Faux Genius Bar

Today I went to the Genius Bar at the Apple store located at the Palisades Mall in West Nyack. I, along with my best friend, brought in his refurbished G4 to the counter, expecting some top-notch, quality help and expertise. My friend was totally bummed out over his inoperative machine. We were desperate. We are new to the Mac OS environment. We know our way around the desktop and its various functions but when it gets too technical, it’s out of our league. The fine folks at the Genius Bar proved to be our only hope. Unfortunately, we walked away from that experience completely and utterly unimpressed. I was completely surprised at the total lack of technical experience displayed during my time there. Let me explain.

I am Microsoft Certified and an experienced A+ technician, having built my own PC at one point and always providing upgrades, advice and technical assistance to family and friends. Wanting something different and more hassle free, I made the switch to Apple four years ago and never looked back. I am not a hardcore Apple-fanboy. I still own a PC and use them exclusively for work. I love both Windows and Apple OS but I prefer Snow Leopard. Thus far, I haven’t suffered any serious software/hardware setbacks with my G5 Mac Pro.

My best friend inadvertently locked himself out of his own Mac OS by fooling around with the permissions on one of his drives last night. He created an account for his 9 year old niece but saw that she still had access to his work hard drives. Not really understanding the parental controls, he thought he would simply lock her out of the other drives by changing their permissions.  I have no idea how he did it but he somehow changed the permissions to his Mac OS hard drive so that even HE couldn’t access it! Upon bootup, the machine simply hanged. To make matters worse, he didn’t have the original install discs for his G4.  The saving grace was that he had been using Time Machine to back up his OS (at the suggestion of another friend). This proved to be key later on in the story.

Trying everything possible with another friend to get his machine up and running, nothing worked and the situation quickly turned really bleak. As a last resort, I opted to immediately schedule an appointment with the nearest Genius Bar. Hey, the service is free and they certainly know a whole lot more about our G4 than we did (theoretically). We packed up the heavy G4 and drove over to West Nyack.

We were welcomed immediately upon entering the Apple store by what appeared to be a mob of friendly blue-shirts that happened to be milling about the front entrance, overly eager to show some customer affection. We were shown the way to the Genius Bar with open smiles. Having made an error in scheduling our appointment, one helpful attendant quickly remedied the situation and made a quick edit, scheduling us in to our current location. We were seen immediately without waiting on line.

We quickly and thoroughly explained our situation to the assigned genius at the bar. The kid was very courteous and professional. While we waited for him to connect the G4 to a monitor, I asked him where I could get an install disc that came originally with the G4. He told me that Apple doesn’t have old install discs and that I was better off going to a torrent site to download it. What?! A torrent site? He’s kidding me, right? I would’ve never imagined hearing that from an Apple employee! I guess that’s how Apple rolls.  I also asked him if there was any utility in the Mac OS that I could use to create some sort of diagnostic disc or boot-up disc. His response was kinda iffy, telling me that a diagnostic disc was possible but not a boot-up disc. I guess that’s my Microsoft side of my brain speaking. Just out of curiosity, I also asked him about Apple certification. He told me he didn’t know anything about it as Apple trains their employees free of charge before working at any Apple store.

The kid hooked up a small external drive filled with diagnostic tools to the G4 and restarted the machine while holding the Alt-key. Nothing happened. We just saw a blue screen with an arrow pointing right and a reload icon on the left. He couldn’t see his drive nor any of our drives. Trying it again, nothing showed up. Thinking something was up, I asked him to try another drive or to try a USB port instead (he had been using firewire). Upon another reboot, he still couldn’t see his drive nor ours. That’s when he turned to us and told us that the motherboard was fried.

You’ve got to be kidding.

I told him that it was highly improbable that it was the motherboard. How could changing permissions on a drive affect the motherboard? I might be a Mac newbie but c’mon, I’m not an idiot. He explained that the motherboard was probably going faulty anyway and that it was just a coincidence that it failed when my friend changed the permissions. Sooner or  later it was going to fail he said. He offered that we could take it in to one of the Apple certified centers to get the motherboard either fixed or have it completely replaced, which he admitted was going to be expensive and more cost effective to get a new machine. I didn’t like his response at all but I wasn’t about to argue with the kid.

Saying our thanks, we left the store with my friend feeling really down. The whole Genius Bar experience had me completely bothered and suspicious. I KNEW it wasn’t the motherboard and that this kid didn’t have a clue as to what the  problem was. We hung around the mall while my wife, my daughter and her friends enjoyed a birthday celebration at the local Build-A-Bear.

When I got home, I decided to hook up the G4 for one last try. I was curious about something and wanted to see for myself what I could do. I had no clue nor a plan and was simply going on instincts, relying on my good ‘ol troubleshooting techniques. I used my Leopard upgrade disc and popped it in, restarted the machine and held down the Alt-key as the kid did. I saw the CD icon and clicked on it to continue. I knew that the install wouldn’t succeed but I had a gut feeling to continue and explore. After going through a couple of screens, I saw the menu up on top of the screen. Something told me to go and click on Utilities. There, right before me, at the very bottom I saw the option to restore the system via Time Machine! I went ahead and tried that. To my utter amazement as I went through the following screens, I saw that THIS was the method that should’ve been used from the very start!

My friend was ecstatic! We saw the progress bar telling us that the system would be fully restored in over an hour. As elated as I was, I was still pissed that I had wasted time at the Genius Bar. That whole affair was a hit-or-miss experience. I know it’s free and that kids working there are no experts by any means but still, telling me that the motherboard was damaged was totally bogus. I would’ve accepted him telling me that he simply didn’t know what to do next, that the problem was out of his field of expertise. I can respect honesty. But to lie to a customer? That wasn’t right. His total reliance on that external drive was the problem. The thought that perhaps the G4 couldn’t simply see it hadn’t even entered his mind. What about Time Machine? We told him that the system was fully backed up with it. Did he even know how to access it?

My folly was putting in too much stock and reliance on some hastily trained kid to solve my technical problems. A little research goes a long way. Read the many forums that litter the net or ask a friend that’s technically-able. I should’ve relied on my own technical training to try and figure things out. Years ago, I did just that: tinkered with hardware and software and learned by trial and error. I hate starting all over again with a new OS and learning its intricacies but in this day and age, good help is simply too hard to find. If you want done something right, you do it yourself.

To Apple’s Genius Bar, thanks but no thanks. You might reconsider changing that name to something else because geniuses you’re not (at least not working at the Apple stores). Mediocre, Run-of-the-Mill, or Potluck Bar seems more appropriate.

By the way, my friend’s G4 is running as smoothly as ever. The motherboard is working just fine. His niece has her own login and is locked out of the other drives by simply enabling the “simple finder” function on her profile via Parental Controls.

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