An Apple Reliability Reality Check

February 22nd, 2010

In the wake of a press release from RESCUECOM, a third-party computer repair service, that Apple remains the top-rated company, I have to wonder why so many people perceive Macs and recent Mac OS versions as seriously flawed. Clearly there’s a disconnect, since other surveys, from Consumer Reports and elsewhere, also show superior ratings for Apple’s gear. By the way, a recent BusinessWeek survey listed Apple as third in customer support.

Now in all fairness, RESCUECOM is not an authorized Apple dealer or repair shop, so they tend to get older Macs that are out of warranty. Still, it’s encouraging to know that Macs will continue to be reliable as they age. But despite this, I think you realize that Apple is still getting serious criticisms for bad quality control.

You can probably see that in some of the recent comments made in response to my article about whether Apple should delay Snow Leopard’s successor. One reason given to speed up the next version is reliability, which means that at least some of you have had problems with Snow Leopard.

The shipping delays and apparent quality problems with the 27-inch iMac have also fueled speculation that Apple is somehow falling down on the job and shipping gear that is seriously flawed.

So is there any truth to all this? Has Apple sacrificed its reputation for great product quality in exchange for the almighty dollar?

I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. You see, in order to suggest that Apple is releasing products prematurely or not paying attention to making them as defect free as possible, you would have to look over their entire history and see whether the situation has actually changed.

I still recall the legendary Mac IIcx/IIci/Quadra 700 line, which were outfitted with floppy drives that were serious dust magnets. Indeed, the system admin at one of the shops at which I worked was forced to clean out floppy drives on the company’s Macs every few weeks. If the drives weren’t cleaned, they simply stopped working and in those days that fragile media system was mission critical for far too many companies when it came to archiving your stuff, assuming you didn’t use one of those removable SyQuest drives, which weren’t so reliable either.

Through the years, Macs have always been subject to component failures of one sort or another. Power supplies were especially vulnerable. In recent years, Apple has set up extended repair programs for iMacs, and that’s just a single example. Years ago, if there was a special warranty program, you’d seldom hear about it unless the defects were particularly serious or widespread.

Remember the PowerBooks used in the movies “Mission Impossible” and “Independence Day”? They were among the buggiest ever. The cursed PowerBook 500/5300 series was delayed initially because of smoking batteries that were discovered during the prototype stage. Later on, warranty extensions addressed problems with the screen bezels, logic boards and other parts. It was one huge mess, even if those note-books saved the planet in one of the most popular science fiction movies of the 1990s.

When it comes to the Mac OS, the situation is predictable. There is a point-zero version riddled with defects, some of which can cause crashes and/or data loss, and it takes a few maintenance updates for things to settle down.

All through the years, vocal Mac users have complained that Apple is losing its edge, and marketing is rushing headlong into releasing products as quickly as possible, quality be damned!

In all fairness, there’s always an ongoing conflict between product designers and marketing. The development teams struggle to make sure everything is perfect, as the sales people demand something to ship so profits can begin to pour in. Even if something is certified as ready for sale, there will be inevitable bugs that somehow slipped through the quality control process, or couldn’t be confirmed when tested.

Of course, you have such issues in most every business sector involved in mass production. In the auto industry, Toyota has gotten lots of bad press because of those sudden acceleration problems, but every car maker has recalls of one sort or another. They can’t all be fatally flawed.

Let’s return to our corner of the universe: When it comes to the 27-inch iMac, this model has been a surprisingly hot seller, which is perhaps one key reason for the shipping delays, which have only recently been addressed. The flat panel display is also quite new — it’s also incorporated in a Dell product — and thus there are bound to be early production defects. You heard about some units shipping with broken screens, but that might have just been an assembly or packing problem. Some iMac owners reported flickering screens and an apparent yellow discoloration.

Apple released two firmware updates that appear to have fixed the flickering screens, and they are requesting that you visit your Apple dealer if you have other problems. The complaints have certainly diminished in intensity.

As far as I’m concerned, Snow Leopard arrived last August in pretty decent shape. There was one niggling problem, involving switching from a Guest account to a regular user account, which had the potential of destroying the latter. That situation, since rectified, was as dangerous as a Finder bug in the original Leopard release where files moved, rather than copied, to another drive or file share might be corrupted.

None of this convinces me that Apple is building defective products. You have to expect imperfect gear, and there is no indication that Apple is any less concerned about quality control than they ever were. More to the point, if you are not comfortable dealing with potential bugs, don’t rush to be an early adopter of any new product, from any company. Let people like me suffer through the defects instead.

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4 Responses to “An Apple Reliability Reality Check”

  1. Andrew says:

    Apple has had some problem machines, as have other venders, with the only real difference being that Apple tends to be int eh spotlight, and thus its problem machines are also in the spotlight.

    I’ve had a few rotten Apples over the years. The first plastic MacBooks ran so hot as to randomly shut off and make mooing noises. Mine was replaced three times before I got an acceptable one, by which time I had lost confidence and sold it on eBay, going back to my ThinkPad for a few years before getting a nice solid Rev C model (still in service).

    The original 12″ PowerBook G4 ran so hot it warped bottom cases. The old Performa 6200 was so bad that I don’t think anyone ever had anything good to say about it.

    Of course, those are the exception. So too with Mac OS. Some releases are better than others, but Apple usually is pretty good at getting it sorted out and stabilized.

    Most recently (about a year or so ago) one of the writers at Mac 360 ditched the Mac and moved to an HP running Vista. She came back soon enough. That she came back to the Mac doesn’t mean that her complaints weren’t valid; they were. She wrote of how with the iPhone and new Macs and new OS versions Apple had simply spread a bit thin resulting in a higher defect rate than she had seen previously. I noticed it too, as did many other Mac users. Most of us, however, just waited patiently and let Apple settle things down as they always do.

    All is not perfect in Apple-land, its just better than the alternative.

  2. DaveD says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew on his comments and experiences.

    I had the first run of the PowerBook G3 Series that died after three and a half years. I picked up a refurbished second run of the same model and it will be going on eight years of operations. In the last few years, I needed to replace failed memory modules and lost a partition on a two-partitioned hard drive. But, it is still ticking. I also have a second run of the titanium PowerBook G4 that is still running. It lost a FireWire port in its second year, but I was able to workaround it using a PC card. I think that it has lost the fan recently because it is way too quiet.

    My issues were small compared to my friend’s experiences. She had an iBook G3, iBook G4, and a 17-inch MacBook Pro that have gone through AppleCare affected with video issues for a new logic board. The 17-inch MacBook Pro is the one with the well-known Nvidia graphics processor problem. Unfortunately, it had a few more trips to AppleCare for other issues and Apple replaced it with a newer unibody model. The unibody 17-inch MacBook Pro is doing just fine today.

    I tip my hat to the early adopters. The world of tech is so much better for their willingness to take that leap and report back. Pondering the next buy of a future MacBook Pro with the “nehalem” processor, my purchase will definitely be a few to several months behind the early adopters or maybe wait longer for a Rev B version.

  3. Sean says:

    I’ve had a few Mac issues over the years, and one thing I can attest to is Apple’s willingness to fix the problem quickly. Just this week my 8 year old daughter bought $100 worth of iCarly shows by accident on iTunes. i called Apple and they refunded every penny… and even gave me 5 song credits for my troubles. I was very impressed to say the least.

  4. Andrew says:

    That the original MacBook was so bad is one thing, but more important is that Apple bent over backwards to replace mine, THREE TIMES.

    My MacBook Air has had two repairs, the second a repeat of the first. For my trouble, they gave me an iPod Classic (160 GB in the glovebox, awesome). I too had the nVidia issue on a 15″ MBP, and Apple replaced it with a unibody. I sold the unibody because glossy was just not usable in my office, but the machine was fabulous otherwise.

    I do now tend to be more conservative in buying new gear. That 15″ MBP with the bad graphics was one of the last of the non-unibodies, bought both for its matte screen and as “proven” technology. Sadly, the nVidia problem was not yet known.

    Today my Air is running great (Rev B) and I finally ditched the ThinkPad and have another 15″ MacBook Pro, this time a unibody with the antiglare screen, which is even better than the screen on the old matte MacBook Pro. That machine, mature technology to be sure, is probably the best-made Mac I’ve ever owned.

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