Apple's 5 worst hardware flaws - and how to fix them

Apple is often lauded for its design chops. And Apple's post-modern industrial design is lyrical next to Dell's neo-Soviet brutalism.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

Apple is often lauded for its design chops. And Apple's post-modern industrial design is lyrical next to Dell's neo-Soviet brutalism. But Apple makes some really stupid choices. Here are the top 5 - and the best workarounds.

In reverse order:

5) Keyboards Considered as sculpture Apple's newest wireless keyboards are stunning. But from the perspective of a writer and touch typist they offer nothing a $5 keyboard doesn't.

Apple should put it's design and marketing moxie to work on an ergonomic keyboard. Design a great keyboard and then - and this is important - tell people how it helps them be more productive with less stress.

In the meantime I use Microsoft Natural keyboards. They're ugly and not as ergonomic as they could be - how about a return to the backward tilt of the early ones? - but the action is good and older models are available online cheap.

One problem: the Windows and Apple keys - the command keys - are reversed.

The workaround is simple. Go to System Prefs -> Keyboard & Mouse. Click on the Modifier Keys button and change the Option key to Command and the Command key to Option in the drop down menus. Click OK and your Microsoft keyboard will now operate like a Mac keyboard.

4) Not enough USB ports Steve Jobs hates USB. Why else the paucity of USB on Macs? My $2500 Mac Pro comes with a grand total of 5 USB ports - less than most $600 Windows towers.

Wireless keyboards and mice have never worked for me. My wired keyboard, mouse, Contour Shuttle Pro, headphones, iPhone, BBU, card reader, USB Time Machine backup disk, Corsair 16 GB thumb drive, USB speakerphone and flaky IRISCard mini scanner means I am forever plugging and unplugging USB cables.

The workaround? On a Mac Pro there are 2: PCI-e USB expansion card; or USB hubs.

The Sonnet Allegro USB PCI-e card I added has been a bust. At various times I've had to unplug every USB device on it to get the Mac Pro to boot. Don't know whose fault it is and don't really care - I no longer use it.

That leaves USB hubs. Cheap no-name hubs often hang the Pro on boot. I now use brand name hubs that cost more but work reliably. I plug all the low power USB gadgets - keyboards, mice, card reader, Shuttle Pro, thumb drive - into an unpowered hub and the rest into the Mac's remaining USB ports.

Given the MacBook Air's minimalist I/O, I don't expect Apple to suddenly get generous on USB. But it sure would be nice if they did!

And hey! What about that custom iPhone/iPod Touch headphone connector? Would it have been so hard to make headphone port a little larger so standard plugs would fit? My iPhone is beautiful - but the headphone adapter looks awful!

3) Replaceable notebook drives Easily replaceable notebook drives are common on Windows - but not on Macs. Given the rate at which drive capacity increases and price decreases, that is an expensive shame.

The easiest way to add extra life to a notebook is to add memory and disk. Adding memory is easy on Mac notebooks - but disk replacement can mean dozens of screws and many delicate warranty-voiding operations.

The one exception: the current MacBook (see my One Minute Macbook Drive Replacement video for details). But with the MacBook design due for replacement I think that Apple will go back to the bad old days.

Apple prefers to spend money on CPUs and displays rather than memory and disk, so easy drive upgrades are more important. There's no real workaround. You just have to pay Apple's high prices for a larger drive at purchase or factor in the cost of a disk upgrade every couple of years for your MacBook Pro.

2) Synchronization OK, so this isn't hardware. Oops, sosumi. With mobile device leadership and a large share of the high-end notebook market, one would expect that Apple would have synchronization well in hand. Not even close.

Through .mac you can synchronize non-essentials like Safari bookmarks between 2 Macs. But for file synchronization - so a file you work create on the road shows up auto-magically on your desktop - Apple has no answer. And .mac costs $100 a year.

The workaround isn't quite here yet, but there are several web-based synchronization services, like SugarSync coming to market. I'll probably buy one of those.

And the #1, all-time, biggest Mac design fiasco: the Mouse! Ever since Steve decided the original Mac would feature a 1-button mouse, Apple has stubbornly stuck to crippled mice. It is the weirdest thing they do.

Not to worry, you can plug in any mouse or trackball and it will just work. Right and left buttons, scroll wheels, whatever.

I got a Mighty Mouse - Apple's reluctant concession to popular demand - with my Mac Pro. Tried it for a few days. Dumped it in favor of a Logitech Track Man Wheel.

Between the pea-sized scroll ball - a good idea, except it is too small and thumbs are stronger - the invisible, no-tactile-feedback buttons and the unorthodox pinch motion to activate whatever, the Mighty Mouse is a creative solution to problems no one has.

25 years ago people may have been momentarily confused by 3 button mice. Today everyone uses them. In this case Apple needs to do things Better, not just Different.

The Storage Bits take Apple does so many things well that its failings are more obvious. But if the company really believes in the value of great design, they need to do what all designers must: submerge their ego for the sake of the client.

Humility doesn't come easily to Steve Jobs or his company. But the we-know-better-than-you attitudes behind these design failures is self-defeating and off-putting.

Show your customers some love, Apple. They lay out the money. The least you can do is your very best, each and every time. You have the talent and the money. Please find the will.

Comments welcome, of course.

Editorial standards