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.
4 Good Years
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