Adventures in Refurbing

Last fall, an eBay shop opened up offering Apple Certified Refurbished products at identical prices to those offered by Apple, with rumors suggesting that the shop was quietly being run by Apple itself. Recently, the shop began undercutting Apple’s own online store on some items, and I decided to look a little more closely at what this “Refurbished-Outlet” store might be.

I figured I could easily place an order to get access to contact information for the seller and data on where the orders were being shipped from, perhaps providing clues about who was actually running the operation. So I placed my order for a refurbished iPod touch and waited it for to arrive.

The first bit of information came in the form of a confirmation email from the seller listing a contact address at refurbishedoutlet.net. While there is no website located at that address, the domain is registered to Liquidity Services, the wholesale and surplus distribution company behind Liquidation.com.

Liquidation.com operates four warehouses in the United States, including one in Plainfield, Indiana just a few miles from the Indianapolis airport. Upon receiving UPS tracking information for my order, I saw that it was originating from the Indianapolis airport, bolstering the appearance that my entire transaction was being handled by Liquidity Services.

Two days later my order arrived, and I picked it up off of my front porch just as the UPS driver was pulling away in his truck. The package had a Plainfield, IN return address corresponding to Liquidation.com’s warehouse, although it seemed rather lighter than I expected.

ipod_theft_1As I began to open the package, I noticed that cardboard at one end of the box had been torn and re-taped, and upon opening it up completely, I discovered that the white iPod touch refurb box itself had been torn open and all of the contents removed.

ipod_theft_2With that development, my investigation into Refurbished-Outlet became a bit more complicated as I had to deal not with a straightforward return but also with a theft claim. I notified UPS, who collected the package the following day, and also followed up with Refurbished-Outlet, who initially responded with an auto-reply email that included a link to Secondipity, another Liquidity Services business. Fortunately, the process was a simple one, with Refurbished-Outlet promptly offering a replacement shipment and only requesting some photos to help with the investigation.

So who is behind these sales of Apple Certified Refurbished products on eBay? If it’s Apple, they’ve outsourced essentially the entire operation to Liquidity Services. Secondipity notes only that it has “access to store returns and excess inventory from merchants from all around the world, including seven of the top 10 U.S. retailers.” Apple ranked as the 21st largest U.S. retailer based on 2011 sales numbers, but that of course says nothing about whether or not Apple has a direct partnership with Liquidity Services.

And in the most recent development, Refurbished-Outlet now appears to have shut down its eBay store, with the store page simply directing to an FAQ about what to expect from certified refurbished products. The eBay account remains open, but is currently offering no products for sale after having removed its remaining 25 products at 8:27 PM Pacific Time on March 30.

By Eric Posted in Apple

iPhone5mod’s EX Hybrid Controller

Earlier this month, Chinese firm iPhone5mod launched its innovative EX Hybrid Controller for the iPhone 5. As I noted in my coverage at MacRumors, the product consists of a thin magnetic cover for the back and sides of the iPhone, with separate 2-mm thick plates offering keyboard and gamepad options for users.

We don’t really do reviews at MacRumors, but iPhone5mod sent me a sample of the accessory set after I wrote about it and I thought it was worth a post to give a quick hands-on impression of the product.

First, the positives. The plates really are thin. Extremely thin, and yet the keys and buttons are clickable under the aluminum surface of the plate and raised ridges between them help you stay on target. Each plate of course also contains a battery and Bluetooth hardware inside, and it’s really remarkable that it all fits in such a slim profile.

Key responsiveness is about on par with what I expected for such a thin device. You simply can’t generate significant key travel in such a thin profile, but the keys do generate a distinct clicking or popping as they are pressed. As with similar keyboard add-ons for phones, the key layout is more compressed and in a different alignment from traditional keyboards, but with a little practice typing becomes fairly natural.

iphone5mod_iphone_keyboardThe magnets are pretty strong. I felt comfortable holding my iPhone by the magnetically-attached keyboard in both landscape and portrait orientations, although it is obviously still more prone to being knocked out of your hand if you bump it against or get bumped by something.

iPhone5mod’s promo video on the product page shows a user stacking both the keyboard and gamepad plates on the back of an iPhone, and if you choose to use the device with both plates attached, it is advisable to keep the two plates together when moving into active mode. Leaving one attached squarely to the back of the phone and only moving the other one of them into the usable position results in a significant weakening of the magnet attraction, increasing the possibility of the device being knocked loose.

There are a few negatives as well, most notably that the charging station for the plates suffers from some quality control issues. I received two charging stations from iPhone5mod, and one of them simply doesn’t work. Plugging in the micro-USB cable to the station yields a brief flash of the red power light, but then it fails to charge. The other charging station works fine.

It is also quite difficult to remove the keyboard and gamepad plates from the charging station. They sit down in a depression and are held in by magnets in order to ensure proper alignment of the charging contacts. There is a cutout at one end of the charging station that is intended to facilitate removal of the plate, but it is not deep enough to allow you to get a finger under the plate and pry it loose. Some flexing of the charging station will let the plate be removed, and it helps if you stick the rear shell of the case (with or without iPhone) to the plate first to help free it from the charger.

Overall, the EX Hybrid Controller is an interesting product to evaluate. I don’t generally have a need for a physical keyboard or gamepad on my iPhone, but I can see how it might be an appealing option for those that do, offering a remarkably thin keyboard that also includes a shell to give some protection for the iPhone. At a current price of $59.90, it is a significant investment and pricer than some other options, but it does seem to offer a much thinner and lighter profile than the competition, an important consideration for a device that most people keep with them throughout the day.

By Eric Posted in iPhone

Digitimes

Good perspective from CNET‘s Brooke Crothers on the much-maligned Digitimes:

DigiTimes’ problem is that it doesn’t filter the rumors as well as, let’s say, a DisplaySearch analyst would. But maybe that’s not the intention anyway. Maybe DigiTimes feels it needs to pass along gossip as it hears it. Maybe that’s what its Asia-based supply chain readership wants.

Digitimes has at least a couple of problems:

1. The rumors it reports on are pretty far up the supply chain, and as Crothers notes, sometimes things simply don’t pan out. There’s a difference between a wrong rumor and a rumor that was correct at the time but ultimately turned out wrong because plans changed. Unfortunately, it’s frequently hard to tell the difference when you’re dealing with the supply chain.

2. Digitimes does a poor job placing rumors in context. They’re not necessarily Apple experts, and sometimes when they hear a morsel from the supply chain and try to draw conclusions from it, they end up putting out a rumor that is simply silly. But it doesn’t mean the morsel is wrong.

People love to poke fun at Digitimes with oh-so-witty “I stopped reading as soon as I saw Digitimes” comments and the like, but in my view it’s unwise to dismiss the site’s claims out of hand.

digitimes_logoThen there was Gizmodo, which took great pains to discuss how they never report on Digitimes rumors, in the process covering the latest rumor about a Retina display for the second-generation iPad mini. Gizmodo‘s Brian Barrett’s position is that the claim is “so inevitable, it has no merit as a rumor”.

Inevitable that the iPad mini will someday gain a Retina display, yes. But inevitable that the NEXT iPad mini will see a Retina display, not exactly.

There has actually been a fair amount of discussion and speculation about just when the iPad mini will gain a Retina display, with some arguing that Apple will be able to squeeze such a display into the second-generation model while others look to the full-size iPad as a sign that Retina may be more likely to come to the iPad mini with the third-generation models.

There has actually been little-to-nothing in the way of specific claims either way until now, and that’s why Digitimes‘ claim that a Retina display is likely to come in the second-generation iPad mini is interesting and newsworthy. Now, the rumor may be incorrect, or it may be correct today but ultimately turn out to be incorrect (you can bet Apple tried putting one in the first-generation model and they’re no doubt trying again), but at least now we have a specific claim on record saying it’s coming sooner rather than later.

It’s all a matter of when the technology allows Apple to package the Retina display and additional horsepower needed to drive it into a package the company feels is in line with the physical design goals for the product. We saw with the full-size iPad that even after two generations of non-Retina display, Apple had to increase the device’s thickness in order to add a Retina display, something the company decided was an acceptable tradeoff at that point. But with the thin and light design of the iPad mini being one of its major selling points, Apple is likely to be even less willing to make a sacrifice in that area on the smaller tablet.

‘Unacceptable’

I was filing away some 12,000 emails that had piled up in my inbox over the past nine months and came across this one sent by a reader back in March:

I love your site. I have been visiting every day since I was in high school. You are great and I love what you do.

One thing that irritates me however, is the fact that you keep referring to the next iPhone as the iPhone 5. This is illogical for anyone who actually follows Apple in the way you or I do. The iPhone 4 was given this name because it was the 4th iPhone! The 4s was the next model and therefore the 5th. Following this logic the next iPhone will be the iPhone 6 because it is the 6th iPhone. There is no understandable reason why Apple would name their 6th model the iPhone 5. It is hard on readers for you to keep making this mistake.

1. iPhone
2. iPhone 3g
3. iPhone 3gs
4 iPhone 4
5 iPhone 4s
6. iPhone ?

It’s fine for the average joe to make this mistake. For a tech site, specifically one that tracks Apple, it is unacceptable.

I must fess up though…I did plenty of hedging in my writing, generally referring to the 2012 iPhone as "the next-generation iPhone". Credit does, however, go to Arn, who stood behind the "iPhone 5" name in the face of all of the "Apple would never do that" ridicule.
And now on to the iPhone 5S.

By Eric Posted in iPhone

‘Apple is Foundering’

Luca Gattoni-Celli at The Motley Fool:

When Apple lost Steve Jobs, it did not lose its culture. It lost its soul. Apple as we know, love, and revile it was Steve Jobs, and the key to Apple’s future is resolving a disconnect between its past and present created by the void he left. Jobs was not a good manager. He screamed and swore at his employees until they delivered minor miracles. But as noted, he had vision. His brilliance, originality, even his technological savvy, are open to debate, but the direction of Apple’s product portfolio in the last two years clearly reflects his absence.

And what has Jobs’ absence meant for the company’s products?

The new offerings have lacked the trendsetting impact Jobs’ obsessed over, as well as the ethereality of something “insanely great.” The newest iPad is wonderful but derivative. Early customers experienced annoying power management issues, unable to operate at full tilt without battery drainage, even plugged into a power socket. A device that runs out of power plugged into the wall? Steve Jobs would have been inconsolably livid. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is also a great product. It actually does set a new standard for top-end notebook computing. But integrating what is essentially an iPad screen into a super-thin, wicked-fast midsize laptop is hardly revolutionary. Anyone could have thought of it, which is a problem.

One problem…as we know from Bloomberg Businessweek, these were all Steve’s products.

Much about the company’s direction and even its products still reflects Jobs’s decisions and design preferences—the iPhone 5 was the last model to receive detailed input from Jobs, say two people familiar with its development. The company has yet to release any product Jobs didn’t personally bless. But Cook has executed Jobs’s plan even better than expected.

By Eric Posted in Apple

AT&T Comes Through

There have been a lot of anecdotal reports of iPhone users switching from AT&T to Verizon, driven in part by AT&T’s unwillingness to allow launch-day iPhone 4S purchasers to upgrade to the iPhone 5 at fully-subsidized prices given that it has only been 11 months since the last iPhone launch. Andy Zaky of Bullish Cross even details how AT&T effectively paid him $173.82 to switch to Verizon.

Upon discovering that I had to pay $250 for both my wife and sister to get them iPhone 5′s, I inquired as to how much it would cost me to essentially cancel my account at AT&T and go to Verizon instead. I wasn’t seriously considering leaving, but just sort of wanted to know out of curiosity what it would cost to not be under contract.

And this is precisely where AT&T completely and totally fails. This is why Apple is Apple and why AT&T is AT&T. For me to cancel the entire family plan and move to another carrier, it would only cost me $320.00.

AT&T then proceeded to give Zaky a service credit of $173.82, ostensibly to offset the amount of money he would save if he switched to Verizon for his iPhone 5 purchases over sticking with AT&T. But the service credit comes with no strings attached, and Zaky is still free to switch to Verizon and pocket the AT&T service credit.

I was very nearly in a similar Twilight Zone of pricing rationale with AT&T, as the carrier was initially quoting me full retail price on an iPhone 5 upgrade. I purchased the iPhone 4S on launch day, but had a relatively low-cost $69.99 monthly plan for most of that year and my “early upgrade” pricing was not scheduled to kick in until early November and a full subsidy wasn’t in the cards until May 2013. So, for the 32 GB model I wanted, AT&T was telling me I needed to shell out $750.

I contacted AT&T customer service to ask about the issue, noting that I could simply pay my early termination fee (currently $215) and switch to Verizon, where I could purchase the 32 GB iPhone for $299 and save roughly $235 over staying with AT&T. I was initially told that there was nothing they could do, but the agent eventually relented and agreed to escalate my case. I’d be receiving a response within 72 hours, which wasn’t a ton of help given that iPhone 5 pre-orders were going live roughly 12 hours later.

Not expecting AT&T to come through, I placed a pre-order for a Verizon iPhone 5 as they went live at 3:00 AM last Friday and prepared to have my number ported from AT&T. Later on Friday, I did receive a phone call from AT&T, but I wasn’t available to take the call, and the voicemail simply said that they would call back the following day.

Later that evening, I checked my AT&T online account and to my surprise saw that I was eligible for full subsidy on the iPhone 5: $299. I then canceled my Verizon pre-order and resigned myself to camping out this Friday to buy my iPhone 5 on AT&T because pre-order shipping estimates had long since moved out to 2-3 weeks. AT&T did call back on Saturday to confirm with me that due to my status as a valued customer I was eligible for full subsidy, and I thanked them while sharing just how close they’d come to losing me as a customer.

I’m not seeing many reports of people receiving similar treatment from AT&T, but then again I’m not seeing many reports of people who were initially being told that they needed to pay full price for their iPhone 5 upgrades. Whatever the reason, I was pleasantly surprised to see AT&T come through and offer a deal that would keep me with them rather than sticking with ridiculous pricing policies that make it considerably cheaper for customers to switch carriers than to stay.

A Trust Issue

Davis MacMillan at Minyanville:

Apple Doesn’t Trust Owners of the New MacBook Pro

Well, Cupertino seems to have one-upped itself again with its latest MacBook. According to early reports, it’s the most difficult Apple computer to take apart yet.

Slashgear.com reports that initial attempts to take apart Apple’s new Retina MacBook Pro have yielded the lowest possible scores for user repair potential. The new computer is smaller than previous Apple devices, a factor that contributed to its inaccessibility.

Yes, it has everything to do with the fact that Apple doesn’t trust anyone inside their computers and nothing to do with the fact that its efforts at pushing the limits of technology to shrink its devices require making design decisions that make them extremely difficult to repair or upgrade.

97% of all statistics are fabricated, but I’ll wager that 99% of users have no interest in opening up their computers for any reason. But 100% of them will get to use a lighter, thinner, and more powerful MacBook Pro.

By Eric Posted in Apple

5,000

It’s hard to believe it’s been three months since my last post here. I had sincere intentions to post regularly, but a number of things got in the way over the past few months, including the birth of my second son, and time has been more precious than ever as we’ve tried to settle into a routine.

But here I am, trying to make a renewed effort at regular posting here, and I figured this milestone is as good motivation as anything to get back in the game: Earlier today, I made my 5,000th post at MacRumors. I made a few dozen of them during 2008 before joining the site full-time at the beginning of 2009, and it’s certainly been an interesting and fun ride.

It’s an exciting time to be an Apple watcher…iPhone rumors are heating up once again, the iPad mini rumors that won’t die are still floating around, and “iTV” rumors continue to pick up steam. And with rumors on the Mac side now picking up, it sure seems we’re in line for a huge set of updates, potentially including some redesigns and even Retina-quality displays.

So here’s to the next 5,000 posts.

Revisionist History

Dara Kerr at CNET:

Apple CEO Tim Cook donates $100 million to charity

Apple CEO Tim Cook might just be taking some tips from Bill Gates–last week he announced he donated $100 million to charity, according to The Verge.

The teaser text for the article’s RSS entry is even better:

Apple’s CEO announces that he spent $100 million of Apple’s money on charitable giving–something Steve Jobs would not have done.

Huh?

First, claiming that Cook himself made the donation is patently ridiculous. Any such decision would have to have been discussed and signed off on by a number of people. Apple donated the money, not Cook. While the CEO can certainly set the tone and direction in any discussion, he can’t just go rogue and give away the company’s money.

Second and more importantly, the original report from The Verge discusses two specific gifts: $50 million to Product Red and $50 million to Stanford University’s hospitals. Apple has participated in the Product Red campaign since the first red iPod nano was introduced in October 2006. Enough said on that issue.

As for the Stanford gift, Apple’s involvement was publicly announced in February 2011. Steve Jobs may have been on his final medical leave of absence at the time, but he was still CEO and you can bet discussions on the gift had been going on for more than the two weeks Jobs had been on leave, especially since the announcement involved coordination among Stanford and six Bay Area technology companies.

But who needs facts when there’s a narrative to be told: Steve Jobs was a cheap bastard and Tim Cook is a paragon of virtue.

By Eric Posted in Apple

Think, Period.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz at The Motley Fool:

It was difficult to see Apple moving so many tablets when Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire was doing what no other competitor had done in this niche by actually selling “millions” of its entry-level $199 devices. Adding to the bargain-basement pricing, Research In Motion was dumping PlayBook tablets for as little as $199. Even its high-end 64-gigabyte model is selling at a $400 discount to its original price tag these days. It was also during this time that Hewlett-Packard cleared out its inventory of webOS-fueled TouchPads for as little as $99 apiece.

Given all of this markdown madness, you have to wonder what the 15.4 million buyers of iPads at $499 or higher were thinking. It was a buyer’s market for tablets, yet they went ahead and paid retail. [...]

I’m not asking iPad buyers to “think different” as much as “think,” period.

15.4 million idiots…what were they thinking?

(Apple noted on the conference call that sell-through exceeded sell-in by 200,000 units, so it was more like 15.6 million idiots.)