Miscellaneous Ramblings

PowerBook Support Issues, Continued

Charles W. Moore - 1999.02.29

NOTE: This Miscellaneous Ramblings column originally appeared on MacOpinion on 1999.02.29. It is republished here by permission of the author and MacOpinion.

Jan in Florida, who inadvertently started this PB support issues series with her question about why her G3 233 Series I, which conked out around New Years after two months use, was taking so long getting repaired, has kept in touch. Here are her dispatches over the past three weeks:

Sun, 10 Jan 1999

Hi Charles,

I went to [dealer] yesterday to check up on my PowerBook and they sent for a part that is some kind of power board for the power key that they said they will try first to see if it will work. They have been very helpful up to this point.

Fri, 15 Jan 1999

I went to [dealer] again today to see if my PowerBook is ready and was told that the PMB part (power manager board) has been put on backorder. According to the technician working on it, that is the part that Apple suggested to order for that particular problem. I asked him to call and ask them to rush the part but I don't know if he will or not. I am going to continue to call, I guess. The part is not to come until Jan 29.

Tue, 19 Jan 1999

(At that point I had forwarded Jan's query to a contact at Apple Support), who instructed her to . . . call Customer Relations at Apple, and the representative told me he found the order in his computer put in on 1/5, that it was backordered, but could not say when it would be sent to [the dealer]. He did say he would put a rush on it and call me back in 2 days to let me know what was happening. I just hope that once it is sent that it solves the problem. Right? I'd hate to have to wait for another part!!

Fri, 22 Jan 1999

Hi Charles,

I have some great news! A senior rep from Apple called and said the part for my PowerBook may never be available so they are sending me a new one - one with a backside cache and modem!! I could not believe it!! The people who have called me back have been so nice.

Later that same day:

A senior customer relations rep told me the part I needed was on backorder and she had no idea when it would be shipped, or if it ever would be and since she could see no end in sight and it has taken as long as Apple allows for a repair, she decided to have me just send the broken one back to Apple and send me a new one so she looked in her computer to see if there was one just like mine, but the only one available was the backside cache one, so she said she would send that one to me and I thanked her profusely!!!

She told me to go to [the dealer] today to get the old one back, so I did. She did mention, though, that she still may find out that the part was shipped this week. She had me email her the invoice from Cyberian Outpost to show proof of purchase and she said she would call me at work when she received it, but she did not call. What should I think? I'll just hope for best!!

Tue, 26 Jan 1999

Hi CM,

Well, this is the continuing saga in the life of the G3 PowerBook that bit the dust and struggles to survive. Do I sound like I'm keeping the faith? :-)

The customer relations rep that told me to pick up my PB Friday to ship back because she could not find if the part will ever be shipped or not, and who I have been trying to reach for four days, finally left me a message on my phone at work at 07.30 PM last night. She said the part was shipped last Friday and to call [the dealer]. I did, they had the part, and I took my PB back only to find out the part did not fix it.

They said that they will order the logic board next and will do their best to get the part in a couple of days, and hopefully it will fix the problem. I said "great"!! They really are doing their best and only ordered the first part because Apple told them to. As they say, "patience is a virtue". Right? The Lord gives the grace, 'cause I sure don't have it naturally!!

Reality check here. Jan has been without the use of her two-to-three-month-old PowerBook for nearly a month now without a satisfactory resolution of her problem from either Apple or her local dealer. Obtaining and replacing either a power management board or a motherboard should not take a month. In fact, it should not take a week. Steve Jobs has reportedly bragged in public that Apple has the lowest parts inventory in the industry. Perhaps that's not really a goal to be shooting for, Steve.

The Apple support person pseudonymously identified as "Mac" in last week's column says that to a technician, a computer is just a complex Lego object, and any problem can theoretically be fixed by replacing components, which is true, but you gotta have the components available in order to replace them.

I'm sure Jan will eventually get her machine repaired or replaced, but when?

A very disgruntled reader named James sent these comments, and a PowerBook support story of his own:

Hi road warrior, I just found site while looking over MacSurfer, and unfortunately, I am currently entrenched in the Apple PowerBook support travesty. I found it interesting the 'Mac' in your article said customers should just deal with the dealers... I mean I can understand it, but he seems to really be passing the buck, and in my case I wish they had mentioned that to me when I called Apple Support, I would have sent it back to Outpost.com. I called them while it was away waiting for a backordered part and they said they would take it back for 30 days no questions asked. Anyway, here is a copy of the letter I sent to Apple today.

Apple Computer
Customer Care
P.O. Box 4040
Cupertino, CA 95014

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been an Apple Computer customer since my first Apple ][+ in 1981. For most of that time, it has been a pleasure. That all changed when I had the misfortune of buying an Apple Computer PowerBook G3 250 MHz/32 MB/4 GB/20x/13.3" TFT/56K on 7/13/98 for $3657.00.

The PowerBook was defective when I bought it, just the beginning of the worst out-of-box experience I have ever had buying a computer. When I discovered that the machine was broken I called Apple Computer. After I convinced the person I was talking to that it was a problem (he had accused me of not knowing what a LCD screen looks like), I was told I needed to send the PowerBook in for service. I told them I did not want to have the unit fixed, I wanted it replaced. I didn't think this is asking too much when you were charging as much for the unit as you were, I mean I was not charged for a refurbished unit, I paid for a factory fresh one (that worked!).

I was told that this was not possible, even though I felt this was extremely unfair, but I acquiesced. After arranging for a box to be sent etc. I got the unit back 3 days later, but much to my chagrin the problem was unchanged. I quickly called Apple Computer back, and after the usual thirty-minute hold time, I spoke to someone about the problem. I told them that I had already had enough and I wanted my money back. I was told this was not possible. I came to learn later that if I had just sent the unit back to Cyberian Outpost where I bought it, they would have given me my money back, no questions asked for thirty days, I wish one of your Apple Computer support people had told me that.)

Sometime around this point my case was passed on to Neil Orr, I spent a great amount of time talking to him, pleading my case, I wanted a replacement computer, or my money back. It seemed quite reasonable to me, I would like you to explain why my request was not honored, and I am not talking about because that is what is written in your warranty, I mean do you think this is fair? Selling defective merchandise then refusing to take it back?

Anyway, I stupidly sent it in again, Neil said if they could not fix it this time we could talk about a new machine. After some screw-ups I got the machine back in about a week, and it was fixed woohoo! I had one last quick call from Neil checking on the unit, I thanked him for his help, and told him I hoped never to speak to him again.

For about a month the computer worked great, I was able to take advantage of all the reasons I bought it, but I had a scary moment once when waking the computer up from sleep, the monitor was completely messed up.

Breathlessly I rebooted, and the problem was gone, I forced it to the back of my mind, for the option of having to deal with Apple Computer support again was perhaps the most repugnant thought I could imagine. For the next month or so, I had no problems, and the memory of the problem I had with the screen almost faded, but then the monitor problem popped up again, but it went away quickly, so I again forced myself to deny the truth (that I had been sold a machine with a serious design flaw).

I was able to deny the truth only for so long though, for now it smacks me in the face every time I start the computer from sleep. The monitor problem has gotten out of hand, and the machine is unreliable. I realized that the day that I had to deal with Apple Computer support again had come. I called on 1/19/99, and after a surprisingly short hold time (maybe now that you have stopped selling this defective computer your lines aren't as busy) I was able to talk to someone. I explained the problem and told them that I wanted a replacement, to make a long story short, I was again refused, and the man I talked to said there was no ifs ands or buts about it, I said no good, and asked to speak to someone higher up. They said this was of no use, they would just say the same thing, but I insisted, so he arranged for a call back from a senior tech. I really didn't care what he had to say because I realized during my first dealings with Apple Computer support, that the people you have working there are in general quite polite, but your policies suck. So their hands are tied, it's like talking to a brick wall.

I say, "so, you feel that if I have a computer that is 6 months old, and it's spent more than 1 month being repaired that is fair?" They say "our warranty says we can try and repair the unit as we see fit". I say, "no, I'm asking you do you think that is fair". At this point they either change the subject or, one of them (I'm not saying who because I don't want to get them in trouble) said they totally understood where I was coming from, but there was nothing they could do. I also learned you have a policy that for you to replace a unit, you have to have had it repaired 3 times for the same problem, so now I'm left trying to get this unit repaired, then hoping that it will break again so I can get a replacement.

You know repairing a unit is one thing, but when you don't even have the parts to repair the damn thing (amazingly I don't consider the part being 3 weeks away as being available) I think you, Apple Computer, should be willing to take the hit.

Because as much as I love the Mac OS, me, and other mistreated customers out there will not keep buying from you forever. I personally have to seriously question whether I will ever give Apple Computer another $.01.

The reason I want this replaced is that I know in my heart this is a design flaw, your own Joe Azzato has admitted this on the tech web site, and even if you repair it, it's gonna break again. In reading your Tech Web site for only 3 days I found no less than 6 people saying they already had the screens repaired once, or twice, or even tree times and the problem was still coming back. I brought this point up to Michelle, from Apple Computer support, and she said she was authorized to extend my warranty 6 months, I said with a computer that was designed damaged like this one, 2 years would be a more reasonable. She said no. And besides, when you guys don't have the parts to repair the thing and it takes 2-3 weeks to get it back, this is not an acceptable solution either.

I listened to Steve Jobs tout how Apple Computer has the smallest inventory of parts in the industry, if the price of this 'success' is the kind of customer service you have now, I think you should reconsider how you define success.

I understand your policy of not taking returns on DOA or defective merchandise probably helps your bottom line, but your growth will not last long when word of how you treat your customers is spread, and rest assured, as a web designer, I will spread it. I'm embarrassed because I know I am personally responsible for at least 5 people buying Macs, I did not realize I was telling them to buy from a company that would not properly back it's products.

Anyway, to finish my saga of the day, I finally got a call back from Michelle at Apple Computer support. She listened to what I had to say, listened to most of my questions and explanations and still said I could not have a replacement till after they try to fix it one more time. I asked her what happened to the post on the Tech web board about apple policies, specifically, the policy about having to return something 3 times before it is replaceable. It had about 6 responses to it, including one from myself.

I went back the next day to see if there were any further opinions. Wouldn't ya know it... it was gone, yet the posts right before it and right after it were still there. She remained silent to this question. To quote Eric Cartman, you guys are hella lame.

The questions I would like an answer to are:

  1. How many months of service do you feel is acceptable for a new computer in the first year?
  2. What is the difference between a new unit and a refurbished one, if, like me, you couldn't even use it till it was fixed, and after trying to fix it twice, it still doesn't work?
  3. When did you become such a soulless, bloodsucking company?
  4. Is there any reason I should ever buy another Apple Computer product when I was treated so badly when I did?

Thank you for your time,
James T.

Now if James's experience with his 13.3" display glitching up were an isolated incident, Apple might be able to dismiss his claim that his PowerBook is inherently flawed design-wise as unreasonable.

However, there are many reports of the same problem James describes, and I doubt that it is a coincidence that Apple dropped the 13.3" display from the Series II G3s. There are extensive threads regarding the 13.3" display woes on Apple's PowerBook Discussion Forum and The PowerBook Source.

The essential problem with the 13.3" LCD displays is that, unlike the 12.1" and 14.1" units, the ribbon cable connecting the display to the motherboard connects at the left-hand side of the screen on the 13.3"s, rather than at the back. The cable must therefore make a sharp turn to wrap around to the side of the screen, which stresses on the connector, which in some cases results in intermittent contact, and the video anomalies many 13.3" owners have witnessed. Flickering, stripes, whiteouts - all are symptoms of this problem. Apple has reportedly attempted to solve it with a redesigned cable and connector, and with putting a dab of epoxy glue on the connection to secure it. However, like James, many users have had the problem return 2 or 3 times.

"Todd" posted this message to the Apple PowerBook Discussion Forum on the 13.3" display issue:

Good luck - I've had 5 of these with the exact same problem. One I sent back around August and got back somewhat promptly (bit over 2 weeks) but the other one that I sent back last month took *4 WEEKS* and it's still having the same problems, a week after getting it back. I still have another one that's there that I don't know the status of. When I called before I sent it, they let me know that they only had a bit over 300 of the replacement cables on hand, and given the known (un)reliability of this model, I would assume that it will take awhile to get yours fixed. Best of all, my local service center is not permitted to fix this problem - it would certainly expedite things if they could.

I really wish someone at Apple would do something to fix this. 4 weeks + is a long time to wait in business. We assign these G3's to our salespeople, and they are the people who bring in the money in this place. They cannot perform most of their job without their machines. I love Apple to death, and I wouldn't use anything else, but if stuff like this happens, it gets *very* hard for me to fight off the Wintel 'standardization' invasion.

Anyways . . . sorry to rant. I'm just so frustrated that the only answer I can get for a *known* reliability/engineering flaw is "send it back" I've been so loyal to Apple, buying as much as I can, and this is what I get. Argh.

Melissa seems to have been hit with a double-whammy; both her 13'3" display and power management board are apparently defective:

I also have a G3 with a 13.3" monitor. Alas, I have had the same problem with mine. The first time, it began with slight flickering, and then graduated to total whiteout of the display. I sent it in to Apple and they changed the cable. While in again for an unrelated cause (something inside the computer was preventing the battery from recharging), they once again fixed it. Now, only a few weeks later, I once again am seeing the flickering starting. I am getting very frustrated. Can't they let us trade up our model since it is known to be so problematic?

And "Butch" posted this comment:

I've had the same problem. Initially, it started with the left hand side of the backlighting flickering. Eventually, the backlighting on that side went out for good. I had also seen the problem you described off and on, as well as the display going completely different colors a few times.

I finally got so mad, that I bought a 266 MHz model with the 14" screen. I sent the 250 MHz/13.3 back to Apple for repair. The first time I turned it on after the repair, I got the whiteout/northern lights problem you described. I immediately sent it back again. This time when I got it back, the left hand side backlighting was off again! However, it has now seemed to have corrected itself.

Point is, I really need to sell that machine, but I don't really want to dump my problem on someone else. I need to know it's going to work for whoever buys it.

Obviously Apple is spending a ton to have these machines go back and forth to their repair center. Why don't they just offer us a trade or some other reasonable offer? I wonder if the lemon law applies to this? Anyone know?

And happily, there are reports from readers who have had no problems with their 13.3" displays, and reports of satisfactory service experiences like this one from "Suk-Hyun" posted to the PowerBook Source:

I got my PowerBook back from apple today. It took exactly 3 days as they promised. They fixed the flickering screen problem.

Following item was replaced: part number 922-3350 cbl, Flex ckt, 13.3"", PB G3, Samsung

If you have flickering screen, you should send it for repair (if you can live without PowerBook for 3 days.... It was very hard for me without PowerBook...)

And that last sentence says it all. I loved those "What's On Your PowerBook?" magazine ads that Apple ran several years ago. For many of us, our whole business or education life data are on our PowerBook's hard drive, and even if we conscientiously back up (Memo to self: it's been too long - get to it), few people can afford to have a back-up machine capable enough to adequately pinch-hit for three or four weeks while we wait for our workhorse to be repaired. Lots of people have only one computer, period. I would probably be able to manage for a short time with my old '030 LC 520, but it wouldn't be pretty!

From what I have heard from readers, and my own limited experience, the 13.3" display and power management board issues with the Series I G3 PBs are unacceptably common and often take too long to resolve. To the best of my present knowledge, the power management board problem was fixed on the Series IIs (any contrary reports out there?) and the 13.3" screens were simply dropped, but those buggy Series Is are leaving a bad taste in too many mouths. Let's get the outstanding cases fixed, PDQ, Apple!

In last week's column, a reader who identified himself as "ingsoc" related an entertaining tale about a very bad PB 5300, and how Apple finally replaced it with a 3400. A reader named Matt wrote suggesting that "ingsoc's" professed behavior in the affair was ethically questionable.

In response to your letter that you posted from "ingsoc", it seems to me that this person should be shamed instead of praised. He says in his letter that he used his friends and coworkers to get his PowerBook fixed outside of warranty for free and most likely illegally.

He than whined to get his computer replaced long out of warranty. He is damn lucky. What company should be expected to replace or repair for free a 3rd owner out of warranty machine? Umm if Apple did this as policy where would there profits be? So I should call up with a 180C and complain about battery life and get a new PowerBook? No!

It is the abuse of the system that makes it harder for customers with problems that are legit, in warranty, and using the system properly to get the service they deserve. Ingsoc really in my opinion "stole" the 3400 by using means that if Apple knew the facts he would have never gotten a new machine, esp. a 3400, for free."

I partly agree with Matt, as I implied in my comments regarding ingsoc's letter (shaming with faint praise?).

However, as I understand it, Apple has an unpublicized seven year extended warranty on certain issues affecting the PB 5300, including motherboard problems of the sort that ingsoc was experiencing.

Apple's warranty is transferable, so the fact that he was the third owner is not a problem.

My beef with ingsoc was that he contemptuously dishonored his agreement with Apple to keep quiet about the replacement. Whether Apple is being ethical in not publicizing this replacement policy is debatable, but ingsoc's agreement with them was predicated on his discretion.

I think Matt would agree that ingsoc's 5300 was a lemon. I just wish he had been more graceful about accepting Apple's adjustment.

I do agree with Matt, that Apple's budget for support, repair, and replacement is necessarily finite, and every replacement machine depletes the kitty available for to be applied to the general support situation. I think ingsoc did luck out, but his 5300 obviously had severe problems that had not been satisfactorily dealt with.

And I'll end this week's installment with a semi-personal Apple support issue. Last November, my son, Tristan, spent his savings on a G3 233 Series II 12.1" TFT machine (identical to the one I just bought - they were built one week apart, according to the serial numbers).

Night before last, the sound-out jack stopped working. The jack had been erratic for the past couple of weeks - sometimes requiring a second insertion of the mini-plug before it would connect.

The sound in the machine still plays through the built in speakers OK, but the sound-out port feels "loose" like the internal contacts aren't biting any more, and inserting a jack plug no longer disables the internal speakers.

The problem has been reported to our dealer, and we await a replacement part. I'll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, have any of you G3 Series Road Warriors out there experienced sound jack issues?