Some MacBooks have premature age spots

After a few weeks, mystery stains appear on some white laptops, and owners band together to get Apple's help.

What began as a few isolated reports of mysterious stains appearing on the wrist rests of Apple Computer's MacBooks looks to be more widespread and the impetus for a growing Web community of displeased owners.

, which seems to take place on the most frequently touched plastic areas of the white MacBooks, first surfaced in early June. A related post on an Apple discussion board got hundreds of replies--including many from MacBook owners experiencing the same problem--before it was locked by the company five days later.

"My MacBook is three weeks old and looks as though I've been using it for three years and rubbing my hands in turmeric each day (OK, a slight exaggeration)," read one post from a London man. "Everything else about my MacBook has been fantastic, and I'm really, really happy with it; but I am appalled that it gets discolored so easily."

Photos: Out damn spot

Frustrated by the situation, Jose Munoz-Olaya, a MacBook owner and molecular biologist from Spain's Canary Islands, decided to put together a Web site devoted to pressuring Apple to respond fairly. As of Friday afternoon, his site lists 76 MacBook owners from around the globe who are experiencing the problem and have listed their device's serial number.

Most of those on the site started noticing the stains just a few weeks after they began using the MacBooks, which went on sale in mid-May. The Intel-based replacement to the iBook and 12-inch PowerBook comes in three models. The two lower-end models (starting at $1,099 and $1,299) come in white; the top-of-the-line model (starting at $1,499) comes in the apparently unaffected black.

Apple spokeswoman Teresa Weaver said the company is aware of the customer complaints and is looking into them. She added that those customers with "technical issues" should contact AppleCare. But Weaver declined to answer further questions, like how many people have contacted AppleCare thus far with discoloration and what might be causing the problem.

According to MacBook owners, the company has responded in different ways. Munoz-Olaya said Apple has replaced laptops for some who noticed the discoloration within the first two weeks of ownership. Apple told others, however, Munoz-Olaya among them, that it would repair the device only by replacing the plastic.

Munoz-Olaya, who reported the problem to Apple three weeks after the MacBook was released, said he would be fine with that, except that he can't be without his device for the estimated two weeks it will take to fix it.

"So basically Apple is penalizing me for being loyal to them and being one of the first to buy the MacBook," he said. "Please understand, I don't want a new MacBook, I'm otherwise happy with the one I have. It's just that I need a solution that won't leave me unplugged for weeks. A rich person would simply buy another computer. I can't."

Some online skeptics were quick to dismiss the allegations and wondered whether those experiencing the problems were just using their notebooks with dirty hands. But after trying a range of cleaning products, from soap and water to nail polish remover to hydrogen peroxide, Munoz-Olaya and others have debunked that theory.

"I work in a lab and have attempted to clean it with ethanol (which doesn't damage plastic) and the stains are permanent, they seem to be damaged plastic instead of built-up dirt," he said.

In addition to the complaints posted on Munoz-Olaya's and Apple's sites, the Unofficial Apple Weblog conducted an unscientific poll of readers and found that about 20 percent of some 1,560 voters had experienced problems with the discoloration.

A similar Web effort was launched following reports last fall that the screen on the iPod Nano, which had just been released, was prone to scratching. A related class-action lawsuit was later filed.

And several years ago, Apple's stylish Power Mac G4 Cube ended up marked with hair-thin lines some said were cracks.

Apple acknowledged a different problem with the MacBook earlier this month; some MacBooks were coming from the factory with a plastic film covering the rear exit vent, .

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