Monday, June 19, 2006

Why Dell still sells computers

The hard drive on our laptop crashed this weekend. Until Sunday, I thought the problem with the laptop was the overheating issue endemic to Inspiron 1100s. For two days of fairly heavy loading I had the laptop on a chill mat and had the fan temperature keep the laptop's innards below 50°C. On Sunday, after about 3 hours of work, the computer blue-screened again. This time the computer wouldn't come back alive. The error wasn't just a page fault, it was an "unmountable volume" problem.

A "volume" is an old name for a computer's hard drive (more or less). Windows XP couldn't find the hard drive.

We went to pick up Logan from Alana's ex, and I ran the CHKDSK utility while we were gone. It was still running when we got back. Eventually it popped up and said that it couldn't fix the problem with the hard drive. I ran FIXBOOT (which fixes the hard drives boot sector, the part of the drive read when the computer fires up). It replaced the boot sector, but still no dice. I ran FIXMBR (another hard drive utility) which would pretty much wreck my chance of recovering anything. I then reformatted the hard drive and installed Windows. At first the install didn't work, saying there was a problem with the drive, but reformatting seemed to fix the issue. Finally, by 11:00 pm I had the laptop talking to the wireless router and the internet.

I'm still not convinced the problem is solved. Formatting should isolate bad sectors of the disk and mark them as unusable. That's assuming that the problem was just bad sectors. It could also be a problem with the physical functioning of the hard drive, or it could be a problem with the drive controller (which, being a laptop, is part of the motherboard). It's quite possible (even likely) that the overheating caused problems with the hard drive, so I'm going to keep the machine cool.

Since I'm half expecting the computer to crash again, we started to look at replacement laptops. I was set against buying from Dell again. Now I'm not sure we could avoid it. I now know why Dell continues to sell computers in spite of shoddy workmanship and ignorant customer service.

I had heard good things about Alienware computers a few years ago. They supposedly use top notch components and they have cool case designs (featuring your stereotypical alien). You pay more for Alienware, so you'd think it would be worth it. I did some checking of reviews on C/Net and found a number of disturbing comments about Alienware's service. A number of people noted failures in their Sentia laptop as soon as they received it. There were delays in getting the laptops fixed. When the owner decided they simply wanted to send it back and get a refund, Alienware kept 15% as a "restocking fee". Given that you pay more for Alienware, this shouldn't have been the case.

To be fair to Alienware, there were only 33 reviews. People will complain about problems more than they'll praise good service. Still, the average score was 5.0 and with a number of 9.0 scores roughly half the customers who wrote a review didn't like them. Given that Alienware's scores were less than Dell's, I didn't get the warm and fuzzies. I was prepared to pay more for the reliability and the neat designs. Not now. Alienware is off my list of potential vendors.

I looked into other laptops as well. Best Buy has a good deal on the Toshiba Satellite series. Many years ago, in a previous life, I had to deal with Compaq laptops and was not impressed. Toshiba had a better reputation. Today, not so much. The user reviews on the Satellite models were similar to those of Dell: problems out of the box, bad customer service.

Alana had an HP at one point and swore she'd never buy another. The HP laptop I looked at got a good rating. I went so far as to "build" a system. I wasn't crazy that you had to pay for the disks with your operating system (Dell might do the same thing now). And, of course, it's an HP.

I even looked at an Apple. They didn't get hugely great reviews, either (they were reviewed below HP), suggesting that for all their ease of use they aren't any better made than average PCs.

About the only company that got consistently high grades was Voodoo. They make high end game computers. Their laptops looked great. They also ran at a minimum of $2,000. Ouch!

This explains why Dell is still selling computers in spite of shoddy workmanship and service: all of their competitors are about as bad as they are. There isn't a single vendor that I thought was worth the risk for the extra money they charge over Dell. That's pretty sad.

If anyone out there has recommendations for laptops, please post a comment.

We're hoping the Inspiron will limp along. I could simply buy a new hard drive. At $70, we're not sure we want to throw more money into it, though, especially if the controller is more the culprit than the hard drive. We don't want the laptop to become a money pit. If it crashes again, we'll look at getting a new laptop (though we can't really afford it).

Fortunately I didn't lose much stuff on the reformat. I lost some files I had updated since the last backup. The backup was 3 months ago, but I also have a bunch of files backed up on jump drives. It turns out that I'm such a packrat that I have duplicates of files all over the place. I think the only thing that really bugged me was the loss, yet again, of the character sheets for our upcoming Coyote Trail Western roleplaying game. I, of course, was working on them when the crash happened. Oh, and I entered a bunch of information on Civil War magazine articles into a database, for easy searching. All that work, about an evening's worth, was lost. Not bad considering I had to reformat. At least now it's a much leaner installation, and without all the garbage Dell packs into a new computer.

I only hope the laptop's problems are over.


Do-Ming Lum said...

Hi Allan,

Sorry to hear about your computer problems. I own a couple of old Dells, which are still working even though they are clunkers based on today's entry level standard. (They are, respectively, a Pentium 2 266Mhz and a Pentium 3 700 MHz). They date back to 1998 and 2000.

I currently have an ASUS laptop -- light and sleek compared with either of the Dells, and a much higher performance system. Cooler as well -- both from a cultural as well as a thermodynamic perspective :-).

Jill started out with a Sony Vaio three or four years ago. It was a great computer -- when it worked.

It failed a few months after we got it, and the supplier took it back for repair. Months later (after I had gotten the ASUS as a "temporary" replacement) the supplier came back and indicated that the Sony couldn't be repaired or replaced. It had been a second hand system, in a product line that wasn't available in Canada -- small form factor, light, not intensely powerful -- ideal for mobile use (for instance, note taking during Cthulhu games). They replaced it with a somewhat larger and somewhat heavier Toshiba.

Neither the ASUS or the Toshiba have given us any problems to date [fingers crossed]. I suspect any laptop (or desktop) is a bit of a lottery -- volumes are large enough that manufacturing defects can get through QA, and out into the retail channel.

I have a colleague who swears by the concept of the "brand name" laptop -- anything he owns must have a manufacturer label on it, from a large enough company that he has heard of. His HP failed (although it was covered by warranty) although his Lenovo is still going strong.

Unfortunately, none of this is particularly helpful, in the spot you are currently in. However, I think you are taking the right approach -- get more reviews, pay attention to customer service details.

Good luck!


Michael Skeet said...

I've used two Acer laptops for the last six or seven years. Both machines are still running, though the battery of the oldest has long since lost its ability to hold a charge for longer than your typical TV commercial break. The newer machine is on its second hard drive, the first having failed in a manner similar to the one you describe. I back up on a fairly regular basis so I lost almost no data. I also had a Sony Vaio (bought second-hand) that worked well for six years... until it was stolen at Vimy Ridge last fall. Of course, with Sony you'll pay a huge price premium.

I have heard good things about ASUS laptops (Canada Computer down on College sells them pretty much exclusively) but I don't know what sort of service you could expect in Monroe, in the event of a problem.

Allan Goodall said...

Hi, Do-Ming.

I'll look into the ASUS, though I don't think anyone sells them locally. We really need a big electronic store. Other than Wal-Mart, Office Depot is about the only store that sells computers between Shreveport and Jackson, MS. We could really use a Circuit City or a Best Buy.

As Alana mentioned to me yesterday, Dell doesn't have to be good, it just has to be better than its competition. (This is like the old joke that you don't have to be able to outrun a bear, you just have to be able to outrun your buddy.) She also made a comment that my employer works under the same principle...

I did see a good review on a Lenovo, but it was pretty expensive. For the money I'd go for a Voodoo.

I think when we replace the laptop we'll splurge on a three year customer service warranty. On a laptop it sounds like the prudent thing to do.

Allan Goodall said...

Hey, Michael!

As I mentioned, we're debating getting a new hard drive but we don't want to sink a lot of money into the current laptop.

I'm also thinking we need to get a new laptop before Windows Vista is released, so that we can still get Windows XP. I'm really not sure what improvements Vista will bring, and I really don't like the bump in system requirements.

(Microsoft is calling for 256MB minimum and 512MB standard, which of course means you need a minimum of 1GB for it to run smoothly, using the principle that you take the minimum/recommended amounts from Microsoft and quadruple/double them.)

In particular, I don't see the need for a hot graphics card in a laptop simply to get Vista's 3D transparent folder feature. Is anyone really screaming for this? I thought people wanted a secure operating system more than fancy folder graphics.

Vista is due out sometime early next year. There's no telling how long XP will be available after that, so we're probably looking at getting a new laptop this year or waiting for Vista SP2 to be released...

(That last remark was more realistic than catty.)

Do-Ming Lum said...


Do-Ming Lum said...

Damn -- sorry about fat fingering the last post.

Anyway -- I realize that you have already replaced your laptop, but this item just came to my attention, so I thought I would pass it along for your reference for the NEXT time you need to replace a laptop.

The link works for me, but if you have an issue, let me know and I will email you the text.

I don't have an annual subscription to this site, but someone e-mailed me the link.


Do-Ming Lum said...

A better link, since the URL looks like it got truncated in the last post:

Allan Goodall said...

Thanks for the link, Do-Ming! That's pretty cool.

I first realized that there was a lot of rebranding going on when I saw a review of an Alienware laptop. I always wanted one, but then I read a review that said that the most recent batch were no better than Dell's. Then I found that there was another company that made the Alienware laptops, and that you were essentially paying a lot of money for the neat logo. *sigh*