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  • Newsletter Issue #1017

    May 22nd, 2021


    When I recently brought in the VW for some major front-end work, I didn’t seek out the nearest dealer, which is located some 15 minutes from here. Instead I went to a Firestone shop, a six-minute drive, but no it wasn’t just the convenience of distance. It was because the price was much lower for the same level of work.

    Now I grant the possibility that the parts Firestone’s tech used were not OEM, that perhaps they were made by other companies. But so long as they met the proper specs, why not? It’s not that the dealer to whom I eventually trade the car will examine the branding of each part to be sure they have the VW logo on them.

    But most of you know this, that, except for specialty or costly luxury vehicles, independent mechanics can usually work on your vehicle quite as well as the authorized dealers. So once the warranty expires, I look for the combination of service quality and price in making my maintenance decisions.

    When it comes to tech gear, it’s not so easy.

    For my 55-inch VIZIO M-Series set, out-of-warranty repairs are available. The most likely part to fail is the power supply. The usual repair price is in the $250 range; that for a set that may retail for about $500, but is usually cheaper at discount. So is it worth paying half that price to keep it running after a few years? Some suggest most modern tech gear is built to fail anyway, so maybe you’re better off getting one of those extended warranties just in case. The latest model (2020) presently costs $479.00 at Amazon, and a four-year extended warranty with no deductibles adds $68.99 to the price.

    Is that worth it? Well, consider that most failures tend to occur early in the one-year warranty period, so VIZIO would foot the bill. But the warranty extension is really cheap enough to be worth consideration, especially if you hope to hang onto the set for a while, as most of us do.

    Apple offers an AppleCare program for all the tech gear you buy. Say you invest in a brand spanking new 24-inch iMac, the model featuring the M1 CPU. Prices start at $1,299, same as the original iMac released in 1998, but you can almost double that price if you configure it to the hilt with 16GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD and a Magic Numeric Keyboard. You have a one-year factory warranty that you can extend for three years for $169. Coverage includes “Up to 2 incidents of accidental damage protection every 12 months,” which means that if someone trips against the table on which hit’s placed — or a family pet gets a little too enthusiastic — and the display is bashed into pieces, it’ll be repaired free of charge.

    Other than a power supply, the part that most often breaks on a personal computer is the hard drive. But Apple has gone all in for SSD on the new iMac, and, in fact, all of its M1 Macs, which sharply reduces the possibility of early failure. Even then, I’ve always purchased AppleCare. It’s definitely worth the price, though more so on a notebook. When Grayson left home in 2008 with a brand new MacBook, everything on it broke over the first three years, sometimes more than once. AppleCare was a godsend.

    But after the warranty — regular or extended — expires, where do you have your Apple gadget repaired?

    There’s always the friendly Apple Genius, of course. I visited them in 2019 when the 3TB Fusion Drive on my Late 2014 27-inch iMac failed. It wasn’t a cheap repair, but the independent authorized service people didn’t offer me a better deal once the cost for performing the repair was calculated. The parts would be the same regardless. At least the Apple Genius was happy to completely test the unit and clean out the accumulated residue from Arizona’s dusty climate.

    Unfortunately, it required two repairs. A Fusion Drive includes a small SSD plus a regular hard drive. Apple replaced the latter but the problem reappeared. So they had to replace the former too. It would have been better to manage both in a single step, and I cannot imagine why their diagnostic tools didn’t reveal the true causes of the failure before I authorized the original repair.

    I complained to Apple, and they offered me a set of AirPods for my time and trouble. I didn’t play the journalist card, because I don’t think that’s ethical. I ended up explaining that I was a senior citizen and had to force myself to use a nearly ten-year old MacBook Pro to continue to earn a living. They relented and sent me a Powerbeats Pro instead.

    In the old days, I would have replaced the drives myself, and I have taken apart both Macs and PCs. Well until Apple decided that user service was a no-no. Except for the 27-inch iMac and the Mac Pro, forget about swapping RAM. It’s possible on the 21.5-inch iMac, but not an easy process since you have to separate the display, which adheres to the chassis with adhesive, to get to the RAM. Replacing the drives on the larger iMac would involve the same illogical process.

    Other than the Mac Pro, no other current Mac can be regarded as otherwise easily serviced. You are best advised to visit the dealer, and even then, just about everything is soldered onto the logic board, so it requires swapping expensive parts. Apple would rather sell you a new computer.

    Now when it comes to an iPhone or iPad, the main replaceable component would be the battery, which can hang on a year or two depending on how often you recharge. Maybe more. Barbara’s iPad Air 2 held out for five tears before the Home button failed. It could still be charged to full strength, and stay charged a reasonable amount of time.

    Apple charges a flat $299 service fee for out-of-warranty iPad 2s and similar models. Consider you can buy a new regular iPad, which is much faster if not quite as thin, for $329. Add $100 for the 128GB version. I can’t imagine what Apple is thinking to charge so much to fix an aging iPad.

    So I contacted some local repair shops in the Phoenix vicinity and surroundings. One shop with a good online reputation quoted $80 for the Home button. It sounded sensible enough, but it came with a caveat. You see, the Touch ID feature will not work with a third-party part. And it’s not that Apple makes it easy for third parties to acquire authorized components, which is one of many key reasons fueling Right to Repair complaints and attempts to enforce such standards in various U.S. States.

    When those measures are introduced, Apple’s legal and lobbying teams are in full force, complaining that customers could not depend on reliable repairs unless they go to the company or one of its authorized service centers. Independent retailers who don’t go with the program can’t get service manuals — although they can be found online — or the parts they need. Thus repairs, even those involving single components, are unduly expensive if you want to experience full compatibility with all the unit’s features.

    Obviously I don’t have to worry about that with my car. I have a choice of batteries that fit the slot, There are dozens and dozens if brands of tires that will fit. Third parties make a host of compatible parts for a VW, and any skilled mechanic can do the work. When it comes to Apple gear, they pose all sorts of obstacles to disassembly, using special screws, adhesives and other tchotchkes that may slightly enhance appearance, but foul up the service process. And don’t forget the parts.

    To Apple, repairs are largely an accommodation. When the iPhone or iPad battery fails, they’d rather you buy a new one. Macs last for years, but when they fail, unless they are one of the older models with user serviceable parts like that 2010 MacBook Pro I still use on a rare occasion, it’s just better to give it up and buy the newest model.

    Which is also quite as hostile to user service.

    To be sure, Android mobile gear is also difficult to repair, and often won’t last as long as iPhones and iPads. Most PCs can be repaired by anyone who can read simple instructions and manage a screwdriver. They mostly use the same industry-standard parts. But the Mac is something special, though they usually last without the need for service for a number of years.

    But when they fail, Apple continues to stand in the way.

    I don’t expect the appliance mentality to change, but when repairs are necessary, there ought to be more affordable options that don’t require custom screws or otherwise complicated processes for disassembly. Apple’s design team is clever enough to find a better way, but that requires a less-greedy corporate strategy. And that, I fear, is not going to change unless legislative and/or court solutions come into play.


    Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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