Jan
07
2009
2

How to Buy a New Computer: Part II Netbooks

New Laptop

New Laptop

Yesterday I discussed the basics of buying a new computer.  The most important first step is figuring out what you need and what you want out of a new computer.  There are three main types of portable computers available these days: netbooks, basic laptops, and high-end laptops.  Today is all about “netbooks.”[1]

(Scroll to the end to see my picks…)

Netbooks

A netbook is a very small laptop designed to extremely mobile and portable.  They are optimized for portability and wireless connectivity.

Netbooks typically have a display of 10″ or less. [2] They usually don’t have any CD or DVD drives. [3]  They usually have very small solid state drives or mid-sized hard drives.  On the plus side, they usually have bluetooth, media card readers, and WiFi.  They’re typically between 2 to 3 pounds, depending upon brand and type of battery.  They’re also relatively cheap – between $350 to $500.

My requirements may differ from yours.  If I were to buy a netbook, I would want:

  • Minimum 2 USB ports, preferably 3
  • Minimum 100 GB hard drive
  • 1 GB RAM
  • Bluetooth
  • WiFi aka 802.11a/b/g, and preferably also 802.11n
  • Ethernet port
  • Modem port

Other things people might care about (but I don’t):

  • Webcam
  • Keyboard size
  • Monitor size

Keep in mind, I’ve never used any of these laptops – I’m just evaluating them based on their prices and my own opinions as to their respective brands and specs.  Although, I’m enough of a nerd that I put together a spreadsheet to compare those five netbooks as well as about another dozen or so models and submodels.  If anyone is interested in seeing the spreadsheet, mention it in the comments below or drop me a line.

Dell has a new netbook too, but it only has solid state drive options – which are too small to be of use to me. [4] However, I’m sure it would be perfect for some people.

My picks are, in rough order of preference:

If I were to buy a netbook today, I’d probably go for the Acer Aspire One.  It occupies a sweet spot in terms of price, is a decent brand, and has very comparable specs to the higher-end models.

Next, basic laptops!

  1. Photo courtesy of Ciccio Pizzettaro []
  2. TV’s and monitors are always measured by the diagonal. []
  3. This means they’re no good for watching DVD’s or playing CD’s. []
  4. 8 GB of hard drive space is barely enough to run an operating system and a few programs these days… []
Dec
01
2008
1

How to Repair A Laptop: Option 1 – The Manufacturer

Broken Laptop

Broken Laptop

Before I start talking computer repair, I offer three caveats.  First, I have no formal training in diagnosing, repairing, or even using computers.  Second, I have no experience with repairing an Apple or Mac computer.  Third, all of the below only applies to laptop repair.  Its incredibly easy to swap out components on a desktop.

So, your laptop has stopped working and you’ve decided it makes sense to repair it.[1] The big question is: How do you repair it?[2]

When my laptop died back I Googled and called around trying to find and decide upon someone to repair my laptop.  There are several possible options when it comes to choosing a laptop repairer.  When your laptop is still under warranty, its a no-brainer to send it back to the manufacturer. [3] But, what about a computer that’s either no longer in warranty or with no warranty?

Option 1:  Manufacturer

I’ve owned three laptops – a Compaq, a Dell, and then another Dell.  On the one hand, I never had to call Compaq for technical support.  On the other hand, by the time the laptop was three years old it was in pretty bad shape.

I called Dell first.  Sure, I’d had truly terrible experiences with Dell tech support in the past.[4] I figured it couldn’t possibly have gotten worse, right?[5]

Dell offered a three stop process to fix the problem:

  1. Phone diagnostic.  $50.00.
  2. Selling me new parts[6] and walking me through the repair over the phone.  $200.00 – $300.00.
  3. Sending in the laptop to Dell for repair.  $300.00 – $500.00.

There are several problems with Dell’s repair process.  First, its tremendously time consuming.  Second, most of Dell’s processes are developed with the idea that the user is the most common problem.  Third, if you have an actual problem you are all but guarrantted to spend more money than the computer is worth.  Fourth, Dell tech support is just about the worst ever.

Time Consuming

Dell tech support is nothing if not standardized.  Their tech support staff all have binders[7] which list tons of symptoms, diagnostic tests, and possible fixes.  But, before you even start such a scenario you will be asked to check all cables, that everything is plugged in, and restart your computer several times.  Even if you eliminate all time you spend on hold, that’s half an hour right there.

By the time you’ve run through a few diagnostic programs, you’ve easily spent two hours on the phone.

Computer Users Are The Problem

As best as I can tell, Dell’s tech support binder has them verify that the problem is not the user, then not software, then not user-replaceable hardware, then not Dell-replaceable hardware.  Obviously, their goal is to minimize tech support time by ruling out simple issues, and thereby minimizing costs.

I’m not saying this is a bad system.  But, if the problem is obviously a hardware problem, restarting the computer or dimming the monitor isn’t going to help.  I have sent in two Dell laptops becuase the left mouse click button stopped springing back up.  After fully describing the problem several times, they still asked me to fiddle with the battery, check that the laptop was plugged in, etc.

The problem is that by requiring you go through the Dell checklist of basic problems with their tech support staff, they are guarranting that every single call, no matter how trivial, will require a minimum of 30-45 minutes.

My former “left mouse button won’t pop back up” problem is really a 5 minute phone call that should go something like this:

  • Jay calls Dell.
  • “Hi, my name is Roger, please state the nature of your technical emergency.”[8]
  • Jay: “Hi Roger, I have a Dell XPS 1210 and the left mouse button won’t pop back up.”
  • Roger:  “Hmm.  Well, try tapping the button.  Does that work?”
  • Jay:  “No, that doesn’t seem to work.”
  • Roger:  “Hmm.  Can you see anything jammed in there?”
  • Jay:  “Nope.”
  • Roger:  “Yeah, that was a longshot.  Okay, well, I’ll send you a box and a shipping label.”
  • Jay gives Roger his information and is happy with Dell service.

Ideally, Dell would have a way to jump past certain steps.  Perhaps by answering a computer trivia question or by hitting “3” for “I have performed all basic rudimentary tests and diagnostics and know what I’m doing.”

Or, more likely: “I have checked all cables, restarted the computer, removed the battery, reinserted the battery, restarted again, booted into Safe Mode, restarted, booted into the command prompt, booted back in Safe Mode, restarted, booted from a recovery disk, restarted, restarted, booted from a Linux CD, restarted, wished on a falling star, and my brand new laptop still arrived with a giant gaping hole in the middle of the screen.”[9]

Dell’s Guaranteed Expensive Fix

If your computer has an actual hardware problem, and you’re trying to get Dell to fix it, you’re all but guaranteed to spend more money than the computer is worth.  If your laptop is out of warranty, then its probably more than a year old.  If you go through Dell’s repair process above (phone diagnostic, user-repair, Dell repair), you’re going to spend a minimum of $550.00.  This is a losing proposition.  Unless you have a high end gaming rig, it probably cost between $750.00 to $1,500.00.

If you’re spending more than one-third to one-half the cost of the original laptop after one year, that money would be better spent towards a new laptop.  That’s just a rule-of-thumb; you should really try my[10] scientific formula for deciding whether you should invest in a repair or buy a new computer.

Dell’s Tech Support Is Bad

Dell’s tech support is the opposite of helpful.  Their tech support personnel are trained to read from their scripts, repeat what you say as if they understood the problem, and then simply do the next thing on the script.  Any request for deviation from the script results in a denial or, best case scenario, holding for ten minutes while they find out from their supervisor the reason for denying your request.

You can eventually get what you want from Dell’s technical support, but you better be prepared to fight like hell for it.  You will need to argue and haggle with two layers of technical support grunts and as many supervisors as it takes to reach a technical support person located in the United States.

Even if Dell agrees to repair your laptop in an acceptable fashion, you’ve probably 10 hours in the process.  Add this to the actual cost of the repair and its a losing proposition.

Look, I’m Indian and I hate Dell’s Indian tech support.

  1. Photo courtesy of Just Us 3. []
  2. Since I can tell the suspense is killing you, I think a dedicated computer facility is best. []
  3. Tech support in this circumstance isn’t so much free as it is pre-paid. []
  4. A long story for another day. []
  5. I was sooo naive. []
  6. At cost, supposedly. []
  7. Or the digital equivalent of binders.  Decision tree programs, if you will. []
  8. Thank you Robert Picardo! []
  9. I had a scarily similar experience to the one I just described with a friend’s Dell laptop that arrived with a non-functional CD-burner. []
  10. Mostly []
Sep
23
2008
1

RIP Laptop 1-5-2007 to 9-21-2008

Sonic Screwdriver

Sonic Screwdriver

My laptop, a Dell XPS M1210, stopped working on Sunday night.

Symptoms:

  1. Totally unpowered screen.
  2. Computer will not boot from the hard drive, USB stick, or CD.
  3. Hard drive light indicator shuts off after 1 second.
  4. After 1 second, I cannot hear the hard drive spinning.

Tests:

  1. Do the LED indicator lights still work when I disconnect the power cord and leave the battery in?  Yes.
  2. Does the computer recharge said battery when the power cord is plugged back in?  Yes.
  3. Remove hard drive.  Insert new working hard drive to see if computer will run.[1]  No dice.
  4. While hard drive is removed, insert it into another laptop to see if that computer will run.  Yes.

Eliminated problems:

  1. Battery. The computer is able to use the battery to power the LED lights.
  2. Power jack. This is a common problem for laptops.  The AC adapter power jack sometimes becomes loosened over time and eventually slightly disconnects from the motherboard.  My computer is able to draw power from the power jack and recharge the battery, so the power jack is fine.
  3. Software. A new working hard drive does not fix the problem.
  4. Hard drive. Another laptop is able to boot using my hard drive.

Doctor Who

Doctor Who

Possible problems:

  1. Motherboard. The motherboard is the most likely culprit since (a) I can’t see the BIOS (Built In Operating System) boot screen when I power on the computer (b) the hard drive stops spinning afer 1 second and (c) motherboards going bad are not an uncommon problem.
  2. Monitor. I can’t rule this out as the problem or as a secondary problem.  A motherboard failure would explain the dark screen.  A monitor failure would not explain why the hard drive isn’t spinning up or why the hard drive light shuts off after 1 second.

Learning that the hard drive is not the problem is a mixed blessing.  While I’m glad that my hard drive and information is safe, it means there’s a much bigger problem. Hard drives are easy.  Insert screwdriver, remove hard drive, replace, rock on.

MacGyver

If the problem is something other than the hard drive, you can’t fix it with a screwdriver.[2]  But, I figured I’d give it a shot anyhow.  I’ve fixed laptop problems similar to this before – opening it up, finding a broken wire strip, fabricating a new part, and MacGyver-ing it back into the case.  Its extremely difficult, precise, and time consuming work.

I removed the hard drive again, opened my laptop, pulled out the keyboard, removed the monitor, blew out dust and debris, and visually inspected the motherboard without finding any obvious defects.  At this point, I need to turn it over to someone with the expertise and equipment to fix the problem.  :(

  1. Yes.  I just happen to have extra laptop hard drives lying around. []
  2. Unless you’re The Doctor. []

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