Mac Tech Problems Really Bring the Pain
Apple products aren't invincible. Sometimes things go wrong in ways that aren't easily fixable even for relatively experienced users. When they do, it hurts. Apple enthusiasts expect superlative quality. We seem to connect with the products in deep ways. And there's the fact that despite Apple's retail growth, getting to a Genius Bar still isn't exactly convenient for people in a lot of places.
This story was originally published on March 29, 2012, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
Is Apple pain worse than PC pain? It seems to me that a weird mix of personality, expectation and Apple's business model all conspire to create dreadful pain in Apple enthusiasts whenever something with an Apple product goes wrong.
I'm not talking so much about a hardware failure like a hard drive that dies, but something more insidious, like an application that won't launch, applications that crash, mysterious MacBook heat, spinning beach balls of destiny, or oddly consumed hard drive space.
This pain I'm talking about is something PC users get too, but in my experience they have a tendency to seem more nonchalant about it. As in, "Yeah, my PC crashed last night and I lost a bunch of work, so I thought I better sync with my phone, but now I can't get email at all anywhere unless I use webmail through a browser, and that's really annoying because there's some popup issue that keeps flashing at me and I think I'm getting a headache from it. I'm going for coffee, you want me to pick you up a cup?"
Where Did This Come From?
Earlier this week, a buddy of mine was over -- first-time MacBook owner -- and he was on my WiFi hanging out before he left town for a week-long trip. He was trying to update to the latest version of iTunes, but he got a popup warning message that said he couldn't because he didn't have enough hard drive space. He needed something like 1.2 GB of available disk space and he had less than a gigabyte left.
The guy wasn't using a MacBook Air with a piddling little solid-state drive -- he had a 500 GB hard drive and he had only had the MacBook for a little over three months.
"Whoah. Dude. That's nuts. You been downloading a lot of movies?"
"No. Hardly any."
"Making a lot of your own movies?"
"A few. Some. Not very long ones."
He didn't have many pictures, just a newbie iPhoto library. iTunes was a ghost town with little content. No weird applications. Hmm.
In a low voice so others in the house wouldn't hear. "Ah, have you been visiting any weird porn sites?"
"Any sort of file sharing?"
I looked at all of his files in the Finder and there just wasn't anything of substance -- all told, there was no freaking way he could have nearly 500 GB of files that he generated on his own in there. I opened up Disk Utility, messed around a bit, and basically everything was fine with his hard drive and permissions, etc -- it was just freaking full. Massively full of something unidentifiable, unfindable.
I went to "About This Mac," which is the little app available in all Macs from the upper left Apple menu. I clicked on "More Info," then hit the Storage tab. Sure enough, a little colorful horizontal bar graph revealed the types of files that were filling up his hard drive: 3 GB of audio files, 12 GB of movies, less than a GB of photos, a few GBs of apps, zero backups ... and about 480 GB of "other" files, which were represented by a nasty shade of yellow.
At this point, I'm perplexed and the guy is getting agitated. I can see his face contort with some odd mixture of pain, dread and a full-body unease. A tinge of anger mixed with disbelief in an expression that seemed to ripple. I'm telling you, a cornucopia of unpleasant emotions was splashing all over his face.
Someone else in the house came over to engage, ask what was going on or inquire about his trip, and it was like he couldn't respond. I was focused, not really paying attention, but vaguely it sounded like he snapped at the hapless visitor who was intruding on the moment, intruding the fix.
I Share Your Pain
I've been there, too. When my first-generation Time Capsule died, I lost hours trying to troubleshoot it and repair it. I turned to the Web and found a solution that required cracking the case, buying a new power cord, and soldering the whole hot mess back together, which I passed on because I would forever wonder late at night if the damn thing was overheating. Fortunately, despite it being well out of the warranty period, Apple replaced it.
But there have been lots of other little issues along the way, which isn't surprising for any bleeding edge Apple enthusiast who downloads and tries every new application and operating system release from the moment they are first available.
I've come to sort of expect some hiccups here and there, especially because I've got a MacBook that has been "seamlessly" upgraded from the user profiles and files I had from well before the MacBook name even existed. How many major versions of Mac OS X? Answer: All of them. I haven't had a truly brand-new clean install in years.
By comparison, this guy's MacBook was so squeaky clean that each key on the keyboard looked as if it had just been polished with a soft cloth before being slipped into the box at a factory in China.
Unfortunately, he was running out of options. Something was eating up all of his hard drive space, but what? We turned to the Web, searching for phrases like "hard drive full in OS X Lion." We found that others were having similar issues, which was oddly heartening because it meant that the problem was known, and if it was known, maybe it could be fixed. Further reading revealed that some seemed to have hidden backup files created by some Adobe applications run amuck, so we deleted the expired versions of Adobe's development software suite. That freed up some space, but didn't touch the "other" category. There were hidden files there for sure, hundreds of gigabytes sitting somewhere where the operating system didn't want us to see them. Some of the discussion forum posts revealed locations that we couldn't replicate, and a few people introduced some command-line solutions that could zap some files and stop Time Machine from making more.
Might the problem be a Time Machine that was creating snapshots of files, one after another, again and again, stored locally until the mobile MacBook reconnected to a backup hard drive? Nope. He never even turned the Time Machine feature on. Ever.
We were running out of time. I had work to do, pesky deadlines looming as always, he had to hit the road. Could he call Apple directly, and try to work with an agent on the phone? Ouch. That experience seems to be mixed, and if you're to believe the discussion forums, usually it fails on any problem that's even marginally new.
Can a Genius Help?
Of course, the awesome thing about Apple's retail stores is its Genius Bar. These pros are so smart they know things about Apple products that have never even been documented. It's in their DNA. My buddy could simply take his MacBook to a Genius, and in just a few minutes, his problem would likely be solved.
But this wasn't possible -- he knew it and I knew it. The nearest Genius was two hours away in good weather. On snowy winter roads, who knows? Besides, there was no way to get there before closing time. What was left? Maybe an Apple authorized service provider? Nice. We had one local, but like I said, it was after hours. And here's the deal: There are a lot of smart Apple-loving tech gurus out there, but could they fix such a weird problem quickly?
At home, I could dive more deeply into his MacBook and perhaps find the offending files. But what if I deleted the wrong ones? And would I only be fixing the symptoms and not the cause? I could potentially bind up his MacBook and not have time to reinstall the operating system and everything fresh. And he'd be looking at a week with little hope of assistance -- he was going to the coast of Oregon for vacation, and while there are Apple Stores in Oregon, I don't believe there are any on the coast.
He left without an answer but with a MacBook that had 8 GB of space and was working. The available space had stabilized, at least. But the pain ... I took the raw gut ache that I feel whenever my own Apple products don't behave and saw that another new Apple fan was feeling the same. Hardcore stuff. And I've got to wonder, do Apple enthusiasts feel more pain when their devices fail than PC users? I think so. Here's why:
First, we shell out for products that are well-designed inside and out, and we pay hefty prices to get them. So we expect superlative quality. Aside from the iOS devices, Mac owners are still minorities, and we still get some PC angst thrown our way by superior PC lovers (it goes both ways, I know, I know) and this means we might be a bit more sensitive on the subject. Point your finger and laugh.
Worse yet, though, real Apple enthusiasts seem to connect with their products in ways that seem deeper than your average PC-using Joe. I think Apple products have a way of burrowing into not only our psyche, but also into our souls. And when they get sick, man oh man, it hurts.