Thursday, September 13, 2012

Adventures in Dealng with Apple Store Geniuses, AppleCare and Their Repair Depot

Back in June of 2007 I purchased this MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo from the Galleria Apple Store.

About a year later I got AppleCare for my laptop which added 2 more years of warranty coverage. 

Aside from a couple of exploding batteries that were replaced under warranty and one that wasn't it provided consistent and reliable service up until August of this year

August 14, 2012

Pulled it out from it's Waterfield sleeve at work and noticed it did not awaken from sleep mode. Decided to do a hard reboot. It rebooted, and rebooted, and rebooted. Looping chimes. Greyscale plaid came up on the screen. A couple of my coworkers started laughing, thinking it was some sort of joke. Did all of the usual diagnostic stuff, safe reboot, zapping the PRAM, resetting the SMC, booting up from a diagnostic disc, nothing worked.

Looked up the issue online and saw that the  NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processors caused a higher than normal rate of failure.

Called AppleCare hoping to get it repaired under Apple's resolution offer and the guy on the other end claimed that he's never heard of any such repair program. Now this is where things got a bit interesting, I'm used to dealing with Apple's AppleCare in the past and always thought highly of the department and as a whole thought purchasing AppleCare was a no-brainer when it came to Mac portables and iMacs. In the past my experience with the phone service department has always been cordial and professional. This time around, the rep I got, Michael, was a bit surly, condescending, mentioned offhand that it was probably time for a new laptop and refused to give me his last name or phone extension or contact information when I requested it (I try to document all of my conversations with telephone tech support to help minimize red tape).

Later on that night, I tried rebooting it again, and let the reboots loop until finally a proper boot up screen came up. The login prompt took a little longer than usual to come up but I was able to get in and back up some key files. I was able to use the computer as normal for a couple of days until it started acting up again.

August 19th 2012

Took these shots of the scrambled video while waiting for the MBP to boot back up. Soon after login they would experience a weird kernal panic and freeze.

August 20th 2012

This time around I started documenting everything to plead my case in person at an actual Apple Retail Store. Below are photos of various scrambled start up screens.

I made a print out of Apple's acknowledgment of the NVIDIA issue and their resolution options for customers affected by it.  Link below.

I made print outs of my photos of the scrambled video issue.

I figured it was a fairly straightforward repair case and headed to the nearest Apple Retail Store (Highland Village).

I talked to one Apple Genius who told me that the NVIDIA repair program was no longer in effect, having expired just a month ago. He quoted me $580 for an instore repair of my laptop or $320 to have it sent out to their repair depot. Getting vaguely distraught at what I was hearing I asked if I could speak to a store manager.

"I could bring him over but don't really see the point" he said, "I can't imagine he'll tell you anything different than what I'm telling you"

"Well just humor me" I said, this lunch break errand was starting to run really long.

Store manager came out, Roddy Rodriguez, he was a bit more sympathetic to my plight than the previous genius but basically said that the NVIDIA repair program was no longer an option and that his hands was tied. I quickly looked up prices of my model MBP on eBay on my iPhone (normally I'm averse to looking up second opinions in real time during live conversations) the repair prices they were quoting me was essentially what a working specimen would cost on eBay. I explained as much to the manager and told him I was a longtime loyal Apple customer and was planning on purchasing a MBP with retina display (not a lie) but needed something to tide me over till then. It seemed like we was close.

Roddy went back into the back room (I have no idea what they do back there) and came back a few minutes later taking out a business card from his lanyard. 

"Tell you what" he said, jotting stuff on the back of his card "If you don't go for the depot repair, we can knock off that amount off of your next MacBook Pro with Retina Display. That's really the best I can do at the moment"

At this point my lunch hour was over 70 minutes long and I still had a ten minute drive back to the office. I took his card and thanked him for his help, figuring I had a Plan B nailed down at worst.

August 28th 2012
Decided to try my luck at a different store, this time the Apple Store at First Colony Mall. The genius there runs some diagnostics and essentially gives me the same quote. He explained to me that for the $310 price for the flat rate depot repair, that barring any external or liquid damage, they open the MBP and replace anything that needs replacing, doesn't matter what. I would be essentially getting a new computer back.

I told him I needed to sleep on it but asked for print outs of his estimates for reference.

September 1st 2012
After thinking about it for a few days and doing a lot of research online and posting in Apple's Support forums, and also considering the fact that I've babied my MacBook Pro for the past five years and considered it to be in mint condition (in my mind) and also, quite honestly, low on funds decided the best course of action for me was to bite the bullet and go with the flat rate depot repair option.

I dropped it off at the Apple Store in First Colony again. Signed some paper work and was told it should take about a week.

I was on my way, or so I thought.

September 5th 2012

Was walking into a new business pitch over at the client's office with my boss when the Apple Store called my phone. We were walking from the visitor's parking garage towards the client's building.

"We heard back from the Depot" the genius on the other line said. "They said they need to requote your repair"

"Ok" I said, initially I assumed they might be lowering their repair estimate.

"The Depot says it will cost $1200 to repair your laptop. They detected a third party display and said the laptop has been tampered with"

"What?" I asked, seriously annoyed now. My boss looked at me asking if everything is ok. I wasn't really in a spot to deal with this at the moment and needed to end the phone call. "Um, can I call you back?"

"Would you like to proceed with the requoted repairs?"

"No, I'm not authorizing that. I need to call you guys back later"

$1200 was essentially the cost of a new laptop.

September 6th and 7th

A series of essentially fruitless phone calls with various geniuses and managers at the First Colony Apple Store, trying to find clarification on why my repair was requoted. My primary goal during these calls was to find out precisely why Apple's Repair Depot flagged my laptop as having a 3rd party display, hoping to get some documentation or parts number and hopefully escalate the service ticket to a point where someone else could take a look and offer a second opinion. Each time whoever I spoke to said that they'll take a look and get back to me. 

September 8th 2012

Received a call from the First Colony Apple Store telling me that my laptop was ready for pickup.

"But it's not repaired" I mentioned, this really confused the genius on the other end.

"It says it's been repaired" the genius said, vaguely uncertain, paper shuffling on other side. "Wait a second, can you hold?"

Phone tag with various people. I get disconnected. I call back and have the pleasure of interfacing with Apple Retail's voice recognition software. I get disconnected some more.

I get a phone call from First Colony again.

"Depot refused repair on your laptop. They sent it back. It's at our store ready for pickup" the genius said. I tried to ask for any type of evidence that my laptop had a 3rd party display.

"There's nothing we can do here" the guy said, "Depot, declined to repair your laptop. Pick up your laptop and call AppleCare if you want additional information"

September 12th 2012

Hoping to get some answers face-to-face I go to The Apple Store at First Colony and manage to speak to Omar, the manager there. I'm asking for what evidence they have that my laptop has been tampered with and has a 3rd party display, resulting in the requote for $1200. 

He looks at my laptop real skeptically.

"Well for one thing" This bezel is not an original Apple bezel, he says "I don't think I've ever seen a silver bezel on this model. Also this looks like an anti-glare display. I don't think those were around back then."

I am stunned and in disbelief at this moment.

"Don't you guys know your own products?"

"Well even if it was an antiglare monitor. Depot has the final say on repairs. They can't be overruled." At this point he's gesturing his hands to the heavens, I look up and see a whole lot of brushed aluminum.

"Have you thought about taking your laptop to MicroCenter or Frys?"

"I'm really more interested in seeing what You can do to support one of your products rather than taking it to some shop." I'm trying to stay calm at this moment but am losing much hope for any type of reasonable resolution. After a prolonged discussion about Apple's repair depot and how they don't interface with customers, Tier 4 flat rate repairs, and to what certainty they can determine if a part is original or 3rd party. We're pretty much at an impasse.

"Only thing we can offer is an in-store repair. Those run around $500-600 if it's just the logic board."

I ask for a hard copy of his estimate and Omar runs into the back to grab a printout but comes out a couple of minutes later. After several trips to various stores and a dozen phone calls I was pretty much sick and tired of dealing with this. I seriously doubt I would invest $500 to repair a five year old laptop but wanted to get a firm sense of what my options were.

Omar comes out.

"I'm sorry, Depot has flagged this laptop as being tampered.  I can't give you an estimate. Your serial number is flagged. If you take this to any other Apple Retail Store, they'll get the same flag warning. You should really take this to an independent repair shop. I would recommend Microcenter"

It felt like a bad episode of Seinfeld, with a dash of Kafka thrown in for chuckles. I've pretty much written off the customer service experience in my head.  

I've been a loyal and avid Apple aficionado for the better part of my adult life. As a graphic designer and a tech junkie, Apple was a perfect brand for me. Their products were and still are great. But their customer service has taken a severe nose dive in recent years. I still remember the early days of the Apple Store where you could get thoughtful and considerate customer service and dealt with people that were thoroughly knowledgeable about their products and bend over backwards to resolve customer issues. Apple Stores, pre-iPhone era were quiet oasis in the retail mall wastelands. Now they're usually the busiest stores in the mall around the clock and even though the staff has increased by an order of a magnitude, I'm not sensing as deep of a bench as before. Any Apple product older than a few years old seems to mystify about half the staff there. Lots of shrugs over the past month. 

My opinion of AppleCare itself has become dimmer and dimmer as the years pass. I used to recommend this extended warranty service as a no-brainer to friends, colleagues and clients looking to buy a Mac portable over the years but will no longer continue to do so. Their methodology and customer service has become quite implacable as of late.

Not sure what it is I want to do. I would like to find a satisfactory resolution to my problem.
  1. I would like Apple to repair my laptop under the NVIDIA graphics processor repair issue caused by the GeForce 8600M GT chipset. There's no mention online that that program ever ended. The cut-off date verbally conveyed to me seemed somewhat arbitrary.  
  2. Failing that, I would like Apple's Repair Depot to honor their original flat rate repair quote of $310 to replace the logic board. Not the requote of $1200 for tier four flat rate repair.
  3. Failing that, I would like to see what concrete or explicit evidence their Depot has that my machine has been tampered with. Only modifications I've made was to upgrade the RAM via Crucial and was told that that was a user permitted upgrade. I sincerely believe that either they are mistaken on this issue or that I got a bad batch (I did get one of the early LED-backlit models) and would like for someone to show me in person how I ended up with a 3rd party display versus one that shipped with the laptop. 
Right now as it stands I have a few somewhat viable options:
  1. Buy a MacBook Pro with Retina display with the depot repair discount from the Highland Store. $2200 - $310 = $1890
  2. Take my Macbook to an independent repair shop, a friend recommended TheMacGeniuses, Apple's own employees recommended MicroCenter.
  3. Sell it on eBay for parts.   
My preference would be for Apple to stand behind their products and give me a straight answer as to why something is or is not covered by their own guidelines. As a rule, I tend to really go out of my way to keep things OEM parts and service, and would never install a third party display to something that was under an extended warranty. Also the runaround I got between Apple Retail, AppleCare and their remote and unreachable repair Depot, leaves a lot to be desired.

A couple of friends have mentioned that my laptop was out of warranty and that after five years it was high time to upgrade to a newer laptop. That may, very well, be the case but I'm of the opinion that a company should be able to support their products long after the warranty is up (I'm willing to pay a reasonable price for repairs). Also if something is still functional and serviceable, I don't really but into the whole planned obsolescence thing, seems wasteful on so many levels. Finally as a working parent, I don't really have the disposable income I might have once had to upgrade to the latest and greatest gadgets anymore, figuring out a way to keep my laptop in service without breaking the bank would be ideal.  

If anyone has any feedback, advice or tips, please leave them in the comments sections. I'm essentially out of ideas at this point. The only asset I have is persistence.

And this blog. 

If there's any updates, I'll be sure to post it.

Much thanks.