Even a company like Apple which has a reputation for very reliable computers over the years, can still ship a bad product. I’ve been using Apple’s computers since August of 1982. I worked for the company for nearly twenty years and I have had access to a lot of Apple’s hardware over the years.
In October 2010, I purchased an I5 iMac which I have come to call my iLemon. It’s the first Apple computer that I have owned in forty years that I consider to be a true lemon. I’ve had some problems with computers over the years but none of the issues have rivaled what I’ve seen on this iMac.
While this is only one iLemon in four decades of Apples, I think buyers going into the holiday season should listen to the challenges that I have faced and carefully weigh them as they consider purchasing a new computer.
To many people Apple is a premium product on par with the best computers that are out there. Certainly with few exceptions, you end up paying more for an Apple product than you might for a product from another manufacturer. If like many Americans you live in a metro area, your Apple purchase gives you access to an Apple store and what can be for many people a very satisfying support infrastructure.
A little over six years ago, my wife and I made the decision to move to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. It is an area of unbelievable beauty reminiscent of Atlantic Canada where we lived early in our lives. It is not a densely populated area, and as such is not really on Apple’s radar. The closest Apple Store is in a mall in Raleigh which you might reach in three hours if you hit the traffic right.
The distance to an Apple Store has not stopped me from using Macs, it has just made it more challenging. Just as we were moving to the coast in the summer of 2006, I bought a white MacBook. My Aluminum G4 laptop that I had purchased 21 months earlier had become unusable. The ribbon cable to the laptop monitor was malfunctioning. After evaluating repair costs, it made sense to buy the new Intel based MacBook. It was shipped to me and that fall I had a problem with it. After some pressure I was able to convince Apple to let me ship it to them for repair instead of making two round trips to Raleigh.
When we moved to the coast, my job required that I use Windows. While I put it off as long as possible, I ended up buying a HP laptop running Windows Vista. In was an inexpensive computer with a limit of only two gigs of ram. Vista was not much fun but in a couple of years when I ran out of hard drive space, I bought another HP laptop with an I7 running Windows 7. At the same time I replaced my wife’s ancient and deadly slow Mac laptop with an I5 HP also running Windows 7. We paid less than $1,500 in total for the two computers. At the time Apple was not even shipping laptops with I5s or I7s.
During much of this time, my white MacBook was a constant companion. When I went to work, I often carried the MacBook and my Vista laptop. Vista was a quagmire in my opinion and working on a Mac was an order of magnitude better. However, Microsoft learned from Vista and Windows 7 was a huge step forward. Not long after I bought my Windows 7 laptop, I quit carrying both laptops. Windows 7 proved to be very reliable, and I could do almost everything that I wanted to do on it except for work that I did on the web.
For that work I had my MacBook and a trusty dual G5 tower that I purchased in December 2004. In the fall of 2010, I started a project that required more horsepower than my four year old MacBook. The software I wanted to use would not work on my G5 so I made the reluctant decision to buy an I5 iMac since I had been priced out of Apple’s family of towers. At the time, the only way to get an I5 processor was to buy the 27” screen which barely fits on my desk. I ended up paying something over $1,800 for my iMac. It was slightly more than I paid for my dual G5 tower six years earlier.
The iMac had some quirks. It generated a lot of heat and I found the SDHC reader which was located below the DVD drive to be very inconvenient and something of a pain for someone like myself who takes a lot of pictures. As is often the case not long after I bought my iMac, Apple shipped a newer, cheaper one. I did take advantage of a $7.50 upgrade to the new iApps but more about that later.
If we fast forward about 15 months to the spring of 2012, the iMac began to exhibit some disturbing signs. It was taking well over fourteen minutes to boot Snow Leopard. I did some research and talked to some Apple folks and eventually decided that I was suffering from “Slow Snow Leopard.” I followed some homegrown remedies that I found on the web since Apple seemed to have no suggestions. I did get the boot time on the iMac cut down to reasonable time. Shortly after that my MacBook died after over five and one half years of faithful service. The iMac became the only computer on which some of my web design software would run.
About three months later, the iMac gave me a dire warning that I should copy all of my data to another hard drive, reformat my drive, and reinstall the operating system. I went one better and after coping the data to another drive, I did a complete clean install of Apple’s Lion operating system onto an external Firewire 800 drive. I ran that until I was comfortable with Lion. Then I formatted the internal drive and did another completely clean install except I moved up to Mountain Lion, Apple’s latest operating system.
When I say completely clean install, that means I went back to CDs or disk images for all my applications. The operating systems were installed from Apple’s app store. Starting at square one actually worked well except for a set of upgrade disks that I had purchased from Apple. For some reason Mountain Lion would not recognize the upgraded iPhoto. I solved the problem by spending another $14.95 at the Apple Store for a new purchase of iPhoto.
All this sort of worked for a couple of weeks. Being of a cautious nature, I only installed a completely new, small iPhoto library on the internal drive. In spite of that I started to have iPhoto library corruption problems. It wasn’t long before I figured out that the internal drive was dying. The computer quit booting from the drive so I upgraded my external drive to Mountain Lion and started running the computer off the external drive again. During all of this I wasn’t too worried about my data since I am a heavy user of Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive. I also had regular time capsule backups of my data.
At the same time I switched to the external drive I started have intermittent problems with the SDHC reader on the Mac. Sometimes it would read a card from my camera and sometimes not. I would often rotate my chair fifteen degrees, insert the same card in my Lenovo laptop, load the photos into Picasa, and export the ones that I wanted to my Google drive and then import them from Google drive to iPhoto on the Mac.
Surprisingly sometimes I could come back later in the day and the iMac would read the same card it had refused to read. It might read one or two of four cards or sometimes none of them. I also was having more trouble with iPhoto. I ended up reinstalling iPhoto from the Apple Store twice. For any of you who have done that, you know that it can take a few hours with a cable modem. For a while it seemed like the iMac was always downloading something from Apple.
Obviously by this time, I had a tremendous amount of time and energy expended in trying to fix my iMac. At this point I figured out that Apple in its wisdom designed recent iMacs so that you have to pull the LCD panel to access to the hard drive.
For someone who has been swapping hard drives in both desktop and laptops for years this was a bitter pill to discover.
Over the years I have been a big believer in trying to give companies a chance to stand behind their products and services. I’ve had significant luck with companies as diverse as Adobe and Toro in getting problems resolved so I decided to contact Apple to see if they would do something to make amends for what I consider an iLemon.
With a long career at Apple, I still have a few high level email addresses so I sent a note to someone high enough up the corporate tree to see if Apple was willing to stand behind their product. I wasn’t too surprised when I got a call on my cell phone the next day from someone in executive relations promising to help me resolve my problem.
I was traveling and naturally they wanted to trouble shoot the problem so I promised to contact them when I got back home. That was especially important since they couldn’t find my name attached to the serial number of any iMac. I was surprised since this iMac was my seventh one over the years. All the others were actually used by the ladies in the family.
That weekend and the following Monday, I spent much of my time running tests and doing screen shots. I formatted several types of SD cards with five different cameras to try to determine a pattern on my malfunctioning card reader. I also tried to document the strange problem I was having with photostream in iPhoto. I took all that information along with my system profile and sent it to my contact at executive relations. I told her that I would be available at my home phone number at 10 AM the next day.
At about 10:15 the next day, I noticed that I had transposed two digits in the backup cell phone number that I had given them to use if our home phone number was busy. I sent a new email with a corrected cell phone number even though I knew the executive relations lady had my correct cell number. A couple of minutes later I got a call from the system engineer saying that he had been waiting for the right phone number. It was a clue that he had not read the email that I sent the previous day or looked at any of the information I included.
I spent well over an hour on the phone with the Apple expert and let him download all sorts of stuff from my computer in the hopes that he could resolve some of my issues. He seemed to tire of the whole thing and we never got to the photostream issue. He promised to pass the information on to his engineering team and get back to me.
I waited a week to hear back from him and then sent a note to him and my executive relations contact. The next day I got a call back from my executive relations contact. All she said was that it had been determined that I had a loose wire on my SDHC reader, and I should take the system to my local service provider.
Many Mac users would not have the experience or the extra hardware to go through the effort that I did to fix my iMac. Some will say that I should have purchased Apple’s AppleCare extended warranty. I feel the same way about extended warranties on computers that I do about extended warranties on cars. I should not have to buy an extra warranty to get a product that is trouble free for a few years. Had I made a policy of buying Apple’s premium-priced, extended warranties on every Apple product that I have owned, I would be out several thousand dollars.
I was a little disappointed with the result of my Apple intervention. My suggestion to Apple was they send me a new MacMini and I would just take the iMac to electronics recycling. In the end I wasted a few more days of my time on what has proved to be a hopeless system. With a dead hard drive and a card reader with intermittent problems and Bluetooth that no longer works with my phone, spending money on this iMac is probably a waste. The shame is that all of this hardware worked fine at one time. None of this relates to the user not knowing how to get a computer to work. All of this is in Apple’s lap for creating a combination of hardware and software that turned out to be unreliable.
The whole experience did prompt me to order Adobe Lightroom 4 for my Windows laptop so I will no longer be tied to a couple of adjustments that I used in iPhoto for photos taken in a certain light.
The whole experience confirmed several of my thoughts about the new Apple. Number one is that what many of us said would happen to reliability when Apple switched to industry standard parts has happened. Apple is no longer the leader in reliability. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can read this reliability report published in February of 2012. Apple is in fourth place and way behind Lenovo which ranks number 1.
My second thought is that Apple often pushes design to the point that it impacts reliability. I was surprised to find that the hard drive on my iMac has a temperature sensor that shuts down the drive if the temperature gets too high. It is the first time I have been aware of a Mac outside of the Xserve that has a sensor like that. You can cook your hand on the top of my iMac at times. I have to believe that all the heat contributed to the early death of my hard drive.
Third, the Apple value proposition isn’t what it used to be. The two HP laptops which I bought for a total of less than $1,500 are still working great. As laptops they have had a harder life than my iMac which has never left its desktop. They’ll soon be three years old and are still functioning. The iMac never even made it two years. My original HP laptop that I bought over five years ago is also still working.
Fourth, just because you pay more for Apple, don’t expect better service especially if you live outside the major metro areas. I was really disappointed with my “trouble shooting” experience. The whole thing seemed to be aimed at minimizing what Apple would do to fix my problem. I’ve solved a lot of customer issues in my career, and never did I get on a call with a customer having a problem without reviewing all the information about the case before I talked to the customer. I also never left a customer with an unresolved problem.
On top of it all, after the call with the Apple expert, I got an email to me addressed “Dear Robert.” I have to say if you cannot even get my first name right, you probably aren’t going to solve any of my problems.
I have to compare my Apple experience to the phone call that I received from Adobe’s director of worldwide operations on a Sunday night telling me that he was sending me by FedEx a free copy of Dreamweaver to make up for problems I was having with an upgrade. Last summer I got a call from the executive assistant to the CEO of Toro telling me that they were sending me a free cable to replace the broken one on my lawn mower. I’ve been using Toro mowers for nearly 50 years. The cable might get me to continue to use them. Just a month ago, Nikon agreed to fix my Nikkor telephoto lens even though they could not find their copy of the extended warranty card. Unless they drop behind the technology curve, I will stick with my Nikon cameras.
I want Apple to be a premium brand willing to go the extra mile because I have paid premium prices for my Apple products. Unfortunately my experience even with some high level intervention shows that it is buyer beware with Apple just as it is with many other companies that sell products not nearly as expensive but sometimes more reliable than Apple products.
Apple’s latest refresh of the iMac line adds some more twists to the equation. You can no longer upgrade your own ram in an iMac and if you want a DVD drive you have to buy an external one. Apple’s RAM prices are about as expensive as the market will bear. From the review that I recently read, Apple has substituted a lower performing hard drive in the least expensive iMac. Based on my experience I cannot think that is good. Then in the ultimate convenience move, the SDHC reader is now on the back of the monitor. The only reason that I can see for an iMac being thinner and lighter is that it will be easier to carry into a mall Apple Store for repair.
It saddens me to say that in the nine months since spring I have invested more time in this iMac than I did keeping my Vista laptop running over a couple of years while I was calling Vista a quagmire.
I am going through a complete technology refresh on my desktop in the next twelve months. Likely there will be an Apple product on my desk, but it will not be an iMac. Whatever Mac I get will be here on probation since my recent Apple experiences have not been confidence building.
Actually I made the first purchase of my technology refresh on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I bought a Lenovo Yoga running Windows 8 for $999. My older Lenovo laptop is now hooked to an external monitor and acting as my main desktop system while I try to figure out how to replace my iMac. Here is a picture of my desktop.
I bought a new Lenovo because of the great experience with the previous one. It is the best laptop that I have used since the Powerbook G4 Titanium that I used as an Apple employee. So far I am very pleased with the Lenovo Yoga which is a combination ultra-book tablet with a touch screen. I’ll be sharing my Windows 8 experiences and the decisions I make on other purchases at ReadWrite Web.
You can read more about my Apple experience by checking out my recently published Kindle Book, The Pomme Company. Rumors of my book causing iPads running Kindle reader software to overheat are unfounded.