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Should You Get AppleCare?

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About a year after you purchase Apple hardware, if you returned your registration card, you may receive a sales pitch from Apple for an extended warranty, called AppleCare. The sales pitches usually go on about peace of mind, nominal fees, and quick repair of your precious Macintosh.

Should you ante up the money for AppleCare? Or perhaps consider a different form of insurance? The answer depends on your situation, and a recent discussion on TidBITS Talk covered most of the bases. Since that time, though, AppleCare seems to be changing, most recently with the elimination of availability on equipment that's out of warranty. Even if you've purchased AppleCare in the past, you should read on for the details of how it works now. First off, though, let's take a closer look at AppleCare and who might want it.

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What Is AppleCare? Formally known as AppleCare Extended Service, AppleCare is, according to Apple, "an extended service plan similar to the one-year limited warranty coverage that came with your Apple product when you purchased it." AppleCare kicks in when your original warranty expires, and offers the following:

  • 100 percent parts and labor protection
  • Unlimited repairs
  • Service by authorized Apple-certified technicians
  • Genuine Apple parts

<http://www.info.apple.com/support/applecare/ applecare.html>

Some clarification is necessary. Despite the first two bullet points above, AppleCare does not cover accidents like soda spills or dropped PowerBooks. It won't reimburse you for repairs done by non-authorized dealers, nor will it pay for lost data or time. Insurance policies (discussed later in this article) may cover accidents. Service by Apple-certified technicians means that the technicians have access to genuine Apple parts and are less likely to use bits cannibalized from other dead Macs.

Your authorized Apple dealer or Apple itself (at 800/247-5545) is happy to sell AppleCare on just about anything Apple makes, including Macs, PowerBooks, printers, monitors, and so on. Eligible products must have a valid Apple serial number (cutting out some gray market machines) and must either be in warranty (purchased within the last year) or currently covered by AppleCare. A while back, Apple eliminated coverage on machines as old as the Macintosh SE, and in the last few weeks, Apple changed the AppleCare policy to eliminate all hardware that's no longer covered by its original warranty or an existing AppleCare policy. Note that Apple hasn't yet updated the AppleCare Web page to reflect this fact - I confirmed it with an AppleCare sales representative. Finally, AppleCare isn't available to Florida residents due to state regulations.

Costs for AppleCare vary by product and the length of the policy. Also keep in mind that costs don't necessarily reflect the original purchase price of the hardware but instead the likely cost of repairs Apple might have to cover. A PowerBook, with its active-matrix screen and hazardous life-style, will tend to have a higher AppleCare cost than a comparable desktop Macintosh. Refer to the chart below for a few sample prices. The AppleCare sales person asked when warranties were due to expire on several of these items, leading me to believe that you may encounter different prices. In the past, dealers have also sometimes charged different prices for AppleCare policies, so it can be worth checking with both Apple and an Apple dealer.

Product               One Year  Two Years
-----------------------------------------
iMac                    $117      $174
Power Mac G3 (b&w)      $133      $204
17" Studio Display      $72       $144
PowerBook G3 (250 MHz)  $210       N/A

To take advantage of an AppleCare policy, visit your dealer or call Apple at 888/275-8258. On-site service is available for some products, and for PowerBooks, Apple offers express mail-in service.

Which Products Need AppleCare? Some products are more likely to need AppleCare than others. Statistically, if electronic circuitry in a device is going to fail, it will do so within the first 90 days of intensive use. Standard Apple warranties are a full year, which covers those first three months and plenty more. So why spend extra money on products that are unlikely to need warranty service after a year?

The answer for many people is simple: PowerBooks. As much as we love the little critters, because we drag them around with us, their parts are more likely to fail in normal usage than are the parts in Macs that sit quietly on desks all day.

My experience (and that of a number of people on TidBITS Talk) is that it's often worth buying a year of AppleCare coverage on PowerBooks because you're just as likely experience a failure in the second year as the first. Whether you continue to cover the machine after that second year relates to your dependence on it and the level of lust you have for a newer PowerBook. After two years, I'd probably use a serious failure as an excuse to upgrade.

Also, consider the differences between electronic circuitry and mechanical devices. Although electronics are unlikely to fail if they survive the first 90 days, mechanical devices like floppy drives, laser marking engines, paper feed systems, and even hard disks become more likely to fail as they age. It's basic wear and tear - if you run tens of thousands of pages through a laser printer, you're relatively likely to wear out mechanical parts of the printer. Similarly, although solder joint problems are less common than in the past, equipment that you turn on and off frequently and that runs fairly hot is more likely to suffer from solder joint problems over time.

Despite this basic difference between electronics and mechanical devices, it's worth evaluating costs. For instance, it's less useful to buy AppleCare for a few hundred dollars a year if you're concerned primarily about the hard disk. Hard disk prices drop frequently, so you could probably replace a hard disk in any year-old Mac with a newer and larger one for the same price as AppleCare. And although floppy drives are mechanical, you can often do without one, especially if you have multiple Macs.

Who Needs AppleCare? Certain types of people are more likely to want AppleCare than others. For instance, for some people, a few hundred dollars a year for AppleCare might be easier to budget than a few thousand dollars for a new Mac.

If you move your equipment frequently or otherwise expose it to dangerous situations on a regular basis, you may be a good candidate for AppleCare. For example, Matthew Barr <mhb8@cornell.edu>, a student at Cornell University, wrote, "I move my computer via UPS about twice a year so my machine and monitor are more likely to fail."

People who cannot perform small repairs on their own may also be more interested in AppleCare. For instance, if you had the skills and knowledge to remove a dead hard disk from a Mac and replace it with a new one, there's less reason to spend the money on AppleCare that you could instead use to buy a new hard disk.

The extent to which you rely on your computer may also play into the question. If your time is valuable, lost work time due to hardware failure may significantly exceed the cost of paying for AppleCare on-site service.

Finally, it comes down to how well you tolerate risk. For many people, AppleCare essentially buys peace of mind - they sleep better at night knowing that a few hundred dollars of AppleCare would fix any problem that might crop up with their machines. As always, though, I must caution such people that being able to fix the hardware for "free" is only part of the equation. If you've stored hundreds of hours of work on a hard disk that dies and you don't have a recent full backup, you might save a few hundred dollars replacing the hard disk, but nothing will replace your lost work.

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Other Options -- In essence, AppleCare is an insurance policy, and like all insurance policies, it is a game of chance. Apple is gambling that your equipment won't die, and you're gambling that it will. But Apple has no monopoly on computer insurance, and unlike many other policies, AppleCare doesn't cover accidents or theft, which, as I learned last year, is all too likely with easily grabbed PowerBooks. You can often find less expensive methods of protecting against common disasters.

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  • See if you already have an extended warranty. Many credit cards come with extended warranty insurance that doubles the warranty on items purchased with that credit card. Terms undoubtedly vary from card to card, but it's worth investigating. The doubled warranty may also be incentive to use a certain credit card for computer purchases.

  • Many consumer electronics stores try hard to sell extended warranties or service contracts, which are generally a source of significant profits, especially considering the razor-thin margins on consumer electronics. Plus, I've heard that at CompUSA, salespeople get half of every service contract they sell, which makes them significantly unbiased in their opinions (sources who have worked in CompUSA comment that it's difficult to sell service contracts on Macs, since people are aware that they tend to have fewer hardware problems than PCs). I'm always suspicious when a salesperson pushes an extended warranty or service contract, especially if you must buy it on the spot, but it might be worthwhile in some cases, especially if you have a lot of confidence in the store. Consider the possibility that the store may go out of business before the end of the extended warranty or service contract, thus making it a waste of money.

  • Read your homeowner or renter insurance policy carefully. Some cover computer equipment; others exclude it explicitly. Even when computer equipment is covered, be sure you understand any limitations, since, for instance, theft from an unattended vehicle may not be covered.

  • Even if your homeowner or renter insurance policy explicitly excludes computer equipment, talk to your insurance agent about adding an inexpensive rider to the policy to cover your equipment. For instance, Phil Lefebvre <p-lefebvre@nwu.edu> of Northwestern University commented, "The rider for my PowerBook is $8 per month (a total of $192 for 2 years) with no deductible, since the cost is based on replacing it with a new one. I've already collected once ($2,500) when my son fried my previous PowerBook, and I may file another claim, as I dropped the new one and cracked the case and IR port."

  • If your equipment isn't covered in any other fashion, consider a computer-specific insurance policy from a company like Safeware Insurance. Before getting our current homeowner insurance policy, with which we explicitly included full replacement value on our computers, we had a Safeware policy. We never had occasion to use it, but it seemed like worthwhile protection at the time.

<http://www.safeware-ins.com/>

  • Finally, consider insuring yourself by saving a certain amount of money each month toward repairs or a new system. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you may have to pay for an expensive repair or buy a new computer sooner than you wanted. But if nothing goes wrong, you can slowly save enough money to buy a better Mac before your old one is obsolete, at which point you can sell the old computer to reduce the cost of the new one even further. Another advantage of this option is that there's no worry about the company offering the extended warranty or service contract going out of business or changing the terms radically.

In the end, of course, the decision is entirely yours. If you move your equipment frequently, or rely heavily on a PowerBook or a particularly mechanical device like a LaserWriter, AppleCare may make sense for you. But if your equipment sits quietly on a desk most of the time, your money might be better off earning interest and waiting to buy new hardware.

 

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