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Computer trouble

The site has been effectively offline since the start of December, due to hardware trouble. Seeing as I barely manage to update it monthly, I'm sure this service interruption was only irritating to me. The trickle of users who hit it from googling for dalmatian photos would not have been able to discern the problem, you'll be glad to hear. It was a hardware problem of the offline variety.

My powerbook developed a fault with its motherboard, 'logic board' in Apple-speak. The fangly new scrolly-touchpad which I was foolishly and boastfully proud of when it arrived has a temperature sensor associated with it. I know this because it was this particular sensor that failed. Sporadically, the laptop would shutdown fast. I ignored it the first one or two times, they were probably months apart. By the next escalation, it would immediately drop to sleep in a half hour. The logs showed that it was shutting down in response to an 'emergency thermal overtemp' condition. I wondered if it mightn't be getting sufficient airflow in its customary position on the desk. The case wasn't hot, or even warm to the touch.

Pretty soon these clusters of outages were coming twice-weekly or more. Still no unexpected heat. Judicious googling using the log messages turned up a small gaggle of mac users with similar symptoms on forums and blogs. All with similar powerbook models to mine – 15" aluminium case, USB 'two-finger scroll' touchpad. A few of them suggested that they'd isolated the problem to the trackpad thermal sensor using monitoring software. I downloaded some software called 'Temperature Monitor.app'. It didn't take long to confirm. The powerbook started having one of its power-off tantrums soon enough, and the logs produced by the monitoring software indicated that the trackpad sensor was recording temperature fluctuations between -70 and +270 degrees Celsius, within the space of a couple of minutes. In itself amusing, but by now the computer had degenerated further and become unusable, making it harder for me to appreciate the funny side.

At this point I shall note that since 'switching', I've bought three models of Apple laptop, all of which have suffered some kind of spontaneous component failure. Perhaps all the talk about Apple product reliability has some foundations after all? I'm enough of a crap statistician to realise that three subjects isn't really a useful sample population. The failures do represent a rather disappointing coincidence. Over the same time period I've made home for three desktop Apple models, all of which have performed without trouble, which doesn't help really signify that much of a trend. Anecdotal evidence, especially any gleaned from web discussions, I think is largely worthless. I did find this informal survey which generally suggests an even distribution. It is mildly interesting that all my three problems are specifically marked in red as significantly prone to fail on the model by component chart (iBook G3 800 logic board, Titanium powerbook G4 800 Optical drive and Aluminium 15" powerbook trackpad). If only I was this successful at picking lottery numbers! I might win ten pounds.

One positive thing had emerged from my run of unlucky laptops. Apple customer support had been wonderful. Although the titanium had been covered by AppleCare, the iBook was out of warranty; in both cases after a pleasant phone call to an unquestioningly helpful support line, they arranged to courier the laptops back to the mothership and returned them back after 24 hours in a working state. This time I was less impressed. My powerbook was not covered by AppleCare, but was only 8 months old, I genereally prefer to wait a while before purchase, to try and spread the cost. It took a fair bit of grubbing around the Apple website to find an appropriate looking telephone support contact. I dialled it, and worked my way through the automated menu system towards the 'Help, my computer is borked' options.

After waiting on hold for the usual half hour or so of canned music and messages, I was put through to a heavily accented man, who, whilst being unfailingly polite, and ultimately quite helpful, still managed to live up to every unfortunate offshore-call-centre clich̩ going; I was repeating everything he said back to him for confirmation, and repeating most of my own answers similarly until we were confident about agreement, several times we resorted to spelling things phonetically. All of this over a premium rate call I was paying for, of course. After running through his scripted heuristics, pre-charging my credit card for a support incident, and him explaining to me where to find the hardware diagnostics disc (It's the same DVD as the software restore these days Рwho knew?), he was able to confirm what I already knew, my powerbook had a hardware fault with it's trackpad, and that this would entail a logic board replacement, which was covered by standard warranty.

I was surprised to hear that there'd be no magic courier this time. Instead I needed to take it to my local service centre. In Belfast. It took several attempts at spelling and pronunciation to discern this was what he was saying. I live in Bristol. Belfast, Ireland might not be quite within a separate country, but it is about as close as you can get to that without leaving the UK. There's a different island involved. Ten minutes of explaining why this was bad and I got a second suggestion out of him. Western Computer, a fairly local Apple shop I don't tend to frequent. Apparently I would have to phone them myself and arrange a repair.

I don't particularly want to use this space to complain about Western. I don't like the shop particularly, I find the staff aloof, and indolent, and I get an impression of long-entrenched smug mac-user superiority from the whole place that I'm entirely ready to believe is a product of my own imagination. They have weird opening hours policies that preclude weekends. Whatever the reason, I tend to prefer to spread my shekels on other soil. Still, they were pleasant enough on the (promptly answered) phone, although they did ominously explain that they were rather backlogged with repairs, invited me in to see what my options were

When I arrived they were friendly enough, although not particularly enthusiastic. I went through the whole story with the support technician chap, and he looked my serial number and confirmed that it would be a warranty repair job, probably a motherboard replacement, and that they'd only charge me for the examination if their own investigation proved there to be no fault. They couldn't examine it then and there, there was a queue system. Oh, and there was a minimum four week wait for a repair of this time, what with it being Christmas, and something to do with iPods I didn't quite follow. I could perhaps try going to the Cardiff Apple Centre as an alternative. Again, with the other country treatment. Admittedly Wales is fairly close, but still a few hours travel there and back. Probably not a huge saving over a flight to Belfast. I didn't seem to have many options. I asked the chap if they had a lot of broken powerbooks in. He said, no, they were really reliable. Perhaps that's why they didn't have many repair staff handy.

In the end it took six weeks. While they didn't seem to be terrifically proactive about it, I can't really call too much fault on Western's part. The few times I chased them they replied to my calls and were happy to discuss the details of the job. I can understand that they had a backlog of work, or had to wait a longer time on parts from Apple (my powerbook is a custom web build), or shut the store completely for two weeks over Christmas, to a certain extent – I find it harder to understand why Apple are referring faulty products to a dealer with such rudimentary servicing facilities.

As I work from home, and live off my mac, managing for a month or so without a computer really wasn't an option for me. I spent a couple of hours trying to cobble together a replacement linux computer from spare parts, but I couldn't manage to get anything capable of driving my super-sci-fi TFT display satisfactorily. It was obvious that I was going to have to spend some money on a new computer. Attending a local LUG meeting, and sketching out my problems to a friend elicited the suggestion that I should just buy a mac mini to be getting on with – a drop in replacement that could tide me over, and ideally would hold its value for resale better than a generic pc box over the same period. This proved to be excellent advice. I picked up a mini from John Lewis, and have to say that they are excellent little machines. If you're reading this and have been wondering about getting one, I'd say do it now. It was slower than I was used to, particularly the little disk, but overall a more capable Macintosh than I'd have thought possible for the price. Still, I'm either out of pocket over what should have been a guaranteed repair job, albeit with another, admittedly very nice, computer I don't really need.

Luckily enough I have an effective, automated backup system (what's your excuse? Data loss is inevitable, and common), so all in all it was only a day or so in total to swap the two systems in and out.

Lessons learnt

  • Full backups and a disaster recovery plan should be considered essential for any computer you care about. (Yay me!)
  • AppleCare is not an optional extra
  • Trust your gut instincts about retailers
  • Mac minis rock!
  • Apple hardware should not be regarded as any more or less reliable than standard PC kit, and their customer service probably shouldn't be either
  • For Apple equipment, it may make most sense to purchase stock hardware from a retailer with a sensible goods exchange policy, rather than the Apple Web Store

Given recent hardware trends, Apple are becoming decreasingly different from standard 'name' PC vendors. The sole points of deviation within this whole experience and what I'd expect from someone like Dell is now really just down to the cost, and the software. Lucky for Apple, I really like the software. At this point in time, I feel like I'm paying a significant premium for a license to use it. I wonder if it will still seem a good deal in twelve months time when I'm pricing up my next laptop against a marketload of almost identical intel-based systems running Free UNIX.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2006 at 05:21 in computers.
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