What to do when your brand-new iPod nano fails...and it will

Given the failure reports for the iPod nano, it's disappointing that Apple can't be bothered to replace their failed units with new devices.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Let's get the usual noise out of the way, first. I don't hate Apple. In fact, my wife and I have owned a shockingly large number of Apple products over the years, ranging from the earliest Macs to virtually every iPod ever made. We even went through a phase where she needed to have the 4th generation Shuffle in every color.

Back in the day, my company was a Mac-only shop and I spent $1,500 for a 20 megabyte -- that's not a typo, I really do mean megabyte -- hard drive and $7,000 on an original LaserWriter. I even bled in six colors for a while back in the late 1980s. I had the rather interesting title of "Godfather" at Apple when I headed up some of the company's projects.

So, I don't "hate" Apple. But, I can say, quite honestly, that Apple continually finds new ways to be annoying.

This time, it's my wife's brand-new, less-than-two-months-old iPod nano. For some reason, Apple refuses to capitalize "nano," so I won't, either.

The breakdown

My wife loves her nano -- or did. It goes everywhere with her -- or, it did. She walks around constantly with those infuriating white buds in her ears. She listens to her nano while working around the house, working on projects, and as a way of tolerating my use of the "run of the fun," when I insist on watching car shows or exciting television about the history of concrete.

Last week, the little, square nano died. At first, she was in denial, because the little thing was only two months old. How could it have died after only two months? After all, Apple makes such highly reliable products (unless you buy an AT&T iPhone 4, but that's another couple of stories).

As it turns out, tiny Sleep/Wake button on the 6th generation nano no longer sleeps or wakes the nano. Given that the Sleep/Wake button is the only way to tell the nano you want to interact with it, once the button breaks, your nano is effectively dead.

In the case of my wife's nano, the button's membrane had apparently given up the ghost after only a few months use. While there's a tangible push-click feel to the other buttons, the Sleep/Wake button lost its responsiveness. Clearly, the tiny membrane had collapsed.

Image courtesy iFixit.com

While the iPod nano is undoubtedly an amazing little device, the Sleep/Wake membrane is apparently notoriously unreliable. As one poster put it, it's "an issue of 'when' and not 'if' it will happen to the device".

The repair process

And so, my wife called Apple. It wasn't particularly difficult to get a repair authorization, but the inconvenience was just beginning. First, she had to drive it to the UPS store so they could package it up (Apple doesn't trust its customers to do the packing, apparently). Our nearest UPS store is almost half an hour away, so there was another hour she lost due to the device's unreliability, never to be recovered. Diagnosing the problem and setting up the return process had already constituted an hour or so lost to the ages.

To Apple's credit, their level of communication to her about the repair status was excellent. They sent her emails acknowledging shipment, acknowledging when the got the device, and when they sent it back out. It took less than a week to get the device back from Apple -- except for the next bit of Apple-inspired inconvenience.

Today, we had a FedEx sticker on our door. Apparently, FedEx had attempted to deliver the nano back to her while we were out. FedEx delivers during the work day, and who's home during the work day? The difference between most of our packages and this one was that Apple required a signature for delivery.

Here's the fail point on this practice: nowhere during the form-filling-out process that Denise went through did they tell her there would be a signature required. Had there been such a thing, she probably would have used a return address where someone would have been around to sign for the thing. They didn't give her the option to waive the signature requirement and take whatever associated responsibility that would entail.

So, if when you send your 6th generation iPod nano in for repair, be aware that you'll need to be around to sign for the device when it gets returned to you. Make sure someone's at home or have it delivered to work.

In order for Denise to get her iPod nano, she had to take another road trip, this time 45 minutes to and from the FedEx office. Since she had to sign for it, and she was never going to be home when the truck delivered, there went another hour and a half of her time.

The results

When she finally got home, there was another minor kerfuffle: the Audiobooks icon wasn't on the display. Originally, she was concerned that meant that this iPod nano didn't come with audio book support, but it just turned out that the Audiobooks icon doesn't appear until there's an audio book loaded on the device.

Apple seems to have a "thing" with the English language. First, the product name "nano" is presented in lower-case. Now, in their ongoing attempt to drive editors crazy, Apple combines the words "audio" and "books" into a single word. Sigh.

Apparently, the Audiobooks icon is one of a number of "stealth" icons that don't appear until you sync the proper data onto the device. Another such stealth icon is the voice memo icon, which doesn't appear until you plug a microphone into the device. This doesn't seem to Apple's benefit, not to mention consumers. Wouldn't you want to see all the available features on the device when you get it? It might even prompt you to buy more stuff, like "Audiobooks" from the iTunes store. But, no.

As it turns out, when you get your repaired nano back, nothing is on the device. My wife had to re-register the nano, update to the latest version of iTunes, and re-download and re-install all of her content. All told, that was another full hour.

We've found that iPods often lose your place in your audio books, so one suggestion Denise has is to regularly mark down where you are in your books. Even though you might sync the audio books back to the nano, you might lose your place, but if you keep a small post-it note with your location and update it regularly, you won't get stuck when your nano fails.

To add insult to injury, the iPod nano she got back wasn't a new device. Apple informs customers that when their device fails, they're going to replace it with a refurbished unit. Who knows where this device has been? Given the failure reports for the iPod nano and the fact that people bought them expecting to own a new device, it's disappointing that Apple can't be bothered to replace their failed units with new devices.

It also has a new serial number. There's all sorts of interesting rights-management issues that might come up when your serial number is changed.

The bottom-line

So what's the bottom line on this little adventure? Here's a summary:

  • Original purchase price: $149
  • Time lost to the repair process: 4 hours
  • Frustration and hoop-jumping lost to the repair process
  • Concern over the device's new serial number (did anyone else have this number first?)
  • Worry about whether the replacement device will fail again in two months
  • Bummer over getting a refurb unit, rather than a new replacement

Net-net-net, the 6th generation iPod nano is an amazing device, but the time it took for repair management, early failure, and concerns over the possibility of ongoing problems tarnish the device's jewel-like appeal.

In other words, it's yet another so-so Apple product with more flash than reliable function.

Update: fixed "iPad" and made it "iPod" -- this is why I try not to write before noon.

See also: Should Steve Jobs "man up" and kill the iPhone 4? Open letter to Steve Jobs: Retire now!

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