Service failed to raise a smile: Matt Hoffman finds the 'worm' in his Apple hard to digest

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The Independent Online
While writing an article for this page on connecting to the Internet with a Mac, my PowerBook 170 broke down. What I learned in the next few weeks about Apple's repair policies - and its paltry commitment to its users - has made me vow to look hard at the PC world the next time I buy a computer.

My PowerBook was working normally as I performed many complicated new manipulations on the Internet, but the next morning when I tried to wake the computer from 'sleep' (Apple's word for a state where the computer is down but can go back into operation at the touch of a key) the screen was frozen. I could not get it to switch off and on or to reset, so I removed the batteries. As a result, when I tried to start up, the screen became a mass of black bars separated by white lines. The hard disk spinning was the only sign of life.

I phoned Apple and was told that there was a technical support number giving free advice for one month as a special introductory offer. When I described my problems to Apple's support technician, he advised me that the problem was 'physical' and not with the software. The computer had probably received a jolt in the night from the connected power supply and the voltage regulator had been zapped.

At his suggestion, I rang Apple again and obtained a list of approved repairers in my part of north London. The next Saturday, I took the computer to one of the recommended dealers and left it for examination. On the Monday following, I received a phone call telling me that the 'daughter board' was faulty and I would have to pay pounds 584 (including VAT) for a replacement.

Inside a computer there are a couple of printed circuit boards on which almost all the important electronic components are mounted. It is obviously much more expensive to replace a whole board full of components than to replace the faulty component, but only a properly qualified technician can undertake such a repair.

A few years ago Apple decided that it would be cheaper to train its authorised repairers only to swap entire boards (also called modules) and to forbid them from carrying out 'component-level' repairs. Apple's saving in training is paid for by the user, of course, who must buy an entire module when only a single part fails. The warranty should help, but my 18- month-old PowerBook carried only a one-year warranty. For comparable computers from Compaq and IBM it is three years: a friend who dropped his Compaq had his screen replaced at home, at no charge for parts or labour.

I now know that there are extended warranties available from Apple dealers (at a hefty price), but not all dealers mention this (mine didn't), and Apple refuses to allow its users to extend their warranties after the expiry date.

But I'm persistent, and kept writing to, and calling, Apple UK for nearly three weeks - first their customer service line, then their service division - as I just could not believe that I was expected to pay pounds 600 for what might well be a minor fault. The people I spoke to were unfailingly polite but their hands were tied by Apple's policies.

In the end, one of them told me of a 'multi-vendor' repair agency for computers that runs an Apple dealership as a sideline, and is able to get Apple parts. (Apple refuses to supply its proprietary parts to computer repairers who are not also Apple dealers.)

I took my computer to this company (Amsys, of Kenley, Surrey). It was back in 24 hours working perfectly: all that had been wrong was a loose RAM chip on the daughterboard. The price, with VAT, was pounds 82, which included picking up the computer from my office and returning it. There were no faults with the components.

How many users of Apple computers find themselves paying the used value of their computers to replace perfectly good modules because of Apple's failure to train its authorised repairers, to give warranties that last as long as those of its rivals, and to supply proper computer technicians with Apple parts?

Apple UK says it gets calls every week from people whose warranties have recently expired and who have suddenly decided that they want them extended. This must mean that year-old Apple computers are breaking down all over the country. Apple says it invariably refuses.

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