Story Time: Apple Certified Repair Technician

Last week in my pros and cons of Apple, I caught myself saying the phrase that I just loathe.

“It Just Works”

– Literally every Mac owner I know

Computers are just carefully organized sand.  It’s a miracle that they work at all.  I’ve been repairing computers long enough that when someone says, “It just works!”, what I hear is “when something goes wrong, you’re not going to have the resources available to fix it.”

As you may know, I worked for my undergraduate college’s IT repair center, which was an Apple Certified 3rd party repair center.  For technicians like me, it was great!  Super detailed proprietary repair manuals, access to all the special tools needed to open the machines, and best of all, the ability to order genuine parts straight from Apple.

For the Mac’s owner though, it wasn’t always the best.  See, Apple completely controls the supply of parts.  And Apple set the prices much higher than comparable PC parts would be.  Out of warranty?  Get ready to shovel over the cash.

They had other weird repair policies too.  Like, they wouldn’t let us stock any parts.  Every part we ordered had to be tied to a specific serial number.  We had to run a special computer diagnostic and send it to Apple’s server for every repair we did, even if it was something obvious that didn’t affect performance like a smashed screen.  But my least favorite policy was that any part that indicated water damage must be replaced, whether or not it was part of the problem.

If we didn’t adhere to all these requirements, we risked losing our Certification, which meant no more genuine Apple parts, which means that we can no longer repair, like, half the computers on campus!

Now, I get it. As a repair center, broken computer comes in, working computer goes out.  If that computer comes back again, I’m wasting my own time and the client’s time, then clients get angry, and then I have to call the campus police.1Yep, not kidding.  Happened at least once a semester…  If you’re reading this, please be more friendly to everyone in customer service.  They hate giving you the news as much as you hate receiving it.  And since the effects of water damage can be hard to predict, it’s much less liability to just replace everything.  But if we inform the client about the problem, then test everything and the computer works fine, why are we replacing a functioning part?

Let’s say you made a mistake and spilled some water on your mid-2014 13″ retina display MacBook Pro.2This was pretty common in College. When you use a laptop every day, it tends to catch your water bottle when someone bumps your table in the library, have booze spilled on it during a party, or get caught in a freak rainstorm on the way to class.  After just over 3.5 years, your extended AppleCare warranty is expired, so you’re paying completely out of pocket.

You find most of the keyboard keys don’t work anymore, but your roommate plugs his desktop keyboard into your laptop, everything works fine.  “It probably just needs a new keyboard,” he says, “I replaced the keyboard on my Dell Latitude 7470 for $20 off Amazon and an hour or two of work. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

You take your computer to the campus IT department so they can replace the keyboard for you.  After all, you’re not a “computer person” and digging through a laptop doesn’t sound like your cup of tea.  Taking the computer out back, the technician confirms that the keyboard will need to be replaced.  Thanks to Apple’s space-saving design, the keyboard was bonded to the aluminum top case.  Also bonded to the top case is the touchpad and the battery.  The only way to replace the keyboard is to buy a whole top case assembly with keyboard, touchpad, and battery, then transplant take everything out of the original computer and put it into a new top case.  $500+ for the assembly.3Full disclosure: I don’t remember exactly what this number was. I only ever saw it in passing. The used market suggests that I might be way underestimating this price: https://www.ifixit.com/Store/Mac/MacBook-Pro-13-Inch-Retina-Late-2013-Mid-2014-Upper-Case-Assembly/IF123-033-1  The repair shop will only bill for 2 hours of labor at $50/hour even though it will still take the technician the better part of her shift to remove the glue, get everything transplanted properly, and glued back together.  Current quote: $600.

Next on the diagnostic checklist is to check for evidence of water incursion.  And, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the mainboard’s humidity indicator has been tripped.  This computer’s mainboard needs to be quoted for replacement too.  Luckily the 2014 MacBook Pro uses an SSD that’s not soldered to the mainboard, so the OS won’t need to be re-installed during the replacement, which saves an hour of labor and none of the files will be lost.  Unfortunately, the RAM and CPU are both soldered to the mainboard, so even though they’re probably unaffected by the water, they will be included in the new part cost.  $600 for the parts, another $50 for labor.4Again, basing this off a 3-year-old memory and the used market. I don’t remember the actual costs.

The technician comes back with bad news. Rather than getting a bill of under $100 like you expected, you’re handed a quote for over $1250 as the technician explains that pretty much everything except your screen, SSD, and bottom metal cover need to be replaced.  You panic.  That’s half your meal plan for the semester.  That’s 140 hours of working your crappy campus job after taxes.  There must be a mistake.

The technician knew this was coming.  While this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, it isn’t exactly uncommon.  She looks at you with understanding and has a calm answer for all your questions.  All the repairs are necessary because of Apple’s policies.  The $250 of labor is not only necessary, but also way less than it should be because the $50/hour rate is the best around and the bill is for less time than it actually will take to repair.  And even if you do take it to a different Apple Certified repair center, she sincerely doubts that they will have a different answer because they’re bound by the same policies.

After shock goes away, now you’re left with a decision.  Do you spend $1250 on repairs to a 3.5 year old computer?  Or do you spend just $200 more and buy a brand new MacBook Pro?

And this is my point. Apple is smart, they know what they’re doing.  It’s not an accident that because of their policies and pricing that it’s marginally more expensive to buy a whole new MacBook than to repair your existing one.

And this flagrant waste of materials, resources, and money is why I find it difficult to recommend Apple products.  Sure, it might not happen to you.  I’ve seen plenty of MacBook Pros last well past 8 years.  But me?  I’ve been the bearer of bad news too many times.  Why would I take that risk?

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