G4 Achilles Heel

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Date: Monday, February 1st, 1999, 00:00
Category: Archive

Go2Mac Associate Editor Peter Kirn details Apple’s problems with the latest raft of G4s.

While concerns about “cracks” in the plastic casing of the G4 Cube appear to be largely cosmetic, both the G4 Cube and PowerMac G4 are threatened by a potentially more serious problem: a faulty power switch, resulting in the inability to power up the computer or the computer spontaneously powering on and off by itself.


A recent MacCentral article covers problems with the power switch burning out completely so that the computer can’t be turned on, but cites the problem as being “rare.” Ironically, a quick glance at the feedback underneath suggests, rare as it may be, there are plenty of frustrated Mac users experiencing power problems.

CNet also covers the power switch glitch in an article this week, with quotes from both Apple doom sayers and defensive quotes from Apple itself and everything in between. If we are to believe Linda McNulty, Apple’s director of desktop product marketing, the G4 power problem affects only a minute number of systems, and even then, possibly because the user is at fault for adding too many peripherals and drawing too much power: “You’re pushing the system, and that’s where it’s going to manifest itself.” I find this explanation curious as I’ve personally seen a system doing this right out of the box, and Apple themselves advertises the ability to plug the maximum number of USB or FireWire devices into their computers.

On the opposite extreme, we have the “Sky is Falling” response to the issue. “The luster is really off the Apple here,” Roger Kay, analyst at IDC, tells CNet. “They’ve had a couple of executional errors, so their aura of invincibleness has left them.” Mac users, too, as usual, have been complaining and also predicting the beginning of the End.

I don’t think quality issues have affected Apple’s stock price, nor will these glitches be Apple’s downfall, of course. Seeing one of the affected systems in person, though, is a pretty disturbing experience. As I worked Apple Demo Days at a local Wiz store in Co-Op City, the Bronx, NY, our G4 Cube would shut down at the drop of a hat. It was easy to bump the power button (or, since there is no button, the power area) while removing a CD, or simply pass too close to it, setting it off, or tip the unit slightly, which turns off the computer, or, apparently, breathe, walk away, think about the computer, or not think about the computer, all cases in which the Cube decided spontaneously to shut itself off. This was especially upsetting because the G4 Cube was, hands down, the favorite computer of all the visitors to the store.

The spontaneous power-offs are clearly symptomatic of the problem Apple has described. However, even if Apple is right and this is “rare”, one of the salespeople I was working with said he’d talked to other Wiz stores having the same problems. Apple has done nothing to communicate the problem to salespeople, making it harder to recommend the G4 Cube at a time when Apple is already concerned about excess Cube inventory. Even more disturbing, some of the problems simply result from a cool-looking, but inherently poorly designed, power switch on the Cube specifically. The Cube’s touch sensitive button simply makes it too easy to accidentally turn the computer off! (The PowerMac G4 is immune, at least, to this accusation; while it shares the circuit design of the Cube its button is not touch sensitive, but is a traditional discrete button.)


The good news is, if the circuit in question is simply unseated and not burnt out, users don’t have to wait for an Apple technician to fix the problem. Apple has posted instructions for doing it yourself.

Apple Tech Info Library article # 88037 describes the symptoms of an unseated DC-DC converter card as: “The computer’s power button lights up when touched, but goes out as soon as you remove your finger, and the computer does not turn on. Note: You may also notice the Power Mac G4 Cube starting up or shutting down by itself.” The instructions are right in the TIL article and include helpful, friendly pictures for each step. So, if you’ve been suffering from this problem, head immediately to Apple’s site as you may have a fix you can do yourself.

Overall, I think Apple’s quality control remains very, very good. That makes it even more disappointing to see a blatant oversight here. Apple needs to remedy not only the symptom, but fix the underlying design error, as well, as quickly as it possibly can. The otherwise brilliant designs of the G4 Cube and Gigabit PowerMac G4 deserve nothing less.

In the meantime, good luck to all of you fixing the problem. Have you experienced mysterious power problems with your system? Were you able to repair it as per the above instructions? Please click the feedback link and let us know.

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