June 4th, 2006 • 5:27 pm
Dear oh dear…
I am afraid we are going to send our brand new MacBook laptop back to Apple. And we’re not going to get a replacement either. Here is why.
Based on my own experience with noise problems, and on all the on-line reading I had been doing about noise issues in Apple hardware in the past five years, I was a bit concerned about what the noise levels would be with this new MacBook.
After all, the Titanium PowerBook G4 might be slow by today’s standards, but at least you can’t complain about the noises it produces. Simply put, in normal daily use, the fans never kick in, and all you hear is the continuous, low-level noise of the spinning hard drive. In five years of using this TiBook, I have only heard the noisier internal fans kick in on a handful of occasions, and it was always in rather extreme conditions (very warm weather, lack of air flow, intensive use, etc.).
So when I got this new MacBook and turned it on for the first time, I was a bit apprehensive. And the initial impression did little to reassure me. The MacBook booted up as expected, and then immediately launched the set-up assistant. During the set-up phase, there was a step designed to let you create a personal user icon based on a digital picture taken by the internal iSight camera (instead of using one of the default icons included in Mac OS X). As soon as I reached that step, I heard a weird kind of noise where it sounded like the MacBook was trying to start one of its internal fans, but was failing to do so repeatedly.
The noise stopped as soon as I got past that step with the internal camera, and I was able to complete the rest of the configuration process without any problems. Then, once the machine was up and running, I launched the Photo Booth application, to see if I could reproduce the problem. Sure enough, as soon as I launched Photo Booth and started using some of the funky visual effects, the weird fan noise started again. And as soon as I quit the Photo Booth application, the fan noise stopped.
At that point, I figured that the Photo Booth application was obviously a CPU-intensive application requiring quite a bit of processing power and that would cause the Core Duo CPU to heat up and trigger the fan activity. It was also a rather warm day and the laptop was sitting on my messy desk next to my own screens, where it wasn’t getting the best air flow around it.
I was a bit concerned about this noise, but I thought that, if it was a noise that only occurred with CPU-intensive applications such as Photo Booth or GarageBand, it wouldn’t be much of an issue for my wife in normal daily use, since she was only going to be using non-intensive applications such as Mail, MS Word, MS Excel, etc.
So I finished configuring the machine, transferred all my wife’s stuff, and then set up the machine on her desk, where it would sit on the old ALZAmela PowerBook stand that we had for the PowerBook G4 and where the new MacBook still fit. My wife’s desk is usually uncluttered, and I figured that the stand would definitely provide sufficient air flow to avoid any over-heating issues.
My wife then started using the machine on a daily basis for her work. Initially, everything went reasonably well. She didn’t have that much to do on the computer anyway, and we had a series of very nice days this week where the weather was sunny, but nice and cool in the mornings and evenings, with a good breeze. With the window open, there was no question that the air flow around the MacBook on her desk was optimal, and she didn’t have any significant noise issues.
Meanwhile, I continued to monitor various on-line forums and blogs for other people’s reactions to the new machines. I also found a small utility called CoreDuoTemp that lets you monitor of the CPU temperature on the MacBook. (Most other similar utilities don’t work with the MacBook yet, because they haven’t been properly updated.)
I read about Daniel Jalkut’s distressing experience with his MacBook Pro, where he described various noise issues, including a “mooing motors” problem that sounded very similar to the noise I had noticed, except that on my MacBook (not Pro), it appeared to be coming from the top-left corner of the machine rather than the bottom-right. As Daniel says, “the fan never seems to come on and stay on, it ramps up and then dies.”
But I still figured that, as long as this “mooing” noise only occurred very occasionally in daily use, it wouldn’t be a problem.
In the first couple of days with the MacBook, I also noticed another rather annoying noise, but this one coming from the power adapter of the MacBook, not from the laptop itself. It was a constant “sizzling” type of noise coming from inside the power adapter, and I didn’t feel it was normal. In fact, it sounded a bit scary, because it sounded as if the power adapter was about to catch fire or something. So I got on the phone with AppleCare, and did a little bit of experimenting while talking with the girl on the phone, during which we discovered that the noise would only occur when the power adapter was connected to the laptop and charging it. If the power adapter was only plugged in, but not connected to the laptop, there wouldn’t be any abnormal noise. After consulting with product specialists, the girl said the noise was not normal, and organized a replacement shipment.
Since I had her on the phone, I thought I’d mention, in passing, this mooing noise that I had noticed on occasion. She confirmed that it was indeed a “normal” noise and that it would occur when using certain CPU-intensive applications, such as Photoshop, or Photo Booth, etc. She could hear it on her own machine too, she said. At that stage, I felt reasonably confident that, if this noise was indeed “normal,” we would at least be able to minimize it, since my wife almost never uses CPU-intensive applications (and I only plan to use this MacBook myself when on the road, which is not often).
I also saw that Daniel Jalkut mentioned CPU temperatures beyond 80 degrees Celsius on his machine. According to the CoreDuoTemp application that I had installed on the MacBook, the normal temperature range in normal operations on the MacBook was between 50 and 70 degrees Celsius when not using Photo Booth or an application like that, so it didn’t look like my machine was getting abnormally warm.
Then today disaster struck.
The day was particularly damp, with constant rain showers, but the temperature was also not very high, and my wife kept her window closed. She had quite a bit of work to do in Word and Excel, and had to listen to some MP3 files with QuickTime Player.
Soon after she started working, she called me to inquire about this weird noise that the machine was making. I came to take a closer look/listen, and of course the noise that she was referring to was that mooing noise that I had noticed myself. Except that now it was doing it all the time.
I launched the CoreDuoTemp application, and the temperature range of the CPU was between 65 and 75 degrees Celsius. Apparently, that was enough, in today’s weather environment anyway, to trigger the mooing repeatedly. Yet all she was running was Mail, Word, Excel, and QuickTime Player. And she wasn’t doing several things at the same time. She was just doing the stuff she normally does, i.e. listen to MP3 recordings of her students’ work in QuickTime Player, then switch to Excel to enter marks or to Word to work on a document.
She was understandably quite concerned about that noise, and I tried to reassure her that it was only an occasional noise that could be due to high CPU activity. Yet I was also looking at Activity Viewer on the machine, and it was not indicating any abnormal CPU usage. With the few applications that she was running, the CPU % was around 10 or 15 percent. Nothing shocking, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Yet the left-hand side of the machine was indeed quite warm to the touch, and clearly the situation was enough to trigger the mooing fans.
I asked her to continue working and keep me posted. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours, the situation was still the same. She was still doing the normal, usual stuff, and still the mooing continued. She was now getting rather distressed, because, like me, she’s quite sensitive to noise, and she was used to the TiBook which, for five years, didn’t make any abnormal noises.
We tried putting the laptop to sleep, waiting for a few minutes to let the CPU cool down, and then turning the machine back on. The CPU temperature was then in the 50-60 range, which looked more normal to me, and didn’t trigger any noises. But after a few minutes of work in Word and Excel, the temperature jumped back to the 65-75 degrees Celsius range, and the mooing returned.
Now my wife was getting very concerned. She clearly couldn’t work with such a noise. And there was no sign of it going away! She understandably didn’t want to open the window behind her desk, because it wasn’t particularly nice outside, and besides, the temperature in her room was perfectly normal. She didn’t have any heat on, so it was probably around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius.
I decided it was time for me to get on the phone with AppleCare again. I did just that, got to talk to a representative named David, and he immediately recognized the noise I was describing, and immediately stated that this was a perfectly normal noise, and that it was to be expected.
I tried to explain that we didn’t feel that it was a normal noise, but he insisted that it was normal, that of course today’s laptops ran warmer than the TiBook did five years ago, and that occasional fan noise was normal.
I had to explain this to my wife, and she was not particularly impressed. She tried to continue working on the machine for a while, but the noise was clearly getting on her nerves, and I find it quite understandable. It’s not like it’s a constant, low-level fan noise. It’s a start-and-stop sound that keeps coming and going, and there’s nothing more irritating or distracting than that. We live in a very quiet rural environment, and value this quiet environment very highly. We don’t have any significant office background noises in our house, and my wife certainly doesn’t have any in her room. (I have the constant purring of my G5, of course, but at least it’s constant and fairly reasonable, compared to the noise the G4 MDD used to make.)
Even in my room with the background noise of the G5, the MacBook’s mooing would be noticeable. So of course it was all the more noticeable in her room, where she has no background noise.
At that stage, my wife had to be quite frank with me and tell me that this was an unacceptable situation. She was not about to sacrifice her five years of office tranquillity just for the sake of getting a newer, faster, slicker machine. She indicated quite clearly that, if this mooing noise was normal and nothing could be done about it, then we would have to return the machine and she would have to go back to her trusty PowerBook G4. And I had to agree with her, because I would feel exactly the same way if it were my machine.
So back on the phone I was with AppleCare, and I got to speak to another representative. We went through the usual spiel, and his first response was that this noise was probably “within specifications” (i.e. to be expected), but that if we felt it was abnormal, we could go to our local Apple repair shop and get a specialist to take a look/listen.
I explained that the closest specialist was a three-hour drive away, and that this was probably not worth the trouble if the noise was within specifications, and the machine didn’t exhibit any other abnormal behaviours, such as an abnormally high temperature or something like that. He then said he would go speak to a product specialist to see if there were any “emerging issues” about this brand new model.
When he came back, all he could say was that this was as expected, that the noise was within spec, and that there was probably nothing that could be done about it. I then said that, in that case, we would have to return the machine and ask for a refund. He then asked where I bought the machine from (the Apple Canada Educators Store) and asked for my web order number. He said he would put me on hold and contact a “sales admin” person and get back to me to hook me up with this person.
After a few minutes, he was back, and transferred me to this sales admin person. I explained again what the problem was and that we felt we had no choice but to return the machine and ask for a refund. He then looked up my order and told me in no uncertain terms that, since I had selected a “built-to-order” configuration (I had added 512 MB of RAM to the default config of the black MacBook), the sale was final and I couldn’t return the product and get a refund.
I was flabbergasted. I said that I had no idea that there was such a policy. He told me that he could point me to a web page outlining this policy. I said that I was sure that there was a policy somewhere, but that it certainly wasn’t clear at the time I selected a built-to-order option that I was doing something that would prevent me from return the machine if I wasn’t happy with it. It is not like there is a big warning in bold letters about this when you do actually select a built-to-order option.
On the contrary, the Apple Store web site makes it very easy to add such built-to-order options, and doesn’t warn you about such consequences in clear terms at the time you do choose such options. I was sure that there was some fine print somewhere, and indeed, the “Shopping Agreement” that you have to go through when you use the Apple Canada Educator Advantage Store does state:
Custom Configured Product
We are pleased to offer product custom configured to your specifications* and encourage you to review your order carefully. Since the product is built to your specifications, the order cannot be modified, returned or cancelled once your order is in production.
But of course like most people I had only had a cursory look at this “Shopping Agreement” to ascertain that I was eligible (I am). This still qualifies as “fine print” to me, and I find such conditions rather outrageous—especially considering that the only thing that I had added was a bit of extra RAM, since the default configuration always has insufficient RAM for anything other than the bare minimum.
At this point, I was getting rather hot under the collar, and my wife, who was listening to my conversation, was getting quite agitated herself. She’s usually better at keeping her cool in such situations, and it was her machine, so she took over and proceeded to make it quite clear to the sales admin person that we felt that this was quite unacceptable. She asked to speak to someone higher up.
He put her on hold, and came back to us within a few minutes with a proposal to let us return the machine and refund it, but with a 10% restocking fee, and we would have to pay for the shipping.
I am afraid that we felt that we had no choice but to take that option. So that’s what we are going to do. I am going to install Tiger on her PowerBook (which thankfully we had not yet resold to the friend with lesser means who was interested in it) and transfer all her stuff back. (I had already reformatted the hard drive of the old machine and erased everything.)
And this mooing black MacBook is going back to Apple, because the noise is, quite simply, unacceptable in a laptop product used for simple computing tasks such as e-mail or word processing.
It is a very sad and disappointing turn of events. I am a long-time fan of Apple products, and have spent tens of thousands of dollars on Apple products. I provide tech support and computer advice (including computer purchasing advice) to a variety of Mac users in the region. But I am starting to feel that Apple has been erring on the abusive side of this relationship a bit too often in recent times.
First there was the atrocious AirPort reception of the TiBook, which was clearly a bad design flaw (and, even with some improvement, still continues to plague MacBook Pro models today as far as I can tell).
Then there was the atrocious noise problems with the G4 MDD, which triggered an international petition campaign that eventually led to a Power Supply Replacement program.
And now this?
Of course, I have limited experience with other recent Mac laptops. This MacBook is our first new laptop since the PowerBook bought in 2001. I realize that the technology has changed in five years, that processors have become more powerful, running hotter and requiring more engineering ingenuity. But I thought that the switch to the Intel processors (with all the associated headaches and expenses for end users) was precisely so that we could enjoy improved performances in laptops with appropriate CPUs that would not burn our laps to a crisp.
It is also quite possible that we are being “punished,” once again, for being early adopters, that this is a problem that will be eventually fixed in subsequent revisions of the product or even possibly through a firmware update.
However, at this point, I don’t feel that we can take the chance and keep the product in case this might happen in the next few months. There is very little indication coming from Apple that their engineers do actually take noise issues seriously.
On the contrary, you really do have to wonder what the MacBook’s engineers have been thinking. Do they really think that such a start-and-stop kind of noise is preferable to some kind of constant, low-level fan noise? I am all for “smart” technology that adapts to circumstances and makes additional fans only kick in when they are required. But when they are required most of the time (and it certainly looks like they are), it makes no sense to make them optional, with all the extra noise associated with starting and stopping a mechanical engine.
I am afraid that, at this point in time, I have to say I have no trust left for Apple when it comes to noise issues. If they really feel that such a noise is “normal,” is to be “expected,” and is something that most people can easily get used to, then I am afraid that they might experience a surprisingly high percentage of product returns—in addition to getting a bunch of very peeved customers finding it hard to believe that just adding some RAM to a product makes it ineligible for returns!
I am not sure what we are going to do now. We’re definitely not buying another new machine right away. And, when it comes time to replace the TiBook because it is actually dying (which could happen any time, unfortunately), I am really not sure what we are going to do. I certainly will never buy another built-to-order machine from Apple again unless they change this policy. (How hard is it to remove the extra RAM to turn the machine back into its default configuration?) I thought I was doing them a bit of a favour by giving them the money for the extra premium that they charge for extra RAM. They are never going to get another cent from me in that respect.
And when we do have to buy another laptop, I doubt very much that we’ll buy it on-line. We’ll go to a store, and take whatever demo machine they have there through a whole battery of tests, in a quiet environment if need be, to make sure that its noise levels are acceptable.
But again, if Apple really thinks that it can get away with this kind of lousy treatment when it comes to noise issues, it runs the very real risk of losing me (and therefore a significant bunch of pretty hard-core Mac users) as a customer. Such lousy noise management engineering is not worthy of the quality products that Apple purports to be selling. We are not talking about occasional problems here. We are talking about the very ordinary, day-to-day computing experience of ordinary users doing ordinary stuff with their machine. If Apple can’t even make a machine that does that stuff properly while running cooly and quietly, then I am afraid that they don’t deserve my money anymore.
This whole ordeal will have cost us over $200 (not counting the brand new AirPort Extreme Base Station that I ended up ordering because AppleTalk printing over AirPort wouldn’t work properly with the MacBook), and we’ll chalk it up to experience. “Live and learn,” as they say. But I am starting to find that there is a limit to the amount of learning that I am willing to do for Apple at my own expense.