“And I love the indented border
Every word’s in alphabetical order
Ergo, lost things
Always can be found”
William Finn

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

The Diseases of the Laptop, and How to Cure Them
Tue 2012-01-24 21:33:44 (in context)

So. Laptops. Today my entire brain is taken up with laptops. Well, and writing a little bit, but mostly laptops: the care and feeding thereof, the backing up of their contents, the getting of technical support when things go wrong.

Mostly it's the tech support angle, with a side-order of backing up.

I have this love-hate relationship with Dell. I'm on my second Dell Inspiron, and I keep swearing it'll be my last because both of them had problems. My previous one, a 1505e, had hinges that constantly loosened and a CD/DVD-ROM tray that repeatedly broke. My current Inspiron, a 1564, had serious instability right from the time I got it in April of 2010. This was frustrating because, darn it, the laptop was new. I was not ready to deal.

So I disabled the internal USB hub that ran the webcam that seemed intimately related to the Blue Screen of Death memory dump crashes that happened sometimes when I adjusted the angle of the monitor (but if the webcam was running, it happened every time), and that managed things until about October of last year. And even then, when simply moving the silly thing risked a shut down (now in three different flavors! Red Raspberry Restart! Blue Raspberry Restart! And Black-Out Licorice!), I put it off. And I kept putting it off even though sometimes it shut down without my moving it at all.

There was NaNoWriMo to deal with, after all. And then in December there were all those things I had let pile up during NaNoWriMo. I'm a writer. I live on my laptop. Even when I'm not writing, I'm attached to the machine. The thought of backing up all the crap and living without my computer for a couple of weeks was a painful one. And I didn't even want to think about having to recreate all my settings from scratch if an OS reinstall.

In the first week of January, the dang thing crashed during startup. Not the first time it had done this, but then it crashed again. And then it didn't want to start up for several tries. SCARY. It was time to take this problem seriously.

But, see, here's the "love" part of the love-hate relationship. Besides being powerful little machines that will do pretty much anything I'd ask of a desktop computer while being perfectly portable, they come from a company who make tech support practically painless. I tend to forget the practically painless part when I'm dreading making the call, but it's true. If you are in the market for a Dell, and you're trying to decide whether to buy the warranty extension, buy that sucker. I mean, if you can afford it. It does add a couple hundred to the price tag. But oh, the headaches it will save you. Also the money. I got the 3-year extension. A laptop is an investment, and I want it to last.

So. I explained the various permutations of my Inspiron's instability to a tech support specialist over live chat. "Overheats far too easily," I said. "Shuts down quasi-randomly." And so forth. And the tech support specialist did what they'd done twice for my previous Inspiron: they had a FedEx box shipped to my door so I could ship the ailing machine to their repair depot, all free of charge.

Thankfully, around the same time I got the 1564, John got a Dell Inspiron 1440, and he never uses it because he's always using his work computer instead. (Watching how well that thing runs is an effective advertisement for Asus. I have laptop envy.) So I set up a profile, made myself comfortable on it, and ported everything over.

The box arrived two days later. The following day I shipped it back, Intel Inside. Included with the machine was a meticulously filled-out form describing all the permutations of my problem and how to reasonably expect to replicate it. This is an important plot point.

Several days later I received an email that said FedEx had delivered it. The next day, that it had arrived in the repair depot and work would begin.

The day after that, that it had been shipped back to me.

"Hmm," I said, "that was suspiciously quick."

Two days later, the box arrived. I opened it up. I eyeballed the memo stating that the only corrective action taken was to reinstall Windows. I said "Hmm" again and turned the machine on.

I picked it up while it was booting. Blip! Out go the lights.

Given the ease with which I caused all three flavors of computer crash within about five minutes, I can only assume the folks at the repair depot didn't actually read those meticulous error-replication instructions. Maybe my handwriting is worse than I thought? Maybe they saw that I checked "random" and didn't notice that I'd also checked "replicable."

So this was obnoxious and caused me to consider changing my opinion of Dell Technical Support for the first time in about five years. But I called the phone number listed in case "for any reason the portable does not operate to your satisfaction upon receipt," and despite that it was midnight Mountain Time, a cheerful receptionist took down my data and pulled up my file. (My opinion started going back up again.)

After I told her my frustrations and ran some diagnostics to her specifications, she talked to a manager and told me that, seeing as how the reinstallation of Windows didn't help, it must be a hardware issue. ("I know!" I did not say. "That's what I've been saying all along!" I further bit my tongue on.) Therefore they would have an on-site technician replace my motherboard, hard drive, heat sink, and fan.

"Oh, that's fantastic! Wait -- 'on-site' -- you can't seriously mean at my site, can you?"

"Yes, ma'am. A technician will come to you."

Should I be as impressed as I am about this? I was, and still am, seriously impressed. That was late Friday night when we spoke, and today a technician did indeed visit and replace the specified hardware. I got to watch him take the thing to pieces, and I got to make a go at cleaning out the keyboard while it was detached, and I got to ask him questions about the process, and and and basically I got to feel more or leass involved in at least the head-space of whatever was happening to my computer.

Not to mention all the exchanging of pet stories (apropos of my cats hanging around) and Rush concert stories (apropos of my Snakes and Arrows tee), because I'm a proud member of various geek tribes and I love having fellow tribe members come visit.

Unfortunately, he was on a tight schedule and couldn't stick around for the First Time Running Windows Setup rigmarole. But he did stay long enough to watch me picked up the laptop and swing it upside down and mess with its lid and tap on the hinges ...and utterly fail to cause a shut-down. From this he determined the hard drive didn't need replacing after all, so he packed up his box of electronics and headed out. "You probably had a miniscule crack in the motherboard right from the factory," he said, "which just got worse every time it heated up and cooled down."

I thanked him profusely, waved goodbye, and set about setting up Windows.

About an hour later, I discovered my external speakers weren't functioning.


This whole saga has been like a game of Good News Bad News. "Good news! Your warranty is good until April 2013! Bad news! You have to invoke it! Good news! A tech will come to your actual house and replace hardware at your kitchen table! Bad news! Now your speakers don't work! Good news! An on-site tech will be with you in a couple of days to replace your speakers or maybe just re-attach your current speaker's cables, because, awesome as today's tech was, he may have forgot to do this, probably because you wouldn't stop talking the whole time he was working, you nerd! How easy is that?!"

All in all, the balance is on the good news side. Live with computers and, sooner or later, you'll need computer repair. Maybe you'll need it on day 366; maybe you'll need it on day 1. At least the warranty is comprehensive and the people backing it are going the extra mile. And, being the fallible humans that they are, maybe Dell Technical Support won't fix everything on the first try -- but they'll fix it on the next try, or the one after that. Whatever it takes.

It's exhausting to finally come around to making the complaint, but I can't honestly complain -- or at least I can't lastingly complain -- about their complaint department.