Of Shoddy Products and Poor Support

Saturday, 2004-05-15; 13:44:00

The ups and downs of repair service from Apple

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

This past Thursday, I took both my iPod and 17" iMac in for service at the Palo Alto Apple Store. My 17" iMac had a problem with the DVD drive, where DVD burning and reading would sometimes fail even though the same DVDs would work perfectly in other Macs. My iPod, on the other hand, developed a problem where it wouldn't get past the Apple logo screen even when connected to a computer via FireWire. It usually displayed a low battery icon when I tried to start it up not connected to a computer. I was hoping that Apple could help me fix both problems.

When I bought my iMac, I also bought an AppleCare Protection Plan because I knew that the money would probably pay for itself with one repair to my iMac. It's lucky that I did, because this DVD problem has developed halfway through the second year of owning this iMac, and that's well past the standard one-year warranty that comes with all Apple products. As for my iPod, I bought it during November of 2001, when the iPod was first released. Because of that, I had no way to extend my iPod coverage beyond the standard 1 year warranty, which actually originally began as a 90 day warranty.

Unfortunately for me, the warranty, not surprisingly, dictated the satisfaction of the support that I received.

I came into the Apple Store and set down my iMac at the Genius Bar. The Mac Genius had me boot up the computer, and open the iDVD tutorial project. It turned out that I didn't install the iDVD tutorial, so we couldn't burn the sample project to demonstrate what was wrong with my DVD drive. After asking me a few various questions, the Mac Genius offered to take the iMac and leave it at the store for service instead of making me wait and demonstrate the frustratingly intermittent problem. He simply made a request for a new DVD drive to be put into my iMac, and that was that.

I then told the Mac Genius about my iPod problem. I took it out and showed it to him, and he connected it to an iBook at the store. As was the case with connecting it to my iMac or PowerBook, it wouldn't show up on the desktop and it wouldn't show up in iTunes. Then he opened up the iPod Software Updater to see if it could see the iPod: no go. Finally, he fired up Disk Utility, and saw that the iPod didn't show up there, either.

After this, the Genius simply told me that I would have to replace the iPod for $249, or I could buy a new one myself. Obviously, as anyone can tell you when a $399 music player breaks (remember, I bought it in November 2001), I didn't like the sound of this at all. It wasn't my fault that the iPod broke (I just connected it to my iMac one day and it just froze at the Apple logo), so I didn't think that I should have to pay for it. I also told the Mac Genius that it was lame that Apple makes a shoddy product that breaks after 2.5 years.

Let me note that I'm completely aware of the fact that I bought my iPod knowing full well that after the warranty expired, things like this would happen. I know that most other companies have the exact same policy as Apple does, and that this is just par for the course. I know that there are many more satisfied Apple customers out there than there are people like me that have had problems with their Apple products.

But try to see it from my side. When I bought my iPod, I had to replace it TWICE under warranty because of a battery problem. My iPod would routinely only be useful for about 5 hours because once the battery got under half charge, the iPod would report it as being fully drained (old iPod users may remember that this problem was fixed with the iPod 1.2.6 update). And then two and a half years into my using my iPod, it just fails. When I buy a product, especially from Apple, I'm used to it lasting for a long time before I have to buy a new one. On top of that, I'm still a poor college student, so a couple hundred bucks is worth a lot to me. Even though I love my iPod, I don't think I would plunk down another $299 for the 15 GB iPod, especially given the service record that my iPod had.

It really ticked me off how nonchalantly the Mac Genius just told me that I would need my iPod replaced. The Mac Genius connected it to a computer, and simply opened a few different applications to see if it mounted. If it didn't mount, that's it! I had already gone through all those troubleshooting procedures, and knew that the iPod wouldn't mount. I would've thought that Apple could have done more testing to try to repair my iPod instead of making me replace it. The very least they could do for me was put on a good show and after 15 or 30 minutes tell me that it was dead, not after 30 seconds.

I was astounded that the Mac genius didn't try to open a disk utility that can detect unmounted volumes. He didn't try to open up the back plate of the iPod to see if there was anything obviously wrong. The Mac Genius didn't even say a WORD about my iPod's diagnostic mode. That would have told him that everything in the iPod checks out fine, and that it was likely simply a problem with the iPod battery, a fix that only costs $99 from Apple, or $59.30 plus elbow grease from iPodBattery.com. But it seems like Apple has a policy (at least for iPods) to make the least amount of effort to fix iPods in order to get more money from it's customers by having them buy new ones.

Even for new iPods, the concessions that Apple has made to iPod owners that weren't available in the first two years have largely come about only because of pressure from customers. Remember the lame "iPod's Unreplaceable Battery Only Lasts for 18 Months" scandal? While it may have only been a coincidence, Apple instituted the $99 battery replacement program for the iPod scarcely a week afterward. There was a small outcry about iPod quality when it came into its third generation, and Apple instituted a $59 protection plan because of that. It seems that Apple is reluctant to support it's awesome music player.

The same problems apply to Apple's personal computers. Apple is trying to increase its market share, right? Apple did the big marketing push with the Switcher campaign (which was a success or a failure, depending upon whom you ask), and Apple's been beefing up it's own in-house software in order to make Macs look attractive. Part of the push of getting Windows users to switch to the Mac is that everything on the Mac is higher quality -- the operating system, the overall hardware product, the integration with peripherals, the plug-and-play, etc. On the PC side it's a nightmare to get things to connect to your computer without downloading drivers, Windows is annoying, and a lot of the products are shoddy.

So if Apple's products are of such higher quality, why isn't Apple backing up those claims with better support and better guarantees? A one year standard warranty is pretty poor in the computer industry, especially coming from a company like Apple who makes supposedly better products. I had to pay $249 just to get the THREE year warranty for my iMac. Wouldn't it make sense for Apple to up the ante and provide a LONGER warranty than other manufacturers to prove that they stand behind their products? Wouldn't Apple want to be keeping the hearts of its customers by trying all it can to repair problematic products before just tossing them out? Why is it that I seem to get the worst warranty and support from the company that makes the highest-quality products? It's backwards!

Apple seems to provide excellent service, but it does so only when required to do so. So if your Apple product is out of warranty, expect to pay through the nose to get it fixed. And despite the higher quality of Apple's products, it's likely that you'll have at least one problem during the lifetime of your Mac; that means an AppleCare Protection Plan would probably be a good buy. That's been my experience, at least.

This issue is also exacerbated by the recent quality control issues that Apple has been having with its products. There have been other Apple-X articles about this very issue, including one that I wrote. It's no secret that Apple has been having some growing pains as an expanding company (in revenue, not market share), and that the quality of some of its products have been suffering as of late. These include, but are not limited to, iPod mini headphone port problems, iBook logic board problems, PowerMac G5 video problems, PowerBook screen problems, Panther FireWire drive and FileVault problems, not to mention the numerous fairly major problems with other software. So wouldn't Apple want to assure its customers that these problems are temporary by guaranteeing a longer period of free repairs?

Again, many of these sentiments have spawned from the bitterness of potentially losing my iPod or a few hundred clams to buy a new one. I don't have any problem admitting that there is no way in hell I would buy any music player but an iPod, after having the experience of using one. I also freely admit that the problems I've had with my Macs in the past have been far outweighed by the Mac experience. I would jump ship to Linux in a second instead of using Windows if all Macs suddenly disappeared.

It's just that when I sit here using my old PowerBook with a dead iPod next to me and the remnants of my iMac that's in for repair, I can't help but feeling a bit alienated from the very company that I have supported for so long. And that can't be good for a company that's trying to convince new customers that it's not going away anytime soon.

-- Simone

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