Jason’s iBook Saga

Updated 7/11/05 – scroll down.

I keep getting into conversations with people who are thinking of buying new laptops. If you’re looking for tech advice, you’d be better served talking to Dan than myself, but to the extent that personal anecdotes are helpful, I figured I might as well post something about my Apple laptop experience for any who might be interested.

I’ve had an Apple iBook (12″, 800 MHz G3 processor) for about two and a half years now. I got it in a package deal with one of those old, first-generation iPods (you know, the ones that have about 5 GB of space, sharp edges on top, a wood case that floats in water, etc.). By all accounts, the iBook is a pretty durable computer; I think Tony once said that his old roommate knocked an iBook a desk and onto a tile floor with nary a glitch. My iBook, however, has been broken and re-broken pretty much since day one, and I never even dropped the darn thing. Every time it broke I took it to the Apple Store in the CambridgeSide Galleria to get fixed and shipped back to me (or some other person, depending on the whims of said store’s employees).

Shortly after getting the laptop, I noticed it made odd, prolongated beep noises at unpredictable times, which baffled the Apple tech support people I spoke to on the phone. Last summer, the logic board failed, so the display didn’t get a picture. (I have been told that since laptops are small, pretty much everything happens through the logic board, so if something is going to break, it probably has something to do with the logic board.) I was staying in Boston with Gen at the time, working for Boston Mobilization and doing all my design off the laptop, so I needed it back in working order ASAP. I took the laptop to the Apple Store and explained that my address on file (in Philadelphia) was occupied by a subletter, and there wasn’t really anyplace to leave packages at Gen’s apartment, so they should just ship the laptop back to the store. The Apple Store fellow (they are called “geniuses” in the company and hang out at a sort of nerdy “bar” in the back) said that would be okay, but apparently the address thing is harder to alter than one might expect. The laptop was first shipped to my Philadelphia address, then sent back to the store by my subletter. Then, when I went to pick it up at the store, I noticed it didn’t close – the latch on the display was broken.. The Apple Genius said that it was like that when it came in. I can’t remember if I actually told him that I was burning with the fury of a thousand white-hot suns, or if I was just thinking that. Whatever the case, I said it hadn’t been like that, and told him I needed it fixed. He said it would take another week to send it out for a repair. I pretty much said that wasn’t acceptable, given my work schedule, and how long I’d had to wait already thanks to the shipping mistake, and I do distinctly remember asking if they had a special discount for people who had been screwed over. It turns out that when you get really mad but calmly channel it into snide remarks like it’s taking every ounce of mental energy not to effortlessly reach out and crush a man’s windpipe, you can get things done for you overnight.

The new logic board, of course, was also faulty. I had a red line down the vertical length of the display almost immediately, but it appeared only intermittently. When I took it in to be repaired, the Apple Genius told me there was nothing they could do until I could replicate the problem, so I spent the better part of a year with a red line down my display about half of the time. Sometime during that year, my power adapter also failed, so I needed to get that replaced. That was easy enough; Apple just sent me a new one in the mail, and I sent the bad one back in a box. Finally, this summer, the red line became a permanent fixture on my display, so I took that back in for another repair. They shipped it back out to me here in Philadelphia, and it worked fine for about a week before it just wouldn’t boot up at all (I think … honestly, I’m not sure I even remember the most recent problem). Again, I took it in for a repair, and just got it back. Within two weeks, the backlight went out. I’m pretty sure I had one or two other problems I’m forgetting about, too, but this chronicles all the major issues I’ve had with the iBook.

All of that said, Apple has done a pretty decent job of placating me when I have complained, which has been understandably frequent. The whole debacle with the first bad logic board, shipping mistake, and broken latch resulted in a free battery (not to mention a funny phone conversation when one of Apple’s customer service reps accidentally said “appeasement” instead of “token of good faith” and got all flustered and embarassed). Plus, they didn’t just replace the broken latch, but the entire $400 display. And though it was totally unrelated to the problem I brought the computer in for, they also replaced a faulty third-party RAM chip for me that time with a brand new Apple ram chip, which they really didn’t need to do. And, finally, when my computer broke again this past month, the customer service rep said they’d replace the computer entirely if it broke again, considering how often it’s broken – and it did, what with this past weekend’s backlight failure, so now I get a brand new laptop. In addition to the replacement laptop, Apple’s also sending a bigger RAM extension than the one that’s in my computer now (the one they installed). Incidentally, my extended warrantee (called AppleCare, which cost an extra $300) would have run out by December, which would have made any future repairs my own responsibility.

What is the moral of this story? I guess that depends on your viewpoint. You could say that Apple laptops aren’t as good as they’re cracked up to be, and it’s time to switch to a ThinkPad. Personally, though, I’m inclined to believe that either (a) this was just a particularly accident-prone laptop, (b) the CambridgeSide store and/or local repair place have some inept employees, or (c) I happen to just have terrible, terrible luck. Actually, those three options aren’t even mutually exclusive. From my perspective, even my terrible luck has a bright side. Sure, my laptop broke a whole ton, but now I’m getting a brand new one – kind of like how I had a tumor on my thyroid, but hey, I’ve still got half a thyroid, not to mention this hot scar on my neck that looks like a botched attempt to give me a Colombian necktie. In other words, I feel like I’m coming out on top. Apple has been really responsive to my complaints, and I hear they also have a store in Chestnut Hill with a better staff. While I have been pleased enough with Windows XP on my office computer, the designer in me is still suckered by the general visual and tactile appeal of OS X and Apple machines in general. I think I’ve also gotten to that point where I just find Mac interfaces and hardware easier to deal with than PC hardware; while I understand the common complaint among PC users that Macs just don’t let you tinker with them as much, I’m not the kind of guy who likes fooling with the technical stuff anyway. (Though I will add that I have never felt so welcome inside a computer as I did when I opened up my G5. That machine was designed to be opened and entered by its users, which is more than I can say for … well, any computer, really. They seriously could have put some cushy chairs and a coffee table inside and the setup wouldn’t have felt out of place.)

For my purposes, though, an iBook isn’t really sufficient anymore. Doing all that graphic and web design for Mobe on a G3 iBook was kind of like trying to swim laps in molasses, only with more crashing. I also found that video programs were dropping a lot of frames when I used the laptop to watch large files or even when viewing DVDs. I’ve since purchased a dual-processor G5 desktop, which works great for my design needs. Still, I do still find myself wanting to do work on campus or on the road sometimes, and being able to use a laptop for that kind of thing is pretty useful (especially this summer, as I’ll be spending a week in Seattle in August). Perhaps the G4 iBook would be a noticeable improvement over my old iBook, but nevertheless, I figured it would be worth it to take a step up; I opted to put the cost of the replacement iBook ($1000) toward a new 12″ G4 PowerBook instead ($1500), so now I get a brand new PowerBook for $500 (though the full RAM upgrade will cost me another couple hundred bucks I suppose). I considered going bigger and better, but Apple is switching to Intel chips next year, so the G4 will be obsolete soon enough. I figure that if I can get a good couple years out of this new laptop, maybe I’ll have saved enough for something even better by the time it breaks completely.

Update: I got my replacement RAM in the mail a couple days ago, and I got the new PowerBook today. The box was packaged in another box for UPS shipping, but was still pretty banged up. When I opened it, I noticed that there was no instruction manual and that the case is dirty with smudges and scratches. The screen turned out to be pretty badly smudged too. But here’s the real clincher: I have not been able to boot it up. I just get a blank, gray screen, even after inserting the OS install CD. It looks like they sent me a refurbished model, which I can understand (given the circumstances), but I rather object to paying the price difference for a new model. I’ve called and emailed to complain, so we’ll see where that goes. Just this once I figured I could send them my computer and get a computer back that runs perfectly. Apparently either I inadvertently cursed myself by stepping on a leprechaun or Apple has more than its fair share of staggeringly incompetent employees. For the time being, I take back everything nice I wrote about Apple. We’ll see where this goes. At this point, though, there is pretty much nothing they could do, short of sending me a brand new PowerBook for free, that would put them on my good side.

Update, again: I finally got the blasted thing to reboot, and guess what? It has some other guy’s stuff on it still. Picture of his kids on the desktop, his username for the home directory, dock full of programs. Now I realize I was wrong to get mad at Apple for trying to rip me off: perhaps these people really are genuinely eager to please, but are just dumber than a bag of hammers. I think I’m still allowed to be mad about that.

I have had one person from MacUser ask how this all turned out so far, so I figure I might as well add a footnote for any other passers-by. Long story short, Apple sent me a 1 GB iPod Shuffle for screwing up, but then screwed up the shipping on the PowerBook, which was a major nuisance. The PowerBook works great, though, and I have not been back to tech support since. Good riddance to the most accident-prone iBook of all time.

Nearly two years later, my final update on this post: That PowerBook worked great. I just sold it on eBay because I got a deal on a MacBook. I suspect it is still working great in its new home in Hawaii.

[…] some of you who know me personally may recall, I have rotten luck, especially when it comes to consumer electronics. Luckily, my Apple products have given me no trouble since my iBook debacle of years past—this […]