My Recent AppleCare Experience

AppleCare BoxIt started just like any other evening. I just returned from a day at work and was tending to my normal evening computing routines of updating podcasts, checking RSS feeds and reviewing emails. Suddenly the spinning pinwheel of death appeared and my computer was completely unresponsive. With little choice, I pressed the power button and waited for my machine to reboot. When it did, I was greeted with a kernel panic at startup. If you’ve never seen a kernel panic before, count yourself lucky. It’s a daunting screen that tells you in several different languages something really bad has happened and your computer can’t recover. Not good. Remembering my troubleshooting techniques, I unplugged all external devices and rebooted again. This time, a folder with a question mark. I grabbed the USB key that shipped with the Air and was able to reboot from it, but Disk Utility did not see a hard drive. This is looking more and more like a hardware problem so I phoned AppleCare.

When I get on the line with the first-level tech support I always politely identify myself as an experienced Mac user and troubleshooter and identify the steps I’ve already taken to resolve the problem in the hopes of avoiding some of the normal troubleshooting routine. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to work this time. The first-tier tech insisted all I needed to do was archive and install the operating system. However, she didn’t seem to understand that I couldn't do that when Disk Utility won’t see the hard drive. After about 10 minutes of convincing, she put me on hold to consult with her supervisor.

One of my friends from the local Mac Users Group runs an Apple Authorized Repair center in town, so I took the opportunity to impose on him for advice. I called my buddy Glenn, after hours and on his personal cell phone (Sorry, Glenn!) and he and I were immediately on the same page. We ran through a couple of additional steps on the phone but unfortunately the situation turned from bad to worse. After a couple more reboot attempts, the computer would no longer recognize the USB key and would do nothing but kernel panic on start. Before AppleCare could come back on the line, Glenn already had my information logged into his system and verified my warranty status and we made an appointment to meet when his shop opened the next morning.

When the AppleCare representative came back, she agreed that service was warranted and when I explained this was my primary machine and needed it back as soon as possible she agreed that the best thing was to take to to an Apple Authorized Service Center in town. (The nearest Apple store is a two hour drive away.)

Glenn ran diagnostics on my machine the same day and placed in a repair order for a new logic board and hard drive. Apple was due to overnight him the parts and I was going to walk out less than 36 hours later with a repaired Air. Unfortunately, Apple had other plans. Glenn came to the shop Wednesday morning hoping to find my delivered parts, instead he found Apple canceled my repair. Upon further inquiry, Apple changed their repair policy three days before and were requiring that logic board repairs be done through their Texas Depot.

I called Apple Customer Service and tried everything I could to let them have the local tech do the repair (he had done them as recently as the week prior) but Apple insisted my machine go to Texas. The rep noted this was a new policy and hinted this was because Apple wanted to recapture the defective logic boards for analysis.

By this time it’s Wednesday afternoon. Instead of having my computer back, I’m now requesting a box from Apple for shipment to Texas. I should note that normally the local Tech would send the computer directly to Apple without involving the customer, simply informing them of the delay. However, Glenn knew I would want to be involved in the process and would get my machine back faster by dealing direct with Apple.

I do have to give credit to Apple once the box was requested their turnaround time was fantastic.  I was able to watch the progress of my machine on Apple’s web site and received email updates every step of the way. My machine was received by 8 a.m. Friday morning, diagnosed by 10 a.m., repaired by noon, and picked up by FedEx at 6pm. FedEx made the first delivery attempt at 10:30 Saturday morning, although I wasn’t available so had to pick it up at the depot later that afternoon. Thankfully, I’ve only had to send devices back to Apple for repair on a few occasions, but every time the turn around time has been within 48 hours assuming no weekends.

In the end, my Air’s logic board and hard drive was replaced and returned to me. Apple’s policy is that they will not ship back a computer if there is any irregularity, so my suspicion is the repeated failed restarts from the faulty logic board caused hard drive corruption and when they detected a problem with the hard drive, they replaced it too rather than just perhaps erase and attempt to repair it. This is a policy that will ultimately serve the consumer well.

The new hard drive was installed with a fresh copy of Snow Leopard just as though it was a brand new machine. Apple warns you in advance your data may not be preserved and mine was not. Of course, I had backups so restoring the data was not a problem.

My machine would have been covered by AppleCare so long as there was no physical damage because it was within the first year of coverage. However, had this repair happened outside of my AppleCare coverage, it would have easily been a $1500+ repair.  People regularly debate the value of extended warranties, but I have always recommended AppleCare, especially for notebooks. With the MacBook Airs, more and more technology is now being put on the main logic board, making individual component repairs that would be less costly impossible.

My only complaint with Apple in this process is that the first phone tech did not seem to be fully equipped to help me (remember all she wanted me to do was archive and install - I had to push to convince her this was hardware) and did not know that the local repair facility was only able to perform some repairs on Macbook Airs. Had I requested a box form Apple on Monday, I would have had my Air back Thursday.

I did have an intermittent issue with my Air with back-to-back kernel panics and the folder with the question mark about two weeks ago that I called into Apple. However, that issue resolved itself without further intervention while I was on the phone with AppleCare. I ran the Apple Hardware Diagnostics in loop mode for several hours after this instance and the machine tested normal. Apple said that meant it was software and I should archive and install, however I always suspected hardware and requested a Case Number that was helpful  for this incident. In retrospect, that was likely the first warning sign something was going bad.  I can’t blame Apple for not taking action sooner because the problem was intermittent and the machine appeared to work flawlessly for the next two weeks until its sudden death.

Hardware repairs are never fun, and I’m concerned that my logic board failed with only 7 months of use. The fact that Apple has changed their policy on Air logic board repairs to require they go through the Texas depot makes me wonder whether this is a larger problem they are analyzing. If I hadn’t already bought AppleCare for the Air, I certainly would now, and I’m going to keep an eye on this machine for any other issues. I’m going to continue with my diligent backup policy and I’ve already learned things from this experience that have caused me to re-think and evaluate privacy and security of machines sent in for hardware repair. Expect a new blog post on that soon.

Lessons Learned:

  1. AppleCare is a must.
  2. Backups are crucial.
  3. Ask the AppleCare rep if all repairs can be done locally, if not consider shipping your machine off to Apple from the start.
  4. It pays to belong to a Mac Users Group and make friends. Although he couldn’t perform the actual repair, my local Apple Authorized Tech was invaluable and bent over backwards to help me in this stressful situation.