Hardware

Computer manafacturers - PC or Mac?

A common marketing drive for major computer hardware manufacturers

Whatever computer (or peripheral) you decide to buy, be careful if you intend to purchase a brand new basic machine with the aim of expanding (or repairing) it at a later date to help minimise costs. It is the aim of many hardware manufacturers nowadays to get buyers to purchase only their own and very best machine (i.e. the most expensive and thus the highest profit for the companies) as soon as they come onto the market. The machines will also come with special screws and other features to make it an absolute bugger to open up if you need to fix the machine after the warranty period.

In the latest computers from Apple such as the display in the titanium PowerBook G4, there are no screws. It is stuck permanently together with industrial glue to prevent people from fixing a problem.

As far as pricing products are concerned from a marketing point-of-view, hardware manufacturers will try their hardest to get you to buy the more expensive products by pricing the lowest range product such that it would appear reasonably expensive, but to purchase a more expensive model, you only have to pay a little bit extra. And as an added incentive, the lower-end model is likely not to be fully expandable to the higher end models in the same product range. So keep your eyes open. (1)

The Apple Powerbook G3 Series "WallStreet" and 5300 computers - a case to answer

For example, the Apple PowerBook 5300 computer, when it was released in 1996 with its black and white LCD screen, did not have a stereo jack for allowing a microphone to be plugged into it. And neither was there an expansion option. Consumers had to purchase the more expensive colour PowerBook 5300c or 5300cs to get it.

Another classic example of forcing customers to buy the more expensive models is the original Apple Powerbook G3 Series "Wall Street" computer with its passive colour 800x600 pixel screen (including a revision 1 processor board with a 700mA Toshiba hard disk inside) and white Apple emblem on the cover. This product, when it was released in March/June 1998, did not have the expansion capability to add an L2 cache memory. L2 cache memory is a small chip and several other electronic components designed to help speed up CPU processing speed on the motherboard. Even though it costs a mere A$50 to add this feature, it still does not explain the cost and effort by Apple (unless they want to get customers to buy the more expensive products or for some other reason) in not making this an expandable feature so that customers can choose to add this feature at a later date. A similar argument could also be made of the video out capabilities of the more expensive G3 series computers which is not an expandable option on the cheapest model.

UPDATE
June 2006

Apple is improving its attitude slightly by supplying a MacBook with enough features for consumers not to complain. Now if only the plastics are of a high quality and is not too hot to operate...

Repairing Apple Powerbook computers still a nightmare for consumers

As for the ease of repairing Apple products by consumers, the original black (and the original round "transparent-like" iMac) power plug connector for the PowerBook G3 series computer ("Wall Street", "Bronze Keyboard, "Pismo", "iBook", etc) is designed by Apple to power only Apple products. This means that when the wire breaks in the poor quality (i.e. stiff and cheap) AC cable of the original black transformer through normal use (2), you simply cannot cut away or replace the damaged part of the cable and solder on a new and better quality power plug from a local electronics store. The power plug supplied by Apple has a special three-way connector (i.e. a 3.5mm stereo plug with an outer cylindrical metal connector) considered unique to this company only. While there may be safety reasons for designing the plug this way because the transformer does deliver a whopping 24V at 1.8A, there are standard high-quality "safety" power plugs available that could have been used instead of Apple's proprietary plug design. If standard plugs were used, it would have helped consumers with some technical abilities to repair the transformer and save the consumer and the environment the cost of replacing the entire transformer, or Apple the cost of having to implement a repair program of replacing them with something else. But if not, then this has to be seen as a blatant example of how some computer manufacturers are forcing consumers to buy their own specific brand of products in the quest for maximising profits. (3)

UPDATE
July 2001

As of time of writing, Apple Computer, Inc. has given official approval for customers to get a free replacement of the original black AC power adapters (Model Number M4402) that came with their PowerBook G3 series computers sold between May 1998 and March 2000. The recall came after several customers expressed concerns of their adapters getting too hot when left connected to a power outlet for long periods of time and if left unattended has been known to create a serious fire risk. Details about the official recall was mentioned at http://www.versiontracker.com (now CNET) in July 2001 (click here for a copy of the original article). For a copy of the original Apple notice, click here.

Beware of gimmicky features on computers if they don't have a significant benefit and low cost to the consumer

As another point worth mentioning regarding the Apple Powerbook computers (sorry guys, but we have some experience in using Apple products), the titanium Powerbook G4 models come with a 99.5% pure titanium casing and an extra wide 15.2-inch TFT XGA LCD screen, making the computers cost AUS$5,495 and AUS$7,495 respectively as of 2001.

The advertisement we found discussing this feature was at http://www.versiontracker.com/. Unfortunately, no where in the advertisement does it reveal the benefits of having an expensive metal like titanium on an Apple PowerBook computer.

If we were to accept this information at face value then we would have to conclude that the use of the expensive titanium is unnecessary unless it can withstand the stress of impact if the computer is dropped onto a hard floor. Unfortunately, the advertisement does not state whether the new laptops can survive such a fall.

UPDATE
June 2005

Apple introduced the aluminium PowerBook G4. This would have been a better material to reduce the price of the laptop except for the fact that the slightly acidic sweat of the fingers on a hot day can react and take off some of the aluminium metal. Should people ingest this metal by accidentally touching food and eating it or touching their mouth without cleaning their hands, it will later affect the brain such as premature memory loss and other brain diseases. Apple should be using a magnesium alloy.

What normally happens when a laptop is dropped?

The first thing that will normally happen when a laptop is dropped from normal height (ie from your hands) is the cracking of the outer plastic casing (which the use of titanium in a powerbook is a credit to Apple) irrespective of whether the lid is closed and placed inside a leather case (usually because the laptop is so heavy), followed by a shattering or permanent cracking of the LCD screen as this has an unfortunate habit of absorbing most of the shock of the impact.

NOTE: The LCD screen should have minimal components inside and be designed as lightweight as possible. This ensures the centre of gravity of the laptop is away from the expensive LCD screen and allows the main computer section to absorb the shock. But this can only be effective if the computer is solidly constructed and has some shock absorbing features built into the machine.

There should be a sticker placed on all new laptops showing their impact rating between 0 and 10 to help consumers determine how likely a laptop will survive the impact with a hard floor. The higher the rating number, the better the chances of the laptop in maintaining top working order.

Such an internationally-agreed policy will force hardware manufacturers to develop tough and durable products for the consumers. And it need not have to cost the manufacturer or the consumer a lot to make solid products. Just a few minor changes to the design of certain IT products (e.g. put in an extra screw here or there, and even a few larger and more reliable connectors to hold the circuit boards and other internal components in place) is probably all that is needed to dramatically improve the impact rating number to an acceptable level.

Yet there is nothing to suggest from the advertisement that forking out AUS$5,495 for the cheaper 400MHz titanium powerbook model will solve the latter problem (which is a far more important issue than any cracking or denting of the powerbook casing).

As of January 2002, the price of the 15-inch LCDs has dropped significantly. For Apple, this means good news because consumers will no longer have to complain about the cost of replacing LCD screens on laptops!

In general, we feel the original advertisement discussing the use of titanium on the Apple PowerBook computer is, in our opinion, an example of a gimmicky feature that merely reinforces the view that Apple Computer, Inc is primarily concerned with making a high profit for their shareholders and not so much on building a low-cost and high-quality computer for consumers.

Anyone for an iBook?

As of May 2001, Apple Computer Inc. has now made a serious attempt at reducing the cost (as low as A$1,800), weight (2.2kg) and size (285x230x35mm) of Apple PowerBooks. For further details, click here.

UPDATE
June 2002

A number of hardware-related problems are now emerging from G3 iBook customers. It would appear as if Apple really wanted customers to buy the more expensive titanium powerbook (or even go for the desktop variety of computers) to avoid having these very common hardware problems as discussed here.

Which one should I choose?

If you are not convinced that a good PC laptop will meet your needs and you still want an Apple laptop but are not sure which is better, if you can afford it, go for a titanium PowerBook G4 computer. You would be extremely wise to consider purchasing the latest PowerBook G4 titanium machines as they are designed to last a little longer than the consumer iBooks. Why? Because Apple Computer, Inc. have done their market research and found business professionals and designers/publishers are looking for quality products to last over 7 years compared to the average consumer who are now coming to accept the reality that cheaper Apple products are lucky to last 3 years.

UPDATE
January 2003

Apple Computer, Inc. has released the latest range of laptops to help suck dry whatever money you may have saved up after the last spending spree on titanium laptops.

Apparently Apple is trying really hard to listen to user requests for a tougher outer casing and this time the company may have achieved it. Made of the cheaper but more effective aluminium metal (although it could be easily damaged in a chemical laboratory if an acid or alkaline chemical falls on it), this material can be a little thicker and hence physically tougher around the LCD screen and the rest of the computer without costing Apple Computer, Inc. a lot of money during the manufacturing phase. But are the new laptops just as powerful as the titanium variety and are they free of manufacturing faults? For the latest news on these new machines, click here.

UPDATE
The new iMacs

Alternatively, you may have better luck with the new fancy 'desk lamps" (oops!), or should we say the stylish desktop iMacs (4) with their LCD screens attached to a dome-shaped computer base. At least with these desktop models, it is unlikely you would need to move them around a lot like a laptop and thus create extra wear-and-tear through normal use. For more details, click here. Nothing like throwing away a little money to find out!

Or if you are really not that interested in computers, you can always use your new iMac as a digital version of a home aquarium. Just check out the quality of the screensaver images and you will quickly see what we mean by this. For more ideas, why not give http://www.serenescreen.com/ a bit of a look. You'll never know what you might discover!

How can I tell whether an Apple computer is really up to the task?

Well, you really can't unless you intend to bolt down the latest Macintosh computer on a desk to ensure nothing will fall apart inside the machine (perhaps the iMac or other desktop Mac is a better choice as the laptop varieties from Apple are basically crap).

Actually this "bolting down of a computer onto a desk" idea may explain why in a study conducted by market analyst Gartner in 2002 Macintosh computers were up to 36 per cent more cost-effective to own and run than their competing PC counterparts based on a total cost of ownership methodology. The Macintosh computers were probably desktops which rarely if ever get moved around a lot.

Naturally enough we can only wonder what would have been the result if the study was done on Macintosh laptops between the period 1996 and 2001? We suspect it would be a totally different kettle of fish.

Even if you did buy a desktop Macintosh computer and had it physically bolted to a desk for its entire lifetime, we again strongly recommend that you give the new iMacs at least 6 and preferably 12 long and hard months after their official release date (all the latest iMac models should be available by now) and talk to as many new Apple iMac owners as possible for their opinion. Also consider reading the more independent computer magazines for the final verdict before buying one.

NOTE: Many Mac-centric magazines seem to tout how brilliant or "freakin' awesome" the latest iMac computers and PowerBooks with MacOSX are. You should be very careful with what these reviewers say. PC magazines tend to be a bit more balanced in their reviews of new Apple computers. However the best and most balanced information you can find on the latest Apple computers is by talking to as many new and experienced Apple users who have spent at least 6 and preferably 12 months using the latest Apple machines. This is how some interesting truths start to emerge on the quality of Apple products. (5)

Apple vs PC - Should I buy a PC instead?

There are two main types of personal computers on the market: (i) PC and (ii) Apple Macintosh computers. Which one should you go for?

Buy an Apple product only if you want:

  • the very latest technology (often ahead of any PC product);
  • the piece-of-mind of knowing that the technology used in a quality Apple product will not become outdated in less than 7 years (compared to most PCs which normally have to be replaced after 3 years); and
  • the world's easiest and most user-friendly operating system of any computer on the market.

Unfortunately, you may have to pay a great deal of money for a new Apple computer mainly because:

  • the product has to be imported from the United States;
  • there is extensive research and development (and now better quality control measures, especially with the mid- to top-of-the-range "non-demonstration" models sold to business professionals) behind the products; and
  • it gives you the licensing privilege of using the world's easiest and most user-friendly operating system of any computer on the market.

However, paying for the high price tag of Apple products does not always guarantee the highest quality.

In 1995-96, Apple Computer, Inc. experienced a few teething problems with some of their products. Without careful quality control measures, products like the Apple Macintosh PowerBook 5300 (or should we say more appropriately the Lemon Macintosh PowerBook 5300) laptops suffered from embarrassingly simple problems like poor quality outer plastics that warped when heated during normal operation, cheap or poorly engineered power plugs and adapters that broke easily when used under normal conditions, dead LCD screens (i.e. the LCD cables would pop-out from their connectors at the back of the screen with extraordinary ease), and non-robust trackpad buttons (these buttons were lucky to have lasted more than 6 months after the PowerBooks' purchase date).

Even if the problems should repeat themselves after Apple has made an initial free (but rather inconvenient) repair (together with having your original internal hard disk supplied to Apple even if they don't need it to do the repairs), Apple management are not likely to give you a refund or a replacement of the computer even after the reappearance of familiar hardware problems and in writing numerous letters to the Head Office. This poor customer service attitude is, from a traditional business point-of-view, quite understandable if their only bottom-line was making a profit, which they were at the time because of some of the financial problems Apple were having back then. But it would have also meant losing many loyal Macintosh users.

Fortunately, Apple has (we hope!) learned from its mistakes and the latest range of laptops (i.e. the more robust aluminium G4 iBooks) and desktop machines (i.e. the iMacs) are of sufficient quality to turn heads once again among the computing giants like Compaq and IBM.

Few people know that Apple's new computers - the iMac and original G3 iBook "clam-shell" design - with their distinctive colours, and clear plastics is a new design policy originating from this APC cartoon from 1990. To this day, Apple has continued with its design policy via the latest iMacs having the hemispherical base and LCD screen on top (6). Source: Mehlman 2000, p.112.

And now that Apple is making a massive profit ($30 million at last count in 2002) with these new machines, should any one of them have a repeated hardware problem, Apple is more likely to give you a refund or replacement on their new products.

NOTE: We recommend that you wait and see how the latest computer products - from Apple or any other company - perform before purchasing them. This is the only way to ensure the product is thoroughly tested and updated for stability and reliability. A good way to find out if a computer product meets these criterias is to ask yourself, How long does it take before the company releases a new model? If it takes less than a year to release a new, major product then there was a good chance that:

  1. the previous model wasn't that terrible crash hot and there was room for improvement (7); and/or
  2. the company needed to make a quick profit in releasing a new product (with a correspondingly poorer customer service attitude to consumers if profit is the bottom-line).

To be absolutely fair on Apple, they have made an effort to help some customers with faulty PowerBook 190 and 5300 computers. According to a quietly advertised Apple announcement on MacCentral Online, PowerBook 190 and 5300 users can trade-in their old machines (working or not!) for a new PowerBook G3 "Pismo" series computer with 400MHz speed, 6GB internal hard disk, and colour active-matrix screen. Nice. It is unfortunate that the offer lasts for two weeks (until 31 August 2000) and involves purchasing the PowerBook G3 "Pismo" series for $US1,799 instead of the current retail price at the time of $US2,499. What if people had no choice but upgrade to another machine (PC or Mac) after the backflip from Apple some years ago despite writing numerous letters to the Head Office for assistance and even a refund or replacement? How about the trade-in price of $US500 being used towards purchasing other products like extra memory, internal hard disks, printers etc via a coupon? "Well, beggars can't be choosers" as Apple would probably say. (10)

At any rate, Apple has yet to introduce a truly low-cost and robust computer for the mass market (although a reasonable attempt has been made with the release of the "consumer" iMac and G3 iBook) (11). For this reason, many people who are on a tight budget often turn to the PC market for a cheaper alternative.

The beauty of buying a PC computer is its ability to be almost fully customisable and built to your specifications using a wider range of cheap and/or readily-available components. Also the operating system used by most PCs (usually Microsoft) is sufficiently user-friendly to just about do away with the Macintosh computer.

However, if you are not familiar with what goes into a PC computer, you may be tempted to fall into the trap of buying from an enthusiastic salesperson whatever seems to be a great bargain price for a ready-made new PC computer, only to find yourself a few months down the track that your machine has inferior internal components, non-standard plug-ins and sockets, or inadequate or not the correct expansion capabilities you want.

Because the PC market is not fully regulated by government legislation (well, at least not in Australia), the consumer must shop around very carefully. If you intend to purchase a PC computer, you must make the concerted effort and time to listen and understand what goes into making a quality PC computer. Then you can choose this or that and build a quality product that meets all of your computing needs at a reasonable price.

Or, if that is too hard (because it means gathering more information in an already overburdened world of information) and you do not have the time to learn about PC computers, then why not try saying to the saleperson that you want to buy a computer for a friend who happens to be a computer geek, or an expert in the field. Any mention of the word "computer geek" or "expert" will almost certainly keep many of the computer salespeople and manufacturers honest.

In essence, the Macintosh computer is generally an expensive machine (mainly because you are paying for the brand name, the cost of importing the machine, and the MacOS licensing privilege). It is designed to be user-friendly and provides the necessary and latest powerhouse features for running a narrow range of higher quality multimedia and desktop publishing software.

The PC computer, on the other hand, is generally cheaper and can run a greater range of software, but it is unusually complicated and/or unintuitive and usually pretty ugly to look at and use anyway.

How to decide?

Good question. Given the problems consumers get with computers, all you can do is talk to the experts and get the low down from enough owners of the computers you may be interested in buying. And always see the product in action in the shops (especially the one you may consider buying). In that way you can thoroughly test the machine for things like blown pixels on the screen, pressing the battery compartment to see if it will accidentally switch off the computer, look for cracks or potential bending of the casing created by mishandling of the computer or prolonged internal heating inside the machine or whatever, and exactly how hot the machine might be under normal conditions.

Also check to see whether the computer is fast enough to handle the kind of software you are likely to use now and in the next 5 to 7 years. For example, run a copy of the latest bloated Adobe Reader 7.0, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop (on the latest operating system - that is, Windows XP or MacOSX) and time how long it takes to launch and perhaps do a complicated task like applying a sophisticated graphic filter to a large graphics image (i.e. approximately 32MB in size should give you a good idea).