Sunday, November 9, 2008

Inexpensive Laptop Nightmare

I'm actually a big fan of buying the "mail-in rebate" black friday junk PCs, retail. Anymore, the "average" desktop is a commodity item made up of a bunch of other (name brand) commodity components. If you're going to buy retail, brand doesn't make a difference if you know how to replace parts in a computer. I've been doing it since I was 13, so it can't be that tough.

Friends gasp when I say I just purchased an E-Machines PC. Nevermind that I got an AMD Athlon X2, reasonable Seagate hard drive, reasonable LG dvd burner and a total lack of discreet graphics. Oh wait, mind that. Because that's what every one of them on the shelf had too. Even the big brands have their "retail only" models that are a combination of the most inexpensive components available. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't consider buying a desktop at retail without the obligatory $200 instant savings and a $100-$300 rebate bringing the total package down to $300 including a monitor and printer that I'll sell on eBay.

That same logic applied when I needed to replace my wife's notebook PC. I like to have reasonable specs, but brand is unimportant. I've learned a new lesson: on a notebook, brand appears to matter. I purchased an Acer laptop for her at a cost of around $600. It's a centrino duo (a good processor at the time), had bluetooth, 802.11g, 80G hard drive -- essentially good specs. It's worked very well for the last few years until a month ago.
You see, you can depend on the built in parts most of the time. The commodity PC supplier isn't making those parts. Unlike a desktop, however, there are some very important parts that are provided by the vendor and without them functioning properly ... well, you're stuck.
It started with the "Z" key. I've been around long enough to know how to fix a keyboard that's gone bad. On a desktop, it's easy, you buy a new one. On a laptop, you take the whole thing apart, and take some 91% alcohol solution to the contacts. Not terrible, but certainly not something an average shopper at CompUSA is going to figure out.
Unfortunately, the problem has started spreading. It's on to the "X" key and sometimes the "C" key. Perhaps my beautiful bride dripped some liquid onto the keyboard and the result has been corrosion, or maybe it was just something simple like oils from the tip of her fingers? It's tough to say. Nobody remembers using a keyboard with wet hands.
Having fixed a myriad of old Xbox gaming systems with nothing but a soldering iron, steady hands and a nice magnifying glass, I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of repairing the keyboard, but it's going to kill a Saturday and again, what about the average end-user ... it's going in the trash most likely. A perfectly good laptop will be thrown away because a manufacturer skimped on providing a good keyboard.

So, my personal plug. My other laptops are Lenovo and short of a couple of models (the T30 and T43) that didn't live up to the Thinkpad name, the T60, 61 and now 5xx series are well built devices. Even Dell has stepped up and started producing more durable laptops. You see, in my ignorance by applying the same selection methodologies to Desktops as I did my wife's laptop I neglected two huge differences. The laptop will encounter more hazardous conditions. The desktop's "throw away" parts are not "throw away" on a laptop and might mean throwing away the whole laptop if they fail.

Just as a note, I've already found a replacement keyboard for this acer laptop. It's going to set me back $100. The manufacturer won't support it and why should they ...? $100 for a laptop that only cost $600 isn't going to happen. I'll post an update when I've fixed this one and (hopefully) include some instructions on how to do the repair yourself.

Another note: I don't own Apple products. I've seen their laptops, but I also don't trust the objectivity of an average apple user. Their stuff looks nice, OS X also looks great, but having not used them, I left them out. Sorry!

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