About a year ago, I wrote about how my iMac had turned into an iLemon. But few Apple fans understood my frustration with my iMac and its iProblems, which started less than 18 months after I purchased it.
A year after I gave up on the iMac and retired it to my equipment storage closet, my son and I decided to resurrect it. It was not an operation for the faint of heart, mind you, but the effort—and why I ended up going through the trouble—offers some insight into the world of Apple and perhaps a hint of caution for those of you who do not live in the urban metropolises that Apple and its repairs shops so obviously favor.
Behind The Scenes
Here's a bit of background about me: At Apple, where I was a manager for over a decade, I completely bought into the belief that Macs were better made than Windows machines. However, on more occasions than I could count, it was a problem from a faithful Macintosh user that ended up being my challenge to solve. Sometimes, these problems were referred to me by executives; other times, unhappy customers would simply find me through people in my account teams.
But not once during my 20 years at Apple did I ever feel it was not in the best interests of the company to solve a customer’s problem. Sometimes we solved problems with our local budgets, but we'd often get the folks in Apple’s executive relations team involved to facilitate matters. I never sent them a problem they didn't resolve in a matter of days—sometimes just a few hours. Apple’s extra effort to keep customers happy was perhaps a key reason the company survived some of its darkest days before Steve returned.
Now that I'm just another Apple customer, I can explain what has happened to me. But as a former Apple manager, I can also highlight how my experience was different than what I saw from Apple for many years.
The Macintosh Of My Discontent
The iMac I purchased in October 2010 was an expensive computer at over $1,800, but I bought it because I was priced out of Apple’s tower line. I actually paid more for my iMac than I did for my nine-year-old dual G5 tower ($1,795), which still runs quite well.
But that 2010 iMac has been the most problematic Mac in my life, by far.
I was able to update a couple of lamp shade iMacs for my ladies of the house, so I consider myself a competent hardware person. But by spring 2012, I was having some serious software and hardware problems with that iMac. By summertime, I backed up my data and started booting the computer off an external Firewire 800 drive. The SD slot on the computer also started experiencing intermittent failures. But among all the problems that got under my skin, I found out Apple had an extended warranty program on Western Digital hard drives like the one in my iMac, but the serial number of my bad hard drive was out of the range covered by the extended warranty.
This was a bitter pill since the first Mac laptop I'd purchased after leaving Apple had a bad lower memory slot on its logic board and was also not covered by Apple's extended warranty. These were just the kind of issues we used to handle so effectively with Apple’s executive relations program.
When I looked for a service center to fix my iMac, I was not surprised that Apple had made so little progress in covering service whitespace in the eight years since I left the company—"whitespace" is basically an area where there is no computer reseller or repair available. Getting Apple to worry about anything other than major metro areas was always a challenge in my days at Apple, and little seemed to have changed.
Since I live on the coast of North Carolina—ten minutes from the beach—the nearest Apple repair facility is over three hours away in a Raleigh shopping mall. But even that store is an Apple Store; small Apple resellers that once helped Apple in its early days have not fared so well recently. Spending 12 hours during the busy holiday season driving to get my iMac fixed was just not an option; HP, by comparison, has an authorized service center less than five miles from my house.
But I really needed a true repair center: Changing the hard drive in my iMac would require pulling out its 27" LCD screen, which was something I did not want to tackle on my own. With that in mind, I sent an email to a high-ranking Apple executive, who happened to be my former boss at the company. The next day, I got a call from a very nice lady from Apple’s executive relations team who assured me they would fix my problem.
I spent several hours researching my issues and on the phone with one of Apple's "top troubleshooters," who also assured me all would be fixed. But after I did not hear back from them for a week, I emailed my executive relations contact. She called back, but her message was that my iMac was broken and I needed to take it to a repair center. Executive relations, rather than solving the problem, only managed to waste several hours of my time.
I wondered if publishing my book about my sales career at Apple (The Pomme Company) one month prior to these events had irritated the folks pulling the strings for executive relations. But it seemed a little too ridiculous to imagine Apple could actually be rattled by a book that did not reveal any secrets and whose content had never been challenged by Apple.
Rejuvenating The iLemon
Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2013: My son, a former Apple technician, announced he was coming to visit. I asked his advice on SSDs and told him I wanted his help bringing the iMac back to life. He agreed, and, at his suggestion, I ordered a 120 GB Samsung 840 EVO Drive from Amazon and a special SSD iMac installation kit from OWC. The two items set me back about $163, but the installation kit included some interesting tools. So while the ladies finished up Thanksgiving cooking, my son and I decided to give the iMac restoration project a try.
We ran into a fair number of issues—the OWC kit came with some dire warnings about returning the unopened kit if its video tutorial made you uncomfortable, plus the link to the video didn't work initially—but we remained committed.
Eventually, after finding a viable video tutorial and using a couple of big binder clips, we lifted and removed the iMac's LCD, and things went quickly from there. My son pulled out the iMac's old drive and installed the new SSD with a special bracket. We cleaned the fans in the computer with compressed air and also checked the SD slot for loose wires, which was the diagnosis of the problem from Apple's executive relations. Of course, there were no loose wires.
Once the iMac was reassembled—my son is a veteran of many laptop repairs so this was achieved relatively easily—it was my job to get the system running again. Fortunately I still had the external drive I used back in 2012 so I booted the system with it and ran Disk Tools to format the SSD. Thankfully, upgrading to Mavericks and migrating my applications and user info from my Mac Mini went smoothly from there.
Once that was all done, I noticed that the iMac's fans were running full blast. I searched the Web for a software solution and found one that charged $35 for the software. It seemed excessive so I found another solution, SSD Fan Control, which was free but I donated $10 to the author for good measure.
After installing SSD Fan Control, all seems to be working well on my 2010 iMac, including the SD slot, which I had always suspected was a software issue.
If you own a Mac, are looking to repair it or even purchase a new one, here are a few suggestions I'd make based off my experience:
If you are buying a Mac, factor in the location of the nearest repair center. All computers, even Macs, are susceptible to problems. But not all service centers are created equal. Don't trust your Mac to just anyone.
Your Mac, depending on which you choose, may or may not have a better hard drive than a Windows machine that costs you much less. Macs are now made with many of the same industry standard parts as other computers, and you don't need to be a technical genius to replace a SATA II drive in many computers—upgrading a hard drive is one of the things I've done most often to keep my computers functional for years on end. However, this procedure is not so easy on recent iMacs, so you might consider local repair centers around you if you're intent on buying an Apple computer and upgrading it.
Apple’s executive relations team is not as good at solving problems as it used to be, at least in my experience. In the case of one well-known Mac user having trouble with his laptop, the customer paid to have his computer fixed three times at an Apple Store, but it still didn't work. Executive relations never managed to fix his Mac, but they did return some of the money he'd spent on ineffective repairs. Like me, this customer eventually solved his problem by buying a new Mac—that’s probably Apple’s preferred solution anyway. In the early days when Apple had much less money, the company would have just shipped him a new laptop and considered it a good investment at keeping a long-time customer in the fold.
Manufacturers' warranty extension programs are based on serial numbers, all the time. However, it is an inexact science and having a number very close to the ones covered should get some consideration towards repair. Apple didn’t—and doesn't—do that. I will leave it up to readers to decide why a company with billions of dollars in the bank wouldn’t at least cough up a new hard drive that would cost them under $100 for the sake of keeping its customers happy.
Apple knows how to design systems that are easy to repair, but it hasn't happened recently. There has never been an easier system to repair than Apple’s Dual G5 tower, but since then, Macs have become extremely difficult to upgrade, fix, or repair. Apple could come up with an iMac design that allows for some user service if it wanted to do, but without an access door to the hard drive, I would not recommend anyone buys one without first understanding that upgrading would be an expensive endeavor.
Would I recommend people try what my son and I did? No—it was not easy and my son works with computers for a living. If all you have ever done is add some RAM or perform a 10-minute hard drive swap, you'll find that working inside a Mac, especially an iMac, is a completely different ball game.