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Apple War Stories Revisited

I like to think that, aside from my unusual day job, I’m a fairly typical Mac user. Most of the time, the computers I’ve purchased have been supremely reliable. I actually had only two that had to be returned to Apple for repairs. One was the dreaded PowerBook 5300ce, a member of a product family that was doomed almost from the beginning to be endlessly defective. The other, a second-generation PowerBook G3 that required a new video cable. That, too, was a chronic problem with that particular product family.

Yes, there were two other issues, both involving Apple note-books, but I didn’t have to send them to the repair shop. The most recent involved a first-generation 17-inch MacBook Pro, where the battery suddenly became unable to sustain a charge. In that particular case, Apple support sent me a new battery, and that, as they say, was that. The early 2008 MacBook Pro I’m using now has performed like a champ, and my son’s Black MacBook has survived a trip to Spain and back without sustaining anything more than greasy surface blemishes that were easily vanquished with a cleaning cloth sprayed with some glass cleaner.

But every time I hang out at some of my favorite online watering holes, the news isn’t so pleasant. Take a recent story that appeared at Daniel Knight’s LowEndMac site. While most of the reader letters describe endless troubles with various iterations of the Power Mac G4, the G5 gets a few knocks too. Now I had two G5s in my time; the most recent was a G5 Quad with a liquid cooling system. No, I didn’t have any problems with it, nor have I heard any complaints from its new owner. But some folks do report incidents involving leaking coolant. While that is easily repaired on a car, when it happens on a personal computer, the unit is toast.

Through it all, it appears that Apple has had various ongoing extended repair programs to address the most consistent problems. A computer company doesn’t do that sort of thing unless a whole lot of products are encountering major failures that can be traced to specific parts, such as logic boards, LCD panels and power supplies.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can certainly feel a little jittery when I read such things. However, even where there was no warranty extension of any sort, AppleCare still comes to the rescue on occasion. Indeed, they are known to relent and fix a product just beyond the warranty period in the name of good customer service.

For the most part, I don’t recommend extended warranties. Serious defects are apt to show up early in a product’s lifecycle, and it would therefore be covered by the standard limited warranty. Dealers push those additional programs, which are essentially insurance policies, because they make good profits, and when competing in a cutthroat environment, it could mean the difference between profit and loss on some sales.

But there are notable exceptions. My son’s MacBook and iPod are both covered by AppleCare, and the same holds true for my iPhone 3G. I’m still debating whether to invest in an extended warranty for my MacBook Pro, but I have until next year to make that decision, since you can purchase AppleCare at any time before the original warranty has expired.

Does this mean I don’t have faith in Apple to make reliable products? Well, let’s just say I’m hedging my bets here. You see, portable gadgets tend to get a greater degree of use and abuse, and are thus subject to a higher level of failure. Sure, Apple isn’t going to cover something that is damaged by an accident or user misadventure, but still you can’t regard a note-book computer as anywhere near as robust as the desktop model that pretty much stays in a single location for much of its working life.

I’m also troubled by the constant need for special repair programs, because they signify chronic manufacturing defects of one sort or another that are serious enough to result in catastrophic failure. I’m not about to blame outsourced manufacturing for these ills because, if you search through much of Apple’s history, you’ll see chronic defects traced to certain models even when they were built in the U.S., such as the power supplies and floppy drives on the IIcx and IIci, which date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I am sure that you can cite your own Apple war stories if you’ve used their products for any length of time. While consumer electronics can be subject to a decent degree of failure, the real question is whether Apple fares better or worse than its competition.

For example, does a Dell or HP, to name the top two PC makers, stand a better chance to survive the rigors of daily use over a period of, say, four or five years, or would you be forced to retire or recycle your computer after a couple of years and that’s that?

I have had great experiences with Dell’s large screen LCD displays, and the HP printers I’ve used over the years have impressed me as pretty robust. But I can’t tell you much about their computers except for second-hand reports that indicate that they do not generally fare as well as Apple.

As much as I’m concerned about first impressions, and how Windows switchers might react if their new Macs had to make regular trips to the repair shop for major overhauls, the real question is whether that’s the state of the art, such as it is.

I mean, you’re accustomed to installing software that, by and large, is riddled with loads of bugs, so you can certainly understand if the underlying hardware has its own share of ills.

But I do hope that Apple, which prides itself on building gear that just works, will strive to do better.