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Apple Computer: At Your Service?

A number of unrelated events have recently brought the issue of repair service to the forefront of my mind. It’s easy to ignore the topic because Macs are usually quite reliable. Nonetheless, since older Macs often remain in service well into obsolescence, something will eventually break. Sometimes handling a repair yourself is easiest, but sometimes your only real options are working with an Apple Authorized Service Provider or sending the machine directly to Apple. However, recent changes to Apple’s service options for newer machines threaten to confuse that decision-making process.

Looking for Cheap Repairs — The first of my recent hardware troubles happened in June: I returned from MacHack to find our primary internal file server at home – a Power Mac 8500 – wasn’t running. No amount of cable swapping, button pushing, or persuasive language convinced it that it was getting any juice at all. Clearly, its internal power supply had given up the ghost.

Used Power Mac 8500s aren’t that expensive, so although I wanted to get it working again, I didn’t want to pay full rate from an Apple dealer for a replacement power supply. Shreve Systems would trade a new power supply for my old one and $400. Too high. Sun Remarketing didn’t carry 8500 power supplies at all. Eventually I found, the online arm of We-Fix-Macs, near San Francisco. They didn’t replacement power supplies either, but they said they’d fix mine for about $115. I considered sending them the entire Mac (which is what I’d recommend if you’re not comfortable taking Macs apart), but I decided I could save some money if I shipped only the power supply. Although disassembling an 8500 is a pain, I figured out how to remove the power supply, packed it up, and mailed it off.




I reinstalled the power supply when it came back two weeks later (with some slightly stressful head scratching to get one last plastic part installed correctly) and brought the Mac back up without difficulty. The experience ended up a positive one, although We-Fix-Mac’s customer service left a bit to be desired (they never told me what went wrong or what they repaired). If you find yourself needing repair on an older Mac (or particularly a Macintosh clone), We-Fix-Macs is worth a look.

Swapping Parts — Around this same time, the internal hard disk on a Performa 6400 we use as a TidBITS database server also died. Geoff’s backups are as retentive as mine, so the situation was annoying rather than disastrous (remember, it’s not "if" a storage device will fail, it’s "when"), and he used an external hard disk to bring the 6400 back on line. Since Geoff needed that external disk to burn CDs, using it for the database server was only a temporary solution, so I started thinking about the best way to repair the 6400 with a new disk. Replacing a hard disk was well within my skill set.

The dead Performa 6400 internal hard disk used an IDE-ATA mechanism, and IDE disks are a lot cheaper than SCSI disks. I could easily pick up a huge IDE disk for between $100 and $200. But the databases on that machine aren’t large – perhaps 100 MB all told – so buying a large hard disk seemed like overkill. That was when the gears started to turn. If I swapped the 6400 for the 8500 mentioned previously (which had a working 1.2 GB internal hard disk), I could put a 60 GB IDE-ATA disk in the 6400 and use it both for our internal file server and to serve the 8 gigabytes of MP3s Tonya and I have converted from our CDs.


Although I saw no reason the Maxtor DiamondMax 60 GB hard disk I wanted shouldn’t work, I was somewhat nervous about it, but a quick search in Google turned up a Maxtor FAQ page that allayed my fears. I also found Accelerate Your Mac’s pages on IDE drives useful, especially the Drive Compatibility Database.

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To buy the hard disk, I first went to PriceWatch to find vendors who seemed above-board and had low prices. I ended up ordering the hard disk from for about $230, and although they shipped fairly promptly, the disk was packed in bubble wrap and foam peanuts without a shred of documentation.



Luckily, when the time came to install the hard disk in the 6400, all went smoothly. No jumpers needed to be moved (if you put two IDE disks in a Mac that supports two, one must be the master and the other the slave, which requires a jumper change), and although we feared that a lengthy low-level format would be necessary, it wasn’t, and initialization in Drive Setup took only seconds.

The moral of the story is that even if you’re not all that technically savvy, you can perform a number of basic repairs yourself. The Internet is a huge help here: although searching can take some time, enthusiastic users have posted a vast amount of information about installing equipment. For instance, check out the 6400 Zone’s Upgrade Experiences and Reader Reviews pages. Similar information is available for other Mac models – the hard part is finding it, since most of the search terms are generic words or numbers.


Help for Elusive Problems — You may have the impression that I’m good with Macintosh hardware problems, but in fact, I merely know my limitations. If a repair involves plugging things together, I can probably handle it, but for more serious or unusual issues, I usually defer to my local Apple dealer, Westwind Computing. They’ve fixed a number of problems for me over the years, though my most telling story about the quality of Westwind’s service involves a problem they fixed without repairing anything.


When I first got the Power Mac 8500, I noticed that occasionally I’d come down to work in the morning and find the machine frozen in the middle of a Retrospect backup. A while later, I was copying a large number of files over the network and saw it freeze in a suspiciously similar way. The freezes weren’t common, and they almost always happened under high network load, so they didn’t affect my daily work much. But they were annoying, and I get nervous when my desktop Mac doesn’t back up.

I tried innumerable combinations of extensions, clean installations, different versions of the Mac OS (this took place over months), alternate cabling, different AAUI adapters, other SCSI device combinations, and even a PCI Ethernet card. Nothing helped, so finally I called Gordon at Westwind, who listened patiently to my tale of woe and then suggested that I swap the order of my RAM DIMMs. Flabbergasted at the suggestion (which has apparently been known to fix a variety of wacky problems even on current Macs), I nevertheless tried it. No change. When I called Gordon back, he immediately said we should swap out the motherboard, since the machine was still under warranty. With the replacement motherboard installed, the 8500 never exhibited those crashes again.

One aspect of good service involves listening carefully to the customer’s problem. It’s easy to assume, as a support person, that you know more than the customer, but little irritates people more than asking them to repeat troubleshooting steps they’ve already tried. In this case, Gordon knew that I was sufficiently competent to believe me if I said I’d tried something. I could have called Apple, but what do you think the likelihood would be of a tech support engineer believing me when I said that I’d isolated a sporadic crash under heavy network load to a defective motherboard? The combination of Westwind’s service experience and ability to establish and rely on personal relationships is what made the difference for me.

The New Service World — I’ve owned 15 Macs over the years, and during that time, I’ve used almost every repair option, including sending PowerBooks back to Apple directly for repair. For the most part, I’ve been happy with all the different approaches. Sometimes it’s easier to do the work myself, sometimes sending a Mac to Apple or a place like We-Fix-Macs works well, and sometimes working with an Apple dealer is the better part of valor.

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But that’s changing now, and in ways that are almost guaranteed to confuse customers, since the details vary between Macintosh models. Things don’t change much with the Power Mac G4 and the iMac, both of which Apple Authorized Service Providers can repair.

With the iBook and PowerBook G3, however, only Apple can repair your Mac – Apple dealers can no longer work on those machines. You can either send the Mac back to Apple directly or take your machine to a dealer, who will diagnose the problem and then send it in to Apple. Turnaround ranges from four to seven days, and the dealer can’t get the parts from Apple to repair it any faster, even if the problem is obvious.

Worse, if a PowerBook G3 or iBook fails out of warranty, Apple now charges $359 (PowerBook) or $329 (iBook) for most repairs. If the repair was caused by an accident or abuse, there’s tiered pricing depending on what failed. Those prices apply to dealers as well, and dealers can no longer buy individual parts from Apple for those machines. So, even if the trackpad button clicker breaks, you’ll still have to pay the full repair amount. Suddenly AppleCare, which costs $349 for the PowerBook G3 and $249 for the iBook (from the Apple Store) looks more attractive, although alternatives to AppleCare may be even more so. See "Should You Get AppleCare" in TidBITS-478 and "Apple Revises AppleCare" in TidBITS-504.



However, with the new G4 Cube, if something goes wrong within warranty (or during any extended AppleCare warranty), you have only two options. You can send your Mac back to Apple for repair or Apple can send you the necessary part and you can install it yourself – dealers aren’t supposed to send the G4 Cubes back to Apple and can’t receive even the nominal reimbursement or assistance with boxes they get when returning PowerBooks and iBooks. Apple recently published PDF-based installation guides backed up by QuickTime movies for a number of common parts you might want to install into a G4 Cube or Power Mac G4 (Gigabit Ethernet). It’s good to see Apple making it easier for technically savvy users to repair and upgrade their own Macs, but eliminating dealers entirely seems unnecessary.


Apple declined to comment on this change in service policy, either to shed any light on why Apple is cutting dealers out of the service loop or even to confirm the changes.

Service Pros & Cons — I can see why Apple wants to bring more repair in-house. The effort and expense necessary to keep hundreds of Apple dealers stocked with parts and reimbursed for warranty service is undoubtedly immense. Plus, by bringing all repair work to a single location, Apple can more easily gather statistics on specific failures and figure out any commonalities in rare problems.

Apple dealers, particularly those who sell only Macs and have been awarded the Apple Specialist title, don’t fare so well by the new policy. Service used to be a relatively high margin and important aspect of the business, and with Apple’s new low prices, that was especially true. More concerning is the damage this can cause to dealers’ relationships with their customers.

Assume you’re a dealer who’s just sold a bunch of G4 Cubes and PowerBook G3s to an architect’s office. If something goes wrong with a Cube, the customer will want you to fix it. But you can’t fix the machine on site, or even handle the repair process for the customer. You could encourage the customer to have Apple ship the parts to you for installation and testing, but that’s confusing for the customer and you’ll either have to charge more or eat the cost of that work, since Apple won’t reimburse you. At least with an ailing PowerBook G3, you can handle the repair process, even if your only option is to send it back to Apple with four to seven day turnaround. It’s easier to offer additional services in this case, such as making a backup for your customer or checking out the Mac when it comes back – I’ve heard stories of hard disks being swapped and Macs coming back with new problems. But you can’t easily charge for any of these services, since the machines are still under warranty, so at best you end up acting as a technically savvy shipping department for little or no reimbursement from Apple. And particularly for the high quality Apple Specialists, that nominal reimbursement is significantly less than what they would have earned from Apple doing the repair in-house.

It all comes down to serving the customer, which Apple does by letting users ship broken Macs back to Apple for repair and by shipping parts to customers for installation. However, by creating a situation where the possibilities are different for different models, Apple causes confusion and irritation. It’s easy to imagine an office with an iMac or two, some Power Mac G4s, a G4 Cube, and several PowerBooks; figuring out support options and requirements for the entire collection would be daunting, particularly given the long wait times common when calling Apple for support. Plus, refusing to let Apple Authorized Service Providers work on G4 Cubes (or even handle repairs for them) removes a repair option that could result in faster, better, cheaper, and more coherent repair work.

But it’s worth following the toppling dominoes in this situation. Decent Apple dealers won’t go out of business based on Apple’s trend toward bringing all service in-house, but survival may require business model changes for many dealers, which may have unanticipated results. For instance, dealers may start to give significantly preferential service treatment to customers who purchase Macs through them (ensuring profits from a combined sales/service package), which sounds fine until you consider the possibility of someone who moves to a new city – or purchases Macs from a mail-order firm or the Apple Store – and can’t get decent service from the local dealer. Apple’s insistence on a high flat-rate fee for repairing PowerBooks and iBooks may result in service providers once again obtaining gray market parts so fixing that trackpad button clicker can cost $50 with labor, versus $359. In an effort to improve service quality, Apple had previously managed to eliminate the need for service providers to look to gray market parts by quickly and efficiently shipping Apple-authorized parts, even for older machines.

Obviously, there’s no way to predict precisely what will happen, since every dealer will view the situation from a different perspective. But it’s fair to say that by eliminating the option of dealer repair for the G4 Cube, PowerBook G3, and iBook, Apple simultaneously giveth and taketh away. Who will suffer the most from the loss of options: the dealers, the customers, or Apple?

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