Apple has a reputation and standing as one of the best customer support organizations in all of the consumer world. They top the ratings each year; due to their retail stores, the ability to quickly talk to someone knowledgeable has made using Apple products easier than ever for millions of folks. Truth is, in more than 30 years of owning Apple products starting with the Apple ][+, I have never needed service of any type. I have had a couple of questions, and had to email support about a couple of iTunes issues, but I have never had an actual service issue. Until now, with the iPad Mini. More on that in a bit.
During a quick Skype conversation with Dan (part of his review of Sony’s Camera and Microphone for Skype) I was mentioning some success with my iPad Mini issues, and as we chatted he realized he had the same issue and was just sort of working around it … he said he’d stop by the local Apple Store in the morning. Since I live two hours each way from two Apple Stores, taking a full day to go visit one was simply not a possibility, so I had been working with Apple Support on the phone.
Let’s compare the experiences:
My Apple Support Experience
I have stated pretty clearly just how much I love my iPad Mini. Once I got it, I basically stopped using the iPad 3 and it became the most-used item in my arsenal. I use ‘became’ in the past tense for a reason. Just over two weeks ago I came home from work, took out the Mini and … it wouldn’t connect to our home WiFi network. I have talked about WiFi issues with the Mini before, so I already had a routine – I turned WiFi off then back on (failed), reset network settings (failed), switched off and reset my entire home network (failed).
Hmmm … first time THAT happened. I checked out other devices, including 3 iPads (1st, 2nd and 3rd gen), 2-4th gen iPod Touches, Macbook Pro, a couple of Sony Vaio laptops, Dell laptop Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, Nexus 7, HTC Flyer, Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note, Droid, Droid Pro, Palm Pixi Plus, Roku, Kindle, 3 Nooks, Wii, Nintendo DS, PSP, XBOX360, HP iPaq 4355, HP Jornada 728 … and likely a few more I can’t recall off-hand. ALL of them worked fine.
This was ‘step change behavior’ – and anyone who has had to troubleshoot any sort of products knows that when you see this, the most likely candidate is the malfunctioning equipment, but it can also be an interaction with something else, or something else interfering with proper operation. But it is always important to remember that the ability to return to ‘home state’ is the ultimate test of problem resolution.
So the next night I was on the phone with Apple Support. After a quick chat they sent me along to the Airport group – it is worth noting that our network is an Airport Extreme (2009 vintage) with two Airport Express extenders to cover our whole house. I worked with them for a couple of hours, including resetting a number of things and taking down the whole network which killed my family watching a streaming video from Amazon Instant Video. On one occasion I got the Mini to connect when I was sitting it right on top of the Airport Extreme, but as soon as I was 3 feet away it dropped, and I could never replicate that.
The final suggestion was to completely hard-reset and treat the network as an entirely new network. The support person thought some of my naming was a bit long and since the Extreme module and network name were the same, he didn’t like that either. So over the weekend I went about completely resetting the network, renaming everything and resetting things as new. The result? No change. I had to manually reconnect every one of the other devices … and the Mini still wasn’t working.
The other problem was that at work I could connect to our WiFi, but it would drop pretty regularly including whenever I closed the SmartCover. But no matter what I tried I couldn’t connect at home. So then I was back on the phone to Apple support. And after trying to push me to head to an Apple Store, eventually they agreed to have it returned for repair. While I waited for the ‘coffin’ to come, I played around with manually changing WiFi channels for the network to see if I could optimize signal. Again, no change for the Mini.
I got the box, but they didn’t set it up properly with a dual ship/return label, which meant another ~45 minutes on the phone with Apple to get them to email me the PDF the next day. I sent it out, then a few days later got an email that they couldn’t replicate the issue … and that they were sending it back. They sent it FedEx overnight … but because of their direct signature requirement and the lateness of the notification email, what I should have gotten at 10AM one day I didn’t see until 6PM the next.
And … of course, it didn’t work.
And worse yet, unlike what they said in the email, it was still on 6.0.1. So I was on the phone with Apple again … and we started the cycle once more. After two calls, they said they would do another return, but there is of course the chance that they will simply send back the same one again.
As additional data of the singularity of the Mini having this issue, this week I got an iPhone 5. It arrived, I took it out of the box, selected to use WiFi, entered my password …and it has auto-connected to my WiFi ever since.
Side note: I requested that they send me another PDF return label so I could use the same box they just sent it back with … but it appears they are sending another return box.
The next day, I took the Mini to work and they had just implemented a new ‘mobile wireless’ network specifically for all of the devices people have – and it worked great with my Mini. I used a WiFi Analyzer app on my Galaxy S3 to scope it out, and found it operating on simultaneous dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz. At home it looked like mine was ONLY on 2.4GHz … so I switched it to 5GHz only mode … then I did a ‘reset wireless settings’ and the Mini connected immediately after I entered my password.
I called Apple with these detail in the hopes it would mean something, but I got the disheartening news that their standard battery of tests doesn’t include isolating to 2.4GHz, so there was a reasonable possibility that I would get the same Mini back AGAIN. I asked to speak to someone to be sure that wouldn’t happen, and after being told (again) that the BEST way was to … you guessed it, go to an Apple Store.
There are supposedly now notes and flags in my file to make sure my Mini gets properly tested.
So now I am awaiting the Christmas Eve delivery of the next coffin, meaning my BEST case scenario is to have a working iPad Mini by New Year’s Eve … or, 3.5 weeks from my initial call to Apple Support.
Dan’s Apple Store Experience
Walked in. Explained iPad mini issue. Explained what I had tried.
Told him what the issue is and …
Five minutes later I walked out with a new iPad.
First off, the iPad Mini WiFi issue is NOT rare or mysterious – to see exactly what Dan and I were experiencing, check here or here or here and so on. And that is just about the WiFi connectivity to 2.4GHz – there are loads of general problems with the Mini dropping connections, weak signal, and so on.
Therefore this should be a standard knowledge base issue, and something that service representatives know to discuss immediately. My first job out of school was with a small company where we did *everything* from design to test to installation and follow-up support for specialized analytical equipment. And once there was a systematic failure noted, it became part of the routine to address that with anyone having issues.
So getting a response of ‘oh really, WiFi issues on a Mini?!?’ from Support is simply not helpful and does little to build confidence that a solution will be found.
Next, getting back my Mini and having it shipped the same way as it was received was insulting. I had spent upwards of four hours on the phone with Apple support, and there were supposedly copious notes about the situation, what had been tried and what did and did not work. Maybe it is because I am an engineer who deals with equipment and instrumentation all the time, but when confronted with a non-reproducible issue that has been thoroughly tested to fail before coming to me, I use that as a sign to step back and ‘think different’ rather than say ‘no problem found’ using a simple diagnostic and return the product untouched after a nominal look.
I have been told that it should bother me that I have done 100% of the useful troubleshooting … but again, as a statistician and optical engineer that sort of thing just flows naturally for me.
But the biggest issue I have is that not only was I treated as a ‘second class citizen’ – I was told about it OPENLY. Yes, EVERY person I spoke with tried to push me to an Apple Store. Every. Single. One. And they made it clear from the moment we got to the point of my returning the Mini that my experience would be different if I went to a Store. It would be quick and easy, and my iPad mini could possibly be just swapped out.
But as I said, that solution simply wouldn’t work for me – I love the Apple Store, but between the family schedule and work, there is no way for me to take a full day trip to get to a store. So I have had to deal with Apple’s purportedly ‘world class’ support … which until I discovered the 2.4GHz/5GHz issue was telling me that I would probably just keep getting the same Mini returned – and even AFTER I pointed out the issue I was told that there was a good chance Support would get my Mini, see that WiFi worked for them and return it to me without reading the notes and/or proper testing.
Honestly that is just incompetence – when you have a product that works in two modes, and someone is seeing an issue wouldn’t it make sense to test out EACH mode rather than just BOTH modes?
But as Dan proved, there is a HUGE disparity in the service someone gets walking into an Apple Store compared with what happens through the normal support channels. To an extent I understand that – in one case the person is right in front of you, in the other case you are dealing with a box arriving from FedEx. But in each case you have the same responsibility to the customer, to satisfy them to the extent of providing a working product.
I don’t know how my support issue will turn out yet, and hopefully the swap will serve as a long-term solution for Dan. There are some speculating that early manufacturing runs of the Mini had an issue that later runs do not … but I have no idea. My concern is getting this resolved as quickly as possible – because while I am on the ‘warranty clock’ right now … something tells me that how they handle something one day out of warranty will be different online compared to in-store as well.