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mac.column.ted: Breaking my cardinal rule

mac.column.ted: Breaking my cardinal rule

by Ted Landau

Last month, I broke one of my cardinal rules: Never buy a new computer model until it has been out for at least 3 months (waiting six months is usually better). Why? With a device as complicated as a computer, there are always some glitches that don't get discovered until after a new product ships. Apple inevitably releases a "version 2" of the product that fixes these glitches (and maybe throws in a few new features besides). That's when its time to pounce. Actually, a similar a rule applies to software as well: Always wait at least a few days after a software upgrade is released before installing it. For proof of the wisdom of this advice, witness the hassles that resulted from updating to Mac OS X 10.2.8 before it was fully cooked. Early upgraders had so much trouble (especially a potential loss of their Ethernet connection) that Apple was forced to withdraw the initial release! But, with "defective" software, you can usually remedy the problem yourself by installing other (newer or older) software. With hardware, you are often faced with sending your Mac in for repair or living with a problem that will never get fixed. Hence, my cardinal rule.

Despite all this, I threw caution to the wind and purchased a new top-of-the-line 15" PowerBook G4 from the online Apple Store two days after the model was announced. My rationalization was that I was really only bending the rule: The 15" machine was almost identical to the already-months-old just-tweaked 17" PowerBook. I had been waiting almost a year for the much-rumored long-anticipated 15 inch model. I was not going to wait any longer.

Waiting for my PowerBook to arrive, I began worrying whether I would regret my rule-bending. Happily, the initial answer was no. Upon its arrival, my first impression of the PowerBook was gloriously positive. This machine is truly a wonder to behold. From its sleek aluminum appearance to its illuminated keyboard--everything about it oozes quality and grace. Even the way the battery case opens and provides easy access to the AirPort card is impressive. Heck, even the box it arrives in looks cool. This is certainly the best designed laptop I have ever owned. And, once I started it up, I was equally pleased to discover that all ran smoothly and, at 1.25 GHz, it was quite a speed demon. I was about ready to give it my final seal of approval when I hit a pothole: AirPort Extreme.


My PowerBook came with an AirPort Extreme card pre-installed. The major AirPort-related problem (and I had more than one) was its poor reception. I mean really poor. Like, even if the PowerBook is next to a Base Station, signal strength is only about 60%. And as soon as I take the PowerBook out of the room where the Base Station resides (to go maybe 20-30 feet away), signal strength drops to the point that I get the "no networks in range" error.

As I still had my iBook (with its non-Extreme AirPort card), I made a quick comparison. The iBook's AirPort signal strength remained at 80-90% virtually anywhere in my house. This reception difference remained whether "connecting" to an original graphite Base Station or to a new Extreme Base Station. The problem was clearly with the PowerBook, or at least the AirPort Extreme hardware in the PowerBook, not in the Base Stations.

I knew there had been problems like this with the Titanium PowerBook, but Apple had asserted that this issue was fixed with the new aluminum models. Apparently not in my case.

A Web search turned up several confirming reports, although not a flood of them. This suggested that my problem was not a universal one, maybe not even a common one. I wasn't sure if that should make me feel better or worse. What especially caught my eye, however, were reports of similar AirPort Extreme reception problems in published reviews. Here are three examples:

  • A review stated: "I sat down not 30 feet away from the Base Station and saw that my reception fluctuated between 30 percent and 50 percent."
  • A Macworld magazine review stated: "In my average wood-frame house, my AirPort Extreme reception drops to almost nil the second I go upstairs and turn the corner -- no more than 25 feet from where the snazzy white Base Station sits blinking cheerfully in my office."
  • A Computer Times review stated: "The PowerBook was placed about five feet from the base station in a bedroom. Signal strength was full. The average speed to complete a file transfer was 54 seconds. Further away in the kitchen, the signal dropped to two bars. The files took 2 minutes and 35 seconds at 0.65Mbps to transfer."

What struck me a bit odd about these reviews is that they accepted this poor performance as an inherent limitation of AirPort Extreme, concluding either not to purchase a Base Station or to get an external antenna. It was as if they were commenting on the fact that a given Mac model came with too slow a CD-RW drive or too small a hard drive. I beg to differ. The deficient reception should not be considered an inherent attribute of AirPort Extreme hardware. It is either a defect affecting only some units (and thus needs to be repaired) or Apple needs to admit that its tech specs are wrong. Apple's AirPort Extreme Web site clearly states you should expect better:

  • "50-foot range from the base station in typical use at 54-Mbps data rate; 150-foot range from the base station in typical use at 11-Mbps data rate."

My PowerBook's reception--and the reception described in the above reviews--were not even in the same ballpark. My iBook's much superior performance confirmed that better results were possible--and that my setup was almost certainly within the framework of what is "typical." My course of action was now clear. It was time to call Apple about getting my PowerBook repaired or replaced. Happily, after describing my situation to Apple, they agreed with my logic (in case you were wondering, I am certain that the people I spoke to did not recognize my name). Apple also assured me that the poor reception was not common.

Apple had two theories as to the poor signal strength: a defective AirPort card or a defective AirPort antenna assembly. To test out the first hypothesis, they sent me a new AirPort Extreme card. It had no effect. So I sent the PowerBook in for repair. It just came back with two items fixed: "display housing subassembly" and "invrtr wire harness assembly." This was just what the doctor ordered. Reception range is still not quite as good as on my old iBook. But it's significantly better. My PowerBook can now connect to the network in places where it failed before.

Moral of the story: Don't assume a problem is unfixable until you try to get it fixed.*

Meanwhile, this most recent of my numerous exchanges with Apple tech support got me to thinking that you might appreciate the following:

Top ten tips to get the most out of your call to Apple tech support

If you believe a product your purchased from Apple is in need of a hardware repair, here is what to do:

1. Make sure it is really likely to be a hardware problem before you call. At the very least, do a search on the Web for reports of similar problems. You may find that your symptom is really a software issue and there is a fix that you can do yourself. This will inevitably save you the time, potential aggravation and maybe even a bit of embarrassment of an unneeded telephone call.

2. If you've decided that a call to Apple is required, make sure you use the correct number. The one you almost always want is 800-275-2273. If you call some other Apple number, you're wasting your time.

3. Don't delay making the call. This is especially so if you have a new product and you have not purchased AppleCare. Even though there is a 1 year warranty on a new Mac, it only comes with 90 days of telephone support. After the 90 days, this can lead to a sort of catch-22 where Apple will repair your Mac for free but will not talk to you to determine if your problem truly needs a hardware fix. This is especially problematic for symptoms that may or may not indicate a hardware cause and require that Apple walk you through various diagnostics before reaching a conclusion.

4. When you call, be prepared to spend some time on the phone. Depending on when you call, there may be a wait of 30 minutes or more (although Apple has gotten much better at keeping the waits short). Even after a tech support person gets on the line, you may still need to spend a half hour or more discussing the problem with him. So don't call if you have to dash off in 10 minutes.

5. Be as specific as possible as to the nature of the problem. For example, if you are calling about an error message that you get when trying to mount an external drive, don't just say "And then I get an error message." Instead, record the exact text of the message and read it back to the support person. Even better, have your Mac set to trigger the symptom, so that you can actually "demo" it while on the phone. Also, if there is anything even a bit unusual about your setup (e.g., your FireWire devices are connected via a hub), make sure you mention this as well.

6. Do whatever the tech support asks you to do--without complaining. If the person asks you to zap your PRAM, for example, don't refuse and say that you are certain it will have no effect because you already tried this the day before. Just follow along and do as asked anyway. There is always a chance that you will be asked to do it in some slightly different way--and that this will fix your problem.

Cooperation also helps to establish a positive relationship with the support person. You want the tech support person to be your ally not your adversary. Whatever you do, don't get hostile. Remain patient and polite.

7. While being polite, also be prepared to be assertive and persistent. If the final result of your conversation is not what you hoped for (for example, you expected to be asked to send the unit back to Apple for repair and this did not happen), tell the person this. Explain your reasoning. If you still don't reach an agreement, say goodbye. Call the next day and try again--presumably with a different person. Tech support staff are people after all. You may have caught one on a bad day. You may have better luck the next time.

8. If you get bumped up to Apple's second line of support (called product specialists), ask the person for their direct extension. If you find this person to be especially helpful, it may pay to get them again if you need to call back on this same issue. However, more than likely, you will get their voice mail when you call back. If you get impatient waiting for them to answer their phone or call you back, you'll have to give up and try your luck with someone else.

9. When you first call on an issue, you are assigned a case number. Make sure you get this case number and write it down. Refer to it if you call again on the same matter. It also pays to get the name of the person with whom you spoke. Write down the time and date of the call as well. And, if Apple is sending you any material, get the dispatch number for the shipment. You may not need any of this information besides the case number, as it should be recorded in Apple's notes. But if anything goes wrong (such as an expected package that never arrives), the data may be critical in getting Apple to take responsibility for what happened. If a repair problem takes weeks to resolve, your notes may also help to establish the length of the delay--thus supporting your growing frustration.

10. Finally, if Apple says that you have to send your Mac in for repair, pause for a moment and consider if this is what you really want to do. You may be without your Mac for a week or more. More serious, it is possible that your Mac will be returned without the problem fixed or with a new problem that did not exist before. I have seen cases where an initial minor problem developed into a series of hassles that took a couple of months to resolve. The odds of this happening are admittedly small. Still, if your problem is relatively minor, you might decide you would rather live with it than take the risk.

* Postscript: Oops. After completing this column, I discovered that the repair of my PowerBook was not as sucecssful as it seemed. Whatever Apple did to improve the AirPort reception, Apple also managed to wreck the PowerBook's Bluetooth capability. That is, the PowerBook no longer recognizes that any Bluetooth hardware is installed. So my PowerBook is now back at Apple, awaiting a second repair (see Point #10 just above!). Worse, I am a bit concerned that the lack of any Bluetooth signal may have been what allowed the AirPort reception to improve. We'll see. I'll let you know the final result next month.

Utility of the month

At the end of each month's column, I plan to include either a utility of the month (some cool product that deserves to be in the spotlight) or a tip of the month (some nifty troubleshooting-related tip). This month, a pair of similar utilities share the spotlight: Codek Virtual Desktop and Workspaces.

Both utilities allow you to create multiple virtual desktops. In essence, additional desktops behave similarly to having multiple monitors. The difference being, with virtual desktops, you can only view one at a time. But you can easily switch from one to the other via keyboard commands or a click of the mouse. The advantage of a multiple desktop setup is that you can have several applications--and their windows--open in different desktops. When you make a switch, all the open windows that were visible in one desktop disappear and are replaced by the windows for the applications in the new desktop. If you are working on different tasks and want to get all the windows associated with one task out of the way, while you attend to another task, without having to close/minimize any windows or quit any applications, this is a great way to do it. Virtual Desktop offers more features than Workspaces, but both do an excellent job of the basic task.

A final note

This is the first of what I hope will be a long stretch of columns. Each month I will focus on some current issue in the Mac universe. Often the topic will be troubleshooting related. But I may also veer off into other directions. If you have a suggestion for a future column, or comments on an existing one, I welcome your feedback. Email me at

Coming next month: The first of two columns on Panther.

  • review
  • Macworld magazine review
  • Computer Times review
  • Apple's AirPort Extreme Web site
  • Codek Virtual Desktop
  • Workspaces
  • More from Mac Musings