Apple in Retail and the Airport Express Adventure

3 Dec 2004

Paul R. Potts

I’m trying to write shorter, more frequent blog entries. Brevity is hard for me! And writing more frequently has been a challenge as well. Besides the transition to living with a newborn baby, my use of the computers at home has been disrupted by a malfunctioning AirPort? Express.

We’ve had it for only about two months, and it worked great when we got it; it allowed us to rearrange our network to minimize long cables, and untether Grace’s computer (an old and battered iBook). Now everything is temporarily patched so that she can go online from our bedroom, but no one else can. I’ve been loathe to completely rearrange the network hardware and cables temporarily, so we’re limping along until the AirPort? Express comes back.

It seems to be a power-supply problem. The Airport Express is basically an AirPort base station built into the from factor of the square white iBook/PowerBook power supply. It has no power switch, and is designed to stay on whenever it is plugged in. When you plug it in now, the green indicator light comes very briefly on — just a flicker for a fraction of a second — and then goes out. Discusson on Apple’s support boards seems to indicate that a few other people are reporting the same problem. I am guessing that the units have failing power supplies; to avoid dissipating too much heat, Apple may have had to specify an anemic power supply. Maybe the first batch was then prone to burning out. But that is only speculation on my part.

What is not speculation is that it is still very painful to get support for Apple hardware sold retail. I bought this AirPort Express off the shelf at CompUSA locally. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I then managed to lose the receipt, although I could have sworn it went into the box with all the receipts I carefully saved from the parts for my recent home-built PC. I did still have the box and the warranty paper, but that probably isn’t good for much but recycling.

First, I tried to call Apple. Naturally, they only answer the phones during banker’s hours. That would mean camping on the phone from work, not a good move at this point in time in my rather strained work environment. So I decided to talk to CompUSA. They don’t do repairs or returns on any of the Apple products sold. In other words, a computer store, with an in-store repair center, that sells you a product, can’t accept it for a return or a repair, because it has an Apple logo. I guess they make an exception for return for any reason within 14 days, or something like that, but otherwise, if you bought an Apple product from them, you’ve got to talk to Apple.

There’s something wrong with this picture. I am afraid I became testy with them and demanded to speak to a manager. She was polite, but kept saying, essentially, that if I had wanted them to be able to swap me a new AirPort Express, I should have paid them for a CompUSA extended warranty or purchased AppleCare. I replied angrily that Apple covers the product for one year, and that they should swap it and negotiate the issue with Apple for me. No-no-no, they don’t do that. They were, however, able to print me a duplicate receipt, so that I had, more or less, proof that I purchased it from CompUSA on September 11th, 2004 (perhaps it is just that date of ill omen that doomed the AirPort Express). This should not have been strictly necessary, as all AirPort Express boxes are still under warranty, but I was glad to have something to show Apple if necessary.

Grace then tried to take the device to the Apple Store in Novi. Surprise: the store has moved. After packing up Isaac and the baby and driving to the old location, no one in the plaza could tell her where they moved to, the baby needed changing, Isaac needed to get to choir practice… so back they came.

She went back again the next day. Apple accepted the AirPort Express and agreed to replace it, but did not have any in stock. We since were notified that it is ready to pick up. She tried to get out there yesterday to pick it up and had an attack of mysterious abdominal pain (second incident), and so once again had to turn around and come home.

She may be able to get out to pick it up today, although the baby has had some difficult nights and she’s been pretty tired. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so presumably if she can’t get it today, she’ll be trying Friday, but we’re not keen on contending with crazy day-after-Thanksgiving traffic and crowds with a near-newborn baby in tow.

So, the tally so far: one phone call and five road trips totalling at least five hours, to get warranty service for a little box that only cost $125 initially, and which I bought locally.

Like I said, there’s something wrong with this picture. Perhaps it would have been easier to do this entirely by phone and mail with Apple, but this all just seems like the wrong model. Buying a piece of cheap, commodity Apple hardware should not be like buying an exotic foreign car. I know Apple has had a difficult relationship with retailers; their hardware is pricey and high-margin, and retailers can’t make the profits they make on commodity PCs.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but this retail experience, quite frankly, sucks, and if this is what first-time Apple buyers face when they pick up an iPod or what-not, it is not going to encourage them to buy Apple again, at least not from chain retailers.

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