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To AppleCare or not to AppleCare -- that is the question

Sang Tang

The following is a re-enactment of the mysterious and sudden failure of Megan Lavey's MacBook.

It was the evening of Tuesday, July 14, 2009. Megan Lavey heads out to the movies to watch the eagerly anticipated Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince. But the excitement of the night was short lived.

Upon her arrival home, Megan found her MacBook in an unconscious state. She tried several attempts to revive it: plugging it and unplugging it, removing and reinserting the battery, as well as performing an SMC reset. However, these attempts proved futile.

In a last ditch effort, Megan made an emergency visit to her local Apple store to meet with a genius. They had both good news and bad news. The good news was that they identified the problem with her MacBook (the logic board) and could save it, but -- and here comes the bad news -- could cost up $750 to repair. What's worse, Megan didn't have AppleCare coverage. In a state of shock and sadness, Megan leaned on the shoulders of her fellow TUAWers, each of whom offered words of encouragement her:

Chris Rawson: "My wife's mid-2007 MacBook is having the exact same issue right now. Luckily, it's covered by AppleCare, and going to the local repair place ASAP."

Erica Sadun: "":( :( :(""

Sang Tang: "Hey, this would make an interesting post. I'm going to write something on this."

There are many Megans in the world, and each is faced with the difficult task of deciding whether or not a repair is worth its cost. It's also times like these that one regrets not purchasing AppleCare, for often times repair costs outweigh the cost of AppleCare. And this raises the question. Should you purchase AppleCare? Several months back, TUAW's Robert Palmer penned a piece on why he believes AppleCare is worth it. This post expands upon that and provides examples of when AppleCare is and isn't justified.

First, let's look at the cost of AppleCare. The price of the service is based on a product line-based sliding scale. In other words, the price of AppleCare for the 20-inch iMac is the same as it is for the 24-inch model. The only exceptions to this product line-based pricing structure are the 13-inch models (both the white MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro), which are priced separately from the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros.

So, what exactly do you get with AppleCare? According to Apple, "AppleCare covers defects for the Apple-branded product(s) listed in your Plan's Certificate or Proof of Coverage document...and provides you with access to telephone support and web-based support resources for the Covered Equipment."

Well, heck, anybody could have told me this. So instead, let's look at some situations where your Apple product isn't covered by AppleCare.

  • Silas Botwin is out at Starbucks doing work and sets his MacBook Pro and iPhone on the table. As he reaches for his latte, he accidentally spills it all over the table. MacBook Pro and his iPhone. This sucks, cause it's going to cost him a lot-tay.
  • George Michael Bluth works at a frozen banana stand. To keep himself entertained, George Michael brings his MacBook into the stand. Problem is, there's no air conditioning in the stand, and the freezer that keeps the bananas frozen causes an excessive amount of heat. George Michael realizes that he's made a huge mistake when his MacBook overheats and no longer works.
  • Jealous that his brother Kip has been using his iMac to chat online with babes all day, Napoleon tries to cheer himself up by microwaving a dang quesadilla. Use of the microwave, however, causes a sudden increased surge of power in the house. This surge is too much for the iMac to handle. *
  • As Vincent walks into a trendy Hollywood night club, he receives a phone call from his driver, Turtle. Vince reaches into his pocket to retrieve his iPhone, but can't get a firm grip of it. He drops it and the screen's glass breaks.
  • Richard "Data" Wang is using the Numbers app on his MacBook Air to devise a diet plan for his good friend Chunk. In the middle of it, his hard drive fails and Data, unfortunately, loses all of his data. This is not a defect, and is common for hard drives of this type.

It's difficult to put a price on peace of mind, and this is the value proposition of extended warranties. While it may be easy for some to say, "Don't buy it, fix it yourself or get a friend to fix it," this may not be an option "for the rest of us." In many cases, there's an asymmetrical information gap between consumer and computer fixer where the consumer lacks the information necessary to make a sound decision about the repair. This could be akin to the relationship that many have with their auto mechanics when they take their car in for repair.

As in many of life's important questions, the answer to the question of whether or not to purchase AppleCare takes the old "it depends" adage. Because it not only depends on the level of knowledge of the user, but also on the product as well.

For instance, in my case, I've owned four Apple desktops (A G4 and Intel Core Solo Mac mini, a 17-inch iMac G5, and a PowerMac G4 AGP Graphics) and four Apple notebooks (a 12-inch PowerBook G4, an iBook G3, and a Core Duo black MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro). Of these eight products, I only purchased AppleCare for the MacBook, and purchased it very begrudgingly. I had taken the machine in for numerous repairs -- all random shutdown related -- and purchasing AppleCare was my way of protecting my investment. Coincidentally, I never had to take in the unit once since purchasing AppleCare.

Unlike my MacBook, my iBook G3 began experiencing troubles toward the second year of its life. The problem stemmed from the unit's logic board, a common problem for the model that Apple acknowledged with a repair program. Under the program, Apple would repair affected models even if it was out of warranty. Apple would also reimburse those who who paid for a repair prior to the initiation of the program.

But holding out hope that your unit will later prove defective (who really wishes this anyway?) as a warranty mechanism, as well as holding out hope that Apple will acknowledge said potential defects, may not be the most sound decision.

With the exception of the iPod Classic, I find it difficult to justify AppleCare for the iPod/iPhone family; the Classic's hard disk drive (a miniature version) makes it more susceptible to failure than the solid state drives in its shuffle, nano, and iPod Touch/iPhone siblings.

While AppleCare for the iPhone comes in at $69, it doesn't cover many of the maladies that typically cut short the lives of cell phones, such as water damage and physical damage (dropping it, sitting on it, etc.). In other words, AppleCare should not be confused with cell phone insurance, which covers defects, physical damage, as well as lost or stolen property. In fact, the iPhone is one of the few phones that AT&T (via Asurion) does not provide a paid-for insurance plan for. Those who want insurance for their iPhone have few alternatives. Best Buy will reportedly be rolling out an insurance plan for the iPhone 3G S, but at a steep $15 per month premium.

But, again, it's hard to put a price on peace of mind. For those absolutely set on purchasing AppleCare, consider holding off on the purchase until as late as possible. You're not required to purchase AppleCare the moment you buy your Apple product. You have a whole year from the date of purchase.

And there are apps on both the iPhone and Mac to remind you when the impending date is approaching -- such as the appropriately titled Warranty (iTunes link) for the iPhone and Nodhead Software's Warranty Hero (link) for the Mac. Warrant is available for $4.99 at the iTunes app store while Warranty Hero is available for $9.99, with a 30 day free trial.

Waiting will allow you some time to think about the purchase. And who knows, you may become a computing expert during this time and not even need AppleCare. Also, you could shop around for a lower price for AppleCare, be it through eBay or Craigslist.

Fortunately for Megan, all is well. She recently received a call from her local Apple Store that her repair costs were much lower than originally anticipated. In fact, we received word late today that her Mac is back home and has a new logic board, fan and top case.

Readers, tell us what you think. Do you think AppleCare is worth its price, and for which products?

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