Mac hardware: Quality control issues?

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
January 22nd, 2010 • 7:10 pm

As a lone blogger in southwest Nova Scotia, I obviously only have anecdotal evidence. But as a Mac tech support person, I am consulted and hired by a number of local Mac users to provide help and advice, notably on their purchase of new machines.

And here is what I have observed just in the past few weeks.

A local newspaper decided to replace their entire fleet of aging Mac computers with brand new machines. It is a small business, so we are talking about one Mac Pro with a 30″ screen, one Mac mini to act as a server, and five iMacs.

For the last category, they decided to go with the 27″ iMac model, which is, on paper, a pretty convincing and fetching offering. And then they ordered all the machines from a national reseller, and the machines started trickling in after the holidays.

Of the five iMacs, two arrived with a cracked screen. Now, this might not be a flaw in the hardware itself, but at the very least it looks like a flaw in the packaging, which does not look to be sturdy enough.

Of course, these machines are going to be replaced at no cost, but it’s an additional hassle, and it’s definitely troubling to have the incident happen to more than one machine in such a small order.

Only Apple knows how many machines end up with a cracked screen when they are delivered, but maybe the fact that there apparently is a new delay in the delivery of 27″ iMacs confirms that there is indeed a problem and that Apple is trying to address it.

The Mac Pro seems to be OK, but the graphic designer is already having problems with the Magic Mouse, some of which might be tracked down to a problem with Bluetooth reception, which would seem to be a hardware flaw in the Mac Pro itself. (I am still investigating.)

(I am somewhat interested in the Magic Mouse myself, after having tried it during the installation of these new machines, but I won’t buy one for my new Mac Pro until I have good indication that there won’t be Bluetooth reception problems. Generally speaking, I distrust wireless peripherals, simply because I have heard of and seen myself so many glitches, if not actual problems and bugs, with the Bluetooth connections. Plus there is the issue of having to use batteries…)

Then I have another friend-cum-client who’s just bought herself a new 27″ iMac to replace her aging (and kernel-panicking) PowerMac G5. When she got it, the screen was not cracked, but she noticed right away that the machine was making way too much fan noise while running. She called me in, and sure enough, I was able to confirm that the noise was far from normal. I tried the usual troubleshooting steps (zapping the PRAM, etc.) to no avail.

The fan noise would start as soon as the machine was on (even before booting) and gradually ramp up, regardless of what the machine was being used for. I decided to do the hardware test by booting with the D key down (and was shocked to see that, even in these brand new Intel-based machines, Apple still uses a classic Mac OS 8/9-era user interface for the hardware test application).

Much to my surprise (I was already fearing a protracted battle with AppleCare…), the basic hardware test did produce an error called “4SNS/1/40000000:TH00-9.000.” The error code is not much help, but to me a brand new machine on which the hardware test gives an error is a dead-on-arrival machine and I advised my friend to get it replaced. She didn’t buy it directly from Apple, but we did call AppleCare and the representative immediately said that she should and would get it replaced by the retailer. He still gave us a case number just in case, and she’s currently in discussions with the retailer about getting a replacement.

Out of curiosity, I also did a Google search for the error code and found only one result, but a very interesting one. It’s a blog post at OWC (a US retailer from which I have bought stuff in the past, especially when US prices, even with the exchange rate and importing fees, were much lower than Canadian prices):

Proprietary cable can put the brakes on upgrading Late ‘09 iMacs

The error code does not appear in the body of the blog post itself, but in the comments, and the gist of the problem appears to be that 27″ iMacs customized with a 2 TB hard drive (the default configuration is with a 1 TB hard drive) that happens to be a Seagate Barracuda drive seem to have problems with thermal sensors and therefore exhibit abnormal fan activity. I quote:

BEWARE SEAGATE replacement drives don’t work.

I have a new 27″ iMac and the 2.0TB Seagate Barracuda LP. Once booted the fan will begin running at ~ 2500 RPM. It will continue to increase in speed until it reached very near max speed….. not quiet.

Running hardware diagnostics generates error 4SNS/1/40000000:TH00-9.000

Putting the 1TB Seagate back in restored the fans to normal operation.

Sure enough, my friend did get a customized iMac with a 2 TB hard drive. So I told her that, if she’s going to get it replaced with another iMac with a 2 TB hard drive, she’d better check and make sure the replacement machine does not have the same problem.

We will have to see how it goes, but again, it’s a rather annoying hassle, especially for people like us, who live in a community that is a three-hour drive from major authorized retailers.

Finally, there is, of course, the CPU heating issue with my own 2009 Mac Pro, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The problem has yet to be solved. While it’s not a deal-breaker and my machine’s temperatures still stay easily within range (at least as far as I can tell, and unlike what’s happening to other victims), I am still rather annoyed by this.

I did submit a bug report to Apple a couple of weeks ago, and they responded to indicate that the bug was a “known issue” (original Bug ID# 7375647). But of course there is no indication of if or when the issue will be fixed. It is hopefully a software issue that can be addressed in a system or firmware update, but given that it seems to affect all 2009 Mac Pros, it has already been a full year with no noticeable action on Apple’s part.

All this adds up to a rather unnerving picture. Are Apple’s quality standards slipping? It is of course impossible to tell if you are not Apple and do not have access to hard data on machine returns, failures, complaints, etc. And I have not forgotten the not-so-distant years when Apple was shipping machines nicknamed “wind-tunnel” because of horrible noise issues. Or mooing MacBooks.

I suppose that, whenever a company ships millions of units, there are always going to be sporadic problems. Overall, Apple still seems to have good customer satisfaction ratings. But do we put up with more because of our minority situation or are things really as rosy as the customer surveys seem to indicate? And how much does the success of the iPod and the iPhone skew the ratings in Apple’s favour?

My own experience in the past few weeks certainly seems to indicate that Apple is far from immune from substantial quality control issues. One key aspect of such a situation is how promptly the company moves to acknowledge and then address these issues.

The culture of secrecy and (occasional) denial at Apple does not help in that respect. If Apple is aware of an issue such as the CPU overheating in Mac Pros and working on a fix, then it would be nice to be told more than just that it is a “known issue,” with no indication of when or how it will be fixed. (I have a number of bug reports that have remained in “known issue” status for years. Is that what is going to happen with this one? Or is Apple really taking it seriously and working on a fix that will be delivered soon?)

All this makes me a big uncomfortable both as a Mac user and as a Mac “expert” asked to give advice about hardware and software purchases. I am not about to switch to the “dark side” and recommend that people get crappy PCs instead of their Macs, of course, but at the same time I wish I could be more enthusiastic and wholehearted about my endorsement of Apple’s products. It certainly is not the case at this point in time.

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