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  • Just Another Mac Hardware Reliability Rant

    May 19th, 2008

    When I recently read the results of the reliability survey from readers of Consumer Reports, I had to wonder why Apple was dead last on the list among note-books, with a rating of 23. While this was not statistically significant compared to the 20 rating granted Lenovo, it seems to portend a potential trouble spot for Apple.

    I’m sure most of you know that Apple’s note-book computers are built in the same factories as those of other makers, in Asia, and that they all share many core components, from Intel processors to hard drives and other off-the-shelf parts. So you’d think that construction quality ought to be similar, and you can expect comparable levels of longevity.

    But there is more than meets the eye here. You see, Consumer Reports doesn’t distinguish among price categories. You expect that a company who primarily plays in the medium or higher-priced sandbox ought to build better products. It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if a $750 note-book or $399 desktop failed prematurely, but when the price gets above $1,000 and then some, you have a right to expect more.

    Why isn’t Apple delivering and are its products somehow going downhill in the rush to increase production to meet growing demands?

    Well, not so fast. First, a Consumer Reports survey indicates an historical trend, not necessarily recent changes in overall reliability of a specific model. RIght now, for example, there are ongoing battery-related recalls for various models of the iBook, MacBook and MacBook Pro. A far greater number of repair programs impact the PowerBook G4, which, in addition to the usual spate of battery-related issues, include fixes for the display and memory slots.

    I can see where all this can add up to a significant downgrading for Apple’s entire note-book line, and that’s understandable. But don’t forget that the PowerBook G4 has been out of production for nearly 30 months now, so it’s not as if its problems should impact any of today’s products.

    Indeed, if you go through the entire history of Mac reliability, you’ll find significant trouble spots. Consider failing power supplies on the first all-in-one compact Macs beginning in the 1980s. The IIcx and IIci were notorious for floppy drive failures, and the fact that it seemed to draw dust into the mechanism, rather than have the exhaust fan blow it out, only exacerbated the issue. I recall one employment environment where the chief repair person (we didn’t call him an IT administrator) used a vacuum cleaner to suck out the dust on the affected Macs from time to time, and that seemed to reduce those floppy drive breakdowns.

    Of course, I remember the infamous PowerBook 5300ce, for which I spent a small fortune. As with other models of the same product line with and without Power PC processors, it made several visits to Apple’s repair depot for various and sundry ills, such as sealant chronically leaking from the bottom of the screen bezel. The last repair addressed that problem, but I finally got disgusted and sold it off to someone else, who, in turn, sent it off to Apple for one more visit before he disposed of it also.

    Let’s not forget the well-known video hardware problems with a number of those original pear-shaped iMacs. Or even the famous Cube, which looked like a museum piece, but had middling reliability, according to owners I’ve heard from over the years.

    In short, most every generation of Macs that I know about can be singled out for a hardware defect of one sort or another. Apple isn’t perfect by any means, although you like to think otherwise.

    In the end, though, persistent defects inevitably prompt some sort of recall or extended repair program. But things are never quite so simple, because such matters take time to resolve. First, Apple engineers have to be certain that there is a widespread reliability issue and not just a few failed samples. Then, they have to diagnose the cause and devise a fix, and suddenly six months or a year have passed by. In the meantime, ongoing production enhancements over a product’s lifetime might actually resolve such troubles for all but the earliest adopters.

    I do, however, feel that Apple will eventually do the right thing, even though there may be long periods of frustration for affected users in the meantime. What’s worse is that Apple is so terribly secretive about reliability concerns that it may take weeks or months to get any definitive information. Some repair programs are evidently only available on a “need to know” basis, meaning you have to complain long and loud about a problem to learn of the existence of a solution.

    When repair programs are publicized, the news about how to get your unit fixed may be terribly general, and you’ll never know what really went wrong. But Apple might just be paranoid about having too much proprietary information available in the wild, although power users will usually figure out the specifics in short order.

    Maybe, as with new autos, you shouldn’t be so quick to buy a new Mac, particularly if the internals and/or form factor differ drastically from a previous model. It may take a fair amount of time to shake down production irregularities and get things smoothly into motion.

    However, Apple is not in the same category as the standard PC maker, where you expect mass-produced products that are raft with defects. Even though Macs are priced comparably to PCs with similar configurations. Apple’s luster conveys the impression that you are getting something that’s much better, not just because of the operating system and the attractive case designs, but when it comes to the fundamentals of product reliability.

    Flakiness is supposedly the province of the Windows world, and even though Macs are assembled in the very same production facilities, you have a right to expect better. That’s what Apple wants you to believe, not that it’s just another mass produced commercial product with all the expected ills that come from maxing out assembly lines.

    It would be helpful if Apple got that message real soon. I can see where a few too many trips to the repair shop are going to turn off some Windows switchers real fast, even if the Mac OS is far superior.



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