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Faulty iPod Touch screens blacken Apple¿s reputation

Shortly after the new iPod Touches hit the streets complaints about a glitch with the screens began popping up on the Web. Those afflicted with the bad iPod Touches report that they play video very darkly, with black shades so exaggerated they resemble an old film negative.

A post on a Web site called Apple-Touch.com actually included videos comparing a flawed iPod Touch playing the same scene side-by-side with an iPhone, which also sports a 3.5-inch screen. The difference in quality and the issue with dark areas in the iPod Touch's video is obvious.

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Some unhappy customers asserted that the flaw resulted from Apple using a poorer quality LCD screen in the iPod Touch relative to the one used in the iPhone. Some exchanged their bad unit for another bad unit. In forums, some customers countered that their new iPod Touches looked perfectly fine.

With accusations flying in every direction, I decided to stop by the Apple Store in Towson Town Center yesterday to have a look at the iPod Touch for myself. The store had four on display. I looked at some video on each one and could detect no hint of the problems I saw depicted on several Web sites. In fact, I thought the video on the iPod Touch looked pretty darn good.

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I then moved over to the iPhone table and repeated the exercise (for the record, I played videos stored on the devices, such as the Ratatouille trailer, not YouTube videos). Frankly I could not discern a quality difference between the iPhone and iPod Touch, although I could not study them side by side since all the devices were tethered to their respective display tables.

One of the store employees said the staff there knew of the problem (although they learned of it by reading about it on the Internet; the Mother Ship hadn't supplied any info yet) but had not seen any defective units, either in the store or brought in by a customer. In fact, he said they checked their entire iPod Touch inventory just to make sure.

My guess is that a bad batch of early-run iPod Touches slipped past the quality checks into Apple's retail channels. If Apple was leaning on its suppliers to make deadline for the product launch, it's not hard to imagine them shortchanging quality assurance procedures to satisfy Apple's demands. I don't think the iPod Touch screen is innately inferior to the iPhone's. It is possible, but until there's hard proof otherwise I'll give Apple the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us to perhaps most critical issue raised by all this: What's Apple doing about it? Walt Mossberg, in an uncharacteristically muted review of the iPod Touch in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, indicated that Apple was taking action:

Also, some early iPod Touch units have had defective screens, where images appeared too dark. Apple says this problem affected a small number of units and is being remedied. My two test units displayed beautiful images.

However, there has been no official word from Apple akin to the iPhone price drop apology and subsequent coupon. My hope is that Apple moves sooner rather than later to replace the defective iPod Touches. One of the company's many strengths is its consistently high level of customer satisfaction. Apple can't afford to appear callous when serious problems surface in any of its products.

I'm reminded of the problems that plagued the first MacBooks when they debuted last summer, primarily the "mooing" of the cooling fan and a yellowish discoloration on the wrist rest area that appeared within weeks of use. Apple issued a firmware update to fix the mooing and eventually agreed to replace the MacBooks that exhibited the discoloration.

I bought an early MacBook myself and fortunately experienced no problems with it. Perhaps my ears, ruined by years of listening to loud rock music, simply couldn't detect the mooing. But the lesson here is that most defects reported in Apple products only involve a small number of units, percentage-wise. Unfortunately, many of those who end up with bad units also have their own Web sites. Within a day or so the entire Mac Web is talking about it, tainting the product's – and Apple's -- reputation.

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Apple needs to act quickly to prevent the iPod Touch from getting stuck with a bum rap that will cut into its sales. Steve Jobs proved he's capable of a rapid response to a widespread customer meltdown during the iPhone price cut affair. He needs to make a habit of it.


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