Covered Topics

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why I WON'T Buy a Dell Laptop PC

It's almost January - the start of the Spring 2011 college semester. With my impending graduate school coursework comes the need for a laptop computer. I have been to several stores during the past several weeks, shopping price v.s. features. The college book store offers what seems like "sweetheart deals" on Dell laptops; you simply pick out the recommended machine based on the academic department for your course of study. While this seems like an easy option, and the package had lots of goodies thrown in, I was still put off by the $699 price tag. I ask myself "Do I really need all this or will a $349 Acer at Wal-Mart do as well?" Since I really don't yet know how much computer I really need, I decided to get advice from my instructor based on the actual demands of the curriculum before making a purchase.

One brand I have ELIMINATED is Dell - I will NOT have one of these unless some kind soul gives me a free one. Even then, I'd likely sell it on eBay and buy something else. Here's why:

A Descent Into (D)ell:
Recently, a neighbor asked me to look at his laptop and see if I could repair it. His girlfriend had dropped the machine and it had landed directly on the charger power plug, while it was still connected. This damaged the DC power connector on the laptop and the unit would no longer charge or even run off the AC adapter.

To make a very long story short
I replaced the connector, reassembled the laptop, and it still won't work from the AC adapter. Voltage checks with a DVM show all the connections to be good and that the AC adapter is supplying the proper voltage. The computer runs just fine from the battery; problem is right now there is no way of recharging the battery - and said battery is nearly depleted. On doing some online research, I found out Dell uses a special ID chip in all its AC power adapter/chargers - as well as its batteries. This ID chip "talks" to one located on the motherboard. If the computer does NOT recognize the power adapter/charger as a genuine Dell artifact, the machine will not charge the battery and may not even run, as in the case of my neighbor's unit. Same with the battery - if the computer does NOT recognize the battery as a genuine Dell artifact, it will not turn on.

During the fall, my neighbor's DC power connector got shorted out as a result of being smashed. Evidently this resulted in part of the ID system being damaged and disabled.

For more detailed technical information see the following links:

But wait, It gets even worse.
From my research, I've found that these chips fail regularly in both the AC charger units as well as the motherboards. MANY folks have been forced to buy replacement batteries and chargers because their ID chips and/or the three-pin charger power connectors got loose enough where the data line didn't make good connection any more. Dell's solution - buy new accessories and if the problem persists, replace the motherboard, a $330 dollar item as quoted to me by Dell tech support.

Several web sites have commented on the poor engineering and flimsy construction of these things but Dell continues to make them the same way.

While some other laptops also have ID chips in the batteries, I've found the Dell machines seem to garner by far the most complaints online.

A Possible Workaround
If you are in my neighbor's situation and don't want to or can't afford to shell out several hundreds of dollars to fix the problem, there is an external charger that will communicate with the battery's ID chip and thus be able to charge it out of the laptop.

This is definitely a kluge, since you cannot simply plug the machine into AC power when the battery gets low and keep working. However, for those who cannot afford to replace the motherboard, or their entire machine, this is at least a way to retain partial use of it until a later time.

For those of us in the market for a new laptop, Let the buyer beware! If I can, I will select a machine that does NOT use multi-pin power connectors and ID chips for batteries and chargers. This, by itself, eliminates a potential source of unreliability in something I will have to depend on to get work done.

I also would like the option of running mine on off-grid power WITHOUT having to resort to a power inverter to feed the AC charger. Clearly a Dell would NOT be compatible with a home made battery supply or a solar panel without major internal hacking.

In view of the fragility of laptops and how difficult they generally are to repair, I highly recommend buying a 2-3 year extended warranty if the cost of such is no more than 1/3 of the everyday price of a comparable new machine. Even a cheap, "bottom of the barrel" laptop is a big enough investment that one would want to use it for at least 3 years - far longer than the 90 day to 1 year that most manufacturer's warranties last.