Sunday, February 27, 2011

How I came to own a RADiOMac © computer.

Before you buy a new Apple computer, ask the sales person about Apple’s policy for “legacy” computers.  A helpful Applecare representative informed me that Apple does not service, or stock parts for any “legacy” computers, that is, computers over three years old.

This policy is a rather sad reality of American Consumer technology.  Everything you buy today is going to be trashed long before 99.9% of the resource material it uses is actually worn out.

What is worse, in my opinion, if there is a major production mistake at Apple they will do their best to do the cheapest fix no mater what the waste stream result.

I have been the lucky owner of an iMac G5 with bad capacitors.  It would be interesting to know what percentage of these computers failed, but by the information readily available it must be huge.  Fortunately I paid extra for a three year warranty.  When I started having mystery problems such as the sleep function not working, intermittent difficulty starting the computer, and so on, I called Applecare and they did a good job of getting my computer fixed.  At the store they showed me the bad capacitors that were visibly swollen and leaking in the motherboard.  So far, so good, until the same problem returned.

Capacitors like this are not super high tech stuff.  They are the lug nuts of the system.  If the lug nuts on a particular model of Cadillac failed on most of the cars after three years, everyone would agree this is a major error in manufacturing, regardless of warranty dates.

So, back to my iMac, a few years later the capacitor problem returns.  Of course my warranty is over, but now that I read that there have been so many failures, and since I did get an entire new motherboard, I decided to try to call Applecare and see if they would stand behind this big mistake.  The call-in system made me think it would cost 50 bucks or more just to ask the question: “Does Apple have a special exception in works because of this obvious error on their part”?  After several repeated inquiries at the local store and on the phone I finally did get an actual call back, and that is when I was informed of the “legacy” policy.  The person I spoke with chose not to charge me for the call.  My only option was to find an independent shop that might be willing to give me 25 bucks or so for the old computer.

I did not want to see my computer end up in a land fill when it still had 99% good parts and it could possibly still be made functional.

I found Jim Warhol’s web site that was very good at helping me figure out how to make the repair.  I soon realized both the motherboard and power supply had bad capacitors.  As I looked at the bad parts I could tell by the date stamps that Apple had just repaired my problem with another known to be bad motherboard.  Here is the management plan I imagine taking place:  “Give the guy one of those motherboards we will have to throw away anyway, and hope he decides to buy a new computer before it goes bad.  Just in case, I have a new idea for a policy: we will call it the “Legacy Computer Policy.”

I did the second repair.  It cost me $30 dollars in parts and $60 for a Hakko 456 60 watt soldering iron. (FYI the standard tip works fine.)  I had to buy some capacitors from Radio Shack for the tight fitting spots on the power supply, but most of them came from Bad Caps.

My new RADiOMac © computer works better than it has since about year two, even better than after Apple “repaired” it because they did not bother to fix the power supply which was also bad.  Over the years I got in the habit of disabling the sleep function, and avoiding shut downs because of the slowly increasing frequency of problems with the computer not starting properly.  Now I can use it just like I did when it was new.

So, what could industry do differently in a situation like this?  I think Apple could have outsourced the motherboard repairs to a small shop for two hours of labor and less than $20 dollars in parts, then they could have advertised this effort to show the world how they are committed to making the best possible use of the limited earth resources and going the extra mile for their customers.  Unfortunately, like every other manufacturer, Apple desperately needs you to buy the latest new gizmo, they don’t want you to expect your gizmo to last reliably for a long, long time.   And, unfortunately, you and I are not willing to wait an extra minute for a repair.  We want everything right now.

The references on the internet are very good, but here are a few extra tips I found helpful:
  1. Use extra bright felt tip markers to mark both sides of the board with color codes.  It is very easy to get the proper solder spots confused, or to put the new capacitors in with the wrong polarity, so bright colored markings can help.
  2. Take lots of photos even as you are in progress of taking things apart.  I made a huge blowup with four pieces of typing size paper that I taped each screw onto as I removed it.
  3. Make good notes as you disassemble things.
  4. Things should be easy to take apart.  There may be a screw or a wire lead routing that is not well described in the instructions, but you can find the logical next step by taking extra care if any part is not coming apart easily.
  5. Don’t underestimate the challenge of dealing with the high temperature, non-lead solder. It is a challenge not to overheat the surrounding areas as you attempt to remove the old capacitors.
  6. Some of the holes will be very challenging to get open after removing the capacitors.  You may want to just pull the bad capacitor apart so you can get at the wire lead from both sides.
  7. I used the hot stainless steel pin idea from Jim Warhol to help open some of the holes, but sometimes I could only get a very small starter hole.  I have some torch tip cleaning files for cleaning welding torch tips.  (These are not expensive and can be purchased at hardware stores or auto parts stores.)  Once I had a very small hole started I could use the smallest tip cleaner wire to enlarge the hole, then use the next sizes to get the hole big enough for inserting the new capacitor leads.
  8. My research led me to use a couple of capacitors that were slightly bigger voltage and farad ratings than the originals.  Space in the power supply is very tight.  I read that one must be sure the voltage rating of the capacitor is equal or bigger.  But also, the farad ratings are usually some plus or minus range, so for example I used a 1200uf to replace a 1000uf capacitor because that is still in the 20% range that was the rating for the original, and the one I had was better able to fit in the spot on the power supply board.
  9. I used standard rosin core solder for the re-assembly because I have had experience using that type of solder, and I was more confident that I could do a proper neat solder connection with something I am familiar with.


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