On June 3, I bought a new MacBook to replace my trusty but ancient iBook from 2002. Along with it, I bought a new Linksys Wireless-N router, which replaced my "B" router from the old computer. Out of the box, something seemed fishy.
I immediately had trouble getting a decent connection, and after trying some of the tweaks I knew off the top of my head, I couldn't fix it. I returned the router to Target for an exchange.
The new router didn't perform any better. But after a few hours of working with Linksys' technical support (via their call center in India), the problem seemed solved. Until about Aug. 1.
That's when my wireless started getting spotty again, dropping connections randomly, even if I was sitting five feet away from the router. I picked up the phone, called Linksys again, and worked with them, on and off, for about three weeks to rectify the problem.
If you've ever dealt with international tech support, you know what a frustrating exercise it can be. Whether I was talking to India or the Philippines, the Linksys support staff had such a thick foreign accent, it became increasingly challenging to work on the problem, as we together delved into to some pretty sophisticated IT troubleshooting. It's clearly not the fault of the staff that they live in another country and speak a different native language, so it's no use getting angry. But my patience was tried as they mechanically read to me from their scripts, in their monotone timbres. I almost laughed when "Sam" said, "We thank you for your patience, Mr. Andy sir, but our documentation indicates that we do not support Macintosh, Mr. Andy sir."
It didn't do me much good to explain that our office uses Linksys routers with Macs, and they work just fine, and I'd had a Linksys router in my house for years that also was problem free.
Toward the end of August, the Indian technician told me there was nothing more they could do and they would have a specialist from Irvine, Calif. call me. Finally, I thought, I was nearing resolution.
As promised, I spoke to two Americans; a conversation in which language was no barrier. Over the course of the next few hours, they claimed that while Linksys works just fine with Mac, this wasn't a known issue, and I should blame Apple for the problem. Exasperated, I asked if I could just return the router to them for a refund. They said they don't issue refunds, just exchanges, but having already tried two identical Linksys routers, I didn't want a third. I took my case to Target.
Nearing the end of Target's 90-day return policy, I presented the store with the router, but without a receipt (since the router worked well for the first two months, I had long since thrown the receipt away -- big mistake). But "guest services" at the Target on Chase Ave. said they could look up the purchase if I presented the credit card with which I bought the router, and I pulled out my trusty and overused Target Visa. The purchase didn't come up.
Impossible, I said, remembering the day I bought the router, along with a bunch of other stuff. Then I remembered that I also used $100 in gift cards that day, which was exactly the price of the router. The store manager found the transaction log, which showed the router purchase, the gift card number, the stick of deodorant also placed on the card, and even the register where the transaction took place. One problem, she said. "This transaction log doesn't count as a receipt, and we can't complete the refund."
She recommended I call Target national guest relations, which, naturally, was closed. I resumed my composure to fight another day.
Sure enough, I called the company's headquarters and explained the problem. But the representative once again insisted he "understood my frustration," but there was nothing he could do, since this incredibly detailed transaction log unfortunately didn't count as a receipt. He suggested that I go back to the store, where this log could generate a gift card number, which could then, theoretically, generate a receipt.
So that evening, I went back to Target and tried this tact. The department had even been briefed that I was coming. And miraculously, the receipt wouldn't show up. I spoke to the store manager, who explained that once I returned the first defective router, the transaction log effectively erased the information of the first purchase, and the replacement router was the barcoded equivalent of "persona non grata."
"Look," I said calmly but firmly. "I'm a loyal customer of Target. Those gift cards were my final wedding presents from Target, where I registered and my friends spent thousands of dollars. I use the Target Visa regularly. Please don't lose me as a customer over this. I'm not trying to scam you, I just want to return this faulty product."
She paused, made a call to "corporate," and within five minutes had issued me a $100 Target credit. For a change of pace during this ordeal, the human spirit came through and I thanked her profusely.
Thrilled, I hopped in the car and drove straight to Best Buy, where I purchased an equivalent router from Netgear. When I got home, I was absolutely stunned to encounter the same problem.
But now I was on a mission. I started moving the router around the house, drilling holes in the floor and re-snaking co-axial cable all over the place. From one room to the other, the dropped connections and poor signal continued. I was pulling my hair out and sweating bullets.
Worn out, I took the weekend off from this project/obsession and began my fight again on Monday. This time I called Apple Technical Support. I explained the problem, and they speculated that I might have a faulty wireless card. They set me up with an appointment at the "Genius Bar" at the Apple Store in Bayshore.
That evening, I explained the problem to the "genius," who told me I'd need to leave the laptop for a few days while they replaced the card. Unfortunately, I knew I'd need the MacBook that week during the evenings, so I'd have to return it later. Of course, when I did, they installed a new Airport card on the spot.
Finally, finally, I thought the problem was solved. But no.
Upon bringing the laptop home, it reared its ugly head once again.
And now, I was at the end of my rope. Was my house simply opposed to Wireless-N?
In a last grasp for answers, I Googled my problem, using very specific language. Previously, I had searched for problems with Linksys and MacBooks, but this time I widened by query to "problems with macbook airport."
And that brought up a ton of results, including about 200 posts on a message board at macrumors.com.
Apparently, I was not the only Mac user experiencing this problem, and even though Apple has been widely notified of the issue, including in a YouTube video posted below, they continue to blame the problem on the third-party routers.
Seems that the problem started when Apple issued an update to its operating system, OS X 10.4.10 in the middle of the summer -- exactly when my problems began. They haven't addressed the problem yet, or even really acknowledged it, but some crafty Mac users realized that downgrading to the previous operating system solved the issue. That's a rather labor-intensive process, so one very industrious programmer wrote a script that only downgraded the specific wireless components of the OS. I tried it, and it worked, sort of. Not always, but sometimes. But for now, I give up. Word on the street is that Apple will address this problem with the release of OS X 10.4.11 in a few weeks. If we're lucky.
Overall, I have spent hours upon hours troubleshooting this issue, in person and on the phone with California, Minnesota, India and the Philippines. Part of me is incredibly frustrated that at no point did someone step in and tell me what the real problem was (because it's far from an isolated incident). But another part of me chalks this up to just another ridiculous experience as a Mac user. Like always, Steve Jobs and company treat their loyal customers like dirt, assuming we should be thankful for the privilege to use their products, whether ithey're more expensive or more error prone than the competition.
And sadly, as a guy who's owned dozens of these quirky machines since 1985, I think Jobs is right. Technical support debacle or not, I'll keep my Mac and will grudgingly buy another next time around.
Will I ever learn? Probably not.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.