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Broken iPods, Broken Hearts

By Erika Morphy MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Mar 30, 2007 4:00 AM PT

Some three months after he decided to get his wife's 4 GB iPod mini repaired, Brendan Prebo, a marketing director in Southgate, Mich., is still scratching his head over the math.

Broken iPods, Broken Hearts

"I was planning to buy her a new MP3 player this Christmas, but all the players I looked at were either cheap-looking or too expensive," he told MacNewsWorld.

Eventually, he found a repair shop in Salt Lake City that offered free shipping and diagnostic testing. He ordered a new LCD (liquid crystal display) screen to replace the one that had cracked when it was dropped. After the screen was repaired, though, the shop discovered the hard drive was damaged and had to be fixed too. The total cost? US$140 plus tax.

On the whole, Prebo thinks getting it repaired was the right decision. Many other consumers, though, are still wrangling with the question: Does it make more sense to spend the money to get an expensive gadget repaired? Or is it better in the long run to spend even more to buy new?

This is not a problem specific to Apple's iPod product line. However, consumers seem to burn especially hot when their iPods break down.

Oh, the Betrayal

Apple has promoted itself as the anti-company -- truly interested in building great products and making its customers happy. So when the products break down, consumers feel betrayed, especially if it happens after Apple's limited one-year warranty has expired, or results from an uncovered accidental drop.

Apple's products are getting more and more expensive. Its latest video iPod tops $400 -- a not-inconsequential replacement sum.

Then there is the iTunes-iPod synergy, which essentially means you are married to an iPod for life if you have invested a considerable amount of money in iTunes content.

When an iPod breaks down, consumers find themselves facing a dilemma: How much are they willing to pay to fix their beloved iPod? Or, as some consumers have put it, how far does Apple have to push before its loyal customers start to jump?

Tales From the Dark Side

"With all the other options out there, I would look at another player if I didn't have so much of my music on iTunes," said David Stoyka in Gross Pointe Farms, Mich., whose wife bought him his first iPod Mini two-and-a-half years ago. She also bought an extended warranty with the gift, which is fortunate, because the gadget has been giving Stoyka problems on and off ever since he got it.

For instance, he has gone through three sets of earbuds -- the first set failing almost immediately after purchase.

"The warranty has replaced them every time with no hassle," he told MacNewsWorld, "so that has been good."

Recent problems include battery drain, resulting in no more than a couple hours of play time.

"If it sits, not charging, the battery drains completely in two to three days," Stoyka recounted. "Also, for the past three to four months, once every couple of weeks, most of my songs won't play. When I plug it into the computer, it says it is corrupt, and I need to reset the entire thing. ... [It] deletes all the music and reprograms the entire thing; then I have to go back and put all the music in. It has become quite annoying."

Katie Canavan in Woburn, Mass., said her recent iPod experience had her "fuming."

"I purchased an iPod nano on December 27, 2005, and the battery died on January 8, 2007 -- just after the warranty had expired," she told MacNewsWorld. "I had to pay over $60 plus shipping to get the entire iPod replaced! If batteries were easily able to be swapped by the consumer, it would cut back on the headache of packaging and shipping back the iPod to Apple and dealing with the loss of the iPod while it is being replaced."

The timing is more than just a coincidence, in Canavan's view.

"I felt as if Apple purposely programmed the battery to die just after the warranty expired, just to get me to either buy a new iPod or pay for them to replace it," she said. "I am not the only person in my close group of friends who this has happened to. In fact, I know at least three other people who have had very similar experiences around the time of the warranty expiring. Some of them were too impatient to ship the product back to the manufacturer, [so] they spent hundreds of more dollars on a replacement."

Apple Haters

There is a lot of anger out there, Ryan Arter, president of iResQ, an Apple product repair shop, noted. He understands -- people love their iPods.

Some of the problems that many iPod owners encounter are easily fixed. For instance, when an iPod is dropped, a cracked screen is relatively cheap and easy to repair, he told MacNewsWorld.

"There are natural failures, too," he noted, "that are easily repaired. Hard drives go bad just like they do in laptops. Batteries go bad -- generally after a year." Those can be replaced for $54, a price that includes overnight shipping and packaging, he said.

The decision whether to repair or buy new becomes tricky when there are multiple repairs that need to be made. Sometimes, as in Prebo's case, a repair is cost-effective. However, if two or more components need to be replaced, Arter said, the consumer might be better off buying new.

His shop will buy working components from the consumer -- at, say, $50 or $100 for a hard drive -- which can ease the sting.

Other people have product-replacement policies and -- as in the case with Stoyka -- extended warranties to cushion the cost.

Rebecca Speer of Dallas, Texas, reported that her iPod died after the warranty expired. However, it had been purchased with a product-replacement plan, so she was eligible for reimbursement. Today, she owns a video iPod that she is "fully aware will crash one day." Not surprisingly, she bought a three-year replacement plan.

For all the grumbling about Apple's policies -- which have been spotlighted many times in the blogosphere and in mainsteam media -- they are, in fact, in line with most electronic consumer companies, JupiterResearch Vice President and Research Director Michael Gartenberg told MacNewsWorld.

"When you have a device as popular as the iPod, you will always hear from disgruntled people," he commented. "Happy iPod owners don't post their experiences in chat rooms."

Even disgruntled iPod owners seem reluctant to let go. "Unfortunately, their product is so superior to its competitors, that it is not easy to transition to a similar product," Canavan said.

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