Article: Contrasting iPods

by on July 11, 2005

iPods are no doubt the number one music player on the planet, but what happens when something goes wrong? Apple’s support has been praised by all sorts of publications for doing a good job, but I’d like to contradict that for a moment.

This is the current 50% setting.

This is as dark as the previous 50% setting was.

About four months ago, my iPod developed a bit of a problem with its screen. It’s a third generation, 10GB model. I prefer the solid-state controls and don’t carry enough music to warrant an upgrade. Back to the main story though…when it was new, the contrast could be set at about 40 or 50% and the text on the screen would be solid black (anything beyond that would result in the background darkening). This range is pretty comparable to almost all the other iPods I’ve seen (I’m tech support for iBook problems at work, so naturally, I see a lot of personal iPods).

My iPod’s display changed somehow. To get black text on a white background, you need to look in the 85 to 90% range. I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, since I spend the extra cash to get AppleCare. This was the first time this iPod had to be sent in, as it has been flawless aside from this latest hiccup.

Right after the Independence Day Holiday, I requested service from Apple and got the box overnighted to me. I packed it up and the iPod was on its way to California later that day.

I was half-awake when the DHL truck pulled up Saturday morning. I knew what the verdict was already, since DHL only deals with iPods going to Apple, FedEx takes care of sending replacements. Sure enough, in the box was my iPod and a letter that I’ve seen a few times before when dealing with dead iBooks at work:

Dear Apple Customer,
Thank you for choosing AppleCare Service for servicing your Apple iPod. To ensure the highest level of quality and reliability, Apple-approved technicians using genuine Apple parts perform all service.

Enclosed you will find your original iPod. Of the issues reported concerning your iPod, one or more were fount to be either within Apple’s specifications for acceptable performance, usability and/or functionality, or were resolved without replacing any hardware.

(more follows talking about how useful the AppleCare web site is and how to get the latest software for the iPod, something I already had—version 2.3)

I took the iPod out of the plastic bag and checked it out. Sure enough the “fix” was that the contrast had been turned up all the way. That struck me a bit funny. Was I supposed to hope that this got worse before the warranty ran out and try again?

I went online and checked out a few places where others have had this problem. When it first happened, I bookmarked a few threads on Apple’s Discussion Boards. Some couldn’t figure out what the cause was, others had the problem after a software update, and one reported that it was a malfunction with the display cable. Sure enough, they were deleted (Apple doesn’t like people talking badly about their products, I guess). I checked out iLounge’s Forums, and posted a comment to see if anyone else was in my situation. Also, I tried other versions of the software, and it didn’t happen with an update, so I ruled that out.

After rereading my AppleCare documents, I realized I could call Apple on the weekend. I figured that I had nothing to lose, and that someone might be more helpful on a Saturday afternoon than on a Monday morning.

The first person I talked to was as helpful as he could be—my dispatch number wasn’t working. I thought this was a bit odd for something that took place just a few days before and I could see my information on the web status page. Instead we went by the case number and he transferred me to an “iPod specialist”. I talked with her for awhile about my problem, waited on hold for a bit, and got a verdict—according to Apple there’s nothing wrong with my iPod (that they’ll recognize).

At first, I questioned my own diagnosis. Was I making a big deal out of something so little as the screen getting slightly dimmer over time? My worry was that in five months (when AppleCare runs out) my screen might completely go out and I’ll be reduced to having an oversized iPod shuffle (a bit harder to control, though).

I expressed my concern to her and asked her what “within Apple’s specifications” meant exactly. I was on hold for a bit more and finally got an answer—they’re considering this as “wear and tear”. Me, just trying to get a hold of why I spent $60 on AppleCare thinking it would cover potentially failing components asked about similar cases where the iPods were only a few months old. She said the exact reason was that my iPod was a year-and-a-half-old, which is apparently looked upon as the same as an 85-year-old person.

I did get a bit of help. I was told I could take it to an Apple Store and have a “genius” look over it. If they decided that it needed repairs then I should get in contact with her again. Not bad, except that the closest Apple Store is over 2 hours away. What if I lived somewhere in the Great Plains where an Apple Store was more than a day’s drive each way?

So, here are my thoughts on the whole situation. The people I talked to were as helpful as they could’ve been. My previous understanding used to be that if you had AppleCare, you were treated a bit better on a whole than the average person who called tech support. Looking at it from the other side, I’m probably wrong.

Why am I not going to drive to Chicago to try to pursue this, at least right now? You’ve seen gas prices, right? I’m just amazed at how much money was wasted by Apple to overnight boxes back and forth, when this probably could’ve been ruled as being “not a repair” right away.

If this is something that is “not to worry about” then fine. I was a bit peeved at how rather than seeing if this was cause for concern, Apple was almost trying to convince me to ditch this and buy something new. They are a business, I get that, but when you spend 1/5 of the price of an iPod to make sure it’s covered and have “peace of mind” (as the paperwork says), they should stand behind their products.

Also, I find Apple’s move towards “get it taken care of at one of our stores” train of thought a bit disturbing. Apparently they think that their customers only live in big metropolitan areas that actually have Apple Stores. Apparently anyone else can suffer or buy a non-Apple product from an electronics chain. I’m not the only one who noticed this bias towards the retail stores over other ways of purchasing/service.

I guess all I can hope for now is that something else more important fails in the next few months or that the contrast stays put. Maybe I’m worrying too much after the incident with my iBook. Maybe my next iPod should have an hp logo with the Apple one…

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