State of the Mac

Fred Morris likes Macs. He liked them enough to buy an original Mac Plus back in the day and a Special Edition iMac later on. Neither machine ever gave him a problem. So when it came time to buy a new computer in 2006, he didn’t hesitate to pick up a brand-new 20-inch iMac Core Duo. But this time, Morris ran into trouble.

Seven months after he bought the iMac, it started spontaneously shutting down. For a while, things would be fine after a reboot. But then the spontaneous shutdowns started coming with greater frequency—every four or five days. After Morris made a couple of visits to his local Apple Store, the Apple folks scheduled his iMac for a power-supply replacement. But that didn’t help. So he returned to the Apple Store, where both the power supply and the main logic board were replaced. Two days later, the iMac shut itself down again—and this time, Morris couldn’t get it to power back up.

He turned to the AppleCare support line, where he was able to run through his repair history with an upper-level service representative. Morris asked if he could simply get a replacement, and that’s exactly what the rep agreed to—two days later, a FedEx shipping label and a box arrived. Morris used them to return the dead iMac. Three days later, a brand-new iMac—a slightly newer model—arrived in its stead.

“My tale of Mac woe turned out to be as woe-less as one could hope,” Morris told Macworld .

Morris’s misbehaving iMac is not at all typical—but his satisfaction with Macs in general and with Apple’s customer service certainly is. At least, that’s the conclusion we came to after surveying more than 5,000 Macworld readers about reliability and satisfaction.

We conducted the survey because reports do occasionally surface about Mac problems—yellowing cases, faulty batteries, and flawed displays. But how can those reports be put in context? How widespread are the problems? Are they happening to lots of Mac users or a vocal few? And how hard is it to get them resolved?

So with the help of market-research firm Karlin Associates, we sent out surveys to the Macworld Reader Panel—a pool of thousands of Macworld readers whom we regularly poll about issues of interest to the Mac community. We received responses from 5,129 panelists, who gave us feedback on the 7,167 Macs they use as primary Macs at home and work. (Survey participants could select primary machines for both home and the workplace—that’s why there are more Macs than respondents.)

About four out of five Macs owned by our survey respondents got top marks for satisfaction. An equal percentage of those Macs earned similar scores for reliability. And when troubles did flare up, more than 60 percent of Macs that had problems received top-notch service. (We summarize the survey’s findings on satisfaction and reliability, repair incidents, and quality of customer service on the next three pages of this article, but you can also download a PDF of the reliability survey.)

That Mac users love their computers will come as little surprise. And that Mac laptops and desktops are pretty reliable machines won’t raise too many eyebrows among longtime Mac users. But it should be very comforting to learn that when problems do happen, Mac users can generally count on high-quality service.

It certainly was a comforting discovery for Fred Morris. “Apple didn’t have to replace my iMac,” Morris says. “They certainly weren’t obligated to give me a better model than I returned. Nevertheless, they did—and made this longtime Apple customer damn glad he stayed with them.”

What we found: Satisfaction and reliability

Most of the Macs our survey respondents use are desktops, and most were purchased within the last two years. An overwhelming majority of those Macs—86 percent—get high marks for reliability.

  • Sixty-two percent of the Macs our respondents use are desktops. Of these desktops, almost half are Power Macs (nearly all G4s and G5s, in roughly equal numbers), slightly fewer are iMacs (mostly G5 and Intel versions), and the rest are Mac Pros, Mac minis, and eMacs (in comparable numbers). Among laptops, roughly equal numbers are PowerBooks and Intel-based portables; only a few iBooks are still being used as primary Macs.
  • Most of these machines are less than three years old. More than a third were bought in 2006 or later; a quarter, in 2005. But plenty of Macs purchased before 2003 are still in service—especially Power Macs.
  • Most Macs are purchased online. More than half of our respondents’ primary Macs—56 percent—were bought on the Web, and roughly two-thirds of those machines came from Apple.com. Apple’s retail stores accounted for about one-fifth of Mac purchases, as did other brick-and-mortar retail outlets; the remaining machines were either purchased used or received as gifts.
  • Mac users are very happy with their computers. Regardless of when and where these machines were purchased, Mac buyers like them a lot. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest level of satisfaction), our respondents rated more than half of the Macs at 10; 85 percent earned a 9 or a 10. The highest scores for desktops came from owners of Mac Pros, Intel-based iMacs, and iMac G4s; among laptops, the most satisfying Macs were MacBook Pros and PowerBooks.
  • Mac Reliability and Satisfaction We asked Mac users to rate the reliability of their machines and their overall satisfaction, on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest). We also asked Mac users if their primary Mac had ever experienced a problem that knocked it out of commission for at least one day. ( Chart by Xplane . Click on chart for larger view. )

    To put those numbers in context, we asked readers who use both Windows PCs and Macs to rate their satisfaction with their Windows machines. The result: 15 percent of those Windows boxes earned a 9 or a 10 on the satisfaction scale—about one-fifth as many as the Mac. (Keep in mind that this comes from Macworld readers, so you can’t project those numbers on all Windows users; still, the figure does give you a sense of users’ relative satisfaction.)

    We also asked our respondents to rate their Macs’ reliability, again using a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being extremely reliable). Nearly 60 percent of the Macs earned a 10 for reliability; a little more than a quarter earned a 9.

    To offer some comparison, we turned to our cross-platform readers and asked them to rate their Windows PCs for reliability. Only 9 percent of those Windows boxes got a 10 for reliability.

    Reader tips

    In addition to supplying answers to our questions about Mac reliability, our survey respondents also offered insight on their own experiences. Here’s a sampling of what some of them had to say about satisfaction and reliability.

    Things break: While it’s no doubt frustrating, the simple fact is that machines break. If your Mac does, there’s no reason to get angry, Dominic DeJoseph of Brooklyn, New York, says. So follow the advice of Robert Silber, of Conover, North Carolina, and work the resources that are available. You should be taken care of.

    I had a PowerBook G4 that went on the blink. After about 15 minutes of use, nothing more than word processing, the cursor would repeatedly freeze and I would have to force shut down using the power button. The computer was just about four years old, so Apple Care was not a possibility. At first, I thought maybe I’d picked up a virus, because I often used wireless Internet service in some local cafes. Then I began to think that overheating might have fried the logic board. Finally, I began to think these machines are designed to last for only four years, at which point they self-destruct. Do I really believe this? Yes and no, but mostly yes.— Dominic DeJoseph

    In August 2005, I ordered and received a G5 Power Mac. Within a few weeks, I could no longer mount a DVD via the optical drive. I could mount the same discs on my PowerBook, so I knew the drive on the G5 was bad. I called AppleCare. After 30 minutes of constructive troubleshooting, the representative confirmed that the optical drive was not working. I was sad that my new Mac was defective. Being the pragmatic realist that I am, though, I know that things break, and I expected that Apple would either send me a drive to install or send someone to install it for me. Instead, to my surprise, the tech-support rep declared the machine DOA. He then transferred me to another representative, who issued a FedEx return label. I wiped the hard drive, boxed the Mac up, and carried the box to FedEx. I had a new machine in three days!— Robert Silber

    What we found: Repair incidents

    A quarter of our respondents’ Macs had experienced problems that required service. Laptops had more problems than desktops. And the majority of Macs that had problems were back in service in less than a week.

    As satisfied as most Mac users may be, trouble is not unheard of in Mac land. From a sample of 6,924 machines, 26 percent had a problem of some kind that put them out of commission for at least a day. Here’s how those numbers break down.

  • More portables had problems than desktops. Thirty-two percent of the laptops being used as primary machines had problems, compared with 22 percent of desktops.
  • Macs used at home tend to have slightly more problems. Specifically, 28 percent of home Macs were out of commission at some point, compared with 22 percent of office Macs. That difference could be attributed to the presence of workplace IT departments that can minimize downtime.
  • The older a Mac is, the likelier it is to have experienced a problem. As you might expect, new Macs (acquired within the last year and a half) were much less likely to have had problems than older Macs. iMac G3s had the highest number of problems among desktops. Among laptops, iBook and PowerBook models clustered around the 40 percent mark.
  • When they have problems, Macs are usually fixed quickly. Of Macs that had problems, two-thirds were out of commission for a week or less, with one-third out for three days or less. Portables were out for longer than desktops (portables had a median downtime of 6 days, versus 5 for desktops).
  • Incident Reports We asked survey participants to tell us what kinds of problems they had experienced with their Macs. Here are the problems, organized by system. Respondents could choose more than one response, so percentage totals do not equal 100 percent. ( Chart by Xplane . Click on chart for larger view. )

    Among desktops, all-in-one machines had the longest downtimes. The eMac and the iMac G4 had the most-severe problems, lasting from 10 to 12 days. Despite their low incidence of problems, when 17-inch MacBook Pros did have problems, they were doozies, leading to an out-of-commission average of almost 12 days.

    The most-common hardware problems had to do with RAM, the circuit board, fans, or the hard drive. iMacs, Mac minis, and Intel laptops were particularly prone to RAM, circuit-board, and fan problems. Power Macs, PowerBooks, and iBooks were vulnerable to hard-drive failures; so were Mac Pros in terms of percentage, though the sample size was smaller. Among laptops, MacBook Pros had the highest incidence of battery problems (28 percent); in our follow-up interviews, none of the PowerBook owners we spoke to cited the laptop-battery recalls of 2005 and 2006. Meanwhile, MacBooks and MacBook Pros had an unusually high number of problems with circuit boards and/or cooling systems—54 and 56 percent, respectively. About 14 percent of the MacBook owners we surveyed reported keyboard problems; in follow-up interviews, several of them cited the “yellowing wristrest” phenomenon that made headlines in 2006.

    Reader tips

    Here’s some more reader feedback—this time on diagnosing and trouble-shooting hardware problems.

    Use the Web (if you can): It pays to be informed before you ask Apple or anyone else for tech support. Head to Apple.com’s user forums, as well as other Mac discussion boards, and search for your particular problem. That helped Fred Morris, of Laurel, Maryland, get a handle on his shutdown problem.

    I did some research online and found some reports of spontaneous shutdowns in Intel iMacs. Those reports indicated that the shutdowns would become more frequent. Sure enough, they began to happen to me every four or five days. That research also indicated that power supplies were the primary suspects, because of an overheating problem that was difficult to re-create at will.— Fred Morris

    Back it up: We know that we say this all the time, but backing up everything on your system can minimize the damage when trouble does strike. With hard drives among the most troubled components of Mac systems, data loss is a real risk, as Mark W. Clark, of Ukiah, California, can tell you. And even if your hard drive is functioning when you send it off for repair, you never know what might happen to it while it’s in the shop. While you’re at it, before you send any hardware out, be sure to deauthorize iTunes—your iTunes authorization is tied to your hard drive.

    I thought my motherboard was failing, but to be sure, I ran Disk Utility. To my surprise, it quickly advised me to back up everything because the hard drive was failing. I started backing things up, but the hard drive died in the middle of that task. This happened last summer, and I am still re-entering stuff that I lost. But now I back up the stuff that matters.— Mark W. Clark

    What we found: Quality of service

    A majority of Mac users are extremely satisfied with the repair service they’ve received, regardless of where they go for help. Shipping a Mac out for repairs seems to produce prompter service. And third-party service providers were rated highly for their Mac knowledge.

  • Apple Stores are the favorite service provider. When problems did flare up, most Macs—34 percent—were taken to the nearest Apple Store for service. After that, the most-popular service options were visiting an Apple-authorized service center (29 percent) and calling AppleCare (25 percent).
  • The pricier a Mac is, the likelier it is that the purchaser will buy AppleCare protection. About half of these computers were purchased with AppleCare—the three-year extended-warranty package of phone support and repair coverage. Generally, the pricier the system was, the likelier users were to get AppleCare; laptops were likelier to have the extra coverage than desktops.
    AppleCare’s phone support received relatively low scores for satisfaction and problem resolution, but that’s the nature of the beast: there’s only so much you can resolve over the phone. In our interviews with users, we repeatedly heard about repair episodes that began with a phone call to AppleCare and ended with a visit to an Apple Store.
  • Mac service is generally excellent. Regardless of where they went for help, our respondents were pleased with the service they received. Of the more than 1,700 machines that had problems in our survey, 63 percent of them were fixed so well that their owners rated the service they received a 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being highest). Each type of repair service got high marks for resolving the problem and doing so courteously. More than two-thirds of the people we surveyed gave Apple Stores, Apple itself, and third-party service providers a rating of 4 for problem resolution and courtesy.
  • Customer Service Ratings We asked our survey participants to rate their experiences on a scale of 1 to 4 (with 4 being the highest ranking) in four areas: how well the problem was resolved, how quickly it was resolved, the courteousness of the service, and the Mac knowledge of the service provider. ( Chart by Xplane . Click on chart for larger view. )

    Bigger differences appeared when we asked Mac users to rate these service providers for promptness. In less than half of the cases where owners took their Macs to service providers in person—whether they were Apple Stores or third-party shops—the providers earned a 4 for promptness; by comparison, more than 60 per-cent of people who shipped their Macs to Apple or another service provider gave those services top marks for speed.

    We also saw a wide range of scores when we asked owners to rate service providers for their Mac knowledge. Third-party services that owners had to ship their Macs to got the highest scores for knowledge. Oddly, respondents gave Apple the lowest scores for Mac knowledge.

    Reader tips

    Our readers also have some advice on getting great customer service when seeking repairs for your hardware.

    Find someone who knows Macs: While third-party service providers scored high in our survey, several of the people we interviewed reported problems with shops that didn’t really know the Mac. Take it from book designer and photographer Sherry Stinson, of Bartlesville, Oklahoma: Be sure you’re dealing with someone who specializes in Mac repairs.

    Because my Power Mac was out of warranty, I took it to CompUSA. They diagnosed a dead power supply, which they replaced. But they’re very expensive, they’re very slow, and they have only one Mac technician, who is never in a hurry to do anything. I’ve taken my Mac to them four times for repairs beyond my capabilities, and out of those four times, I’ve had to do further repairs myself twice, to fix the things they didn’t.— Sherry Stinson

    If at first you don’t succeed, ask for someone else: If you go to an Apple Store (or call Apple tech support) and you don’t like the answers you’re getting, don’t be afraid to work your way up the chain to another person. Apple does have a system for escalating really bad problems to staff with greater authority. That’s what Mark Dobroth, of Fort Collins, Colorado, discovered when he went to an Apple Store to find out why the optical drive on his iMac G5 had stopped working and why its fans were so loud.

    After resetting the firmware and then successfully mounting a DVD, the first Apple Genius told me that he didn’t see any problems and gave me the impression that he thought it was a software issue. I asked him to try starting up from a Tiger DVD; he couldn’t. I asked him to try starting up with a USB device plugged in; the fans started blasting away at full speed. At that point, one of the other Geniuses sensed my frustration, came over, and recommended that we replace the optical drive and the motherboard. I had to leave it there for a week, but everything was covered by AppleCare. That was last August, and everything has been working fine since then.— Mark Dobroth

    [ Dan Miller is the executive editor of Macworld . ]

    Subscribe to the MacWeek Newsletter

    Comments