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AppleCare without Apple stores... still worth it

Once upon a time, I worked for a major American retailer in its electronics department. The manager of that department, above and beyond all other considerations, wanted us to push extended warranties to customers. These warranties represented almost pure profit for the company, because they cost nearly nothing to implement while costing the customer anywhere from 10-40% the value of the item they were buying. The profit margin on a $2500 LCD TV was very slim, often gaining the company no more than $100 of profit; by contrast, the $549 extended warranty was nearly 100% profit for the retailer.

From the retailer's perspective, it's easy to see why they push these extended warranties. From a customer's perspective, though, it's a potential source of confusion or even animosity toward the retailer -- I had more than a few customers (usually older ones) ask me why they needed this warranty in the first place, why the company wouldn't just "stand behind their products." More interested in helping people than trying to BS them for either my own profit or the retailer's, often as not this meant I ended up not selling those extended warranties... it also meant I wasn't a salesman for very long. I won't say which retailer I worked for, but I will say that the memory of working there sears my mind to this day.

Most purchasers seem to think that extended warranties are a huge waste of money, and in many (if not most) cases they're correct. Like an idiot, I bought an extended warranty for my Wii back on launch day in 2006 -- that was $60 down the drain. I'll blame that one on standing in line all night in sub-freezing temperatures outside of Target to snag one. But when it comes to AppleCare, I have no hesitation about laying money down for that.

We've hit on the value proposition of AppleCare a few times on TUAW before. Sang related Megan's story of a dead MacBook, complete with a detailed analysis of why AppleCare is worth it. Robert made the case for AppleCare, and Cory's answer to the question, to buy AppleCare or not, was a resounding "Yes."

I'll add my voice to the chorus of TUAW writers in support of AppleCare -- not because I'm trying to sell it to you (despite the word "Apple" in "The Unofficial Apple Weblog," our only affiliation with the company is as fans and buyers of their products), but because AppleCare has saved me literally hundreds of dollars in repair costs, even though I live in a country without a single official Apple store. Read on to find out how AppleCare saved my bacon, and then decide for yourself whether it's worth it for you.
My wife and I both have Macs. Mine is an Early 2008 17" MacBook Pro, while hers is a mid-2007 MacBook. My MacBook Pro hasn't had a single issue since I bought it over two years ago. Everything I've thrown at my MacBook Pro, it's taken in stride, whether it's editing high-definition video, post-processing hundreds of RAW images at a time, or the most processor-intensive task of all, running Flash videos (I kid, I kid [mostly]). Peace of mind is the only benefit i've gotten from the $349 I dropped on AppleCare for my MacBook Pro; I know that if something goes wrong, I can take it down to DTSL (the only Apple-authorized service provider within a 90 kilometre radius of my house), and I know it'll be fixed, for free.

"Peace of mind" may not be worth $349 to you. But consider that my problem-free MacBook Pro is only half the tale; my wife's MacBook has been plagued with problems almost from the beginning, and has had so many of its parts replaced that it's now rocking around 40% "new" components as a result of the many AppleCare-sponsored repairs it's had. Here's what $249 in AppleCare has gotten us so far:

1. About six months after buying it in June of 2007, the upper case on the MacBook cracked. This was a known problem, widespread enough to gain attention on numerous sites. The plastic casing cracks right where the plastic "nubs" on the MacBook's display meet the upper case, resulting in large chunks of plastic falling off. We took the MacBook to the Apple Store a mile away from our house (we were still in Cleveland at the time), and they replaced it in less than half an hour without a hassle. It was pretty clear from the condition of the "new" case that they'd simply pulled a case off a dead MacBook in back of the store, but that didn't matter to us until...

2. The upper case cracked again about eight months later, in the exact same spot. Since this was after moving to New Zealand, we weren't entirely sure how to go about getting support. Not only were we unsure that our US AppleCare would carry over to NZ, we also didn't know how to get AppleCare support without Apple -- the nearest official Apple Store is in Australia. As it turned out, there's a licensed service provider in our town, and getting AppleCare service for the MacBook was no trouble at all -- although they did have to order the replacement part from Australia. All was well until...

3. Following a trip to the States and Fiji last year, my wife attempted to power on her MacBook -- and nothing happened. While this initially appeared to be the Random Shutdown Syndrome, all attempts to rectify it failed, and eventually the MacBook wouldn't boot at all. I suspected a dead logic board, which DTSL confirmed when we brought it in. Once again, they had to order a replacement logic board from Australia, but the replacement was covered under AppleCare, and therefore free. Things went smoothly for another six months, and then...

4. The MacBook's MagSafe adapter started to melt and fray near the connector. This, too, was a known problem, and easy enough to fix -- DTSL ordered us a new MagSafe adapter from Australia, and we gave them the old one. Total cost to us: $0.

5. We were back again only a month later, this time with weird display artifacts -- banding, random pixellation, and other problems, all resolved by slightly moving the display hinge, but which got progressively worse. I suspected a pinched display cable, but DTSL decided to simply replace the entire LCD, which appears to have worked -- so far.

We have two Macs, one that's been problem-free (knock on aluminum), and one that should have been colored yellow instead of white, because it's been a huge lemon. AppleCare expires on my wife's MacBook in a couple months; I'm just hoping it can limp by for another year until we can afford the next-gen iPad.

What can you take away from this anecdotal evidence? In the case of my MacBook Pro, you might call AppleCare a waste of money -- perhaps justifiably, since the machine's performed perfectly so far, leaving me no cause to use any of that $349 in AppleCare I bought. But what about the $249 we paid for AppleCare on my wife's MacBook? That's an entirely different story. Below are the costs of the components we've had replaced so far (all prices from iFixit):

Upper case: $169.95
Another upper case: $169.95
Logic board: $499.95
AC adapter: $64.95
LCD panel: $119.95

Total: $1024.75

The total cost of repairs turns out to be more than a brand-new MacBook, and that's just the parts. Once you factor in labor costs, the price would likely approach $1500 or higher... alternatively, you can always attempt these repairs yourself, but if you're anything like me you'll end up breaking two things for every one you fix. $249 for AppleCare suddenly looks like a bargain in comparison.

Macs, like any other complex bit of electronics, aren't free from problems. Sturdy as they are, they do tend to break, and when they do, the repair costs can be astronomical. If you luck out and get a perfect, worry-free machine, then AppleCare may not seem worth it. But if you wind up with a problem child Mac like the one my wife got, AppleCare may be the difference between having a working Mac, or falling back on an abacus.

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Once upon a time, I worked for a major American retailer in its electronics department. The manager of that department, above and beyond...