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  • 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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