New 4K TV format puts HD to shame

15 Sep

By Geoff Meeker

September 15, 2014 – A new TV format is competing for viewers’ eyeballs and is already positioned to become the new industry standard.

That’s right – now that the industry has updated its technology to high definition (HD), along comes the new 4K format (also known as Ultra HD).

The HD format gets its clarity from a screen resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. The new format has a resolution of 3840 by 2160 – which is why they round it up to 4K.

I ignored the 4K TVs when they debuted last year because the $6500 price for a 65-inch screen was silly. This year, the TV is already into a second-generation screen and the price has dropped dramatically, to $4000 for a 65-inch screen. You will certainly pay less than that for an LCD of the same size but, still, the price point is more attractive for early adopters. And you can expect additional price drops in future.

Okay, I can see you there, sputtering and fuming about yet another TV format, now that you’ve got your home theatre set-up just where you want it. The good news is, if your display is 50 inches or smaller you need do nothing – your current TV is just fine.

The better news is, if you want crystal-clear detail on an even larger screen, you’re going to love 4K.

I dropped by West End Electronics last week to see this technology for myself. Sales Manager, David Budden demonstrated the Panasonic 4K with a massive 65-inch display. I was, in a word, dazzled. Budden played some demo video that was recorded in 4K format and the sharpness of detail was almost unbelievable – superlative, even.

It’s pretty much impossible to show you this in newsprint, but I think I’ve found a way to give you an idea of the screen’s sharpness. First, we froze the action from a soccer game and I photographed the full screen while standing at a distance. Then I moved in as close as my lens would allow and captured a small section of the screen.

Check out the pictures. Do you see what I mean? Even this close, the pixels are almost indistinguishable.

It’s difficult to convey the sharpness of 4K TV without the benefit of 4K itself. However, when you freeze the full screen (above) and then zoom in on one small section of the picture (below, to the immediate left of the goal post), the clarity and detail are apparent.

It’s difficult to convey the sharpness of 4K TV without the benefit of 4K itself. However, when you freeze the full screen (above) and then zoom in on one small section of the picture (below, to the immediate left of the goal post), the clarity and detail are apparent.

ConsumerTech # 177-Photo 2 lo res

Yes, it’s impressive – but this doesn’t mean that your LED and plasma screens are suddenly obsolete.

“My thinking is that 4K is going to be better in the larger screen sizes,” Budden said. “I don’t see much point in owning a 40- or 50-inch 4K TV because the pixels are so close together, you aren’t going to see any improvement. On the bigger sets, it becomes way more important and much more noticeable.”

True fact. From normal viewing distance, the naked eye probably won’t discern the difference between HD and 4K – your old set is just fine – but on a larger screen, the clarity is astounding.

Should you run out and get a 4K set? Not yet, unless you’ve got money to burn and really want that large screen now.

For one thing, the price is going to continue to drop as the technology becomes established.

For another, there is the matter of content. Right now, there are no networks broadcasting in 4K, though Netflix does have some 4K programming.

“Netflix can detect if your TV is 4K and will automatically show you its 4K menu,” Budden said. “Some TVs have Netflix built in and this Panasonic 4K has a Netflix button on the remote! There are some 4K channels on YouTube… There will be a 4k Blu-ray player next year that will play native 4K, for the best picture quality you can get.”

The 4K Panasonic is a smart TV with all the bells and whistles, including wifi, but it also up-converts standard HD signals to 4K by adding extra pixels to match the surrounding imagery, and the results can be quite impressive. There is no need to hold back on purchasing a 4K due to lack of content. Bandwidth, however, is another matter.

“To stream 4K properly they say you’ll need (download speeds of) 25 MB per second,” Budden said. “A lot of people do not have that. And if there is a cap on your usage, you will pay big for bandwidth.”

Bottom line: check out the new 4K technology at your own pace. It’s here to stay and the price is going nowhere but down.

 

Will this wallet really slim your profile?

18 Aug

August 18, 2014 – Facebook uses some pretty far-reaching – some might say invasive – means to target its advertising to your interests, but there is no way they could have known that I need a new wallet.

I was surprised then, when an ad for Bellroy slim wallets popped up during June in my news feed. The ad promised to take my wallet from bulky to thin, while holding the same amount of cash and credit cards.

“Bellroy exists to slim your wallet,” says their promotional blurb. “Rather than bulging pockets and bulky design, our leather wallets are more efficient, have better access, better protection, and even a little old school craft.”

I pulled out my old wallet, which is really just a credit card sleeve that became a wallet by default when I stuffed the middle with money, postal receipts and bank machine print-outs, creating a kind of leather sandwich. It was old, threadbare and thicker than a Saturday newspaper in December.

On a whim, I sent Bellroy an email, asking if they’d be willing to send me a demo wallet. I suggested the Hide & Seek model, which was mid-priced ($94) but promised to solve my bulkiness issues. I proposed a comparison with my old wallet, to compare the thickness of each when filled with the same contents. They agreed, and the wallet arrived in August.

It was elegantly packaged in a cardboard sleeve, wrapped in a sheaf of tissue. It has the rich smell of leather and appears to be well made, but what do I know about that? I took it to the experts at Modern Shoe Hospital, who handle a lot of leather every day, and the verdict was positive: it’s made of quality leather that is doubled over at the seams – which appear to be well-stitched – and nylon liners inside for extra strength. In fact, there is an extra layer of nylon inside that is hidden under a leather flap, creating a hidden space to stash away bigger bills.

There are three single-card slots on the right side for cards we use every day, plus two slots on the left for lesser-used cards. There is a second pocket hidden under a leather flap to stash away bigger bills. And that’s it – the wallet is clean and simple in its design.

Thus began the test. First I measured the thickness of my old wallet – on my homemade measuring stand – while it was stuffed full. It was 1.5” thick.

Stuffed full of cards, bills and receipts, my old wallet measured 1.5" thick.

Stuffed full of cards, bills and receipts, my old wallet measured 1.5″ thick.

Emptying that old wallet was an archaeological dig through my credit card history, yielding 12 plastic cards, two folded pieces of note paper, a post office receipt and two $20 bills.

Then I inserted everything into the new Bellroy. I liked how easily the cards slid into the single-card pockets, and then how snugly it held them in place. The remaining cards fit nicely into the bulk-card pockets on the other side, with room to spare. When I measured, it was 1.25” thick – thinner than my old wallet but nonetheless not as slim as I expected.

The same contents slipped more tidily into the Bellroy, resulting in a wallet that was slimmer by 1/4".

The same contents slipped more tidily into the Bellroy, resulting in a wallet that was slimmer by 1/4″.

I decided to remove the paper bills and postal receipt, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet more than the new. This time, with cards only, the old wallet measured 1.25” full while the Bellroy was just a shade over 1” thick.

I tried the same test, this time removing the bills and postal receipts, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet. It now measured 1.25" thick.

I tried the same test, this time removing the bills and postal receipts, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet. It now measured 1.25″ thick.

Containing the exact same contents, the new Bellroy wallet was still a quarter-inch slimmer. (Geoff Meeker photos)

Containing the exact same contents, the new Bellroy wallet was still a quarter-inch slimmer. (Geoff Meeker photos)

Okay, so the Bellroy is thinner. But not miraculously so. I was somewhat disappointed at first, until I realized that my old wallet was worn wafer-thin and completely limp, while the new one had the density and tension of new leather. Over time, pocket erosion will soften it, allowing the wallet to close more snugly and bend more easily.

Also, I think Bellroy slightly oversells the slimming effect of its wallet. Make no mistake, it is designed to be as thin as possible and they succeed in this endeavor. However, credit cards have a certain thickness. If you stack them 12 high, that’s a pretty thick pile. No matter how well-designed the wallet, physics demand that it will thicken in direct correlation to the number of cards inserted. No amount of secret pockets can make the cards actually disappear.

That said, the wallet is slimmer by a noticeable quarter-inch and I like how it feels in my pocket. The cards are organized in a way that saves several seconds of fumbling about every time I need them, and the quality materials and workmanship are there. And there is the clear advantage of having a pocket to slip those bills and receipts into, rather than clumping them loosely in a card sleeve.

The Bellroy Hide & Seek is definitely a keeper.

To browse the Bellroy line and view some helpful, 50-second videos about each product, go to bellroy.com.

Is a high-end barbecue worth the investment?

4 Aug
At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

By Geoff Meeker

August 4, 2014 – I’ve written about barbecues several times in recent years, the last time in November 2013 when I expressed disappointment with the Nexgrill portable. It functioned okay but required constant watching due to flareups caused by the scant distance between cooking grid and burner.

I have owned a number of grills priced from $120 to $500 and they all developed problems within a year or so. I got to wondering: does it really matter how much we spend on a barbecue? Will an expensive unit last appreciably longer than a cheap one in our harsh climate?

I decided it was time to find out. Five weeks ago, I took the beef by the horns and purchased a new Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill ($1400 at Venture Vacuum).

Yes, that’s a lot of change. But I was sold first and foremost by the warranty, which is really quite impressive. The stainless steel body components have a lifetime warranty (the nearest competitor offers 25 years) and the stainless steel tube burners have a 10-year warranty, plus an additional five in which the parts can be purchased for half price. According to Napoleon, their warranties meet or beat those of the competition.

I have seen two barbecue drums actually disintegrate and most have required a new burner every year, so this warranty offers substantial peace of mind.

Also, the barbecue has an infrared side burner, something I have written about previously but never seen in action.

As well, it didn’t hurt that the company offered a free accessories promotion at time of purchase, including a pizza stone and cutter, cast iron charcoal pan and smoker, a wooden cutting board with stainless steel bowls, and a three-piece set of utensils. On top of that, the rotisserie and motor are included as standard equipment.

Finally, the product is made in Barrie, Ontario and it’s nice to support a Canadian manufacturer.

So, what is this infrared side burner all about? In a nutshell, the propane is fired through a ceramic plate with small holes that concentrate the flame, making for a much hotter fire while consuming less fuel. Infrared is used mainly to sear steaks and other cuts of meat before moving them to the main burner, creating that restaurant-style taste on the outside while sealing the juices inside.

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The side burner can also be used for boiling and frying, an important detail as winter approaches and we ponder the possibility of another Dark NL (whether caused by storms, fires, neglected equipment or errant crows). I do intend to use the barbecue year-round (I purchased a fitted cover for $40) and in the event of a blackout it will do nicely as an outdoor kitchen.

I have used the infrared burner several times to sear steak but there is definitely a learning curve attached to this. Most came out fine but at least one steak was so badly burned on the outside that it was ruined. There are three factors to consider when using infrared – cooking time, the changeable height of the grill, and the level of gas used on the adjustable controller. I know that the feature works and the results can be spectacular – I just need to fine-tune the process.

There is also a rear rotisserie burner that puts out a lot of heat – so much that you need to use it with care. I almost ruined two whole chickens by setting the rear burner on high and leaving it for five minutes. When I lifted the lid, the birds had been severely tanned. I salvaged supper by turning the burner way down and cooking more slowly but, again, there’s that learning curve.

The ignition system for the four main burners is impressive indeed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Most self-lighting burners send out that clicking little spark when you turn the gas on. Not this baby. It has a small pre-burner that shoots a small flame across the main burner, lighting it reliably every time – even in wind. How long it lasts is another question, but it’s something I’ll be watching closely.

Speaking of wind, this is the first barbecue I’ve seen that is impervious to it. It has a back wall so that heat doesn’t get sucked out through the hinge area. It is vented, of course, but baffled so nicely that air can get in and smoke can escape without winds putting out the fire or sucking out the heat. In a breezy place like Newfoundland, this is a small miracle.

My first impressions of the barbecue are quite favourable. However, I have not had an opportunity to use all the features, let alone use them properly. I have still to try the charcoal insert and smoker tray, and haven’t barbecued a whole turkey yet. And I intend to purchase some optional accessories that further enhance the grilling process.

I will provide an update once I’ve come to know the Napoleon better, and will keep a close eye on its performance – and perseverance – through our brutal winters.

More issues with appliances, warranties

21 Jul

By Geoff Meeker

July 21, 2014 – After my recent columns about shoddy appliances, the feedback kept coming in. There’s been so much that I could easily compose another column or two but today I will focus on a startling admission from Sears, about how appliances just don’t last the way they should, plus a new issue with extended warranties.

After reading my column, Phil Kirby wrote about his own experience with Sears Kenmore appliances.

“I bought a fridge, stove, dishwasher and microwave from Sears about five years ago,” Kirby wrote. “The dishwasher had some minor problems, the microwave is okay but the fridge and stove are definitely poor quality. I contacted Sears about the problem – the response is included at the end my email.”

Kirby went into detail about the minor and major issues that plagued his appliances – it has a telling ring of familiarity to it – but most telling is the response he received from ‘Kristine’ at Sears Home Services who wrote:

“I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing repair issues with your appliances.  As a consumer myself I can understand how these issues would become very frustrating for you… However the appliances that are manufactured now only have a life expectancy of about 10 years as these products are not made like they used to be. This is just not with Kenmore, all manufacturers only provide a 10 year life expectancy on major appliances. And this is why Sears does recommend to our customers to purchase extended warranties to cover these unexpected repair costs… I sincerely apologize but at this point Sears will not be covering any repair costs or be providing you with replacement appliances as again neither item is covered under warranty. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you and your Family.”

In case there was any doubt about deteriorating appliance quality, you now have it directly from a manufacturer’s mouth, from a brand that once was regarded as solid and reliable. And if they freely admit to 10 years being the maximum life, what is the actual number? Based on feedback I’ve received, more like five to seven years – or less.

And what about those extended warranties? I say, tread carefully here as well. I have no regrets about the extra coverage I purchased on my Whirlpool washer and dryer combo – without it, my laundry room would be cluttered right now with an expensive piece of trash – but not all extended warranties are the same.

More than ever, you have to read the fine print and ask some pointed questions. Last week, an acquaintance of mine vented on Facebook about the extended warranty he purchased on his Sears appliance.

“Three years ago I bought a dishwasher from Sears,” Shane Kelly said. “I like Kenmore appliances and they have always held up well, so I refused the maintenance agreement at the point of sale. A few weeks later I was contacted and offered the agreement again and was told if I did not have any service calls I would get a refund for the full amount. I figured, well, that’s pretty reasonable… so I said yes… Three years go by, no service calls and I call Sears looking for my refund. I am told it is not a refund, but store credit. Fine, I figure I’ll buy some tools. Except I’m told I have to apply it to a purchase that is at least twice the value of my credit in one transaction. And the credit cannot be used to purchase electronics, Sears home services, Sears travel, anything on Sears.ca or purchases through the Sears catalog. I protest and am told it is all in my contract. Yes, the fine print is there if you read the whole thing looking for said information, but that is not how it was sold to me at all! So I have to spend another $140 to get the worth of my $140 coupon. Oh, one more thing: it expires 90 days from the end of the maintenance agreement, which means seven weeks from today.”

Kelly is correct to be ticked off about that. The description of a “full refund” at point of sale bears absolutely no resemblance to the fine print they throw in your face at redemption time. It may be legal, but it is deceptive and unethical. (Incidentally, a quick Internet search reveals that Shane Kelly is not alone in his frustration over this particular warranty.)

It is time for governments to take a good hard look at how such products are sold and to develop legislation that requires a concise description of the key details up front.

More than anything, we consumers need to keep voicing our anger about the junk to which manufacturers are willing to affix their once-respectable names.

 

Closing in on perfect theatre popcorn

7 Jul
It's easy to make perfect popcorn at home - plus it costs less and is much better for you. (Geoff Meeker photo)

It’s easy to make perfect popcorn at home – plus it costs less and is much better for you. (Geoff Meeker photo)

By Geoff Meeker

July 7, 2014 – Almost two years ago to the day, I told you about the West Bend Stir Crazy Theater Popper, a cute looking device that purportedly makes popcorn as good as what you get at the movies.

In that column, I attempted to come up with the perfect recipe for theatre-style popcorn and, in so doing, offered a most grievous error. When I said that the cheaper, generic, no-name popcorn varieties were every bit as good as the expensive name brands, I was mistaken. There was not a kernel of truth in it.

My claim was based on a decades-old belief that may once have been true but certainly isn’t now. You see, after that review I continued my quest to develop the perfect popcorn recipe, experimenting with different oils, popcorn brands, salts and cooking methods.

Which brings me to my other mistake: I gave a tentative, qualified endorsement in 2012 to the West Bend popper. I’d like to downgrade that to a total rejection.

Yes, the machine works as described. It pops an okay bit of corn, if you follow directions. But there are three major downsides: the machine is too big for convenient storage, the batches of popcorn are far too small and it is too difficult to clean.

The West Bend theater-style popcorn popper is a sweet-looking appliance, but ultimately is not recommended for serious popcorn connoisseurs. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The West Bend theater-style popcorn popper is a sweet-looking appliance, but ultimately is not recommended for serious popcorn connoisseurs. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The Theater Popper is a gimmick, really, and cannot replace a good old five-quart saucepan for batch size, easy stowing and quick clean-up. I came to this realization fairly quickly, as my popcorn recipe evolved to the point that the West Bend device – which pops one small serving at a time – couldn’t keep up with household demand.

Around the same time, it became apparent that not all brands of popcorn were the same. We tried the cheaper generic brands, as well as the Nativa organic brand sold through Shoppers Drug Mart, but were disappointed every time. They generally tasted okay but did not pop consistently and – most importantly – were tough and difficult to chew.

If you are serious about your popcorn, the Orville Redenbacher brand is really your only option. They are always tender, with a light crunch that quickly gives way to a soft, absolutely delicious munch.

Which brings me to the ultimate purpose of this column: to share the stovetop popcorn recipe that I have developed over the last two years, through painstaking trial and error.

Before starting, you will need to pick up some coconut oil (unrefined) and a tub of Flavacol. Neither of these are truly essential, but they do add a special something that elevates the flavor – and sends you back to the kitchen for a second batch while the family pauses the movie.

While coconut oil is widely available, Flavacol is not. The secret ingredient that makes popcorn taste so “moreish” at the theatre and video store, Flavacol is only available at B&B Sales on Kenmount Road Extension. Expect to pay about $18 for a 2-lb. container – enough to last for years, even under heavy use.

I use a five-litre saucepan but you can use a smaller pot if you like – just use slightly less ingredients. And always make sure you have the lid ready to go. Do not start looking around for the lid after the popcorn has started popping. And do not ask why I know this.

Put two tablespoons of coconut oil and one tablespoon of canola oil in the pot and place over medium-high heat. Add one teaspoon of Flavacol and swirl it around in the oil to dissolve as much as possible. (You can use regular salt and get excellent results. However, it’s grainier, doesn’t dissolve as easily and doesn’t taste as good as Flavacol.)

Place three kernels of popcorn in the oil. When they pop, the oil is ready. Add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan. That’s it – just one layer deep. Not two or three layers, trust me. And do not ask how I know this.

Place the lid on the pot and when corn starts popping, shake the pot back and forth vigorously enough to keep the popcorn moving (this prevents scorching). Keep the lid on but allow steam to escape. When popping slows to less than one pop per second, pour the popcorn into bowl(s) and enjoy. There should be no need to add additional salt.

I don’t add melted butter because the oil and Flavacol provide more than enough flavor and butter can make it soggy.

If you try this recipe – or improve upon it – and have a comment, please offer a comment below.

More war stories from the home appliance front

9 Jun

 

Barbara Hillier’s Whirlpool Duet washer – shown here on its way to the dump – is identical to the model our columnist discussed in his previous column. (Photo submitted by reader)

Barbara Hillier’s Whirlpool Duet washer – shown here on its way to the dump – is identical to the model our columnist discussed in his previous column. (Photo submitted by reader)I received a deluge of responses supporting my observation that modern appliances are not built to last. More to the point, they seem designed to break down soon after the warranty expires, forcing consumers to purchase new appliances. In short, they win and we lose.

June 9, 2014 – In my last column I outlined problems with my Whirlpool Duet front-loading washer, and invited readers to share their stories via email.

I will summarize a few of those responses, but there isn’t space to publish them all. I was startled with how many had an experience roughly similar to mine.

Barbara Hillier’s husband, Dave, was in the process of trucking their six-year-old Whirlpool to the dump when she read my column. She said the repairman advised her to scrap the washer as it was too expensive to fix.

“It gave up the ghost last week because of the same problem you encountered (a failed bearing in the drum),” Barbara said. “The only nice feature of the front-loader is the look of it. They’re really expensive, but the quality isn’t there. I have gone back to the top loader, which the sales person said many people are doing, but it definitely isn’t a Whirlpool.”

Heather Roche purchased the Whirlpool Cabrio front-loader in June 2013.

“Right away it was making a funny noise so I called Whirlpool and was told that the noise was normal and to continue using it,” Roche said. “After another week or so I noticed the clothes were coming out with stains on them that looked like they were ground right into the material.”

When Heather called Whirlpool she was told that such staining was normal and that the stains would come out in the dryer.

“I told her that I don’t put my clothes in the dryer on fine days, that I put them out on the clothesline and she didn’t know what I was talking about.” (A quick Internet search shows Heather’s problem is not unique, nor is it normal, and the staining is permanent.)

Heather said she called Leon’s, the retailer, who said that once a product is sold there is nothing they can do about it, adding that they had received several calls about the same problem. “It was still under warranty but they wouldn’t send a technician because everything I was saying was because I didn’t know how to use the washer properly.”

Soon after, Heather visited a relative and noticed a funny sound coming from their laundry room. “I asked what kind of washer it was and sure enough it was a Whirlpool and they had the very same problem with the stains on the clothes. I called Whirlpool again and registered another complaint and they said I was using too much detergent. They were going to take the problem to one of their meetings. It is not a year old yet and it is still the same. I have to wash some of the clothes twice.”

Allan Russell of Wabush purchased a Whirlpool washer and dryer from Fitz’s Country Wide about two-and-a-half years ago.

“Exactly one year plus one month later, the timer went on the dryer,” Allan said. “I called the dealer and was told my warranty had run out a month ago.”

Allan saved some money by purchasing the part and installing it himself but, needless to say, he was not impressed by such a major breakdown after 13 months of use.

Most complaints I received involved Whirlpool, perhaps because that brand was the subject of my column, but consumers also had roughly similar issues with late-model GE Profile, Kenmore, Samsung, and more.

Gerry Dalton’s Maytag Performance Series front load washer and dryer suffered a “catastrophic failure” after just three years of use.

“We contacted a repairman and were told the drum needed replacing at a cost of around $500 as there was a bearing failure. He said these front-loading machines are well known for this. Unfortunately we did not opt for the extra warranty as normally any household appliance we have ever owned lasted at least 10 years, some well over 20 years.”

What happened next is instructive. Dalton’s wife contacted the manufacturer and “after some heated discussions and threats to go public the company decided to replace the drum at no charge as long as we pay the installation fee which was around $160.”

Some may dismiss these stories as anecdotal; isolated incidents that don’t prove anything. Well, the astonishing experience of a Topsail resident, who asked not to be identified, does prove something.

“We have lived in our home for 15 years now and we purchased all brand new appliances when we moved there. We are now on our third dishwasher, third front loading washer, second stand up freezer, second wall oven and second cook-top. That’s seven additional new appliances purchased in that 15-year period. The only remaining originals are the refrigerator and the clothes dryer. The reason for the replacement each time? The repair guy says “the parts and labour will cost more than the machine is worth.” He charges us $100 dollars for the visit and tells me to buy a new appliance. I don’t even call them anymore. Keep pushing, maybe somebody will take notice. Incidentally, I visited my aunt’s home in Corner Brook last year and she still has all of her original appliances from the 1950s. They look dated but work fine. They certainly don’t make them like they used to.”

These stories are the tip of the iceberg and there are too many to keep publishing here (though I do want to continue hearing from you). In fact, my experience with short-lived appliances motivated me in 2012 to launch a blog to draw attention to this issue. You can find it at namingbrands.wordpress.com.

 

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com. Reach him at geoffmeeker(at)bellaliant.net.

Respect for front-load washer goes down the drain

26 May
After just two years of use, this Whirlpool front-loading washer suffered a catastrophic failure. That’s not good enough, Geoff says. (Geoff Meeker photo)

After just two years of use, this Whirlpool front-loading washer suffered a catastrophic failure. That’s not good enough, Geoff says. (Geoff Meeker photo)

By Geoff Meeker

May 26, 2014 – I first reviewed my Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer combo back in January of 2012, when it was brand new. I was impressed with how both units saved energy, cleaned larger loads and operated so quietly.

There was a learning curve along the way – we used too much detergent at first, and sometimes the laundry loads were too small – but the machine settled in quite nicely and worked wonderfully.

Until recently, that is. For me, that washer’s credibility has gone right down the drain.

A few months back, the normally quiet washer started making more noise. One of the ways it saves energy is through a superfast drain cycle that spins the drum at a mind-numbing 1200 rotations per minute (rpm). That’s 20 rotations in a second. The centrifugal force drains almost all moisture from the clothes, requiring much less dryer time (where the savings really kick in).

However, the washer suddenly started making loud bumping sounds when it tried to enter the spin cycle, so we shut it down and called the service people.

The appliance comes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty but the salesperson at Smith’s Furniture – bless his heart – strongly recommended that we get the five year extended warranty, pointing out that the machine, with its fast-spinning motor and more fragile electronics, was more prone to breakdowns than other appliances.

Here’s how things went down. I contacted the warranty company, Phoenix AMD, on April 14. It took a few days for the claim to be approved and the service technician showed up on April 19.

The news was not good. The bearing that enables that 1200 rpm spin was gone. We would need a new drum assembly and related equipment. The repair was serious enough that they raised the possibility of replacing it with a new machine – something we were fine with – but a day later they decided to order the parts and perform repairs.

Whatever. Just get it done. The clothes were already piling up.

It’s difficult to make a long story short, because that story was so nerve-wracking and irritating, characterized by back orders, apparent lost shipments, calls to the local repair company, Phoenix AMD and even Whirlpool. Oh, and a lot of waiting, punctuated with numerous trips to the laundromat to keep ourselves in clothes.

It wasn’t until May 20 that the parts arrived and we were able to schedule the technician’s visit. The next day, a full five weeks after making contact with the warranty company, I watched as the repairman started up the washer, stood back and watched it spin. It ran smooth, quiet and with barely a trace of vibration, even at 1200 rpm.

So, putting aside the five-week wait for repairs, I should be happy, right?

Not at all. The machine works fine, at long last. But I was lucky to have purchased the extended warranty – this appliance would have been too expensive to fix without it. I’d be left with a shiny new piece of junk in the basement.

What’s going on, when a washer barely two years old breaks down with problems as serious as this? In April of 2012, I wrote a column about this subject, angered when my newish refrigerator broke and was not repairable. When I asked Facebook friends if they’d had similar experiences, I received a groundswell of responses.

The upshot? We used to expect a 20 to 30 year lifespan from our appliances, but manufacturers have quietly reduced that to five to seven years – sometimes a little more or less. The sad fact is, they just don’t make them like they used to.

I asked the service technician if this was a common problem with Whirlpool. He said it wasn’t limited to one manufacturer – all front-loading washers are having problems – but it’s unusual to see a failure after just two years.

A search online for ‘Whirlpool reviews’ yielded loads of dirty laundry, much of it on the Duet combo (yes, these posts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but a theme did emerge). The problem boils down to this: the front-load washers are a great idea but the technology is not robust enough to endure the rigours of its own high performance.

I sent a message to Whirlpool Canada’s public relations people, explaining my experience and asking how common this situation is. I received a fairly generic reply just before press time that emphasized the company’s commitment to quality and service, but did not address my question specifically.

Have you had an experience with a new appliance that suffered a major failure too soon in its life cycle? If so, please send a message to geoffmeeker(at)bellaliant.net. I’m going to keep following this one.

 

 

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