August 15, 2006
Digital Media Warranties:
Digital music players and digital cameras, despite prices that sometimes surpass several thousand dollars, are never warranted for more than a year. Some manufacturers will cover labor charges for only the first 90 days, which pushes these units right to the edge of disposability, given the cost of repairs.
As we continue our tour of the warranted product landscape, this week we turn our attention to two relatively young types of computer peripherals: digital music players and digital cameras.
The first portable digital music players arrived on the scene around the turn of the century, while the first digital cameras came onto the market a few years before, in the mid-1990s. But for both types of units, it wasn't until their storage capacity increased to a useful level that the units started selling briskly. For digital music players, it wasn't until Apple Computer Inc. and Creative Labs started shipping music players capable of holding hundreds or even thousands of songs that the market took off. For digital cameras, we had to wait until the units could provide image resolutions comparable to film before the migration gained speed.
As we did our research, it became clear that prices are falling fast and new models are appearing even faster. In the case of digital music players, the most expensive unit we could find was a $400 model from Toshiba that also plays videos and tunes in FM stations. And without trying very hard, we found nine manufacturers selling units below $100.
Features Don't Affect Warranty?
We didn't pay much attention to features, to tell the truth, because it didn't seem to have any bearing on warranty periods. But we noticed that some of these units include satellite radio receivers, while others also receive FM radio. Undoubtedly, when we get around to listing mobile phones, there will be a few that also play music, and also take pictures, and also record sound. The products in the first list below are often collectively referred to as MP3 players, even though the digital music formats pushed hardest by Apple, Microsoft, and others are frequently not MP3 (although the MP3 format is nearly universally supported nonetheless).
The main differences between the most and least expensive units are in the storage technology and capacity. At the low end, players typically use flash memory technology and are therefore typically limited to one gigabyte or less. A good rule of thumb is to assume that one megabyte equals one minute of music, so therefore a 512 megabyte unit can hold about 512 minutes of FM-quality music or roughly 110 pop songs. A one gigabyte player can therefore hold about twice as much as that, although lately the kids have been encoding their songs a much higher bit rates where one minute of music requires as much as 2.35 megabytes.
At the high end, most of the players contain hard disk drives that can range in capacity up to as much as 60 gigabytes (60,000 minutes or 15,000 songs). Apple's iPod is the pacesetter here, selling a 60 GB unit for $399. But it's likely that by this Christmas or next, somebody will ship a 120 gigabyte unit, capable of holding every song you can think of. And then it gets interesting as it becomes feasible to market the units as both digital audio and digital video players, since most feature films need only 4 gigabytes or less of storage space.
We'd love to say that warranty is a function of price, because the more expensive units are built better and should therefore last longer, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Most manufacturers seem to provide the same warranty period for all their units, regardless of price. We'd also love to be able to say that the flash memory-based units have longer warranties than the hard drive-based units, because they have fewer moving parts, and should therefore wear out less often, but again that doesn't seem to be the case. One size fits all seems to be the rule when it comes to warranty for this product category.
The methodology for our product tours was as follows: First we looked at market research to determine the 12 bestselling manufacturers. Then we went to the manufacturers' U.S. Web sites to take a look at their latest models and product families, and hopefully also at their list prices and warranty policies. Failing that, we went "shopping" at one of the major online retailers, in some cases abandoning our shopping carts at the very last minute (sometimes they won't reveal their prices until you're just about to pay).
FTC Asleep at the Switch?
The retailers we found most useful for this information were Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and Crutchfield. Thank you for all those page views, and thank you especially for their completeness. We won't mention the least useful retailers, but we will say that they were the ones that made no mention of their product warranty policies, despite the clear requirements of U.S. federal law that they do so. Suffice it to say that the Federal Trade Commission must be asleep at the switch when it comes to enforcing the disclosure requirements of the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act in the online realm. We also should note that the Web sites that were the least informative about product warranty nevertheless seemed to find plenty of opportunities to list all their extended warranty offerings.
The following lists represent a cross-section of each manufacturer's respective product lines. It wasn't our intent to list each and every unit available. Instead, we looked for some representatives of the low end, the midrange, and the high end of each product line. We ranked each listing first on warranty period, from shortest to longest, and then on price, again in ascending order. But as was mentioned, each digital music player manufacturer seemed to have the same warranty policies for all their units, so in effect this first list is simply a function of lowest to highest price.
We dropped the "description" column from these charts because they're all either MP3 players or digital cameras. We considered including differences in underlying technologies or detailing unique features, but unlike with computer printers or monitors, those factors didn't seem to have any bearing on warranty durations. Also unlike printers and monitors, we found four manufacturers that cover parts and labor for different periods, so we split the "warranty" column into two pieces.
MP3 Player Battery Life Issues
We should note that Dell also resells select MP3 players made by Creative, SanDisk, Samsung, and iRiver America. We found only one unit for sale under the Dell brand name, however, and that is the unit you'll find in the list below. We also should note, especially in light of the battery warranty trouble that Apple's iPod has encountered in the last year or so, that some MP3 manufacturers such as iRiver America cover the rechargeable battery in their units for only 90 days, while the rest of the unit is warranted for a year (both parts and labor). Panasonic warrants its rechargeable batteries for only 10 days. Others avoid the issue completely by relying on disposable and therefore non-warranted AA or AAA batteries as their power source.
Also, as you'll see in the list below, while one year's warranty for both parts and labor seems to be the benchmark for MP3 players, there are five manufacturers that cover labor for only 90 days. And there are two manufacturers that covers both parts and labor for only 90 days. Given the low purchase price of the units and the high cost of out-of-warranty repairs, these policies are highly likely to render the units disposable if they should fail on day 91 or later. And, we suspect, that outcome is just fine with those manufacturers.
MP3 Digital Music Player Warranties
Digital cameras make an ideal companion to MP3 players. In fact, in years to come it's likely that there will be digital machines that both record and play back both audio and image, both still and motion picture. Already, very few MP3 players don't include at least a small screen to display the name of the artist and the song. Even the CD players that also support the MP3 format have grown to include this functionality.
Unlike an old-style CD player, an MP3 player really needs both a computer and a network connection to fill it with content. CD players, in contrast, had little need for a computer, except as a resource to burn custom CDs. Likewise, the old fashioned film cameras needed someone to develop the pictures, but they had little use for a computer or a network connection. In contrast, while a digital camera can theoretically operate without a computer, what fun would that be if we couldn't display our pictures on a flat screen or send them as an email attachment?
Eastman Kodak, in fact, sells several bundles of a computer printer and a digital camera. Such a pairing can be operated without a computer in the middle, but again that would rob the user of the ability to crop or touch up those photos before printing them. We did not include those bundles in the list below, but if you take a look at last week's column, you'll notice numerous mentions of photo printers for not only Kodak, but also for HP, Dell, Epson, Lexmark, and others.
SLR vs. Point-and-Shoot
As with traditional film cameras, the big difference between the low and high end of the digital camera market comes in terms of features such as resolution and zoom. Digital point-and-shoot cameras typically have the lowest resolutions, the least zoom, and the lowest prices. Digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) have the highest resolutions, the most zoom, and the highest prices. We found two Polaroid point-and-shoot models selling for under $100. And we found five manufacturers selling SLRs for $1,000 or more, including the Canon EOS-1D Mark II, priced at a lofty $3,600. Undoubtedly, there are other professional-grade SLRs selling for even more.
We'd love to say that warranty is a function of price and/or lens technology, but as with MP3 players, most digital camera manufacturers seem to use one warranty policy for their entire product line. The only exception among the 12 manufacturers we surveyed was HP, which backs its high end units with a year's warranty and its low end units with a 90-day warranty.
What's more noticeable are the differences between manufacturers. Ten manufacturers provide product warranties with a period of one year for both parts and labor. Only Panasonic covers labor for a shorter period than it does parts, and only Panasonic and HP sell any units covered for only 90 days labor. HP has the dubious distinction of being the only major vendor selling any digital cameras for which parts are covered for only 90 days, but as mentioned these represent the low end of the product line.
However, that doesn't mean that there are no other parts covered by other manufacturers for only 90 days. For instance, Canon separately warrants some of its digital camera batteries for only 90 days. Panasonic warrants its digital cameras for one year parts and 90 days labor, but warrants the CCD for only six months parts and 90 days labor, and it warrants the battery for only 90 days.
Manufacturer's vs. Retailer's Warranty
We also should note that some retailers listed apparently incorrect warranty information for certain models they were selling. For instance, one gave some Panasonic models a one-year warranty on both parts and labor when the manufacturer's warranty expressedly limits the labor period to only 90 days. Conversely, another retailer listed a few Sony models with a one-year parts and 90-day labor warranty when the manufacturer's warranty gives a one-year period for both.
Rather than being typographical errors, however, it is possible that some retailers have decided to lengthen the labor warranties themselves as a goodwill gesture. If they are, though, they're not maintaining any warranty reserves or making any warranty accruals, as is the custom among auto parts retailers who choose to back some of the products they sell with longer warranty periods than are available from the manufacturer.
In the list that follows, the 12 manufacturers are listed alphabetically, and then a representative cross-section of their product lines are listed in ascending order based first on warranty period and second on the basis of either list or street price. In cases where street prices were used, we compared several retailers and chose something in the middle of the range. But since prices aren't listed here, that's a detail you didn't really need to know.
Digital Camera Warranties
Notice that we failed to find a single MP3 player or digital camera backed by a three-year warranty. In fact, part of the reason we went a little overboard with the listings was the false hope that somewhere there was either a high-end unit with a three-year warranty or a manufacturer that used different warranty periods for different product tiers. We found neither, with the exception of the aforementioned HP Photosmart E327 and M527 -- and that warranty tier went in the downward direction from the one-year benchmark. So we can now say with some confidence that there's no such thing as a digital camera warranted for more than a year.
With computers and more traditional peripherals, it's common to find at least some products, usually those aimed at business customers, that carry three-year warranties. But even with the cameras aimed at the "professional" photographer, and with units priced above $1,000, there's not a single three-year warranty to be found. In fact, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-L1K lists for $2,000, yet has only 90 days of warranty coverage for labor (one year parts). At least Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm and Canon cover their most expensive units with a year's warranty for both parts and labor.
Other Stops on the Warranty Tour