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The 'Book Mystique

Is AppleCare Worth The Price?

by Charles W. Moore

PowerPage contributor Joshua Stein advises that Mac users “not underestimate the value of the AppleCare Protection Plan - particularly if you are going to buy a MacBook or MacBook Pro - there are just too many things that can go wrong and replacing notebooks and their parts can be very expensive.”

True enough, but I’ve heard the same argument made advocating the purchase of AppleCare for Mac portables since I bought my PowerBook 5300 10 years ago. I’ve never heeded it, and so far I’ve had exactly zero problems that AppleCare would have addressed. The processor failure in my WallStreet PowerBook happened at 3 1/2 years, and I’ve never even made a warranty claim under the basic 1 year warranty.

That said, others have not been so fortunate, including Joshua Stein, who seems to have had exceedingly bad luck with a 15-inch Aluminum PowerBook 1.25 GHz which was afflicted with the following issues.

1) Trackpad was not functioning properly
2) HDD died that would have ran me US$159 by today’s current market prices
3) Return key was beginning to work sporadically (US$60 for a new keyboard)
4) SuperDrive was not longer super (US$130)
5) Lower RAM slot went kaput
6) Motherboard died (US$900, used) and when my laptop was returned the RAM slots were bogus again
7) HDD died again (US$159)

Yikes! It’s no wonder Joshua is an AppleCare fan. The happy news is that Apple finally stepped up and offered to replace this obvious lemon with a brand new 15-inch MacBook Pro 2.16 GHz. As Jason summarizes, “my US$349 investment in AppleCare save me over US$1400 in repairs and last but not least the cost of receiving a brand new MacBook Pro. Priceless.”

Adv: Compare AppleCare prices at MacPrices. Save $50 to $100 on some plans!

In that case, absolutely, but in an more general context, are extended warranties like AppleCare worth what they cost? In 1997, Consumer Reports surveyed the experience of readers who had purchased extended warranties on electronic equipment. On average, consumers had paid about as much for the extended warranty, by the time the product needed service or repair, as the average repair cost for a product of that age. In most categories of electronic products, fewer than 25% of units surveyed had required repairs within five years.

Another thing to consider before purchasing an extended warranty is that many major credit cards will double the manufacturer’s warranty period (often capped at two years) on purchases made with their card. However, be sure to read the fine print. My credit card company will double the warranty on a computer purchased, but not on machines used for business purposes.

A possible alternative to purchasing AppleCare is to take the money you would have spent on purchasing an extended warranty and invest it. If you do need service or repair after the original warranty runs out, you can cash in your investment to help pay for it, hopefully with some interest or capital gain added. However, if your Mac survives the initial 12 month warranty period with no repairs needed (as is most likely), or is repaired during the first year, the probability of it needing repairs during the subsequent two years is relatively low (although it could happen).

Most computer problems show up early on, and the likelihood is that your “repair fund” money can remain invested until you upgrade to a new system, at which time you could put it toward the new computer purchase or keep it socked away against potential out-of-warranty repairs on the new machine.

From my own experiential perspective, had I purchased AppleCare for each of the four PowerBooks and one iBook I’ve purchased over the past 10 years, I would have spent nearly the price of a new MacBook Pro and with no benefit to show for it, which is the philosophical equation that has dissuaded me from ever buying AppleCare so far.

My first PowerBook - the 5300, served for seven years - in my daughter’s hands for about half of that. It still works, although the original 500 MB hard drive is getting very shaky, and it’s really too slow for much except word processing and email these days.

My 1998, G3 Series WallStreet did suffer a major component failure the central processor chip - at the three and one half-year mark, but it was easy and cheap to repair. I just swapped in a scrounged processor daughtercard, and it hasn’t missed a beat since - still in daily use by my wife at going on eight years of age.

My 2000 Pismo PowerBook has never manifested any troubles save for two battery replacements, and has been extensively upgraded with a G4 processor, a larger hard drive, a SuperDrive module, and extra RAM. I purchased the Pismo used, but at the time I think it was just less than a year from the original purchase, and if so would have been eligible for AppleCare coverage.

My late 2002 700 MHz dual-USB iBook is a model that statistically has one of the worst reliability records of any Apple portable, but mine has been a virtually flawless performer, with no repair issues, and is now almost exactly the age the WallStreet was when its processor failed.

I’ve only had the 1.33 GHz 17” PowerBook (Apple Certified Refurbished) I’m typing this column on for five months, but so far it’s been completely trouble-free.

Personally, I’m tech-savvy enough that I don’t have a lot of interested in extended Apple tech support (Apple’s standard phone tech support on new machines expires after 90 days.). Over the years, I think I phoned them once or twice about the 5300, but I was a lot newer to Apple laptops then. On the other hand, for some users the tech support lifeline could be very helpful.

If stuff breaks, I figure that the strongest likelihood of warranty issues happening is in the first year, in which case I’m covered anyway. The second two years of coverage that you pay for with AppleCare are more of a dice-roll, at least in the short term, although given the general reliability of Apple portables, less so over the longer haul.

Purchasers of the AppleCare Protection Plan also receive a CD containing TechTool Deluxe software from Micromat - a full-featured computer diagnostic and repair utility that tests the major components of your Apple system, including processors, RAM, and hard drives. It is based on Micromat’s TechTool Pro diagnostic and repair utility TechTool Deluxe , and is available only by purchasing an AppleCare Protection Plan for a Macintosh. Tech Tool Deluxe also checks software and can help users diagnose and fix many software conflicts themselves. The standard version of Tech Tool Pro sells separately for about U.S.$90).

The AppleCare Protection Plan can only be purchased while your computer is still under its original one-year warranty. All covered systems and covered Apple peripherals must either be new or newly refurbished by Apple (Apple Certified Refurbished), or still be under Apple’s limited warranty to qualify for Protection Plan coverage. All current models of Apple displays are eligible. An Apple keyboard and mouse are covered if purchased at the same time as the covered system with which they are used. The AirPort Base Station and AirPort Card are included in the CPU coverage with which they are used.

The AppleCare Protection Plan is not renewable at the end of the three-year term, and lasts for a maximum period of three years from the date of computer purchase, regardless of when the Protection Plan is purchased (either with the hardware or later during the warranty). The extended service period begins on the date the product’s Apple warranty expires, and extended telephone support begins on the date the complimentary new product support expires. The AppleCare plan is transferable to the new owner if you sell your Mac.

Note well that if you are interested in the AppleCare Protection Plan, it is in your best interest to wait until the 12th month of ownership before purchasing, rather than buying the coverage when you purchase your computer, unless you really need or want one of the enhanced services or the TechTool utility right away.

Current AppleCare plan prices:
Select the plan for your Mac
Mac mini $149
iMac/eMac $169
MacBook/iBook $249
Power Mac $249
MacBook Pro/PowerBook $349
Apple Display $99

Note that while the MacBook Pro/PowerBook extended warranty is more expensive, PowerBook repairs, if you do need them, tend to be pricey.

For more information about Apple’s AppleCare Protection Plan, visit:
http://www.apple.com/support/products/

Pretty much in accord with my perspective on AppleCare (or me with his) is the veteran Mac guru Ted Landau, who noted in a recent MacObserver column: “Extended warranties are almost always a bad deal for the consumer. AppleCare Protection Plans are essentially extended warranties for your Mac purchases. Ergo: AppleCare is almost always a bad choice. Well, maybe it’s not quite that simple. But it’s close.” Ted cites both the aforementioned Consumer’s Reports and PC World declaring extended warranties a dubious value. even though PC World reported that over 70% of the people who purchased extended warranties reported being “glad” they did. Go figure. A a recent Consumer Reports survey cited by Landau found that only 17% of Mac laptop owners needed a repair of any type between 2001 and 2005, and that would include damage repairs from drops or other trauma which are not covered by AppleCare.

Like me, Ted Landau seems to have had good luck with his Macs, affirming that he could cut off two fingers and still count on one hand the number of out-of-warranty repairs he’s needed for all his computer-related purchases combined. You can read his column, which contains some pretty interesting mathematical examples, here:
http://www.macobserver.com/columns/userfriendly/2006/20060720.shtml

Despite our skepticism, if you buy an expensive machine like a 17” MacBook Pro and the big screen or the logic board fails, as unlikely as that would be statistically, you’ll thank yourself for having ponied up for AppleCare. However, with a MacBook, like the the iBook, before it, I’m inclined to the view that AppleCare makes little rational sense. AppleCare coverage for a $1100 MacBook costs $250, or about 28% of the cost of the computer. IMHO, The MacBook and Mac mini have already pretty much become “disposable” computers in the sense that out-of-warranty major repairs make less sense than with PowerBooks. Replacing a bad logic board or broken display will most likely run you close to or even more than what you can get a refurbished example of the same model for, and with a fresh one-year warranty if you buy an Apple Certified Reconditioned machine.

However, if you will sleep better knowing you have AppleCare coverage, don’t let me persuade you otherwise. The degree of risk one is comfortable assuming is a personal matter, and statistical probabilities notwithstanding, with any mass-produced product there will always be a percentage of lemon units like Joshua Stein’s PowerBook, so if you do decide to roll the dice, be aware and prepared that once in a while they turn up snake-eyes.

***

cmoore@powerbookcentral.com
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