The limits of Apple's warranty

I’ve had my 15” MacBook Pro since late November of 2006. Over the last few months, it’s become my all-time-favorite Apple laptop (even though I’m much more of a sub-notebook kind of a person!) thanks to its amazing speed, excellent design, and good battery life (especially considering the computing power). However, my time with the machine has not been completely trouble-free.

You see, this is actually my second MacBook Pro. The first ran great for 24 hours, but on day two, the fan on the left-hand side started making a continual grinding noise. I took the machine back to the the Apple Store, and they replaced it on the spot with a new unit. The new machine, though, had been perfect since the swap. Until yesterday.

We’re in the process of selling our home, and yesterday was inspection day for the buyer. As such, I had to vacate the premises for a few hours in the afternoon. So I had to find somewhere to work for those hours, preferably with power outlets and a net connection. Since I don’t drink coffee (and really dislike the smell of it, too), Starbuck’s was out as a destination. So instead, I headed over to the local mall, where the food court is conveniently located within borrowing distance of the Apple Store’s wireless connection—the same Apple Store where I purchased the MacBook Pro. I found a table close to a power outlet, and had a productive few hours. When it came time to head home, I closed the MacBook Pro, waited for the power light to start pulsating, and put the machine back in its carrying case.

In the dark

After arriving home, I opened up the MacBook Pro, only to be greeted by an apparently-blank screen. A quick toggle of the Caps Lock key, though, showed that the system was still alive. Upon closer inspection, I could actually see something on the screen, but it was incredibly dim. Those who have seen this before will know exactly what happened: the backlight, which provides the light that makes it possible to see what’s on an LCD screen, had apparently failed. I tried the usual tricks, just in case it was somehow not a real hardware failure: remove all power sources then press and hold the power button for five seconds to reset the System Management Controller (SMC). Reset parameter RAM (PRAM). I even tried logging in as another user, just in case my primary user account was somehow badly messed up. All solutions were no go, though, so I was stuck working on the MacBook Pro via Chicken of the VNC from my Mac Pro.

I then called Apple’s support hotline to get a shipment box to return my injured MacBook Pro. It was then that I discovered I had entered into the “you’re kind isn’t welcome here” zone in Apple’s revised support system. You see, it turns out that after 90 days as a Mac owner, your status changes. I wasn’t aware of this, but it does. Without my even knowing it, on my 91st day of ownership, I became one of “them”—people who’ve had the gall to own a Mac for over 90 days, but haven’t yet decided whether or not to write that somewhat-sizable check for AppleCare. Yes, that’s me. I was relying (gasp!) on Apple’s stock warranty to take care of any issues that cropped up during my first year of ownership. (To keep my money in my bank account for as long as possible, I typically purchase AppleCare just before the one-year warranty expires.)

It turns out that, in Apple’s eyes at least, this makes me somewhat of a persona-non-grata on the telephone support line. I was doing great with the support rep, thinking I was about to get authorization to return the unit, when I heard something along these lines: “I agree your backlight is out. However, we think we might be able to resolve it with some things we could try in a troubleshooting walkthrough. However, since you’re beyond the 90-day warranty period, we can’t proceed down that route unless you have a paid service contract.” Note that I didn’t record the call, so these aren’t the exact words—but the jist is exactly as written. I couldn’t get any help to fix an apparent hardware issue unless I first purchased AppleCare (or some other form of paid support), so that they could walk me through a series of troubleshooting steps—none of which would probably fix the problem. At that point, apparently, they would then be able to tell me that the machine was eligible for hardware repair, and send me a shipping box.

Pay me now or…pay me now

I hate to be blunt, but…this sure seems like stupid policy on Apple’s part. Even though I have a machine that’s well within the one-year warranty, they’re unwilling to provide the phone support necessary to prove it’s broken unless I spend the money for a not-really-required support plan first. Right. That makes a lot of sense.

I can understand that they probably get a lot of calls from folks who have machines they believe to be broken but that actually wind up being fine, and handling those calls can’t be cheap. But supporting consumers who believe they have a hardware issue—and whose machines are under warranty—not only seems like the right thing to do, but asking for money before providing warranty service sort of defeats the purpose of the warranty: to effect repairs for defective gear without costing the consumer any money! This current process really smells of a scheme to extract money from my pocket for something I’m supposedly covered for by the warranty. I’m sure that’s not its intent, but that’s certainly what it looked like to me.

Somewhat shocked at the assertion we couldn’t go any further unless I pulled out my Visa card, I asked the rep “so let me get this straight. I have a machine which is under warranty. But in order to prove to you that it’s broken, I have to pay you money first so you can try to fix it over the phone?” He replied that I was correct. I then asked what my “free” repair options were for my broken machine, and there was basically only one: take it to an authorized service center, where they can do the diagnosis and then send it in if it’s really hardware. In the end, that’s what I had to do: I made an appointment at the Genius Bar, back in the Apple Store that I had just spent three hours sitting 100 feet or so away from. After about two minutes with the Genius, he concurred that there was something wrong with the backlight, and off my machine went into the back room.

Thankfully, I live only a few miles from the Apple Store—but what about those consumers, such as my friend and Macworld contributor Kirk McElhearn ? Kirk is lucky enough to live in a small village in France, right near the base of the Alps. For him, the nearest dealer is a three hour drive—each direction! And yet last fall, as the owner of a two-day-old MacBook (complete with a shiny new AppleCare contract), Kirk was told that his only option for service would be to drive the machine to the dealer to have them inspect it prior to return. The Apple reps said that this change was “due to problems with UPS,” according to Kirk. That explanation seems almost as suspicious as the one I received—and Kirk even had AppleCare on the iBook, which should have earned him a higher level of service.

Quite ironically, Kirk wound up shipping (from home) the machine back for a refund—that’s right, Apple was willing to accept the machine back via the mail as a return, but not for repair! How strange is that? Kirk also wrote Apple to let them know exactly how he felt about their new repair policy. (He’s still waiting for an answer to his letter, by the way.)

A better solution

Apple really must rethink this “no support for covered hardware unless you visit a dealer in person or send us money” policy. I find it unacceptable that they expect me to drop whatever I’m doing and make the drive down to a dealer to help diagnose an apparent hardware problem. It’s also unacceptable that the alternative is to write a check so that Apple can then confirm that I do have a covered hardware problem. At the very least, their phone support personnel should work through the standard software-only solutions on the phone. If at that point the problem persists, and Apple wants to cut down on the functional units returned for service, then require the consumer to take it to the shop for a final diagnosis prior to service return.

If Apple’s reps do manage to solve the problem with their suggested fixes, then they should charge me for a support call—letting me know up front that this will be the case if they find that there’s no hardware problem. I think this is the best solution; Apple still cuts down on the number of not-broken machines returned for service, they won’t have to provide unfunded tech support for non-hardware problems, and the consumer won’t have to pay money up front for help with a covered warranty repair. Requiring that store visit in lieu of any attempt at phone support, however, is definitely not the right solution.

Postscript

As I was writing this article (the day after I took the machine in), the Apple Store called to tell me about the MacBook Pro’s status. It turns out that the backlight problem was easier to solve than they (or I) had expected: it was nothing more than a disconnected cable! Still not something I’m going to diagnose and repair at home by any stretch, but my MacBook Pro was spared a plane ride to the service depot. So now, after yet one more drive to the Apple Store, my machine is back home, happy and good as new.

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