Lessons Learned When Sending Your Mac Away for Warranty Repair (or… Why Did Apple Steal my RAM?) – Updated

This all started a few months back when I was making one of my weekend snowboard pilgrimages to Killington, Vermont. I am typically used to being without Internet access at the poorly-wired EconoLodge where I’ve spent over 50 nights these past three seasons. On this occasion, however, my poor planning forced me to book a hotel substantially further away from the mountain. While the hotel was certainly nothing to write home about, I was delighted when my friend fired up his 3 year-old iBook to discover that he could connect to the open WiFi connection from the hotel across the street. To my dismay, however, my snazzy 15-inch 1.67 Hi-Res/Dual Layer (October 2005 Release) Powerbook could see nothing – not one of the four or five access points that my friend’s iBook could pick up.

Apparently, this poor signal strength wasn’t unique to my Powerbook, as hundreds of other users were whining about the same issue throughout various threads on Apple’s support site. After doing some signal strength analysis when I got home, using tools like MacStumbler and Kismac, it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. Given the fact that I spend a significant amount of time in hotels and airports, I was quite worried that this problem would strand me without Internet access on an upcoming trip. I figured I’d have to bring the machine in to Apple for a more comprehensive look into the problem.

Fast-forward two weeks to the Apple Store in Bridgewater, New Jersey, where a certified Apple Genius certified that my AirPort card had a certifiable problem. I declined his offer to take my laptop for immediate warranty repair, since I didn’t want to give up my precious Powerbook right away. I figured that I could drop the laptop off the evening before I went on my next business trip to minimize the impact of my Powebook’s vacation back to Apple (I use an IBM Thinkpad for work, so I usually leave the Powerbook at home when I travel on business).

Two weeks later, as I planned for my upcoming trip to Seattle, my Fifth Generation iPod died, so I figured it would be a good time to setup a Genius Bar appointment for both the Powerbook and the iPod, killing two birds with one stone. Early the next day, the Genius at the Menlo Park, New Jersey Apple Store had no problem replacing my iPod on the spot and accepting my Powerbook for warranty repair. He informed me that they could not guarantee that my Powerbook would be returned with my data, and that the Apple Store could take a disk image backup of my data for free – if the Powerbook returned without my data, they would restore it back to original state for $53. This seemed like reasonable insurance to me, particularly as I didn’t have an external drive large enough to backup or clone my Powerbook’s internal hard drive and didn’t want to spend the next three years rebuilding my machine back to it’s original state. [Note: If you're an Apple ProCare member, this service is free of charge.] The Genius told me my Powerbook would be gone for 1-2 weeks, so I mentally prepared myself to spend about half that time at home without its use. The next morning, off I few to Seattle and off my Powerbook went to Apple’s warranty depot in Houston, Texas.

I discovered that Apple has an online warranty status page, which I checked four days after dropping off the unit, only to learn that it had just been shipped to Houston. I assume it took them a bit longer to backup my disk than I had expected. Over the next couple of days, I tracked my Powerbook’s arrival in Houston and patiently waited for the repairs to begin.

And I waited.

and waited…

and waited…

Ten days after drop-off, my repair’s status was finally updated to “On Hold – Parts Ordered”. While this took longer than I expected, I initially found this to be a promising sign. Unfortunately, it took another week for the parts to arrive at the depot. You would have thought that the most likely place on the planet to have Powerbook parts would be, say, Apple’s Powerbook repair shop? Hmmm. Apparently not.

After seventeen days, my Powerbook was finally shipped back to the Menlo Park, NJ Apple Store and I received a call from a local technician telling me that my Powerbook was ready for pickup. I was traveling to Cincinnati at the time and would have to wait another two days before I could reclaim my Mac. I missed my 35 gigs of music, as well as the ease-of-use of the Mac OS after being relegated to my home Windows desktop for almost a month. I was anxious to get it back, to say the least.

When I arrive at the Apple Store, it took about twenty minutes for them to find my laptop. I’m not sure what the mix-up was, but I was delighted when the technician returned from the back with my Powerbook in hand. The tech then explained that my Powerbook was essentially not my Powerbook anymore – they had replaced my Airport module, Bluetooth module, SuperDrive and Logic Board! I figured that someone at the repair depot accidentally dropped it and ran it over with their desk chair a few times when it arrived, but I wasn’t going to question the extent of the repairs. I was just happy to have my machine back. This was the last bit of happiness I felt for the next hour, however, for a couple of reasons…

First, I was informed by the tech that they could not restore my backed-up disk image to the Powerbook. The so-called “good news”, however, was that they placed a 65GB disk image in the root hard drive that had all my data. He could not elaborate about WHY they could not restore the machine back to its original state, but he said that “all I needed to do” was re-create my user accounts, copy my data and applications from the disk image and re-install any apps that didn’t work – essentially re-build the machine from scratch. Any PC or Mac user knows how simple of a task this is </sarcasm>. He was also delighted to tell me that I owed them $53 for taking the disk image.

I questioned why I owed them $53 for the disk image, when the service they sold me was that they would restore the Powerbook to its original state – which they had not done. When I left the Powerbook at their store three weeks prior, I was very, very careful about getting the Genius’s commitment that they would restore the machine to it’s original sate, otherwise I just would have backed up my docs and photos to 3 or 4 dual layer DVDs. Unfortunately, the tech had now answer to this and said that he didn’t have the authority waive the $53 charge.

I then booted into my clean installation of 10.4.6 and went to “About This Mac” to validate that they I got back the same class of machine that I provided them. To my shock, OS X reported only the stock config 512MB of RAM installed, despite the fact that I previously installed a third party 1GB DIMM, bringing the machine’s total to 1.5GB of RAM. I pointed this out to the tech, who didn’t have an explanation, but said that he would take the machine in the back and validate that the DIMMs were installed correctly. Ten minutes later, he returned, telling me that there was no third party memory module installed and that he “checked to make sure it wasn’t laying around in the back” (Images of Apple store employees swimming in a massive mound of memory chips went through my head at this point). He told me that if the extra memory had been present when I provided it to them, it would have been noted in the work order and replaced if they needed to remove it during the warranty repair, so there was nothing he could do to help me. I stressed that the memory was, indeed, present when I dropped the machine off and asked what my recourse was. He informed me that I would have to take this up on my own by calling AppleCare, as they would be the only ones who could handle my claim. I knew that any calls to AppleCare would be fruitless and would take me days or weeks to resolve – if there were to be any resolution at all. This was unacceptable to me and I asked if I could speak to the store’s manager.

Ten minutes later, a gentleman by the name of Greg came to visit me and told me that he had been briefed by the tech about my case. He repeatedly stressed that it is standard policy for a Genius to note any third party upgrades when preparing a warranty work order. He also noted that if third party components are removed at the repair depot, they are noted in the case, bagged and returned, or re-installed. He was not accusing me of trying to scam them, but he was essentially telling me that it was a “my word versus theirs” situation.

At this point, I thought that a paper trail might be helpful.

First, I pulled the original warranty work order that was provided to me at that same Genius Bar when I dropped the machine off. Mr. Manager Greg and his tech were right – the work order did not note any third party memory present. However, the work order did not note ANY specific amount of RAM present in the machine – it simply read something like “Powerbook G4 1.67/DL”. Therefore, I actually did not sign off on a machine with a 512MB RAM configuration. The machine specifications on the work order are very sparse, to the point where they are not really machine specs at all – they act as more of a general description of the machine. When signing off on the work order, I assumed that I would receive the machine back with the exact same configuration in which I left it and there was nothing to the contrary stated on the work order.

Next, I brought Manager Greg over to a new Mac Mini Core Duo and logged into Other World Computing’s website to show him the receipt for the 1GB DIMM that I purchased in January. The type of memory used by this rev of Powerbook is somewhat unique, to the point where the product description on my receipt read that it was a memory module “for *NEW October-2005* PowerBook G4 'Aluminum' 15- & 17- 1.67GHz Models”.

It was now pretty apparent to Greg that this wasn’t some sort of scam where I break my Powerbook, send it in for warranty repair for almost three weeks and produce phony receipts – all to screw Apple out of a $100 worth of memory. He told me, in a very used-car saleman-ish let-me-speak-to-my-manager sort of way, that he needed to go in the back to figure out where we go from here. A few minutes later, to my delight, he returned with a small box containing 1GB of Apple factory memory. He stated that he believed my claim and that he could not accuse me of signing off on an inaccurate configuration when I left them the machine, since their work orders do display the RAM configuration (actual or perceived) of the machine. I took him up on his offer to have a tech install the memory module.

Greg went on to explain that the Geniuses, in-store techs and warranty techs are very thorough in every step of the repair and documentation process and he couldn’t really understand how this happened since they were so thoroughly thorough. Thoroughly so. Ironically, their lack of thoroughness reared its ugly head five minutes later when the tech returned with my Powerbook, shook my hand and told me to have a nice day – all without signing that I ever received the machine and without making me pay the $53 for the data transfer. Sorry, Apple – I guess that’s payback for the 90+ minutes I wasted in this ordeal.

Annoyances aside, at the end of the day I had my machine back and the 1GB Apple factory memory that I received is actually a bit better quality than what I purchased from Other World Computing. In addition, I was able to restore my machine configuration to 95% of it’s original state within one day (see my notes below). It’s just unfortunate that this incident caused so much inconvenience for myself, as well as the team at the Menlo Park Apple Store.

Lessons Learned and Observations

1. Backup your own data before you send your machine out for warranty repair, even if Apple says that they can do it for you. Unfortunately, I did not have an external drive at the time, so I could not made a full disk image myself. I did, however, have various DVDs containing my critical files, but I was relying on Apple to do a full disk image restore when my machine returned so I didn’t have to spend a significant amount of time rebuilding my machine. Two Apple techs couldn’t explain why they couldn’t restore my disk image, however, and only noted that the machine would not boot when they first attempted it. If you do have the Apple Store perform the backup for you, assume the worst – you may have to re-build your machine. Some apps do not work flawlessly by simply dragging and dropping them from a disk image, so make sure you have your original installation disks handy.

2. When you drop your machine off for warranty service, be explicit about any upgrades you have made the machine above the base configuration. Force the Apple Genius/tech/service representative/authorized reseller to note these in the case.

3. Don’t sign off on any warranty work orders unless they explicitly state the upgrades you communicated to the Apple tech. Depending on where the tech enters the notes into Apple’s system, they still may not appear on the work order. Insist that they do.

4. It seems that Apple needs to enhance their system that creates the work order to include detailed information. In addition, there should be a strict checkpoint in the work order creation process that requires the tech to inspect the hardware for third party upgrades and note them in the system before the work order is completed and printed.

5. There is a “black hole” in the warranty repair process at Apple. When my machine went into “On Hold – Parts Ordered” state for a long time, I called twice to see if someone could give me an update on my machine and was told both times that no updates were available on the status of parts ordered and that the repair status would change when the parts were received and work began. What if the parts never arrived? Would I ever get my Powerbook back?

6. This case is probably a textbook advertisement for Apple’s ProCare service, which I don’t have. For the $99 ProCare plan, I could have had an easier time making Genius Bar appointments (I had some initial difficulty getting convenient time slots), the Powerbook data backup would have been free of charge, and the warranty repair would have been expatiated (although I’m not sure how much that would have helped in this case, since much of the delay was caused by parts order issues).

7. I asked two techs why they had to replace almost all the internal components in my Powerbook and neither of them could tell me. Isn’t that strange? Do they not have access to this information or did they just not want to share it with me?

8. In regards to face-to-face customer interaction, professionalism and product expertise, I do have to say that the gentlemen I dealt with at both the Bridgewater, NJ and Menlo Park, NJ Apple Stores receive very high marks. They appear to be very well trained in all aspects of customer service, conflict resolution and clear communication. In particular, both Greg and Joe at the Menlo Park Apple Store were very helpful.

9. Keep your cool. I spent a lot of time around the Genius Bar in the last month and noticed that a lot of people get very hot headed when dealing with the Apple Store techs (“What do you mean my cracked iPod LCD isn’t covered under warranty?”). These guys don’t make the rules; they are only there to help you resolve your problem. If you’re in a sticky situation like mine, don’t blow up the poor guy who happens to receive your case on that day – he’s probably not personally responsible for any mishaps on Apple’s part. Be stern, present the facts and community clearly.

10. If you are within close proximity, my recommendation is to always go to the Apple Store for major issues rather than calling AppleCare. I have used Genius Bar services for several issues, all of which were pretty involved and complex. They resolved each of those issues on that same visit. Also, you are always guaranteed to see a “real” technician on your first Genius Bar visit – not some first line telephone tech support guy who is relying on a knowledge base to help solve your problems. And, of course, face-to-face communication also helps facilitate more effective problem solving.

11. I eventually restored my Powerbook to its original state without restoring the disk image. If you recall, Apple left me with a fresh install of OS X 10.4.6 on the machine, with a 65GB disk image from my “old” hard drive. I moved the 65GB disk image to an external drive – which I subsequently purchased – and used OS X’s built in Migration Assistant to import all my accounts, data and applications onto my “new” OS X install. It should also be noted that my backed-up disk image was a 10.4.5 image, while the re-built Powerbook contained a 10.4.6 image – the migration still worked flawlessly. I found that it is also not necessary to restore the disk image backup to disk first; Migration Assistant can perform the migration directly from a mounted disk image. It is necessary, however, that the disk image be from a bootable OS X disk for this to work.