Caveat lector

This year, we’ve seen a flood of new Intel-based Macs, from the Mac mini and the iMac to the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. And with the appearance of each new Mac, we’ve also seen reports of the quirks, flaws, annoyances, and other problems that supposedly plague it.

Questions of scale

When Apple ships new products, we hustle to get our hands on them as quickly as possible. In the case of the MacBooks we review in this issue (see page 24), Senior News Editor Jonathan Seff and I went to our local Apple Store and bought two of the new laptops the morning they were shipped. We then set to work.

The Macworld Lab ran benchmark tests on the MacBooks and, within a day, we posted the results online. Meanwhile, we performed hands-on evaluations of the new laptops. Within a few days, we posted an in-depth review online. Add in all our other coverage, and I estimate that we wrote more than ten thousand words about the MacBook during its debut week.

All of that analysis was based on the two specific Macs that we bought. That’s the way it usually works with new Apple hardware. At best, we might have access to a handful of models. But sometimes, our reviews and lab tests are based on a single unit. Can we make valid generalizations based on one or two machines? I think the answer to that question is yes. But there are, of course, exceptions.

Bad news travels fast

When a company—even a quality-conscious company like Apple—mass-produces a complex, technologically sophisticated product, some units will turn out not quite right . That’s one reason companies offer warranties; some of their products inevitably won’t work perfectly.

The big question is, how can you tell if “some” is going to be one out of every two or one out of every twenty thousand units? We can’t answer that question in our reviews. We can only tell you about the products we bought and tested. In theory, this is where the Internet should be able to help you find out, from a wide group of users, whether or not a product is a lemon. In reality, though, separating the signal from the noise on the Internet can be very difficult.

Take the MacBook. It has received a huge amount of attention online—and rightly so. But if you scanned the Net for information about the MacBook in the weeks following its announcement, you might have thought it was a disaster.

One online Mac fan wrote about visiting his local Apple Store and noticing pieces of plastic flaking off the lid of one of the store’s black MacBooks. He posted photos of the flaking MacBook on Flickr. The photos quickly spread, carrying with them the news that there was a potential problem with the finishes on black MacBooks.

As far as I can tell, all of this was generated by one report about one MacBook found at one store. But that one report was repeated so often as to make it seem like a major problem. I received several requests from readers for information about “the MacBook flaking problem.”

That wasn’t the only problem amplified on the Net. Some users discovered a small plastic strip sealing the MacBook’s air vent, potentially leading to overheating. Others heard a high-pitched whine issuing from their MacBook Pros. Someone pried open a MacBook to find that the thermal paste insulating some of its heat-generation components had been misapplied.

None of these stories were made up. But were they indicative of a deeper problem? The Internet can certainly help in alerting you to serious flaws in products. Unfortunately, it can’t always help you distinguish such flaws from one-off manufacturing defects.

Making lemonade

What can we do? As I’ve said before in this space, we at Macworld are hoping to find an ongoing way to poll Mac users about the reliability of their computer hardware. But such polls won’t help those of you who are buying a new system.

What can you do? Try to keep everything you read on the Internet in perspective. If you read about problems with a product you’re thinking of buying, ask around and check reputable online forums (such as ours, at If you go ahead and buy, protect yourself. Be sure you’re comfortable with the vendor’s return policy, and make sure you’re clear about the product’s warranty terms.

Buying a lemon may be incredibly annoying, but it happens. As long as the number of lemons Apple produces stays low, we’ll all be fine. But if that number rises, it’ll say bad things about Apple. We’ll be watching—and so should you.

[ Have you ever bought a lemon from Apple? E-mail me, or tell us about it in our forums. ]

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