Spotting lemons and other challenges

This year has brought a flood of new Mac models, as Apple quickly converts all the computers it sells into ones running processors created by Intel. And just as surely as summer follows spring, the release of new Mac models are followed by reports of various quirks, flaws, annoyances, and other issues with those models.

We’ve all been told that it’s a good idea to have as much information as you can before making a purchase. But thanks to the Internet, the amount of information you can get on any given product is more than you could ever stuff inside your head. So what’s a Mac user to do?

Questions of scale

Obviously, I hope that one of your first choices for information about new Macs is When Apple announces new products, our staff kicks into high gear, generating news stories, collecting frequently-asked questions (and answering them), and getting the skinny from Apple about what makes the new models tick.

Once those new products start shipping, we get them as quickly as we possibly can, and try to share with you what we’ve learned. Take the MacBook’s release —Senior News Editor Jonathan Seff and I spent that morning at the local Apple Store buying a couple of models so that we could get started quickly on testing and reviewing the new laptops. The Macworld Lab kicked into action with benchmark testing. And within a few days, we posted an in-depth review of the new systems. (By my count, within a week of that announcement, we had written more than 10,000 words on the MacBook.)

And yet, no matter what we do, our reviews will always be based on the individual Macs that are in the hands of our staff. (Usually, they’ve all been bought through retail channels, which means that, more often than not, we don’t test computers that could have been hand-picked for us by someone at Apple.) At best, we might have access to a handful of models. Sometimes our review and lab tests are based on a single unit.

Is that single unit enough for us to write about the experience most people will have in using their new Mac? Will our lab test results generally equate to the speeds people will see when they buy and use that model? The answer to both questions is yes. But, of course, it’s the exceptions that prove that rule.

Failure rates

Everything made by human hands falls apart, and nobody’s perfect. And that means that when a company mass-produces a complex, technological product, some percentage of them are going to emerge from the factory not quite right . That’s one of the reasons products come with a warranty: so a company can assure you that if the product you bought is a lemon, it will fix or replace it.

Of course, if half a company’s products are losers when they come out of the factory, that product isn’t going to last very long. But with a company like Apple, it’s inevitable that some amount of the products that roll out of its factories won’t be right. The big question is, how can you tell if it’s going to be one lemon out of every two, or out of every 20,000?

It’s certainly impossible for us to tell when we do our review—especially if the products we bought work just fine. But what if you harnessed the power of the Internet to find out about the experience of everyone who bought a new Apple product? Could you find out then if the product was solid or prone to horrible problems?

Theoretically, yes. But it’s incredibly difficult to sort out the signal from the noise.

Bad news travels fast

Let’s go back to the MacBook. Its release received a huge amount of attention on the Internet—and rightly so. It’s certainly the most talked-about new Mac product in a long time.

But if you were scanning the Internet for information on the MacBook in the weeks following its announcement, it would be hard to tell if the MacBook was a great laptop or an unmitigated disaster. One Mac fan visited his local Apple Store and noticed that “pieces of a plastic coating on the lid” of a black MacBook were flaking off. He posted photos on Flickr. Every blog under the sun repeated the news, declaring that there was a potential problem with flaky finishes on black MacBooks.

As far as I can tell, this was all generated by a single report about a single MacBook found at an Apple Store. It was repeated until it began to sound like a major problem—I received several personal requests for information about the “MacBook flaking problem,” in fact. But so far as I know, it’s been reported on just a couple of MacBooks. (A similar hubbub occurred when some users—a small but notable percentage—discovered that someone at Apple’s factory had failed to peel a small plastic strip off of the MacBook's air vent.)

The list goes on: the high-pitched whine that some MacBook Pros seem to emit. The thermal paste that, when over-applied, can cause MacBooks to run hotter than they might otherwise. None of these stories were made up, but what their real prevalence and relevance is remains the topic of much debate.

Does the Internet work to alert potential buyers about serious flaws in products, flaws that need to be remedied immediately? Absolutely. The problem is, sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell the legitimate, widespread problems from the one-off manufacturing defects. And if you believe that every problem reported on the Internet is widespread, it’ll scare you silly.

Making lemonade

So what can be done? Well, for a long time now I’ve wanted to start an annual survey that will ask Mac users about the reliability of their computer hardware. But such a survey still can’t help people who are pondering the purchase of a never-before-seen system.

No, all we can do is keep our eyes and ears open and try to sort through all the problems, great and small.

What can you do? First off, try to keep everything you read on the Internet in perspective. Nobody, from Macworld to the guy who found that flaky MacBook at an Apple Store, has been able to look at a large enough sample size of any new product in order to truly determine whether a problem is endemic or not. If you hear about problems with a product you’re thinking of buying, ask around. But in the end, if you truly want to buy a product, don’t let all the small reports scare you away. Buy that product—but protect yourself before you do. Make sure that you’re comfortable with the return policy of the place where you buy the product. If you’re buying in person, see if you can take the product out of the box and check it out before you take it home. And be clear about what the product’s warranty terms are.

No company’s products—not even Apple’s—have a failure rate of zero. Buying a lemon may be an incredible annoyance, but it happens. As long as the number of lemons Apple produces stay low, we’ll all be fine. But if that number rises, it says bad things about Apple—and makes life harder for all Mac users. We’ll be watching—and so should you.

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