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Why my next Mac won't be a notebook


Apple's products are widely hailed as better-built and more reliable than other manufacturers' devices, with greater longevity, better build quality and a lower incidence of device-killing defects. Ask most Mac owners, and they'll tell you their experiences with their machines have been almost completely problem-free.

I wish that I could say the same. My house is where portable Macs go to die.

In mid-2007, my wife bought a white MacBook. In the three years she owned it, the following things went wrong with it:

  • Late 2007: Upper case cracked. Known design issue. Replaced with used case.
  • Mid 2008: Upper case cracked again, in same spot. Replaced with new case.
  • Mid 2009: Logic board failed. Known issue. Replaced.
  • Late 2009: MagSafe adapter fails. Known issue. Replaced.
  • Late 2009: Graphics failure. Display replaced.
  • Early 2010: Logic board fails again. MacBook replaced with a brand new 2009 model.

One lemon machine is bad enough, but at least she got the most positive outcome imaginable: only months before her AppleCare expired, Apple gave her a brand new replacement machine with another three years of AppleCare coverage.

As I write this, I'm using my wife's MacBook because my MacBook Pro is in the shop (again) with a failure related to the logic board (again). For the first couple of years, I had no issues at all with my Early 2008 MacBook Pro, but it started to fall apart at the seams in October of last year. First the battery experienced a fault, losing over 10 percent of its capacity in a week, and getting AppleCare to replace it was an irritating jousting match. A month later, the infamously defective NVIDIA 8600M GT GPU failed, and I got the logic board replaced. Given the history of defects in our equipment, I half-jokingly told my wife that my MacBook Pro was likely to fail again within a couple months of my AppleCare expiring.

Turns out I was being too optimistic. Ten days after AppleCare expired on my MacBook Pro, the logic board crapped out. My Mac went to sleep in the middle of normal operation three times without me asking it to (and without Energy Saver preferences instructing it to), then it spontaneously shut down without warning. Console logs showed error codes that, after extensive searching online, seemed to indicate a thermal protection fault on the logic board -- even though the internal temperature was normal at the time.

Other people have experienced this same issue, and a search through Apple's discussion forums shows the only resolution was to get the logic board replaced. Since a new logic board would be about half the cost of just buying a new machine outright, and since my freaking AppleCare had expired less than two weeks before this latest issue, I called Apple and pleaded my case. To its credit, Apple granted me a one-time exception and agreed to cover the repair.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: your car starts making an apocalyptic grinding noise while you're driving it, and your stress level shoots through the roof as you worry that the engine is tearing itself apart. You make an appointment at the mechanic to get it looked at, drive it to the garage and drop it off. Then, hours later, the mechanic calls you back and says, "I didn't hear anything. Seems to be running fine."

That's exactly what's going on with my MacBook Pro right now; it's been at the repair depot for four days being subjected to every test in the service provider's arsenal, and the [expletive deleted] thing simply will not fail. Since this is absolutely the last time Apple will cover a repair for this machine, and I absolutely cannot afford to either repair it myself or get a new one, my options are to either leave my MacBook Pro at the repair depot indefinitely and pray for it to die while it's there (perhaps I should get an aluminum voodoo doll) or give up, take the machine back and have it go fins-up on me at some financially inconvenient point.

Keep in mind, neither my wife nor I are particularly mean to our machines. We take proper care of our gear, and at all times I have a three foot "liquid exclusion zone" around any computer I use. We've never dropped our Macs, never used them in harsh environments, and never demanded anything of them beyond what you'd expect a modern notebook computer to be able to do. Yet it seems both of us have won the "reverse lottery" when it comes to our MacBooks; despite laudatory stories from most other Mac owners about how reliable their machines have been, ours have crapped out on us with a frequency that would be amusing if it also wasn't irritating as hell.

Since it's clear I can't rely on my current machine to last me much longer (whether it gets repaired or not -- the jury is still out as I write this), I now have a "delightful" unplanned expense to look forward to in the near future: a new Mac. I don't know at this point precisely what model I'll go for, or whether I'll buy a new, used or refurb model, but I do know this: my next Mac won't be a notebook.

In three years of owning my MacBook Pro, its portability has come in handy on occasion... but in all honesty, absolutely everything I did with my MacBook Pro while away from my office is something I could just as easily (if not more easily) do on an iPhone or iPad. In fact, since getting an iPhone 4 I've found that it's slowly replaced a lot of the functionality that used to be exclusive to my Mac, and my iPhone is a lot more portable than the 17" behemoth currently idling away uselessly at the repair depot. Once my iPad 2 arrives from the States, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that my Mac usage is going to plummet even farther.

While my MacBook Pro was capable of heavy-duty tasks, like photo and video editing while on the go, it's just not something I did often enough to justify the price premium that goes with Apple's portables. And though I fell in love with the 11" MacBook Air at first sight, considering how incredibly unreliable Apple's notebooks have been for my wife and I so far, I can't bring myself to buy one now.

More than likely, my next Mac will be an iMac. It'll be "chained" to its desk, sure. But it'll also have a much bigger screen, more storage space, possibly a more powerful processor and hopefully better reliability than Apple's notebooks. Between my iPhone 4 and iPad 2, my portable needs should be more than covered. And oddly enough, an iMac + iPad combo winds up working out to about the same price as a MacBook Pro by itself, with more power on the Mac end and greater portability on the iPad end: win/win.

I know my experiences with Apple's notebooks are a statistical outlier. Every report out there shows how reliable they are overall, when considered over the whole pool of MacBook owners. But the numbers don't provide any comfort for me, nor do the Mac owners who express shock and surprise at my tales of notebook woe -- or worse, the jerks who tell me that I must be "doing something wrong" to experience this many failures. I've been burned by Apple's notebooks too many times, and I'm done with them.

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