Unlucky Laptops

The gods of portable computing must be angry with me. My Toshiba laptop decided to reprise its role as runner-up for flaky PC of the year on October 27 by replicating many of the same symptoms leading up to the previous drive failure. I also pointed out a quirk in the CD drive that mysteriously appeared following the previous visit to the Best Buy repair center. Two weeks later, still no solution and I leave for Redmond in under 24 hours. My hard drive crash at the beginning of September is rapidly becoming a footnote in a greater disappointment with quality control, customer service, and the entire PC laptop industry.

I cannot be without a laptop for the eight days I'm in Washington State from the 14th through the 21st. That would be the equivalent of an unpaid vacation. Off to the two retail options in Iowa to find an affordable substitute, which ultimately represents either the sixth or seventh laptop I've taken home from a store in the past eighteen months. My criteria are simple: built-in WiFi, P4 processor (preferably the mobile variety to avoid heat issues), 40GB disk space or more, and a price tag under $1200 including tax. I don't care about screen size. I don't care what the video card is. I just need something affordable to check email, work with a few Web forms, write some articles in Word, and possibly do minimal video or audio editing in a pinch.

I stopped in Best Buy to make sure they hadn't received the Toshiba and just failed to call me, which is what happened last time. No luck, which means I'm forced to shop. In asking when I might expect my laptop back, the Geek Squad drone replied that he didn't know, only that it is a WIP (work in progress) as of November 3. I asked how long it took a Toshiba repair center to replace one Toshiba hard drive with another Toshiba hard drive, which resulted in the brilliant reply, "Toshiba doesn't make hard drives." I think it's time to take someone's white shirt and black tie away and send them back out to the floor with the blue polo flunkies; Toshiba is one of the top hard drive manufacturers in the world. His attempt at saving face when I pointed out the error of his misstatement, "I don't like laptops." I guess that's one excuse for not knowing the business you are in.

Browsing available options, the only laptop matching my criteria and price point was an eMachines unit. eMachines laptops have killer features, but a previous experience with one purchased in August 2003 has me steering clear of the brand. It got high marks from reviewers all over the Internet, but as is often the case with laptops, you don't really find the flaws until you own something for several months. In my case, the laptop started developing mysterious heat issues which caused the laptop to randomly shut down. This started in November 2003 and I finally took the laptop in for repair in January 2004. The techs confirmed my assessment that yes, heat was a serious problem with my particular unit. In a brief conversation at the Best Buy repair center yesterday, I met another individual with a similar eMachines horror story. The replacement eMachines unit I traded the original for had a bad wireless chip out of the box, which is how I ended up with the Toshiba.

After briefly entertaining the idea of getting a new iBook for $999, I ultimately went with a PC laptop. A Windows laptop can serve as a portable PC for Paul (who is a Mac user) once I get the Toshiba back, which is definitely useful when he needs to test stuff in a cross-platform environment. I ultimately settled on an HP zv5235us. The specs match my needs almost exactly. It's not widescreen like the Toshiba, but it will work. Including $66 in sales tax, the zv5235us is $34.01 under budget. I have an extra 256MB of DDR RAM at home to expand the memory. In theory, this will more than get me by until I get the Toshiba back.

A few seconds into the boot process, I notice a dead pixel in the bottom right half of the screen. A lovely white pinhole is staring back at me from an otherwise normal screen. At this point the store is closed for the evening, so there's nothing I can do to fix this. Maybe a trip to a voodoo priestess to get this hex lifted is in order.

Flash forward to this morning when I stop for coffee and then make my way to CompUSA 10 minutes after the store opens. I explain about the dead pixel to a sales clerk, who pages the MOD (manager on duty) to come to my assistance. After explaining the situation to the MOD, he informs me that the manufacturer doesn't consider dead pixels to be a defect unless there are seven in a row or numerous individual defects scattered across the screen. He goes on to tell me that laptop manufacturers do not use high quality LCD screens in laptops because it would be too expensive. Great, so we are all victims of the good enough mentality at retail once again. He did replace the laptop with a unit that has no pixel problems, so I'm happy, for now.

I realize I didn't buy a top of the line unit, but at the very least I expect hardware to be in pristine condition when I take it out of the box. Of course, I didn't expect my hard drive to fail a month after my Toshiba laptop was repaired either. When I owned an iBook, over three years the only problem was with the connection point for the power supply. I've never had problems of this magnitude in my many years of experience with desktop hardware for either platform. I've experienced a few drive failures, but those were in machines that required 24 hour uptime and frequent writes to the disk. If anyone knows a good PC exorcist to purge the demons from my portable computing space, I'm prepared to make a small donation to the church.

If you have an bizarre tech support experiences to share, tell me about them.