Some of Apple’s Lemons

While Macintosh hardware is considered some of the most reliable in the industry, the company has had some pretty epic failures in the past. We spoke about some of these a couple of weeks ago on The Prompt, but after doing some digging, I’ve tweaked and expanded the list.

This article isn’t comprehensive, and I’ve just ignored things like exploding iPod nanos and boring hardware failures. A couple are fairly modern, and a couple aren’t, but all of them are enough to make even the staunchest fanboy roll their eyes.

In short, these are my favorite runts of the Macintosh litter.

Early 2006 – Late 2008 MacBooks

image via Apple PR

The pre-unibody, polycarbonate MacBook embodied Apple’s move to Intel. The MacBooks were a fair bit nicer than the iBooks they replaced, but early models experienced rather disgusting discoloration, but the problem was only skin-deep (hmmmmmm) compared to this one:

If your MacBook (13-inch) shuts down randomly during use, a downloadable firmware update is now available that resolves this issue.

The MacBook SMC Firmware Update v1.1 improves the MacBook’s internal monitoring system and addresses issues with unexpected shutdowns. This update is recommended for all MacBook systems, including those that received warranty repair.

Sadly, the firmware update wasn’t enough to fix all of the machines. Here’s Katie Marsal:

Apple Computer has acknowledged that a problem exists with some of its Intel MacBooks where the notebook computers may intermittently shut down, but has vowed to fix those systems free of charge.

“Some MacBooks may shut down intermittently under normal use,” the Mac maker wrote in a memo to some of its service providers this week. “If this issue occurs on your customer’s MacBook and the computer meets certain requirements, Apple will cover replacement of the affected parts under warranty.”

The problem ended up being related to heatsink component on the logic boards of certain machines. The repair was easy to complete (and I did a lot of them as a Genius), but the problem marred the MacBook’s name for a lot of users.

Sadly, the most wide-spread problem with the original design of the MacBook affected almost every machine sold: the chipping top case.

image via Guy Carberry on Flickr

In short, thin strips of plastic would break off from the palmrests on either side of the MacBook. Replacing the topcase could be done easily and quickly enough, but the new parts had the same weaknesses as the old, failed ones.

In April 2009, Apple addressed the issue officially, after Mac Geniuses all over the place had given away about a zillion repairs.

While some cracking plastic probably doesn’t make the MacBook a lemon, I can’t think of another modern Mac that’s so embarrassing. Weird-ass heatsink issues are one thing, but having a product that literally splinters into pieces all over the place seems bad. I hope Jonathan Ive is sad when he thinks about these machines.

For a complete history of the MacBook’s plastic failures including one that affected the unibody plastic MacBook, be sure to check out Jordan Merrick’s article on the subject.

Oh, and a bunch of these machines had bum hard drives as well.

17-inch and 20-inch iMac G5s

image via Apple PR

The original iMac G5 was an impressive machine. Apple took the loud, hot, power-draining G5 processor from the PowerMac and put it in an enclosure just two inches thick.

It came with a price, though. Here’s a photo I took of an iMac G5 several years ago:

Even if you aren’t a certified Macintosh hardware technician, it should be pretty clear that brown-orange gunk shouldn’t be oozing out the capacitors on the logic board.

While the failure wasn’t limited to Apple hardware, the company took the brunt of the issues between these iMacs and the eMac G4. Apple ended up opening a repair extension program:

iMac G5 systems exhibiting symptoms of scrambled or distorted video, loss of video or power, may be eligible for free repairs. If Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider determines that an iMac G5 computer is eligible as part of the program, the repair will be covered by Apple for up to two years from the original date of purchase even if the iMac G5 is out of warranty.

The program is available worldwide for iMac G5 models that were sold between approximately September 2004 and June 2005 featuring 17- and 20-inch displays with 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz G5 processors.

The repair extension program covered both the power supply and main logic board, as the capacitor failure affected both components. The replacement parts used a different style of capacitor, but even some repaired machines would experience issues.

PowerBook G3/233

The second-generation PowerBook G3 brought many of the great things from the first generation to the table — a good keyboard, handsome chassis and two drive bays, either of which could hold a battery or a 3.5-inch expansion modules, such as floppy or zip drives.

image via Wikipedia

However, the low-end 233 MHz model had a big problem. Dan Knight explains:

The 250 MHz and 292 MHz models were lightning fast, but the 233 MHz version was dog slow.

Why? Because Apple decided to keep the price down by eliminating one small item that makes a world of difference on G3 systems – the level 2 cache. Under MacBench 4, the 250 MHz model showed nearly twice the performance of the 233 MHz one!

The price difference was a measly $200. While the Apple of today may skimp on things like the amount of RAM and the size of SSDs it ships in its default configurations, it’s hard to imagine such a resource-constrained machine shipping from Cupertino today, right?

(The inclusion of this machine and the lack of this one may raise some eyebrows, but as my second Mac was a Titanium PowerBook, I opted to cut it some slack.)

PowerBook 5300

The PowerBook 5300 was Apple’s first PowerPC-powered notebook, and as one might imagine, it had some issues.

image via Wikipedia

Here’s a run-down of problems that plagued this machine:

  • Cracks in the plastic casing
  • Vertical lines present on the display due to pinched ribbon cables in the hinges
  • Cracking hinges
  • Poor performance due to the lack of a L2 cache
  • Fires due to a bad Sony lithium ion batteries that overheated while charging


Macintosh TV

Introduced in October 1993, the Macintosh TV is perhaps one of the earliest mainstream attempts at merging the television and the desktop computer.

image via The Verge

While the black enclosure still looks awesome, the Macintosh TV sucked not only at being a computer, but a television as well.

Based on the Macintosh LC 520, the Macintosh TV was denied the 520’s expansion card, and was limited to 8 MB. Furthermore, the 32 MHz 68030 CPU was sitting atop a 16 MHz bus, severely limiting the speed and capabilities of the machine.

The built-in, cable-ready TV tuner worked well enough, but MacOS wasn’t up to the task, as Eric Bangeman explains:

The Macintosh TV made computing and watching television an either/or proposition. Unlike today, where you can watch TV in a window while browsing the Web, writing e-mail, or idly checking Facebook, the System 7.1 desktop disappeared when you switched over to the TV. You couldn’t capture video, either. Instead, users were limited to saving individual frames of video as PICT files. And while TV was viewable in 16-bit color, your desktop computing experience was an 8-bit one.

Only 10,000 Macintosh TVs were made. That’s probably for the best, but Apple did offer some of the Macintosh TV’s features as an add-on for other machines.

Apple III

While not technically a Macintosh, the Apple III’s history is so cringe-worthy, I couldn’t pass up including it in the list.

image via Wikipedia

First announced in May 1980, the Apple III proved to have serious issues.

Byte Magazine said “the integrated circuits tended to wander out of their sockets,” which wasn’t far from the truth.

The Apple III’s case was built of out aluminum. While the thought was that this allowed the case itself to act as a giant heatsink, it didn’t work. Without fans or even vents, the Apple III ran hot.

Over time, and the expansion and contracting of the logic board would allow chips to literally fall out of their sockets. This was made worse by something that Wikipedia can explain better than I can:

Case designer Jerry Manock denied the design flaw charges, stating that tests proved that the unit adequately dissipated the internal heat. The primary cause, he claimed, was a major logic board design problem. The logic board used “fineline” technology that was not fully mature at the time, with narrow, closely spaced traces. When chips were “stuffed” into the board and wave-soldered, solder bridges would form between traces that were not supposed to be connected. This caused numerous short circuits, which required hours of costly diagnosis and hand rework to fix. Apple designed a new circuit board, with more layers and normal-width traces. The new logic board was laid out by one designer on a huge drafting board, rather than using the costly CAD-CAM system used for the previous board, and the new design worked. With normal-width traces there wasn’t enough room for all of the components, so a separate daughterboard had to be designed for the RAM which would fit within the existing heatsink.

All of this, combined with a high price tag, failing internal time clocks and a lack of software proved too much for the machine. Apple recalled all 14,000 machines, offering a replacement model a lower power overhead, better logic board and re-designed chip sockets.

Apple would replace the III with the Apple III Plus in December 1983, but the writing was on the wall.

Honorable mentions

Of course, there are lots of other gross Macs in the history books. The Macintosh XL was basically a re-badged Lisa, with terrible software. The Macintosh IIvi had a crippled CPU and was on sale for just four months. The Power Macintosh 4400 had a cheap metal case and had the floppy disk drive on the wrong side. Many iBook G3s smelled like a locker room. Early PowerMac G5s made all sorts of noises, as did early MacBook Pros. Many MacBook Airs suffered from broken hinges, something that’s plagued many generations of Apple notebooks.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

After researching and writing this article, I felt sad, but I’ve realized that loving the Mac platform means acknowledging those dark chapters.

That said, there’s a difference between bad Macs and defective ones. While the former are harder to swallow in some ways, Apple usually takes care of users who have purchased the latter. Apple currently has six repair extension programs open to address issues, which I applaud. While the company can be slow to act on wide-spread problems, on the whole, it does a good job of it.

Hopefully that care will continue in the future, and we won’t be re-visiting this list in 15 years to add a bunch of machines to it.