Yet Another Quality Control Rant

March 29th, 2012

You know that, when a company turns out hundreds of thousands or millions of copies of a product, some will be defective out of the box. Others will fail a short time later. Despite the ubiquity of extended warranties to protect you after the initial warranty is up, some are skeptical. The theory goes that failures due to a defective part will occur early in the product’s lifecycle. Or at least that’s the theory.

In the real world, though, you wonder whether quality control is just getting worse these days.

Take my son’s 2008 black MacBook, which has suffered from as many component failures as you can possibly have on such a product. He’s required replacements of the battery, keyboard, logic board, and even the LCD display. Fortunately, he also had an AppleCare policy, but the latter problem occurred several weeks after the three-year warranty period expired. But Apple support was nice enough to, upon reviewing the note-book’s dreadful repair history, agree to replace the display free of charge. There’s something to be said about getting extended warranties on portable computers.

Maybe that holds true for an iPhone as well. Nowadays, Apple will charge you $99 for AppleCare on an iPhone, which doubles the one-year warranty. But here’s the best part: “Coverage for up to two incidents of accidental damage, each subject to a $49 service fee.” So you can drop it twice, suffer substantial damage, and be assured you will get a low-cost replacement. The third time, however, you’re on your own.

That deal may seem expensive when you consider a basic iPhone 4s starts at $199 with a two-year wireless contract, but AT&T’s warranty insurance scheme is far worse. They will charge you $10 per month, meaning you’ll pay $240 over the period of the contract. But replacements carry a $99 deductible. They may even lie to you about whether you can get AppleCare after the day of purchase. Actually, you have 30 days, in the U.S., to buy AppleCare direct from an Apple Store, but your iPhone has to be checked at an Apple Genius Bar first to make sure you haven’t trashed it already. I understand this policy differs in other countries, so check with your nearest Apple dealer or Apple’s site to be sure.

None of this means that Apple’s quality control has declined. My son has dragged along his MacBook on trips around the world, so I can expect some level of abuse. In general, even the first Macintosh computer (the famous 128K) had issues, most particularly early failures of the power supply. I’m not at all certain that Apple has gotten any worse, but since they sell so many more copies of everything, the total number of defects will grow in proportion, even if the percentage of early failures hasn’t really changed.

Over the years, I’ve had problems with other consumer electronics gear. You expect a high definition TV, for example, to give years of trouble-free service. But my Panasonic plasma TV, a 2008 model, failed within weeks after the one-year warranty expired. Replacement of the power supply cost more than $400, but Panasonic relented and refunded most of it, granting me one of those infamous “one-time” exceptions.

Macworld’s Kirk McElhearn ran into real frustration with his Logitech Solar Keyboard for Mac. He wanted to be free of cables and batteries, but three early failures were just too much. He has since received a refund, and returned to a wired Apple aluminum keyboard.

I happen to have one of those Logitech keyboards here. No, it hasn’t failed — and it’s just possible Kirk’s problems stemmed from a bad production batch — but I’m not so crazy about it. The keyboard charges from ambient light, and works fine in a reasonably bright room, but it feels a bit cheap, and the keys feel sticky and mushy. I’ve set it aside and returned to keyboards from Apple and, at times, the amazing Tactile Pro from Mitias.

I have, however, encountered some severe problems with Logitech gear. A couple of years back, the mini USB port on a Harmony 890 universal remotes failed. You need that port not to charge the unit, which comes with a separate charging station, but to dock it with your Mac or PC to update the programming of the remote. After half a dozen updates, the port broke. Logitech, however, replaced everything within a few days.

In addition, my Logitech Performance MX laser mouse began to act flaky within a few months after it was put into service. Sometimes the contextual (right-click) menu would fail to appear, or it would fail to detect a signal from the USB-based “Unifying” transceiver. A replacement worked fine. Either way, I’m troubled by the fact that you receive no visible warning when the battery is depleted. You only know when it stops working, which means I have to keep a second mouse at hand just in case. I don’t recall seeing such a complaint in any of the reviews I’ve read about this mouse, though I grant I didn’t read all of them.

In the end, though, I am not expecting perfection. But I do expect that most of the gear I buy will live a reasonable life without requiring repair or replacement. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

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