Hardware Stability

The cheap and cheerful eMac G4

About the eMacs...

Apple introduced in 2002 a cheaper G4 computer for schools and families on a budget for under A$2,000. The model is characterised by a colourful plastic housing for holding the computer motherboard and cathode ray tube.

Cheap cathode ray tubes

Reports have emerged of UK schools experiencing screen problems on their cheap and cheerful eMac G4 computers. Apparently a certain percentage of the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) used in the computers were developing discolourations on certain screen positions and other CRTs were losing their colour and lustre. Further details can be found in the UK magazine MacFormat, December 2003.

The cathode ray tubes, considered cheap by any standards, is highly susceptible to shorter lifespans under the excessive heat of the computer. Lifespan of the component is estimated to be roughly 2 years.

Cheap capacitors and overheating problems

Users were reporting in early 2006 the dreaded logic board failure on eMacs as the heat and other issues started to kill off certain electronic components. Estimated lifespan of an eMac based on consumer experience is roughly no more than 2.5 years before you have to fork out more money for another Macintosh (What's wrong with PCs? They are great!) and, of course, add extra waste to the environment. The batch of machines likely to be afflicted by this electronic nasty are those eMacs introduced in 2004. The most common symptom of a failing logic board is system-wide freezes (cursor locking up etc). The problem is apparently due to a blown capacitor. In other words, the heat of the computer is distorting the capacitor until eventually the capacitor fails to hold a charge correctly and suddenly blows.

This is quite a common observation even for those budding electronic enthusiasts trying to fix the square brick and el cheapo white power adapters of titanium powerbooks. Because the plastic outer enclosure is glued (not screwed), it is easy to damage the top of the main capacitor sitting directly underneath the plastic groove for prying open with a flathead screwdriver. Even if the AC wire is properly fixed and soldered to the circuit board of the power adapter and everything else looks right, turning on the AC power supply will blow the partially damaged capacitor.

However, in the situation of the eMac, the heat is already physically damaging the cheap capacitor through a type of material warping. As one anonymous MacFixIt reader writes:

"I also have repaired numerous eMacs with the capacitor problem. This is the same issue as the G5 iMac and the PC motherboards but so far there has been no response from Apple in regards to this. While Applecare is fine when purchasing one or two machines when you are part of an organization that purchases thousands of computers putting Applecare on each and every one is not an option. Hopefully Apple will see the light and start crediting for repairs done as they did with the video problems on the iBooks a couple of years ago." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures (#3): More reports. 10 March 2006.)

Another user named Jeramey Valley writes:

"We also have numerous eMacs with the described symptoms: random hard freeze/lock up. Same purchase time frame, summer of 2004. Logic boards have the blown capacitors, we are in process of repairing, notifying Apple (to hopefully get a repair extension program rolling, we have a couple hundred of this vintage eMac) and documenting. Serial range for one lab is: G8425 through G8427. Hopefully Apple will address and resolve this shortly." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures (#3): More reports. 10 March 2006.)

Another user named Rick Neil of Grapevine, Texas, said:

"I purchased 4 new eMacs (1.25 Ghz, combo-drive) in August 2004. Until about a month ago, they all worked perfectly. But now 3 of them have started hanging up randomly. No kernel panics. Occasionally, the hang-ups will be immediately preceded by obvious display corruption, and with one machine, the symptoms were preceded by several days with flickering "dots" or very short (say, 10 pixels or so) dark lines that intermittently flickered all over the screen. The problem certainly appears to be display-related.

I've taken two of them in for repair (two different shops). In both cases, the logic board was declared bad, with no further details made available, even upon request. One machine was repaired at my expense, the other I declined to have repaired because the technician claims that Apple refused to exchange the motherboard and so he wanted nearly $600 for a replacement (non-exchange) motherboard and another $100.00 for labor.

Since then, I discovered this thread. I now intend to contact Apple about the problem and add my 3 eMacs to the list of complaints. Hopefully, we can generate enough noise about this to get Apple to do something equitable about it." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures (#3): More reports. 10 March 2006.)

Here is a picture of one cylindrical capacitor with stuff already oozing out. It appears as a light brown stain on top of the right capacitor (there are two in this picture):

As another MacFixIt reader said:

"In one of the schools I support, we have a lab of 35 eMacs that were purchased together in 2004. Of those, more than half have had the logic board replaced (some twice) due to freezing in the middle of an action. Some have had the logic board, hard drive, display-analog assembly all replaced in order to get them to work again. Apple just recently replaced one with a similar machine because it never could be repaired successfully. I have 190 eMacs in one school and over 200 in another to support and only this group of 35 have had this issue. All others were purchased at different times since the eMacs were introduced and have not been a problem. Apple needs to own up to the problem with these machines. We are fortunate, in that we have 3 year warranties on all of our computers. Apple is repairing them without question. In our opinion, there needs to be a recall on the 2004 eMac." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures, freezes and jumbled displays (#4): Turning off ATI extensions can temporarily resolve; Pictures. 24 March 2006.)

Video problems?

Just when users thought these were isolated incidents as Apple would say, another MacFixit reader has noticed screen distortion on his eMac. There is a frightening suspicion this problem could be the result of a failing logic board or associated component. Here is a picture:

Apple's solution to the bulging capacitor and other problems

Apple's best solution so far is for you to take out an Apple extended warranty program for your eMac (or what about the idea of making better computers in the first place? Might make a difference!). This is confirmed by an anonymous Apple reseller and repair specialist. He said for MacFixIt.com:

"I work for a major Apple reseller/repair specialist. There have been a good amount of eMacs coming in with some serious hardware failings within the past month or so. Everything from inverters to logic boards. Most of these are cascading failures, wherein the logic board will fry the power supply, the power supply will fry the display, and then the inverter goes due to all of this.

'Can't stress enough to your readers: AppleCare is worth it. $800 in repair for an $800 Mac is not fun." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures (#2): AppleCare reminder; Blown capacitors.)

Better still, exercise your right for a replacement (if outside the warranty) under the Trade Practices Act by stating to Apple Inc. how the eMac is not of "merchantable/reasonable quality" due to a capacitor problem.

Why do the capacitors bulge?

If the problem is really the capacitors, a poster to Apple's discussion boards have revealed what could be the problem. According to etherian, it is alleged:

"Upon examination we saw 8 swollen caps, with 5 of the 8 leaking. They are 1800 mfd caps. Brown with gold lettering. These caps may be from the same manufacturer that caused a huge issue with several PC motherboard vendors. The end result was a class action law suit where nearly all the motherboard manufacturers paid to fix or replaced the boards. The capacitors were supposedly made using a electrolyte (insulating oil) from a formula that was stolen from a Japanese company and brought by a defecting engineer to China. The problem was that the formula did not include or mention the need for a critical stabilizer. Without the stabilizer, the electrolyte quickly becomes corrosive under the influence of electricity and causes the capacitor to break down and short out." (MacFixIt.com: eMac logic board failures (#2): AppleCare reminder; Blown capacitors.)

NOTE: The capacitor of the square white power adapter is not filled with the oil. Any bending of the metal though sufficient heating and cooling or be subjected to slight physical damage could also cause the same problems.

Will Apple instigate a repair extension program for eMacs?

Those eMacs with blown capacitors could be using the same components as the first generation G5 iMacs. We understand Apple has announced the iMac G5 Repair Extension Program for Video and Power Issues to repair the problem. It would not be surprising if another repair extension program is implemented to solve the eMac problems.

If you do pay for the repairs on your eMac and the repair extension program is implemented, call Apple to get reimbursement of the repair costs. And while you are at it, ask Apple to provide a location where all complaints can be read by the public so the company can't pretend the complaints are isolated incidents. It is the only way to ensure Apple does the right thing by implementing a repair extension program for poorly manufactured Apple products.

Blown capacitors not unique to Apple

Compared to the way Apple makes it look like an annual or bi-annual event for selling shonky computers, Dell's record is throught to be much better.

Considered an unusual occurrence, Dell has come in for some criticism with respect to blown capacitors found on the GX270 motherboards of some of their computers. But fortunately there is one big difference between Dell and Apple: Dell is prepared to provide refurbished logic boards containing better quality capacitors (they have the T cuts on top instead of the X cuts). But Apple is still deciding whether or not to do the same. And if you do have extended warranty, Apple is likely to use another eMac logic board built in 2004 with the same dubious capacitors (just to get users off Apple's back for another two years and then the company can hope users will purchase another Apple computer).

That's the difference between a large computer manufacturer and a small one.

Here are the pictures of the offending capacitors (marked easily with an "X") in the Dell computer you should avoid at all costs when getting your refurbished logic/motherboards boards (as they appeared at http://www.gripewiki.com/ as of March 2006):

Here are the sorts of capacitors considered better built. Look for these in your refurbished logic/motherboards (should have a "T" on top):

Given how cheap and nasty the eMac is looking, it is a pity consumers can't walk down to the manufacturing plant in Asia and pick up any new Macintosh computer at rock bottom prices whenever they feel like it like Mr Steve Jobs probably can. They should be cheaper than PCs given the way some Apple computers are manufactured.