On MacBooks and Motherboards – Some Perspective

If you live by the words “Never buy a Rev.1 Apple product,” then you’re probably feeling pretty smug right now.

The Apple-centric side of the Internet has been buzzing about the MacBook – price, performance, features, style… I’m sure you’ve heard it already. Over the last few weeks, a darker tone has crept into all of the talk – mooing fans, cases turning yellow, sizzling power cords, heat issues and MacBooks that randomly shut down.

I read all of the message threads with a certain amount of morbid interest, but the discussion of the shut down issue has compelled me to follow it like people watch disasters unfold on the nightly news. It has become the single most popular topic on the official Apple Macbook message board, prompting a second thread after the original was locked. Apple’s apparent solution for this issue is to replace the main logic board (words that strike fear in the heart of many an iBook user). Oddly enough, my new MacBook has been at the service depot for nearly 3 weeks waiting on a logic board – perhaps explaining my interest in the issue.

Now, perusing some of these threads with some detachment (my MacBook never had the chance to randomly shut down – it managed to fry itself nearly right out of the box due to faulty RAM sockets), I’m struck by the level of panic and lack of common sense being employed by all of the parties involved. I’d like to take a moment and ask everyone to take a very, very deep breath and look at the big picture.  (For more details on the issue, Discussion Forums user Guykuo has an excellent writeup and overview)

First of all, nothings going to get fixed unless you have it serviced. Try a Genius at an Apple Store or call AppleCare. These machines are so new that they are all under warranty. Also, Apple’s engineers can’t fix what they don’t know about. The fix appears to be the replacement of the MLB and users who have received their machines back are reporting that they run cooler, more quietly, and don’t shut down. Will it last? Only time will tell. It’s also worth noting that they’re replacing the case and bezel plastic to prevent discoloration even if you haven’t specified that as an issue.

The upshot to this is that logic boards (and white cases) seem to have been in short supply. It’s easy to infer from this that the problem is widespread and the service depots are flooded with MacBooks needing transplants. The other side of the coin is that it’s equally as easy to infer that there was indeed a bad batch of boards, and those machines had to wait for a new batch without issues to be received at the depot. While we’re talking about how widespread this issue is, let’s also keep in mind that Apple has sold a LOT of MacBooks. Their numbers are kept close to their chest, but an awful lot of these boxes have hit the streets. If these issues were the rule and not the exception, I think you’d have to expect a product recall, or some other obvious announcement from Cupertino.

Now, here’s where Apple could do a much better job – they’re not known for rushing out and announcing issues with their products. Can you blame them? Their business is to sell computers – if you post a big notice that some computers you sell may have been built with a faulty part, you could probably expect sales to drop until the issues were resolved. However, it’s hard for us users to deal with support personnel to claim “they haven’t heard of this problem” when their message board is filled with people complaining about it. I’m sure that a little bit of straight talk from Apple would go a long way with a lot of unhappy users. The pattern that has emerged over the past couple of months is a string of complaints that are finally resolved with a one-line technical note on their website that advises users with the problem to contact AppleCare. A little more detail would be great, guys. Nothing – and I mean Nothing - will get an already-agitated owner of a malfunctioning computer more bent out of shape than locking down message threads or deleting messages discussing the issues said users are suffering from.

As a user who has experienced the cold grip of fear and despair when his just-out-of-the-box piece of stylish computing hardware dies, I understand the range of emotions that most of these people are feeling. They paid a substantial amount of good money for this piece of plastic and silicon, and expect it to work. You also expect the manufacturer to do something about it when it doesn’t.

Let’s try to remember this: screaming about it won’t help. Complaining on Apple’s support forums won’t either. Nor will re-purposing your MacBook into a doorstop. If a Genius can’t help you, or you can’t get to one – call Apple Care and set up a repair! Then, check the repair status as many times as you want.

In my case, I gave Apple the benefit of the doubt for the first couple of days when my status never showed they had received my machine. It wasn’t until I called them that they realized it had been sent to the wrong service center. Now, I have found that different operators at AppleCare have given me slightly different results. Some of them simply redefined customer service for me – they were helpful, sympathetic and reassuring. A couple of them… well, not so much. Overall, their customer service is miles ahead of the rest of the industry. As long as you stay reasonable and polite, you should have a good experience.

If you aren’t having a good experience, my final suggestion is to ask to speak with a Product Specialist. If you are honestly a dissatisfied customer, they will do what they can to satisfy you. I’ve been waiting for about a calendar month for the MacBook I ordered in June – the specialist was able to cancel my repair and replace my machine. Now, your mileage may vary – this wasn’t their first choice, and I was told to be prepared to wait even longer due to demand. The point is that Apple does have people whose job it is to make sure you’re satisfied with your purchase – you just have to know how to get them on the phone, and how to talk to them once you do.

Only time will tell if the MacBook is a problem child like the G3 iBook although my feeling is it’s not. Apple needs to realize that the way to encourage people to buy their products is to establish a reputation for excellence in customer service when their machines are faulty. Keeping mum about issues only stirs the rumor and innuendo that runs rampant on the Internet, where users are free to communicate their experiences with each other. If they announced that there was a batch of MacBooks that shipped with faulty logic boards but Apple would swap it with a good machine with very little hassle, I don’t think their worst fears – that people would be more encouraged to wait until later to buy – would be realized.

The moral of the story to us users (and especially those on Apple’s forum and others) is that while we can share our experiences with each other, emotional outbursts still don’t solve technical issues. Any complex, mass-manufactured device is going to have its share of issues – no quality assurance is 100% successful in this day and age. Have a broken Mac? Have Apple (or another authorized service center) take a look at it. I’m betting that you can see your issues out to a successful resolution.

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