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When Is a Warranty Not a Warranty?

Remember when Apple’s warranty on Macintosh computers was a mere 90 days, and the change to a full one-year warranty was big news? Or when on-site desktop computer and mail-in laptop warranty repairs became the norm? Big changes like that are generally the only time the average consumer stops to think about product warranties beyond the simplest “How long is the warranty?” level. Unfortunately, that’s not all we need to know when considering a purchase.

The hidden variation of what warranties can mean to different vendors was brought into sharp relief last month when the high-capacity internal hard drive I’d bought for my MacBook died, and I discovered that the three-year warranty I thought I had didn’t necessarily mean I’d be back up and running any time soon.

Our story begins in July 2006, when I wanted to purchase a larger internal hard drive than Apple had available in their MacBooks. The selection process, as with most hardware purchases these days, required balancing reasonable price against a reasonable expectation of reliability and post-sales support. The $279 Hitachi drive from Other World Computing (OWC, also known as I picked wasn’t the cheapest option, but I felt I was investing in a computer component I’d be heavily relying on. The peace of mind of a known vendor and known manufacturer seemed worth a slight price premium.

Where in the World is Mark’s Hard Drive? — Unfortunately, the level of warranty information provided by OWC (and, to be fair, most vendors) ends at the length of the manufacturer’s warranty. What they leave out, and what I’ve learned the consumer needs to seek out independently, is any idea of the specific warranty policies of the manufacturer, including likely turnaround time.

I’ve discovered this in the worst manner possible, by finding out that Hitachi’s standard operating procedure for warranty replacement is, literally, a “slow boat from Asia” approach. A replacement hard drive had to make its way from Singapore to California, taking an estimated 7-10 “business days” (in December, that was extended thanks to the holidays), after which it could be sent across the United States to me in Ithaca.

The problem was compounded by Hitachi’s customer service rep misleading me into believing that the drive was being sent to me via second-day air; despite my skepticism, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and allowed for the possibility that he had no idea the drive had to take a two-week trip from Singapore first. He helpfully took my credit card number for their advance-exchange option, a reasonable provision that allowed them to start the process now, rather than waiting for me to get the defective drive to them.

My happy illusion that my conversation with Hitachi on a mid-December Monday meant I’d have a replacement drive on Wednesday or Thursday evaporated when I plugged my RMA number into Hitachi’s Web site that Tuesday to see whether the replacement drive had yet shipped. Hitachi’s RMA tracker doesn’t understand advance-exchange returns, so it gave me incorrect info, which prompted me to call the company again. This time, I was given the word that the drive was on its way from Singapore.

The Hitachi rep I spoke to that Tuesday said that if the drive hadn’t already been dispatched from Singapore, he could have looked to see if a warehouse in the United States (one that isn’t generally used for warranty fulfillment) had a drive they could send me, but since Monday’s misleading (or confused) rep had started the slow-boat process, they were unwilling to change anything. I should expect my replacement 2-3 weeks after requesting it, and I’d be without a working laptop for that time. This just doesn’t reflect modern computer-user expectations, and if their hope is that customers who can’t wait that long will give up and buy a brand new device rather than seek warranty replacement, it’s pretty shady.

That’s when I tried calling Other World Computing again, in hopes that my reputable vendor of choice would stand behind the sale and take care of the customer after learning how poor a job the manufacturer was doing. While I’ve spoken to some friendly and sympathetic folks at OWC, their policy and their stance is that their responsibility to the customer ends thirty days after the sale, and that warranty fulfillment past that time is solely the responsibility of the manufacturer. (The folks I talked to at OWC allowed that they can, and do, stretch the thirty-day limit, but not this long.)

What’s a Buyer to Do? Obviously, the old “caveat emptor” advice, “Let the buyer beware,” applies here. But this experience has made it clear that the buyer can’t stop at selecting a seemingly reputable vendor and a name brand product with a reasonable warranty period. If I had to do it all over again (and I’m sure someday I will), I’d take the additional steps of ensuring the manufacturer offers advance-exchange service (this means they will send you the replacement before the old equipment reaches them) and finding out what kind of turnaround time I could expect.

For example, Seagate, which now offers a five-year warranty on hard drives, offers both ground and two-day air shipping for replacement drives; the latter is available for a fee, or is included with the company’s $20 advance exchange option. Western Digital also offers advance replacement, and, like Hitachi, asks for a credit card number to secure the return of the original unit, but doesn’t charge a fee. They quote a 3-5 business day turnaround.

Ideally, resellers like OWC would provide this sort of information, upon request if not right on their Web site. OWC,, Small Dog Electronics, and most other online resellers already tell customers how long a product’s warranty lasts, as a matter of course. Why not provide typical warranty turnaround time? A customer relations manager at OWC says they’d never be able to keep up with frequent changes to such info, and publishing it would expose them to liability if it made a manufacturer unhappy. I’d prefer they focused on keeping the customer happy.

The situation is complicated when a “house brand” from an online reseller is really a standard manufacturer product that’s been relabeled with the reseller’s name, such as similar hard drives manufactured by Hitachi, and offered for sale without identifying Hitachi. One such vendor tells us that the manufacturer is responsible for warranty fulfillment on these drives, but a buyer who doesn’t do a little digging beyond the provided information won’t know that.

Is this Normal? Of course, I’m kicking myself for not having figured out before this happened that not all warranties are created equal. I wish I’d looked into Hitachi and OWC a year and a half ago, before making the purchase, to see what I could expect from them. One of OWC’s folks tried to convince me that two-week turnaround wasn’t that bad, based on the fact that a couple of their Macs had taken two months to be repaired under warranty.

Two months does make two weeks look better, but misses the point that two weeks is normal (and, really, the bare minimum) for Hitachi’s warranty fulfillment turnaround, whereas it’s extremely unusual for Apple, whose typical repair turnaround is under a week. If Hitachi had unexpectedly run out of a U.S. supply, and as a result needed to do something unusual by getting my drive from Singapore via surface ship, it would still be frustrating, but more understandable.

What Could OWC Have Done Better? — For starters, I’d have been more impressed if the customer service rep I spoke to on that Tuesday had offered more than sympathy and a recitation of their policies. It wasn’t until I gave a PR rep from whom we get OWC press releases a heads-up that I was working on a “caveat emptor” article featuring one of her clients that anyone at OWC tried to get in touch with Hitachi to intervene on my behalf.

OWC couldn’t get anyone at Hitachi to come up with a better resolution, though they did extract something I hadn’t been able to – a delivery ETA of December 31st. That’s right, the replacement was being sent to my employer’s office while my employer was closed, which Hitachi knew; I’d given them my work address with the specific caveat that the office would be closed from that Friday through January 2nd, so they should ship there only if it was certain to arrive that week. Hitachi refused to arrange for a change in the delivery address, though they said I was welcome to try that with DHL myself.

While I feel that warranty fulfillment after over a year shouldn’t be OWC’s problem, I’ll admit I was hoping their sympathy would extend to standing behind their customer by replacing the product in a timely manner when it became clear that Hitachi wasn’t going to do so. Everyone at OWC seems dismayed that Hitachi’s standard procedure involves shipping a replacement from Singapore, and they’re now (understandably) wondering whether they should drop Hitachi drives from their product selection; but even if they do that, it doesn’t help me.

Ironically, OWC’s published policies would have allowed me to purchase a new laptop hard drive, use it for a couple of weeks until my warranty replacement arrived, and then return it for a full credit or a refund minus a restocking fee. (Luckily for them, I don’t feel it’s right to take advantage of a liberal return policy, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have felt like laying out my cash to make up for this gross lapse in customer satisfaction. Instead, I waited – with my laptop down for the count – until my replacement finally reached me, last week.)

I can’t help but think that someone – at Hitachi or OWC – really should have said, “You know? This is unacceptable. We took your money and if we can’t get you a warranty replacement unit without making you wait two or more weeks for it, we should pull a drive off the shelf and send it to you.” Instead, they’ve created a customer who will never again buy a Hitachi product, and will have to think long and hard before ever again buying from OWC.

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