Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The High Price of Apple's Genius Help

I posted previously that my 2-year-old, lightly-used Mac Mini seemed to have a dead hard drive. In comments, my brother-in-law suggested I "take advantage of the customer support Apple is known for." I packed up an ailing iBook and my Mini and my husband took them to the Shibuya Apple store for a consultation.

The iBook is an old dual USB 500 mhz G3. Some of the keys on the keyboard don't work and the fragile delete key fell off (though I still have the key, it just needs to be reattached). Also, there seems to be a slightly faulty connection with the display. The screen dims and you have to squeeze the area in front of the left side of the keyboard to get it to return to full brightness. Since the keyboard only has issues with random keys (1, 5, 9, Q, return, etc.) and not an overall problem, it seems like the whole thing isn't dead and the display issue is clearly a loose connection problem if a squeeze can fix it.

The geniuses told us that it'll cost 20,000 yen (about $190) to fix the keyboard and 45,000 yen to fix both the keyboard and the display issue. Considering better iBooks than mine are going for about $150-$200 on eBay, I passed on this offer.

The ultra clever geniuses wouldn't guarantee that my problem with my Mac Mini was a failed hard drive but they offered to fix it for 40,000 yen (about $380). Considering a new Mini which is far better than mine would be $600, I passed on this as well.

I'm utterly disgusted by the inflated costs of these repairs. I know for a fact that I wouldn't pay this much if I went outside of Apple's repair service for a fix. I also know that I can buy a replacement hard drive of the exact same make and size as the one currently in my Mini (and from the same manufacturer) from Other World Computing for $100 (including shipping) and put it in the Mini myself in about a half hour. I don't know where Apple buys their drives nor how much the geniuses make but they'd have to make $400 an hour and pay twice as much as the going rate to justify a 40,000 yen price tag for the hard drive fix.

Apple either overcharges on an extended warranty (3 years instead of the miserly 90 days of the initial warranty) or gouges sufficiently on repairs that you will consider buying a new computer rather than keeping your old one. Either way, the customer is going to lose out by forking over $170-$350 on the extended warranty up front, by paying exorbitant repair fees, or tossing their old machine out the window in favor of a new one.

This trip brought home that what Apple is known for is higher prices than others offering similar services and products. I'm beginning to feel increasingly that there aren't enough options out their for computer purchases as I'm fed up with Apple and I don't want to use Vista.


Durf said...

You might want to try sending a several-years-old notebook in to Dell or HP for repairs before you complain that Apple is out of line in what it charges for non-warranty service. Sounds pretty standard to me.

I do agree with you that other companies can offer much nicer warranty terms in the first place, though.

James said...

Macs are pretty-looking, but in the end they cost far more than I am willing to pay for a computer. Is it possible to downgrade a Vista computer to Windows XP?

Shari said...

durf: Apple is out of line considering they charge more for their computers *and* have a reputation for good service. However, do you really think a just-reaching-its-second year Mini is such an antique? Do you believe a drive that costs me $100 to replace should cost Apple 4x as much? If their geniuses make that much, I want to work there because even I can replace a hard drive with my laymen's knowledge. If their components cost that much, I want to start selling to them.

Apple used to make high quality hardware. I know because I've bought a lot of it and most of the old stuff is still working (I still use my orange iBook and the gumdrop iMac and G3 DT/266 I donated to my former company are still on their feet). Since the computers turned white, they've grown increasingly shoddy.

At any rate, this isn't a PC vs. Mac thing (as you may guess by my final comment). The Dell/HP vs. Apple service comparison is like comparing men who beat their wives with the fists vs. those who verbally abuse them. The fact that one is worse doesn't make the other "good". Just because PC makers give crap service doesn't make Apple's somewhat less bad approach a good thing.

james: I'm guessing that, once Vista is on every new PC, it'll probably cost extra to get XP. I'm pretty sure that I've read in the past that downgrading comes at additional expense when buying a new system.

Leo said...

When my PowerBook died, I wanted to take the hard drive out which I've done plenty of times in PCs and Windows-based laptops. Of course Apple had to use different screws. The local Apple shop wanted around $200 to take it out. I found a local independent Mac shop who took it out for free. It really is ridiculous of Apple to charge such high prices.

Shari said...

Leo: I'm not sure what the deal is with Apple's repair. A friend of mine in the U.S. said they charged him $100 just to diagnose his PowerBook but they didn't warn him of the cost until after the fact.

I'm glad my technical ability is sufficient that I can muddle through on these repairs on my own. Thank goodness for internet tutorials!

Luis said...

As Durf noted, high repair prices are not just Apple; when I had my DVR repaired for the last time under warranty, I was told how much it would cost to repair the soon-to-be-out-of-warranty DVD-R drive which had already failed multiple times, and it was similarly exorbitant. Repairs are very often so priced by the original retailers.

But cheap repairs are not what Apple customer support is known for; it's the service under warranty--quick response to phone calls (I spent God knows how many hours trying to get through to Toshiba for my DVR repairs--it took days before I broke through) and reliable repair when there's trouble. Cheap or free customer support is not usually a post-warranty thing; most corporations will do exactly what Apple did.

So why did I recommend going to them? On the chance that you might get (1) useful information or (2) the unlikely but possible free repair Apple sometimes does. I did make it clear that your chances were not stellar, along with the comment about the "customer support Apple is known for." When it comes to out-of-warranty items, the best one can hope for is a freebie, and Apple does do that more than other companies. I'm pretty sure that I never guaranteed a cheap repair if a freebie were not offered.

But let me also point out that you likely were able to make the Apple Store appointment with just a minute's effort, and my bro probably did not have to wait long at all at the store, where he was probably dealt with in English.

What would have been the option had it been any other maker? Long waiting on phone calls, unhelpful navigation through crappy support in a language other than your own, and a result that certainly would not have been any better.

So you didn't get lucky; I'm sorry for that. But that you got support easier and more convenient than any other maker I can imagine and got no worse result for two items out of warranty... that's not exactly a reason to claim that Apple customer support is crappy.

I myself have had many Apple devices, and so far not a one has had a major problem. Only two problems have come up, and both times Apple support was great.

The first was with a motherboard problem on my old LCIII (it was a potential flaw, not a failure), and an Apple repair guy came to my place and replaced it, even though it was several months out of warranty.

The second event was just last year when my Powerbook G4 showed dimming when coming out of sleep. Even though I could not reproduce it at the Apple Store, they believed me and replaced the monitor. When I told them my job would not easily allow me to do without the computer during repairs until months after the warranty expired, the rep immediately gave me a card with a service number on it and said to bring it in any time that was OK for me, even after warranty expiration.

The year before, a student of mine got his dead 500 MHz Powerbook G4 motherboard replaced with an 800 MHz motherboard, for free even though it was 2 years out of warranty. As I told you, it hardly happens every time, but since Apple Support is relatively easy to access, it's at least worth a try.

So forgive me if I am not disgusted at Apple for giving you prompt, accessible bilingual service, but not giving low-priced repairs for out-of-warranty products. I know it sucks to have bad luck with stuff breaking down on you (remember I had that problem myself before), but that could happen anywhere. You don't have to be happy with what happened, but I do think that you might be more fed up with Apple than it deserves, especially relative to what else is out there.

Shari said...

Luis: You make good points about certain aspects and we do (did) appreciate the suggestion. Perhaps though our expectations were a tad high so they came crashing down pretty hard.

The ability to make an appointment easily was nice. However, your brother got there on time and had to wait 10 minutes before being looked after despite having an appointment. Okay, 10 minutes, no biggie. He was dealt with in adequate English. The information he received though wasn't concrete. That is, they essentially told him what I already knew - it really looked like the problem was the hard drive but there was no guarantee.

I'm not sure how many other repair services outside of Apple you've dealt with but we've dealt with a few. In both cases, the English end was better - one was a Japanese fellow whose English was better and the other a native speaker of English. It's not unusual to get multi-lingual support at computer repair places in Tokyo. In both cases, you could takkyubin to them though you'd have to pay a fee to have it looked at. In one case, that fee was 7,000 yen (this was the Apple-only repair place). In the other case, 4,000 yen (this was a general PC repair place).

That's a bonus for Apple (they don't charge to take a peak) except for the fact that the geniuses didn't do anything except give a cursory testing (no more than I did) and quote a maximum repair price. There's no way taking a soldering iron to the loose connection in my iBook would cost 25,000 yen. They clearly were quoting some sort of wholesale component replacement cost and not actually thinking of repairing the precise problem.

Sure, Dell has worse service than Apple (at least internationally) because of the whole service tag baloney) but my problem was with the cost of repair. Further research showed that a duplicate of my Mini's original drive cost $55 at Other World Computing ($20 shipping can be added to that if you like).

Even for Apple (who often charge double the going rate for things like RAM and increased hard disk capacity), charging 40,000 yen for such a simple and cheap repair is beyond the pale. It seems that, if I don't opt for the Apple repair, the genius bar is free. If I opt for it, I'm paying for it via massively inflated repair prices.

Perhaps having used Apple's better quality hardware for so long makes this a more bitter experience. Macs used to be good, now, they're just somewhat better than some PCs.

I would agree that having access to the genius bar there is better than not having it but it just didn't help in this case. Also, I have to look at all available options and compare prices.

Luis said...

I completely agree that Apple charges way too much for repairs--and they even make some, like the iPod, inaccessible (ostentatiously so as "not to break the seasmless surface of the design," but more likely to allow for users not to do it themselves so easily). The iPhone looks like it will be the same or even more so. And I am very ticked off at Apple's new RAM scheme: with all their new models, they refuse to give you only one chip--for example, in a two-slot machine, instead of filling one slot with the 512 MB RAM chip, they put in two 256 MB chips; when you upgrade, it must also be a two-chip configuration. The result: you are forced to buy your RAM from Apple at more expensive prices; having to throw out both supplied RAM chips to upgrade cancels the saving found by shopping around, like I did when I added 1 GB of RAM to my 512 MB-equipped Powerbook G4.

I have no problem ragging on Apple for stuff like that, and you're spot-on about the expensive repair prices. My point was just that aside from that point--a practice which is not uncommon--Apple usually does have very good customer support. Not always, of course, and not for everybody. But I think that their top rating in customer-satisfaction surveys is there for a reason, and it's not just because of Mac zealots thumbing the scale. A lot comes from the good points which I mentioned above.

Shari said...

So, then we are in complete agreement! ;-)

This experience has left me thinking that an extended warranty is going to be a must with any Apple computer purchase. The days when I could say to myself and others that Apple made good quality hardware that didn't break down before obsolescence are gone. I think this was rather a shock on both the durability front (I've never seen a device from Apple fail after 2 years of light usage) and cost.

My next computer purchase choice is going to be a tough one because the cost of a Mac will be higher based on what I now believe to be the absolute necessity of an extended warranty.

Luis said...

Hmm... I don't necessarily agree with the idea that Macs now fall apart as easily. But even if they do, how will your purchase really be affected? Do you expect that non-Mac products won't fall apart as quickly, or that other makers will offer an extended warranty for less? (Heck, many don't offer an extended warranty at all, if I'm not mistaken).

In any case, the resale value of Macs is still high, if that makes a difference.

Shari said...

It's a complicated issue because I have had no bad experiences with eMachines. I've bought 2 of their lowest of low end desktops. One lasted about 6 or 7 years before the power supply died (I gave it away after 4 and my boss used it until it croaked). My current eMachine is about 4 years old. For a $400 computer, that's pretty good value. Of course, it has the disadvantage of not running the Mac OS but aside from the odd virus infecting my external hard disk, I haven't had any problems with it.

If my next computer were an eMachine rather than Mac, it'd be only $500 and would start at least with a one-year warranty. If my next Mac were another Mini (not bloody likely), it'd be $600 and come with a 90-day warranty.

The extended warranty on Tito's Acer was 3 years for $70. Dell (which is a brand I'd never buy but I mention it as a point of comparison) offers 4 years for $300 on some models but they often have sales which offer it for less.

If Apple offered the standard 1 year you get on other makers' devices, it might be different but only getting 90 days (and having lost my faith in their hardware now) requires me to factor the cost of an extended warranty into a purchase decision.

If you look at my sister's recent purchase situation - $1000 for dual processor 1.8 Ghz PC with a GB of RAM, nVidia Geforce 7300LE TurboCache, 19 inch flat panel monitor, keyboard, mouse, 16-in-one media card reader, and DVD burner (16x) with a one year warranty, the most equivalent iMac comes out to be at least $600 more (factoring in 1/3 of the cost of a 3-year warrnanty).

The question becomes one of whether or not running the Mac OS is worth $600 more when you buy a computer. It's good but I'm not so sure it's that good.

As for the resale value of Macs being high, that only works if they're still in good condition and mainly applies to high-end models. Of my last two Mac purchases, one is in shambles and the other recently got fixed after what I'd wager was only about 8 months of actual normal usage (even though it's two years old, I didn't use all the time by a long shot).

Rich Wright said...

Quick question: Did you ever find out what the fault is? I have an iBook of similar vintage which has started doing the same thing. I have taken it apart and done the cable repair (which I had done on another iBook). This has made no difference- but reassembled, pressing on the case in the front left or wiggling it around still makes the displace light up. All in all, it is just odd. Of course, as in your case, this computer is in old-kickaround territory, so spending a whole lot doesn't make sense.

Again, I would be interested to know if the source of the problem had been found.


Shari said...

Rich: Hi and thanks for taking the time to comment.

Unfortunately, I did not find out what went wrong because I wasn't willing to continue to pursue repairing it given the high price of doing so. Since the Apple service people at the "genius bar" were so vague, the only way I could have tracked down the problem would have been to pay another service person to give me specific answers and I wasn't willing to throw good money after bad.

Right now, the computer is essentially shelved. It still works but the screen now goes black (as opposed to dim) unless you press the case makes it pretty unusable. The only way I could use it now would be to put some sort of clamp on the front and leave it there all the time to avoid the periodic black-outs.

I must say, it's curious that you're experiencing the exact same sort of problem. I sort of wonder if this is some sort of degradation related to the sleep function kicking in but I'm just guessing.

If you ever get yours fixed up, please come back and let me know what happened!