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Why Can't an Apple Laptop Be More Like a Fridgidaire?

If like me, you have succumbed to the charm of Apple computers (against all logic because PCs are cheaper, every bit as cute and just as efficient), then you already know that your first source of help when something goes wrong is the company's "genius bar." It's nothing more than a counter at the back of every Apple store where lurk supposed masterminds who can resolve your technical problems on the spot. All you have to do is make an appointment for a 15-minute slot via Apple's website, and you get hands-on help at the store nearest you.

So far, so good. But my two experiences with the service have made me think that Apple's genius lies mostly in steering customers to new computer purchases.

Last year, for example, I brought in my five-year-old MacBook laptop. Problem: both of my browsers, Safari and Firefox, had trouble loading certain websites. I learned that I would need updated versions, but my laptop wouldn't install them. A very amiable genius at the Stamford, Conn. store told me that my computer was simply too old to accept up-to-date browsers. DNR was his recommendation: the machine could run a word processor and allow me to play Freecell, but forget about accessing the Internet. I should buy something new.

Like the good little techno-ignoramus that I am, I did what I was told and purchased an Apple desktop for $1,100 at BestBuy.

A few months later, my husband was traveling to Florida to visit his brother Bill. He asked to take the laptop so he could keep track of email. I explained to him (over and over) that the thing would be useless, but he insisted. "Okay, if you want to lug around a worthless hunk of metal, be my guest," I said.

Soon after the husband's arrival in Florida, brother Bill called. Lo and behold, he had fixed my laptop. By installing some upgrades, he restored it to health and updated my browsers. I had spent $1,100 unnecessarily, but I reasoned, even geniuses can make mistakes. And it was nice to have a gleaming new desktop with a giant screen.

Okay, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Without warning, my trusty little laptop began misbehaving. It took forever to load Safari or a website. Then it took forever (twenty to thirty minutes) simply to boot. As the day wore on, the poor thing got worse and worse. Frantic, I made an appointment at the genius bar at an Apple store in Minneapolis where we had recently moved.

This Midwestern genius was every bit as affable as his Eastern counterpart, but his diagnosis was even more dire. He could not get the computer to launch -- probably because he could only devote one 15-minute time slot to the effort -- and declared my hard drive dead. I could get a new one, of course, for $300 or so, but all my files would be obliterated, and I would be wasting money simply to recover an obsolescent model. "After all, it's six years old!" he said. "I don't even think anybody would have the parts." "My refrigerator is 16 years old and it's still working fine," I said. I mean, seriously, why shouldn't computer makers be under the same obligation as car or appliance manufacturers to make products that last?

You've probably already guessed his recommendation: buy a new laptop. I didn't really want to. My one-year old desktop would arrive with the moving company after we bought a place to live. But I needed a computer now. So I plopped down another $1,100 and bought a shiny new model.

Re-enter brother-in-law Bill. He insisted that the thing was fixable. I refused to believe it. "Send it to me," he said -- so Fedex took it off to Florida.

Well, two days later, he called laughing. Turns out I had 164 items in Trash. Once he emptied it, the machine functioned pretty well. It still takes a long time to launch, but he thinks he's almost got that problem licked too.

So looks like I am out $2,200 -- for machines I didn't need. Bill, however, excuses the erring geniuses, to an extent. He points out that computer and software manufacturers update products so often that a poor consumer can wind up with an old computer that won't run new software or old software that won't operate on a new computer. "The geniuses are right in a way because once you get off the bus, it's hard to get back on," he says, meaning, I guess, that if your computer gets too old, you are screwed.

But should the computer industry really be doing this to us? For all practical purposes, my new laptop is identical to the one I bought six years ago. Sure there have been changes, but manufacturers of refrigerators, washing machines and ovens have also added new features and even changed their basic functions. But a consumer who doesn't want the updates can still use the old machine to chill ice cream, clean clothes, and cook a turkey. If they break down, a repairman can fix them. There's no need to buy new models every few years.

If Apple could make its computers as reliable as refrigerators, that would be real genius.