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When gadgets break: repair or replace?

Date

Rod Easdown

Often the most economical course of action is to replace a faulty piece of equipment.

Often the most economical course of action is to replace a faulty piece of equipment. Photo: Dominic O'Brien

One of our household had a problem with a four-month-old iPhone. Suddenly it would no longer connect with Wi-Fi. She took it to an Apple store and 15 minutes later walked out with a new phone.

That’s how it seems to be these days. If it’s in warranty, they give you a new one; if it isn’t, you throw it away and write the loss off to bitter experience.

This is where my broken camera proved instructive. Years ago I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18, a terrific purchase. It is fast, flexible, compact and light. It travels easily, never gives a hint of trouble and suits my needs brilliantly. And it takes great photographs.

<em>Illustration: Matt Davidson</em>

Illustration: Matt Davidson

But one black day it came out of my bag with a crack across the rear screen. I love my Lumix but the model had gone out of production by then and I didn’t want to learn all the ins and outs of a new camera, so I tried the repair route.

I was turned away at some leading camera shops and one specialist repairer, all of them telling me it would be cheaper to buy a new one. The equivalent at that point was $700.

After five or six phone calls I found a retired guy with a workshop in his backyard who said he could replace the rear screen for $120. But when I took it to him, he pointed out that although the glass was cracked, the LCD screen behind it was still fine. ''All you need is a new glass panel,'' he said. ''I can do that for $40.''

Backyard repairers work at their own speed; it took six weeks but the Lumix is as good as ever for about 6 per cent of the replacement cost. I can now see why big companies take a dim view of backyard repairers – without this guy, I would have bought a new camera.

Buoyed by the experience, I set about getting my 25-year-old Thorens turntable fixed. A specialist hi-fi shop directed me to an electrical repairer so tiny, I walked right by his storefront. But the guy knew his stuff and, after taking a $50 deposit, said he’d call me.

He never did, but I called him 11 times and got 11 different stories. Fed up after 10 months, I told him I’d pick it up in two days whether it was repaired or not, and, if it wasn’t, I’d want my $50 back. When I got there it was running beautifully, total cost $165. It was a stressful, drawn-out hassle but still $900-odd cheaper than buying a comparable new turntable.

My experience, therefore, is that as long as you have a never-say-die attitude and the patience of a National Geographic photographer, you can have gadgets repaired.

But how do you decide between repair and replacement? There’s no easy answer but some factors can help in deciding.

Technology has never moved faster than now, and parts for older machines are frequently difficult, if not impossible, to find. They’re not the only difficulty. Tracing problems in older machines can take time, unless the technician knows them intimately, and you’re paying for every minute it’s in their hands. So it’s a matter of finding the right people. If you can’t find them, replacement becomes more attractive.

It also pays to find out a bit about the technology. For example, the most common problem with old CD and DVD players is they start mis-tracking, or suddenly freezing, stopping or returning to the start, at first with the occasional disc and then with many. Over time, the laser becomes weaker and the only fix is a new laser.

Most laser movements last seven to 10 years, and the older they are, the stronger is the case for replacing them. You can get replacement lasers but, in all but premium disc players, buying a new laser and having it installed costs more than a new player – the laser is the player’s most expensive component. In players with premium electronics, this may not be the case, which can make replacing the laser viable.

If your newish disc player starts mis-tracking, clean the disc – it fixes the problem 90 per cent of the time. And note that even new discs often need cleaning. Rentals always need cleaning.

Do you have a cassette deck you treasure? They’re complex machines with fine tolerances but, even so, they’re reliable. What most often goes wrong is rubber drive belts that deteriorate with age and use. Replacing these is not complicated but it’s for experienced hands; when you pull one of these to bits, you can quickly get into all sorts of trouble. Plus, you need to know where to get replacement belts.

Drive belts are a common failing in VCRs, too, as are capstans and worn-out heads. But there’s a lot that can go wrong with a VCR and they’re even more complex than cassette decks. By current standards the picture quality of these is so crook, we’d recommend having all your tapes converted to a digital format.

If your old cathode ray tube television is on the blink, don’t think twice; replace it with a new flat panel. But if one pixel of your flat panel is out to lunch, repair is impossible.

Amplifiers and receivers, especially good ones, have very long lives; 20 years isn’t uncommon and good quality speakers and turntables can last just as long. Even when these start going wrong, all they may need is a thorough, professional clean.

Otherwise, if a home-entertainment component is more than five to seven years old, a new one is probably the best idea unless you’re very attached to it, when specialist repairs are available. Think about getting it reconditioned at the same time.

When looking for replacements, don’t ignore the second-hand market. There are lots of VCRs, cassette decks and turntables at garage sales that have led sheltered lives and are going cheap.

Meanwhile, some hi-fi dealers sell second-hand equipment taken as trade-ins and reconditioned before re-selling. Some of these guys will keep an eye out for you if you ask nicely.

And take care of your equipment. Owner manuals always have care tips but generally the biggest enemies are heat and dust. Keeping your stuff well ventilated and dust-free adds years to its life.

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