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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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    10 Responses to “Just Another Mac Hardware Reliability Rant”

    1. Andrew says:

      The high-end hypothesis works for Lenovo, which came in first, as their ThinkPads are all premium models with premium prices. Last two ThinkPads I owned, while lacking OS X for obvious reasons, were superior to any of my previous or current PowerBooks or MacBooks in build quality and materials.

    2. The high-end hypothesis works for Lenovo, which came in first, as their ThinkPads are all premium models with premium prices. Last two ThinkPads I owned, while lacking OS X for obvious reasons, were superior to any of my previous or current PowerBooks or MacBooks in build quality and materials.

      Well, based on their statistical model, the differences between the Lenovo and Apple’s products aren’t significant in terms of reliability. If the Mac notebook extended repair issues hadn’t arisen, Apple would have fared noticeably better. Notice how well their desktops rate in contrast.

      Moreover, such companies as Dell and HP and all the sub-$1,000 notebooks they produce pretty much wreck the high-priced advantage theory.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. John Fallon says:

      The MacBook Pro has a problem with the power adapter; the magsafe power cord is prone to fraying because of the lack of reinforcement where it connects to the computer. My stepdaughter’s MBP is on its second. I had to go to a MicroCenter to get the replacement. Apple was completely out of them in the Chicago area, according to the local Apple store. They do run awfully hot.

    4. The MacBook Pro has a problem with the power adapter; the magsafe power cord is prone to fraying because of the lack of reinforcement where it connects to the computer. My stepdaughter’s MBP is on its second. I had to go to a MicroCenter to get the replacement. Apple was completely out of them in the Chicago area, according to the local Apple store. They do run awfully hot.

      I suggest you call Apple support and see if they can provide some relief. Sometimes there are “secret” repair programs, which I mention briefly in an update to the article. In other words, there’s no public paper trail.

      I know I put nearly two years on my first MacBook Pro and it didn’t have any issues in that regard, but the newer model has a more robust looking power cord.

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. gopher says:

      Of the machines I’ve owned:

      Mac LC – floppy drive died after 10 years.

      Powermac 7200 – no hardware issues, but numerous software ones.

      Powerbook G3 233 with 512k backside – 3 hard drive failures, 2 power supply failures, hinge failure, replaced keyboard at end of warranty by warranty, sound card failure all under warranty. Power supply failed out of warranty.

      iMac G4 800 Mhz Superdrive – 3 GPU replacements in a row before they finally got it right.
      Insufficient power to USB port closest to modem.

      Powerbook G4 17″ 1.33 Ghz – fan issue, machine replaced under warranty with
      Powerbook G4 17″ 1.5 Ghz October 2004 model. No problems with that machine in 3 years before selling it.
      iMac G5 1.8 Ghz – two logicboard, one power supply replacement under exchange program.
      iMac Intel Core2Duo 2.17 Ghz August 2006 model – no problems.
      MacBook Pro 2.2 Ghz 15″ purchased August 2007 – no problems.

      Shows you that your mileage may vary, and sometimes first release models aren’t that bad compared to second release models.

      iMac G5 1.8 Ghz Superdrive

    6. Thanks for posting your experiences. It appears you’ve gone through the wringer there, and I’m glad things have settled down with recent models.

      I’ve only had two Apple notebooks develop problems, and the most recent, my son’s PowerBook G4 1.33GHz, involved a problem with the DVD drive that may have been due to deformation of the case as a result of over-eager treatment. I’m not certain.

      My Mac desktops have all been well behaved — so far. 😀

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Andrew says:

      My Sawtooth G4 is going strong at 9-years-old, as did my 7200 before that (probably still works, don’t have the time to dig it out of the garage). Currently, my family all has MacBooks and except for one of the AC adapters having a sudden heart attack last week (cheerfully replaced at the Apple Store), I’ve had no issues whatsoever with any of them.

      My first MacBook, an early CoreDuo one, was so bad that after three replacements (all equally bad) I sold it and bought a ThinkPad. Now that Apple has worked out the kinks in the MacBook, meaning it is a mature product now, I have the utmost confidence in it. In fact, I plan on bringing my MacBook to Iraq with me this summer for my deployment.

    8. Frank Gearhart says:

      My first Mac was a G4 Cube, which after about six years I gave to a friend, and it’s still going strong in her kitchen after three years). My second was a MacBook, which I replaced after three years because after accidentally pulling it off a table it fell onto a tile floor on its corner and broke one of the screen hinges. Although the screen itself still worked and the system booted up, a few applications acted oddly. I did have to replace the AC adapter once after it began shorting out, but there were reported problems with that brick.

      My current system is a 17″ MacBook Pro (Core Duo, not Core 2), which I’ve had for about two years. Other than upgrading the HDD and today getting a new AC adapter (I’d run over the old cord with a chair a time too often and it frayed), I’ve had no problems.

      I’ve also owned more than a few iPods and currently have an iPhone and have not had a bit of trouble with any of them. In a couple of years I plan to get whatever new laptop Apple has out and load another OS onto this one.

      Computers and OS’s are tools. If they help you do your job, then they’re good. Personally, I love Apple for their design and for their reliability. I’ve also owned BMW’s MB’s and I currently drive a Land Rover. Even they need attention now and then.

    9. Stan Divorski says:

      I purchased my 2.16 GHZ Dual Core MacBook Pro in May of 2006. Since then, I have had the hard drive, logic board and Superdrive replaced, and my hard drive has failed again. My daughter’s MacBook, purchased last spring, just had its hard drive replaced. Thank God for the AppleCare extended Warranty. Don’t buy an Apple laptop without buying ProCare. I am writing this on my five year old ThinkPad, which I never threw out, luckily.

    10. Albert says:

      I bought a MacBook Pro 2 months ago. After a software upgrade I had problems to start i t up. apple support could not help. Now in repairs for 10 days. Had Toshiba and Sony laptops for many years and had never such a hardware problem. a friend of mine had a MacBook for 10 months and had problems with the screen.
      Apple store staff seem to be used to such hardware problems and silly or stupid ( oh, hard drives can break down anytime, even on the first day of use……).
      I think I made a mistake to switch to Mac…what good is the software when the hardware is bad.
      AZ

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