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Why I regret buying an iMac

The iMac is a great machine until something goes wrong. Here's why you might think twice about buying one.

iMac teardown
TechRepublic's teardown reveals the crowded insides of a 2011 iMac.

I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of all-in-one PCs, but a few years ago I was seduced into buying an iMac.

I'd like to blame it on an Apple ad campaign -- or the cumulative effects of multiple Apple ad campaigns -- but I think it had more to do with me briefly playing around with the review samples that made their way into our labs year in and and year out and rationalizing that the sleek, space-saving iMac would make a good hand-me-down computer for my kids when they were old enough to use one. Whatever it was, in the summer of 2010, when the iMac line got upgraded with new Intel processors, I walked into an Apple store and plunked down close to two grand on a 27-inch Core i5 model with some extra RAM. The guy next to me was buying a fully loaded Core i7 version for his daughter, who was headed off to college.

For the record, I was replacing a 2003 "Quicksilver" Power Mac G4 that had grown long in the tooth but still worked with one hard-drive replacement along the way and a few memory upgrades. And just so this doesn't devolve into an argument about Mac versus Windows machines, at the time of the purchase, I had more Windows machines in my house than Macs. Except for my work laptop (a Lenovo), I'd built all my Windows machines and they were much more powerful than anything I had on the Mac side. I still use them today.

Truth be told, I was happy with my iMac purchase -- until the hard drive failed on me last month, around 22 months after I'd bought it.

I'm normally pretty good about fixing these things and I'm well versed in using Apple's Disk First Aid. But the drive was one sick puppy. It wasn't exactly dead, but it was on life support. "Your drive has a hardware problem that can't be repaired," the warning message read. "Back up as much of the data as possible and replace the disk."

When good disk drives go bad: The message you don't want to see (click to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET

I had backed up most of its contents to a network drive, but I did have some family photos from the last three months that I hadn't backed up and wanted to save.

A bit of Googling led me to the discovery that Apple had actually recalled some iMacs thanks to a batch of "bad" Seagate 1TB drives. Unfortunately for me, the recall was limited to some 2011 models -- a year after my iMac.

I turned to a $99 program called DiskWarrior, which told me my hard drive was in seriously bad shape. The good news was the program could at least see the drive (it was mountable) and therefore could, in theory, help me access what was on the drive. There are more, even more-powerful data-recovery utilities, but DiskWarrior had received favorable reviews on CNET and elsewhere, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I sent DiskWarrior into battle at around 11 p.m. It was ugly. It was a 1TB drive with lots of bad sectors. I left the machine spinning and sputtering overnight. In the morning when I woke up, it was still spinning and sputtering. And then, some 10 hours after I began the process, it was over. I was able to preview the drive and start copying over the data to an external hard drive.

Once I'd completed the backup, I now was ready to tackle the problem of replacing the drive. (I could have attempted to reformat the drive, but the tech support guy for DiskWarrior said that even if I was able to do that, he didn't think the drive would be reliable.) For the heck of it, I thought I'd make an appointment and head over to my local Genius Bar. I kind of knew what the outcome would be -- I had not bought AppleCare, so I was screwed -- but I do enjoy chatting with the geniuses.

DiskWarrior goes to work rebuilding the directory, so I can save my data (click to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET

As usual, the Genius was cordial. As expected, the first thing he mentioned was that some hard drives in certain models were eligible to be replaced. Did I have the machine's serial number handy? (Note: I hadn't brought said machine because lugging around a 27-inch iMac isn't all that easy.)

I told him my model was a 2010 model and that the recall was limited to 2011s. He said, yes, that was right, but he wanted to check my serial number anyway and enter it into the Apple system to see if it was eligible. He went to the same Web page I had visited earlier and input the serial number just as I had. No shocker, he got the same answer I did: You're screwed, David Carnoy, you should have bought AppleCare. OK, it didn't say that, but it might as well have.

"Do you have AppleCare?" he asked.

I did not, I replied. If it was $50 instead of $100, I might have bought it. But $100 just seemed like too much to pay for insurance.

"After all," I said, "Apple products are so good, they shouldn't have a problem after two years, should they?" (It's always fun to be a little sarcastic with the geniuses.)

Alas, my feeble argument wasn't getting much traction, but I forged ahead, growing mildly indignant. I said I'd already paid $25 to expand my iCloud storage and I was running out of storage again. I'd paid $400 for an iPhone that cost $200 (give or take) to make. As he could see, I had at least seven Apple products registered under my account, and a $2,000 iMac that had died in less than two years. Also, did it ever occur to Apple that maybe, when you start recalling 1TB Seagate hard drives in a 2011 model, that a consumer like me might think that an older version of the same drive (that had died) might be bad, too? Wouldn't that be a logical assumption?

He nodded sympathetically. But it didn't take a genius to figure out that without the crutch of AppleCare, I didn't have a leg to stand on. I'd rolled the dice and lost. Sure, hard drives are supposed to last four or five years, but my genius had seen plenty go bad after a year or two. It happened. I was screwed. It would cost me $265 to replace the drive.

I went to Plan B. I said it turned out that I'd already spoken to Seagate and it felt bad about what had happened and immediately sent me a new drive, this year's model, an upgrade. I asked whether Apple could install that new drive in the machine for me; I'd be willing to pay for labor.

As expected, the answer to that one was no as well. Apple would replace my old drive with the exact same 2-year-old drive -- but a new one, of course. If I wanted to use a drive I'd acquired on my own, I had to take it to a third-party repair shop.

Now, normally at this point I'd take a look at a video online that showed you how you'd go about replacing your iMac's hard drive and take a stab at doing it myself. In the past, I'd replaced hard drives in other Mac machines without a problem. But when I took a look at the video instructions for performing hard-drive surgery on the iMac, it looked a little hairy and required some extra tools, including suction cups for removing the glass from the screen, that would cost close to $40. So I decided to bring the machine to a one-man shop about 10 blocks away from my apartment.

The small ordeal was over a day later and the machine is now back up and running fine (I paid $120 for 2 hours of labor). But during it all I kept thinking what a pain in the butt the iMac was to deal with and I wished I'd just bought a MacBook Pro and a separate monitor.

While I was trolling the Web for possible answers to my hard-drive problem, I came across a thread on a message board at MacRumors. In response to the original poster's hard-drive failure, a poster named Senseless wrote: "The iMacs run very hot, which does not help hard-drive life. The issue though is not the failure, but the expense and inconvenience of replacement. It's design over practicality."

I thought that summed up my sentiment very well. Alas, the iMac, in its current form, is truly a triumph of design over practicality. Apple made it easy enough to add RAM on the iMac, which is good. But the company also should have made replacing the hard drive as simple, especially when you consider that iMacs do run very hot, which probably doesn't help hard-drive life.

The other issue is that with the iMac I couldn't just throw in a solid-state flash drive (SSD) to replace the Seagate drive that had died on me. In order to do that, I'd have had to pay a good chunk of change to have Other World Computing professionally install a special upgrade kit (in addition to the considerable cost of the drive itself) or try to go the do-it-yourself route with a new DIY upgrade kit that OWC is offering. According to OWC, that install is "very difficult and requires advanced skills." Yikes.

In next-generation iMacs, I suspect and hope that Apple will offer an SSD option. It seems like a no-brainer and should have already been an option by now. It should also make it much easier to replace whatever hard drive you start with. But don't bet your AppleCare on that happening.