A lot of people complain that Apple computers are expensive, but I’m not really sure that it’s true. Certainly, they are more expensive than the crappy £450 laptops sold in Tesco, but that’s not a particularly informative comparison. Compared to Thinkpads or Dell’s business ranges, the price of Apple hardware is pretty competitive.

In other words, for decent-quality computers—the level where industrial design extends beyond throwing OEM components on a table and tracing around the edge—they aren’t any more expensive than other brands, and may even be cheaper.

Apple also have a reputation for good quality. Given the trouble I’ve had with Apple hardware in the past1, I’m inclined to doubt this. Besides, all their stuff is made by third parties in the same Chinese factories as everyone else. There are, however, a couple of things that make Apple distinct in this regard.

One, they sell large volumes of each of a small range of products.

Two, they have an obsessive—rabid—user base.

These two facts, combined with the expectation of quality, mean that, when there’s a widespread design or manufacturing flaw with an Apple product, that information is quickly disseminated. This makes it hard for Apple to deny such flaws, much as they may try (by locking threads and deleting posts in their forums, for example).

Six weeks ago, I bought a new MacBook. One week ago, whilst I was using it, it turned off suddenly, all by itself. After that, these random shutdowns persisted. They were indeed random: I couldn’t say what combination of events caused them. Sometimes it would happen when the processor was busy; sometimes it happened when the computer seemed idle. Deliberately loading the processor didn’t necessarily replicate it, either.

Thanks to the internet, I knew that I wasn’t the only one. If there’s a website dedicated to the flaw, that’s a pretty good sign that something’s not right!

Before I could take it back to the shop, I had a little work to do, reinstalling the original factory RAM, wiping and reinstalling the operating system, and overwriting the free space with random bytes (not MILSPEC secure, but secure enough for my needs). After all this, it still powered down at random. That was perversely gratifying, as it confirmed that it wasn’t a RAM or software problem.

Returning hardware to an Apple Store is an exercise in frustration. You can’t just wander in and expect to be seen. Oh no. You have to make an appointment at the ‘Genius Bar’. (There’s something tooth-grindingly, spork-in-the-eye irritating about that name.) Fortunately, although it hardly felt that way at the time, they were able to offer me an appointment the same afternoon—an hour and a half later. I did the only sane thing, and spent the time in a nearby pub with a pint and a novel.

After a relaxed hour absorbed in a few Murakami short stories, the time for my appointment came around, and I headed back to the store. I was polite and cheerful, and explained my problem and the steps I had taken to verify it. It was clear that we both knew that it wasn’t an isolated fault, which made things easier.

—It’s a pity that it’s not a few weeks earlier, or I could just have given you a replacement.
—Perhaps you still can; I think the Sale of Goods Act gives me that right.
—Hmm. I’m not sure it works that way. Let me talk to a manager.

She phoned her manager. A few seconds later, I was cleared for a replacement.

I can think of a few things I’d rather have been doing on a sunny Sunday afternoon than traipsing into Central London to get my computer replaced, but at least it all worked out in the end. That is, assuming that my new MacBook doesn’t develop the same problem!

If there’s any moral to this story, it’s that Apple hardware does fail, and the staff can be very helpful if you’re civil towards them. Oh yes—and don’t forget to namedrop the Sale of Goods Act!

1 My first Mac, a G3 iBook, was affected by a widespread manufacturing flaw and went away for a logic board replacement, courtesy of Apple. it came back with a slower processor. I sent it away again, and it came back so poorly assembled that the entire alloy chassis was bent. Despite this, I managed to sell it on eBay for a decent sum. I replaced it with an iBook G4, which performed flawlessly. It did, however, receive a brand new battery courtesy of Apple during a recall. My next notebook, a 15 inch PowerBook G4, went back for a refund after a week when I discovered that the display controller was so poorly engineered that there was visible banding on the screen. The only Mac I’ve had no trouble with is an old G4 tower bought second hand on eBay.