your spleen.

Now I am not going to cast any nasty aspersions towards the decision to make your views public. That’s your right, as is your choice of where to express those views. It may indeed be the best way to find the answers you seek, particularly if you don’t get a glad hand from tech support and a ready solution.

What this means, of course, is that troubleshooting forums and even Apple’s own discussion boards are going to be heavily weighted towards problem reports. That’s the nature of the best, and it’s easy to read that stuff and get thoroughly frightened about the dangers of installing anything, simply because something nasty is going to happen.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that these issues affect only an unfortunate or unlucky few. Sometimes a company, and that surely includes Apple, will release something with serious defects that impact a lot of people, and it’s good to know about it before you get bitten by the same bugs.

However, the problem I have is that it’s not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff when you peruse those messages. In fact, without a very skeptical eye, it may sometimes be downright impossible.

Worse, some of those troubleshooting sites really don’t seem terribly alert about trying to verify a report before simply posting it virtually unedited. The end result is that a problem that might be exclusive to a well-worn system, with lots of third-party system toys, ends up reflecting an issue that is, unfortunately, wrongly blamed on Apple or some other company.

Now in the past I have been a huge booster of MacFixIt, simply because I felt that they were careful about making some effort to look for trends rather than take one or two isolated problem reports at face value. However, I am a little concerned that, since being acquired by CNET, notorious for bad reporting about Macs for far too many years, the quality of their coverage has taken a turn for the worse.

This is particularly true with recent Apple updates, where you come away with the impression that the company can’t do anything right, that every single thing they produce is fatally flawed and should never have left the development labs.

In all fairness, Apple certainly has done its share of rush jobs, and has had to push bug fix updates out the door at a fast clip. Initial releases of Mac OS X have been known to be particularly troublesome. One upgrade, for example, was blamed for wiping out some FireWire 800 drives. Apple’s share of the problem was fixed quickly enough, although third-party firmware also required updates.

The initial release of Tiger broke third-party VPN and other networking utilities, and similar troubles are still said to afflict Leopard, even as of 10.5.2. Also, 10.5, itself, had a notorious file system bug that could corrupt or zap files if the process of moving — rather than copying — across drives or networks was interrupted for any reason, such as a crash or power outage. Now it may well be that this singular bug was present in earlier Mac OS versions. Regardless it was fixed in a matter of weeks.

In a positive light, when there are indeed problems with a software or hardware release, then certainly a troubleshooting site, at its best, will help alert you to the issues and aid you in finding a solution. So certainly they are needed to shed needed light on important matters that you need to know about.

At the same time, it’s easy to turn a reliable source of information into just another tabloid publication that exists solely to spread fear about doing anything with your computer without going through all sorts of silly voodoo preventive steps that can waste hours of your time without proven benefit.

Now I realize none of you have the time to verify every claim you read on one of these sites. What you might consider, though, is whether the complaints seem to be limited to a very few problem reports or reflect an issue that can affect a wider number of uses. Be skeptical of anecdotal claims, and look for efforts to verify before publishing.

That’s a basic common sense editorial concept, by the way, that separates a simple message board from a full-blown online publication. And also consider what I wrote at the outset of this article, that people who have no problems whatever are rarely inclined to waste time online saying so.

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6 Responses to “Be Very Careful About Troubleshooting Sites”

  1. Loweded Wookie says:

    Well said. Unfortunately this world is geared for condemnation rather than commendation.

    For those of you reading this I work in IT as a hardware engineer and I can assure you that your problem may take time to fix. Not all problems are easy to suss and it may take a while for someone to come across a solution. You’re frustration is understandable but bad mouthing because something is taking a while to get sorted isn’t going to help anyone.

    If it is so easy to fix then why haven’t you done it and instead taken your machine to someone to get fixed?

  2. Andrew says:

    Some problems are, however, quite real, and deserve the public attention they get. I had a Toshiba laptop that had a proprietary hard drive controller that worked great, unless trying to play video in iTunes or QuickTime and running Vista. It took about 6 months for Toshiba to identify and correct the problem, something that would probably not have occurred if not for the very loud complaints on troubleshooting sites belonging to all three players (Toshiba, Microsoft and Apple).

    Apple is usually among the best at responding to issues, but that means little if your machine is the one with problems. The initial run of MacBooks had issues, and while I am certain that there are many happy owners who got trouble-free machines, I had mine replaced three times (random shutdown, extreme heat, warped plastics) before giving up on the model for 18 months. Apple made good and replaced each defective machine, and when it once again became time for a new laptop last month, I didn’t hesitate to buy a new MacBook knowing that those early issues were fixed long ago.

  3. gopher says:

    As a troubleshooter on Apple’s Discussions group, I commend you for writing this article. As many of the more seasoned posters there have noted, it is a “hospital ward.” One thing to keep in mind is that number of views on a thread does not give any indication of the number of posters visiting the site, and the number of replies can be from the same person. Thus the numbers themselves are skewed on the high side. At one time Apple did allow you to list all the posters of a paricular thread under the thread title. No more. With 5 million purchases of Leopard in one calendar quarter you can really see that the problems in question only affect one tenth of one percent of the population, or only that number finds the board and is able to post the problem. To get a glimpse of the true numbers, joining a Mac usergroup which has a troubleshooting clinic can often give you a better indication of the size of problems.

    So in essence, it helps if you go to these boards with an open mind, and try to resolve your issue, and not blame anyone. Those who blame will be less likely to get any help whatsoever.

  4. Mark says:

    I agree that MacFixit hasn’t been the same since the CNet takeover. Among other things, the editors have taken to using unecessarily inflammatory headlines.

    You get something along the lines of “Leopard Finder Disaster!”, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a report that a small handful of users have written that they’re having Finder problems upon upgrading to Leopard. Keep reading, and you’ll learn (maybe a day later, if that) that in each case the problem was a conflict with some third-party “enhancement” software that hasn’t yet been updated for Leopard compatibility. Some disaster.

    My example was made-up, but you get the idea. This sort of thing has always been a problem with MacFixit, in my view (for many of the reasons you discuss in your article), but it seems to have gotten worse.

  5. Jim says:

    I just bought a secondhand PowerBook G4 12″ for roadtrips, and installed Tiger on it.

    At first, I was going to do a firewire transfer from my iMac, but I thought what the heck, I’ll install Tiger from scratch, put the latest updates on it, and then sync with .Mac to get all my keychains, bookmarks, contacts, etc. With the .Mac sync, even websites that require a password “remember” the password.

    I was able to restore a strong semblance of my normal working environment on the PowerBook in less than two hours. Firewire mode might very well have taken as long. With the clean install, this little G4 with 512Mb of memory is just chugging along…fast, snappy, everything just works. No problems with the battery (it’s a two-year old battery and still gives me four hours of untethered time).

    So a couple of points: With the right backup strategy, one can install a clean system and restore one’s working environment fairly quickly. Adding update upon update upon update might be problematic after awhile. The other point is that a lot of the problems with Mac OS X that people encounter might be the result of third-party conflicts, poor disk maintenance, or user error, as well.

    Like you Gene, I’ve generally had seamless results with Apple updates.

  6. Ilgaz says:

    There are also couple of things I would say as a user who got victimized by “easy fix” offered by many sites.
    1) Never downgrade any kernel extension especially if it includes security fixes. REPORT the issue to Apple instead use

    2) Never “clean your caches” in aggressive manner. 99.999% there is no point. Responsible developers like Tinker Tool author already says “It is NOT a routine maintenance step”. Especially on Leopard, every cache even including safari icons db has own checking mechanisms (check hidden .journal while getting written) and while speaking about Journal, we are all running a journaling filesystem which is really resistant to corruption.

    3) Instead of using those sites and even Apple discussion forums, first report to Vendor about your issue. If they don’t respond in 48 hours, take a note about it and uninstall, use free “updates mailing lists” etc. offered by them so you will hear when an update ships.

    I am getting amazed every day by some support sites. They are even suggesting to downgrade Apple Airport firmware while it is very clear that the actual update has some security fixes which are all made semi public as they were released. I also believe some of those sites have personal, non professional issues with some developers. Lets not name them but everyone figures.

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