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Quality control problems or growing pains at Apple?


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Quality control problems or growing pains at Apple?

8/9/2006 1:29:28 PM, by Jacqui Cheng


When Apple's first generation of Intel-based laptops started rolling out, first with the MacBook Pro and then the MacBook a few months later, initial user reports seemed almost too good to be true. Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to run Mac OS X and Windows in a single bound! Initially, the transition to Intel was largely viewed as a success, at least in terms of product reviews. This was no small feat on Apple's part. Despite the fact that the company was transitioning to a new architecture, Apple chose to stick with the general appearance and design of their popular PowerBook line and make some tweaks to the iBook form factor. It seemed as though they had shoehorned the new architecture into the line without a hitch.


All of that changed after units started shipping in quantity. No computer company produces flawless products, but Apple has a reputation for being a cut above most computer companies. Yet here was the Macbook Pro "whining." Others claimed that the MacBook could burst into flames. Then MacBook owners began noticing discoloration on their cases. In this brief report we look at the biggest quality control problems we've seen and heard in recent months, then answer the question: are there quality control problems at Apple? We've wondered about that before and now we're raising the quesiton again.


First, we review the problems that either Apple has copped to or that we believe are real issues even though Apple has not publicly addressed them. After that, we'll talk briefly about other happenings at Apple, and then finish by assessing what we've learned in the process.



One of the original and most widely covered issues with the MacBook Pro was the mysterious "whining" noise. Users reported that their MacBook Pros were emitting a faint buzzing sound from the environs of the LCD/keyboard/speaker area that could only be heard while in a quiet room. Curious users poked further into the issue by discovering that opening up Photo Booth and then quitting the application somehow caused the whining to stop, at least temporarily. The cause of "the MacBook Pro Whine" has always been a mystery, but Apple officially acknowledged the problem with a Knowledge Base article on the topic in July, instructing users who suffered from the whine to contact AppleCare.



Heat quickly became a common complaint among MacBook and MacBook Pro users, especially for those who used their laptops on their laps and other nondesk surfaces. A comparative experiment on operating temperatures between a MacBook and a Dell laptop showed that, in some locations on the casing, the Macintel was emanating heat at a noticeably higher temperature than the Dell it was being tested against.


Was the problem caused by improperly applied thermal grease? Indeed, an Apple service manual seemed to be instructing technicians to apply entirely too much thermal paste to the processors, and some users were able to open up their machines and apply a more sensible dosage of thermal grease which eventually resulted in a huge drop in the operating temperature of their machines. This heat problem certainly seemed to look more and more like Apple's fault, and a problem that could have been fixed easily at that.


At some point, Apple released a Software Update that reportedly addressed some of these heat issues, but soon thereafter, an article on Apple's Knowledge Base advised against using your laptop on, well, your lap. Apple even eventually put up another article claiming that there was some possibility that, if your MacBook was running hot, there might have been a piece of plastic blocking one of the cooling vents. The only problem with this alibi? There were no verifiable reports of anybody ever finding this elusive piece of plastic.


But what about fires and other catastrophes that we'd heard so much about? Indeed, there was an account or two of MacBooks going up in flames, but this was certainly not a phenomenon that would be considered widespread. What did have a few people worried, however, were at least three separate accounts of MagSafe connectors melting down in some way—in at least one case while the user was not even home, with his cats disconnecting the MagSafe before it burned down the place—which also seem to be a statistical anomaly among MacBook and MacBook Pro users. For the time being, there is no official acknowledgment of any fires or meltdowns by Apple, but they have reportedly replaced all of these users' machines very swiftly, no doubt for fear of quickly-spreading bad publicity.



Another issue that came up not too long after the new laptops started shipping was an odd discoloration on the casing around the palm rest areas on MacBooks, particularly white ones. Originally addressed as "improper handling" by Apple, the problem was spreading and the discoloration seemed impossible to remove, even showing up in places on the case where hands would not normally be placed. Finally, Apple admitted that a manufacturing "defect" caused the MacBook discoloration and threw up a Knowledge Base page instructing afflicted users to—you guessed it—contact AppleCare for service on their discolored MacBooks.



MacBook Pro users started reporting warping batteries in droves after a couple months of use. Some people were concerned about fire hazards while others were concerned about the swollen battery affecting the MacBook Pro's casing. Indeed, the warping batteries started causing a number of problems among users, including random shutdowns and erratic trackpad behavior. Finally, after what seemed like hundreds of accounts from users experiencing warping battery issues with their MacBook Pros, Apple came out with an official battery recall for MacBook Pro batteries that were sold with laptops before May of 2006. The reason given is that the batteries did not meet Apple's "high standards for battery performance." We'll count that as a third Acknowledged Apple Boo-Boo.


Logic boards

Users who were not suffering from random shutdowns caused by warping batteries were complaining about random shutdowns of another kind. They were reported to be happening at any time, while plugged in or on battery, and usually multiple times in a single computing session. The complaints started to multiply, spreading around the web like wildfire and yet never managing to get too much publicity—at least not on the MacBook Pro "whine" level. among the hundreds of posts about this particular problem on Apple's discussion boards, users started reporting back that Apple was either replacing their machines on the spot or having them sent in for repairs, citing logic board issues.


Suddenly, we are taken back to memories of Apple's previous run-in with logic boards on the iBook G3 that eventually ended with Apple acknowledging the problem and launching a global logic board repair program for the iBook. Such an acknowledgment has not occurred yet for the owners of MacBooks and MacBook Pros who have experienced what are being referred to as logic board problems on their machines, but as the problem spreads further with no official response, it would be foolish of Apple not to try to make things right in the hearts of Mac laptop users once again with another worldwide repair program.


What's going on here?

Our attempts to discuss the significance of these matters with Apple were ignored. However, as has been clear from the deluge of e-mail we've received relating to these issues, there's plenty to discuss. More than one reader has asked us point blank: is Apple going downhill? Is Apple's quality control slipping through the cracks with this Intel transition?


Given the volume of available evidence that has appeared in such a short timeframe, it's simply impossible to say that Apple isn't having problems. Ever since the company announced the plan to migrate all of its hardware over to Intel in July of 2005, customers have been waiting to see what new, magnificent hardware they would be able to get out of Apple and how soon. Perhaps Apple decided to get the transition going too quickly, anticipating a slowdown in hardware sales after the holiday season due to potential customers holding off on purchases until Intel machines were available. As far as the Macbook and Macbook Pro are concerned, it certainly feels as though they were rushed.


That said, the iMac Core Duo and the Mac Mini Core Solo and Duo appear to be doing quite well, without the smattering of issues we've seen and experienced here. But also keep in mind that the MacBook Pro and now the MacBook are big sellers for Apple, both of which are responsible for effectively doubling Apple's US laptop marketshare since the Intel Macs started rolling out. Apple probably saw that trend coming and wanted to ensure that there would be no gap in sales while keeping the customer base satisfied (depending on one's definition of "satisfied," of course). Imagine where Apple would be right now if we had to wait until WWDC time in August for our MacBooks and MacBook Pros as we did for the Mac Pro (hint: Not where they are now).


Apple is now, truly, in a stronger position than it has been in for at least the past decade, with a rising overall market share and seemingly endless possibilities in both the near and far future. The litany of quality control problems puts a damper on that, especially among users who hear of problems and fear that they might be endemic to Apple's entire product line. The good news for Apple fans is that these problems do not seem to extend behind the laptop line, and most of them have been addressed by Apple (though not all). Occasional problems and complaints are of course to be expected, but the now that we are a few months into the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines, it does appear that Apple pushed a little harder than their suppliers and design teams could handle. If Apple had taken its time on the pacing of these transitions and spent some more time on quality control before rolling out MacBooks to the masses, the year of Intel would be a big hit not just for Apple, but for all of their customers, too.



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