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November 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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How Long Will Your Dive Computer Last?

and will that warranty really help you?

from the November, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Remember that term "lifetime warranty?" Back in the 90s, Uwatec computers were covered under a warranty for life. If something went wrong, the company would repair or replace it for free. This even included management of the computer's battery systems, which had a life between seven and 10 years. Take the Uwatec Aladin series -- a change of batteries cost $15 and it was done the dive shop.

Cut to today. Uwatec is now under the arm of Scubapro, which itself is owned by Johnson Outdoors. Battery replacements aren't the same. One Undercurrent correspondent took his Aladin computer into his dive shop for a battery replacement and was told it had to be shipped back to Scubapro for that - and for a $250 charge. To make it worse, the new battery stopped working a year later.

Laptops and smart phones have a quick obsolescence rate; the next model comes out just as the latest one is still gaining traction. That seems to be a similar path for dive computers -- instead of lifetime warranties, most dive computers now have a two-year warranty and may last just a few years after that. Instead of repairing a computer under warranty, manufacturers are more likely to offer a diver a newer model. While many divers hope -- perhaps even expect -- to keep an old computer running just as they might keep a favorite old car running, it's not going to happen.

Tom Kittredge (Sacramento, CA) took his trusty six-year-old Suunto Mosquito and his stalwart Uwatec Aladin Tec to his dive shop to repair the plastic function buttons. The dive shop sent them off to Suunto and Scubapro respectively for repair, then sent Kittredge this e-mail: "The Mosquito is a 2007 serial number and was discontinued several years ago. The only parts not yet discontinued are the battery kits. The Aladin Tec is also discontinued and according to Scubapro, not fixable. Almost all the scuba companies only have a two year warranty on the computers and don't seem to support the old technology when new ones come out, unfortunately." Kittredge says he did not see any information on his sales receipt that these products would be unserviceable after the two-year warranty expiration, but of course that kind of confession would never be included.

A Tucson subscriber is upset at the effort it took to get his Uwatec Air Z Nitrox computer replaced. "The battery is sealed in goop, making it impossible for anyone but the factory to swap it out. The dive shop sent it off and Uwatec said that the sensors must be upgraded -- $300 for something which cost $1,000 in the first place. It has lasted another five years, and the batteries are still going at 70 percent, but what's going to happen when the batteries go out again? I am afraid they will tell me that they cannot be swapped out, but now we're talking gear that is over 10 years old. It should work fine and be maintainable -- I have lots of other gear that is 25 years old, but a computer is not a gear bag or pair of fins."

"When we consider the less-expensive end of
the range, such as the Suunto Mosquito, it
is almost a throwaway item."

While we would like our dive computers -- and our Blackberries -- to run forever, we can't have the same expectation for mass-market electronics as we do for rubber. John Bantin, an Undercurrent editor and former technical editor of Diver magazine in the U.K, remembers when he visited Uwatec's Swiss factory few years ago, where they built oil-filled computers at a tremendous cost. "There was an economic shadow looming over the Swiss gnomes working in the factory. It was the rise of cheaply- sourced electronic components from the Far East, and even simple devices like toasters now sport them. Many computers are assembled cheaply in Indonesia, for probably just a few dollars. It's the research and development costs that are reflected in the price we pay. Manufacturers can honor a oneor two-year warranty more efficiently by replacing a faulty diving computer than attempting to repair it. We now live in a world of throwaway electronics. When we consider the less expensive end of the range such as the Suunto Mosquito, it is almost a throwaway item."

Keep in mind: If a diver makes a single dive on a computer, the computer keeps computing tables for as long as 24 hours afterward. So if someone dives an hour a day with his computer, the computer is still runs up to 300 days.

What's a Warranty Worth?

Even if it is cheaper for a dive computer to be replaced than to be repaired, manufacturers must still offer warranties in many countries where they're bought. But few divers consider the warranty when buying gear, and fewer still read it -- at least until the computer fails. Lawrence Schnabel, a Los Angelesbased attorney and NAUI-certified divemaster, states that divers should understand the difference between the "express" warranty, the manufacturer's written promise, and the "implied" warranty, what the law gives the purchaser.

The express warranty comes in writing, promising that the equipment is defect-free at the time of purchase; it will be limited to repair or replacement at the manufacturer's discretion, and often requires you to purchase the product from a manufacturer's authorized dealer. Many U.S. states give an implied warranty of merchantability when you buy a product from a dealer. To be "merchantable," the product must be fit for the ordinary purposes for which it's used or for which the seller recommends.

Ken Kurtis, owner of the dive shop Reef Seekers in Beverly Hills, CA, has many people bring him malfunctioning gear years after they bought it, and he has to remind them about the express warranty." He uses Kittredge's seven-year-old Mosquito repair issue as an example. "This isn't a computer that was bought new in October 2011, stopped working on October 21, 2013, and now the owner is being told he's out of luck. Now whether or not Suunto should still be repairing these things is a different matter."

One reason why manufacturers may not make repairs after the warranty expires relates back to -- again -- the way products are made, says Mark Derrick, owner of Dive Gear Express in Pompano Beach, FL. "Dive computers have many high-tech components that have relatively short manufacturing life cycles and are too cheap to repair cost-effectively. Manufacturers will repair and support their dive computers as long as they have spares, but eventually it becomes impossible when their spares are depleted."

Is there any legal requirement mandating that companies offer parts or repair computers after a certain number of years, asks James Wasser (Los Angeles, CA). "There are laws related to service of products; cars need to have spare parts available for at least 10 years." But not for dive computers. The way warranties are written, we're pretty much stuck with them. In addition, some manufacturers won't honor a warranty, even within the two-year mark, unless one offers proof you had the owner lived up to the service agreement or only had it repaired at an authorized dealer.

And many dive computer vendors don't actually make their own dive computers, says Kurtis. "Oceanic's ProPlus II and Sherwood Wisdom have the same guts -- they're both made by Pelagic. So when you send your computer back, you may be sending it to someone who's not really the manufacturer, and all they can do is say, 'I will replace it with a refurbishment for this much.'" So many times, it's a question of luck if the manufacturer can repair your dive computer.

Who's Good, Who's Not, at Repairs and Replacements

We asked readers for what companies did well with repairs and customer service, and who didn't. Uwatec/Scubapro received mixed reviews. When Maxine Barrett (Las Vegas, NV) sent in her flooded Aladin, "it was marked as 'unfixable,' and no discount was possible for a replacement." She switched to an Atomic Cobalt. It took three months for Gregory Oppenhuizen (Holland, MI) to get his two Uwatecs returned from repair. Uwatec had replaced the battery, but missed something Oppenhuizen had told them to repair. That took three more months.

Bruce Sawyer (Monterey, CA), who recently sold his dive shop, was a dealer for Suunto, Sherwood and Uwatec/Scubapro. "I twice had the experience that Kittredge described with my own Suunto computers, and it infuriated me. One of them, a Cobra, was less than five years old, and still they refused to repair it for any price. As a dealer, Sherwood service was spotty at best, though not as bad as Suunto, but the Scubapro/UWatec warranty service was outstanding. As long as the person who brought the computer in for service was the original owner and the computer had been properly registered, there was never a problem. There were a few old models, meaning well over 20 years old, which they could not service. In that case, they gave a huge discount towards the purchase of a new computer."

When Andrew Bernat (Arlington, VA) tried to repair his Cobra, "Suunto wanted the price of a new Cobra to repair a dead Cobra and would give nothing off on a new one. Oceanic wouldn't repair a dead computer but offered a 50 percent-off deal on their new model."

Undercurrent contributor Bret Gilliam (and former Uwatec CEO before the company was sold to Johnson Outdoors), says, "I switched to an Oceanic computer this year simply because I knew I will get good service. Its founder, Bob Hollis, is still very involved in running the company, though he recently passed the reins to his son, Mike. They both understand what customers expect and they live up to it." He also cites Atomic as one of the best-run companies when it comes to customer service.

Aeris, a subsidiary of Oceanic, also gets thumbs up. Glenn Gracom (New Smyrna, FL) sent his out-of-warranty Aeris Atmos Pro back without a glitch. "The computer had to be at least 10 years old. The repair wasn't cheap but it was much less expensive than buying a new one." Ron Herman (St. Petersburg, FL) had a similar situation with his old Atmos AI. "I called Aeris and told them my story, and they sent me a new computer, lens cover and battery in my old housing for $170, including shipping."

Don't think that your plight is the only issue in the company's decision on how to handle your out-ofwarranty computer. A big factor is the relationship it has with the dealer. This is where "support your local dive shop" really makes a difference, says Kurtis. "I have a customer with a 10-year-old ProPlusII with a pressure transducer that is not reading air pressure correctly. Oceanic is giving that diver a brand new ProPlus3 for a pittance. They're going above and beyond, and I think some of that goes back to their relationship with us."

Kurtis also says smaller companies may be more likely to offer bigger deals and better customer service. "Scubapro/Uwatec may be hard-nosed, but you're dealing with layers of bureaucracy, and the person you're talking to might not have authority. But with Atomic, I can talk directly with owners Doug Toth or Dean Garafa and can plead my customer's case."

If you buy your computer online, will your warranty be honored? Many divers have had the same experience as Rick Tavan (Saratoga, CA). "I've been denied repair service by the manufacturer several times, even something as routine as replacement of a battery, because I bought a unit from an unauthorized retail channel."

There is not much one can do about that. However, an online seller may establish its own warranty for buyer's protection. LeisurePro in New York City, one of the largest online sellers, does just that. Its warranty states that "the equipment will be free from defects in materials and workmanship for the same period offered by the manufacturer." In the past several years, readers reporting to Undercurrent say LeisurePro keeps its word. Reader Mac Lysett (Ten Mile, TN) wrote, "after only 30 dives, my Oceanic Geo computer malfunctioned at night in my Cayman Brac hotel room, with lights flashing and sirens warning that I needed a deco stop at 45 feet. I had to pile towels on top of the computer and shut it in the bathroom to get back to sleep. When I returned home, I contacted LeisurePro and it instructed me to return the computer to Oceanic. Within a week, a brand new Geo arrived and I've experienced no trouble with it. Both LeisurePro and Oceanic were terrific."

Software Obsolescence

Upgrading dive computer software is a significant problem. Jeff Garrison (Christiansted, St. Croix) bought a Scubapro Xtender watch/dive computer in 2006, plus a download cradle and cord so he could keep a dive log on his laptop. "My computer ran Windows XP. Everything worked beautifully until I got a new computer that ran Windows 7. The Xtender was no longer in production, and there was no software update available. I ended up having to print my Xtender dives on 5x8 cards to keep a safe record of them."

Desktop software for dive computers has often been a headache. "I would love to see an industry standard that would allow any dive computer to communicate with the consumer's choice of desktop software, but that is not the case," says Derrick. "There are some bright spots. Because Oceanic has a very broad, long-lived line of dive computers, they have used a standard interface and desktop software that has been kept current for Windows releases. But realistically, a consumer should expect any dive computer they purchase to be tied to the desktop environment that supports it at the time of purchase -- and pretty much frozen there."

The Bottom Line

Gilliam argues that dive computer makers should honor their customers with repairs when needed, and bring back longer warranties, especially for the more expensive models. "Top-of-the-line dive computers can sell for up to $1,400. If you spend that amount, you have every good expectation that you can use it for a while, for more than two years. The dive industry needs to support its computers and act in good faith."

Or an alternative is to rent one, he says. "Why spend $700 to$1200 on buying a unit when you can rent one for a tiny fraction of the cost? And the trend in many resorts and high-end liveaboards is to supply gear as part of the trip price. For example, Dive Damai in Indonesia does that, and more than 60 percent of their guests now take advantage of the program." But that's bad news for computer manufacturers, because they will ultimately sell far fewer units.

For those divers who want to hold on to their own computers, they need to reset their expectations. "I think there may be a disconnect between expectations for dive computers versus other dive equipment," says Derrick. "Plenty of us have regulators that are 20 years old, still in service and still easily maintained. However, regulators are mechanical devices, not electronic, and thus have a different life cycle. A more realistic expectation for a dive computer life cycle is probably something between a desktop computer and a cell phone, say five years. Instead of thinking of a dive computer like your other mechanical diving equipment, you should think of it more like a smartphone. That means your dive computer has a relatively steep learning curve and a relatively short life cycle."

-- Vanessa Richardson

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