Miscellaneous Ramblings

PowerBook Support Issues, Continued Again

Charles W. Moore - 1999.02.05

NOTE: This Miscellaneous Ramblings column originally appeared on MacOpinion on 1999.02.05. It is republished here by permission of the author and MacOpinion.

The saga continues. This week I'm delighted to kick off with a good news Apple service story.

Reader Anthony Warn writes:

I recently bought a 266 MHz PowerBook G3, the new one's with the 14.1" screen standard. I love it. But after two months or so of pretty constant use w/o a problem I began to notice the battery was no longer charging. I am a graduate student and having a notebook w/o a working battery is somewhat of a problem.

I had heard Apple repair horror stories, esp. about the new PowerBooks, so I wasn't comfortable sending my computer in until after finals. Well, when I did finally decide to send it in I called Apple. A mail-in box was dropped off at my door the next day. I sent the Book in on a Tuesday afternoon from NYC, and expected somewhat of a long delay in getting back. That seemed normal since they had to send it all the way down to Texas to fix it (or so I hear).

To make a long story short, I mailed it in Tuesday afternoon and got it back fully fixed Friday morning. Needless to say, they have me impressed. I have a friend who bought a Wintel notebook from a big name supplier and it took her almost two weeks of phone calls before they would admit that there was a problem big enough for her to send it in. It took her three weeks to get it back.

Whatever problems Apple may have had in PowerBook service, they seem to have been fixed!

YeeeeeHahhhhh! That's the way it should work, and I'm sure that's the way Apple wants it to work. However, some PowerBook users are still falling through the cracks in the system.

Jan from Florida is now into her second month without her almost new PowerBook G3 233 Series I. Her latest communiqués imply that her patience is wearing thin.

Tue, 02 Feb 1999

Dear Charles

Well, now for the ridiculous! [The dealer] called me today, after I called them, and the logic board did not work either so they have to mail my PowerBook to Texas and it will be days before I get it back, if ever. I called the rep in Customer Relations at Apple and told her what was going on and she said she would call [the dealer] to see what was up and then get back to me. She said Apple would pay for a loaner PB, but I told her that would not do. I emailed [another Apple support rep.] and asked him to look into things for me. I hope he does. What else can I do?

Over and out,

Later that same day:

Me again,
[Apple support rep.] read my email right away, called the lady in Customer Relations, and said things will be expedited and made right as soon as possible. Isn't that great!! :-) )


However, as of two days later, Jan still had no news (or PowerBook).

Thu, 04 Feb 1999

I hope I get my PowerBook back in time to download Nisus onto it.


That latter reference is to the free Nisus Writer 4.1.6 download offer, which ends Feb 14!

Hey Apple; This lady, a loyal repeat Apple customer, has been without her new PowerBook, which cost her many thousands of dollars, for over a month. Maybe she will get it repaired or replaced this week - maybe not. This is not an acceptable level of service. The power management board, and now the motherboard have been replaced (after a loooooong wait for the parts to arrive), and it's still not cured.

This leads me to suspect that the problem must be something relatively minor, like perhaps a short circuit in the RF shielding, but I'm not an Apple tech, so what do I know? In theory, there is no reason why this PowerBook should not be fixable. A computer is essentially just a box full of components, all of which are replaceable. However, the dealer's technicians seem to have been unable to trace the glitch, so how about just sending this customer a replacement machine?

A similar, even worse, tale of woe was published over at the PowerBook Source this week.

PB Source reader, C. D. Campbell, wrote, in part:

Here's my sad narrative:

I received my PB G3 250/13.3 on 6/3/98. It completely died, unbootable after some weird screen artifact, on 9/19.98. I sent it to Apple via Computerware - an "Apple Authorized Service Provider" - and didn't get it back until 12/3/98, due to delays at both Computerware and Apple. The logic board and the display module had been replaced. I had it back for one day and discovered that the internal modem no longer worked.

Rather than return it to Apple I worked for several hours with the Computerware staff trying to install a Global Village PC card modem. My PB G3 (after hard disk erase, reinstall system software, with no other programs/extensions loaded to possibly conflict) refused to recognize the modem or the PC port, while the current PB G3 floor model at Computerware had no problem with the exact same modem .

I reluctantly sent it back to Apple where my computer languished for 6 weeks until they finally acknowledged that they were out of internal modems and didn't know when the parts would arrive. They offered to keep the computer indefinitely and give me OS 8.5 as a consolation prize, or return it to me an buy me an external modem to use until they could replace the internal modem....

I agreed to try this second option.... I was finally able to make it recognize the GV external (not PC card) modem after I disabled the faxing extensions and the GV toolbox extension.) This meant that the modem would work, but that I could not access the modem control panel to make adjustments, nor could I fax with it.

Then, the screen had more weird artifact and the computer died again, sometimes bootable, sometimes not ... it was returned for a 3rd time to Apple.

I requested a replacement unit, given that I have no confidence in Apple's repair process, and at this point my computer has been in repair mode (4+months), longer than I have had it available to me for use (3+ months). My request was refused because "not enough parts have been replaced yet". The Senior Customer Relations rep could not give me a date of when I would get my computer back.

I am really at the end of my proverbial rope here. What recourse do I have after spending $4000 on a machine that persistently does not work?... I am appalled that Apple can't see it's way to providing a replacement for what is obviously a problematic unit.

Do you think this guy will ever buy another Mac, or influence his friends to?

I have a suggestion for Apple. I agree that Apple couldn't afford to replace every troublesome but eventually fixable computer. However, if the holdup is Apple's fault (i.e., backordered parts) and the downtime will run into weeks or months, why not have a fleet of refurbished units to let the customers use as loaners while they're waiting for their own machines to be fixed?

Apple may actually be ahead of me on this, since one of the Apple support people offered Jan a loaner (I'm not sure why she declined - perhaps because after this long she thinks - with considerable justification - that she is entitled to have her computer replaced).

There appears to be several PowerBook G3 Series issues that keep cropping up with more than random frequency - repeated problems with the Series 1 13.3" displays, and trouble with the power management boards that seems to afflict some Series I and Series II units.

MacFixit this week published an explanation of why some 13.3" screen owners have had to get their machines repaired several times.

The trouble is not necessarily with the screen cable itself, but sometimes if the cable is not reinstalled properly, the problem will soon crop up again.

The cable has to be wrapped carefully around the PowerBook lid's metal hinges. The cable has to be meticulously curled around the hinge before assembling the front and back halves of the screen housing, but the springy plastic cable resists this. The trick is to tape the cable in place while reassembling the housing, and making double-sure that it wraps freely around the hinge.

Reader James Tsuyuki, who has experienced serial failures with his 13.3" display, had this to say in response to my suggesting that he cut the Apple's stressed out support personnel (not Apple itself) a little slack.

Hey Charles,

Thanks for writing back. I appreciate your taking the time, but as to worrying about Apple support people being overworked stressed out and doing unpaid time. I really don't have time to worry about that. If you want to talk about overworked, stressed out and underpaid, you should take a look at my schedule. It seems to me you are saying "Apple can't properly do the work they should do to support a computer, so you should pick up the slack." Apple should be taking care of it's employees. The only reason they are so stressed out, is because they have to deal with customers everyday who are appalled at Apple's ridiculous support and return policies.

Apple has a wealth of loyal customers, and in a sense you could consider that a buffer, but that I think is wearing very thin. It seems now Apple is playing on that "loyalty" of Mac users, by feeling they can give them unacceptable customer support, all the while knowing that most Mac users would do almost anything than switch to Windows. I feel this is asking for trouble.

And as for a dollop of epoxy on the [13.3" display] cable, when are they going to start using bubble gum and duct tape? This again sounds like a very *temporary* fix to a materials/design problem. A fix designed to last till the warranty runs out.

Fair comment. Apple's staffing shortages (and parts supply constipation) should not be the problem for their customers. The 13.3" display problems should be fixable. As I understand it, the trouble is not with the screen itself, but with the cable connection.

The point is that PowerBook G3s especially are targeted at a class of users who depend on their machines to conduct their livelihoods, and can't afford to have their main business tool in the shop for months at a time. Would a business that depended on, say, a truck, to conduct its affairs tolerate this sort of service?

Finally, last week I mentioned that the sound out port on my son, Tristan's PB G3 233 had failed. As it turns out, it was a software, not a hardware, problem (this is the sort of thing that makes tech-support people cautious about customers' personal diagnoses of computer problems). Tristan *is* a tech support person who maintains the Mac networks at two small newspapers and has his own Mac service and repair business, and he misdiagnosed this one at first.

However, the problem proved to be a system glitch. Tristan pushes his computers to the razor edge of the envelope, using all manner of alpha and beta software and hacked applications, and he often has "interesting" software corruption problems. We should have suspected software first.

See you next week!