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, click the contact link above and tell me about them.


  1. Re. yr laptop probs. The kids have used a Compaq Armada 1500C for three years with the problem being due to some unknown child or ghost spilling a soft drink over it or under it and eating when using it!!!! The tdch. guy giggled and suggested that we kept the Armada away from the dining room or kitchen table! As he only took a couple of days to sort everything out and it has never needed anything elese done to it, I can say it was a very good buy at the time in 2000.
    But I have noticed lots of Toshiba, IBM and Nec laptops being sold for junk in Akahabara, the tokyo electronic shopping area. And dealers have muttered about failures with Toshiba laptop hard drives over 12GB size. True or false, I don’t know but one friend swears by Toshiba. hope this all helps the readers and Jake.

  2. I have used an IBM T22 for years with minimal problems. The screen still has all its pixels and I have been through three hard drives but only because I keep buying bigger ones. I still have the last one which is in an external USB drive case that I use for back up and as a spare to get the machine back on line if the main drive crashes.
    I have used portable computers since the days of luggable Compaq’s. You get what you pay for is all that I can say in regard to your problem.
    Perhaps you should up your budget or look at older used models.

  3. Buy low is good advise for stock but not for a critical item of hardware. We have used notebooks for many years and had very good luck with them. They are not the lowest cost ones out there but have been worth every cent we paid for them. They are constantly thrown in the back of cars and trucks, hauled out at customer sites, used on the kitchen table at home and camp, and in the office as desktop replacements. These are upper end IBM Thinkpads. We do add 3 year mail in service (overnight shipping both ways and 48 hour turnaround) for safety but have only needed it 3 or 4 times. If you can’t be without your notebook it pays to have a good one with good support.

  4. Re: Laptops et. al. I have been a fan of Acer for over three years now. The only problems I’ve ever had were with the people who sold the units to me. The Technical Support is good, and the units are rock solid. Getting the dealer(s) to answer questions is, however, a problem.
    If you are smarter than the PC “expert” at Best Buy then you can deal with any of the questions that come up with your Acer. The newer units have LARGE displays, modem/lan/WiFi and you can pick the power you need. I may have been lucky, but the units I’ve got have never had problems.

  5. With continuing problems with IBM, Compaq, Toshiba, Dell laptops in the past, I consider all laptops to be throwaway items. I don’t expect them to last a full year, even six months, without problems. Buy used with a guarantee. http://www.pcretro.com is one source.
    Wal-Mart http://www.walmart.com sells two no-name laptops online, mfg. by ECS, one for $598 and one for $698. I would like to see a review of these somewhere.

  6. Jake, just thought I’d let you know that most all of the LCD monitor manufacuters are pretty much the same as far a dead pixels go. Not just with laptops. Even the top of the line LCD’s are not considered bad unless a certain amount of pixel are dead. Usually 6-8 not necessarily in a row or group.
    I’ve been thought the same thing, but I only had 3 pixels out on my NEC and they would not exchange it. It came that way out of the box.

  7. Just a thought for consideration when you buy your next laptop. I’ve used several IBM’s over the years and every one of them has been bullet proof. Basically no problems, and these have not been the top of the line models. Add that reliability to the best keyboard made and you’ve got a great tool.

  8. Your problem is with where & what you purchase. As I have purchased many Laptops personally and also for my office let me make a suggestion that will save you much frustration and time. Always purchase from HP/Compaq on the web. Build your own and I have always purchased Presarios (for the last ten years). Then purchase the 3 year care pak with accidental damage protection. If something is wrong with the machine within the 3 year period you call Compaq, they overnight you a brand new machine (same model you purchased) you have 3 days to return the machine you are having trouble with and you even use the box they used to ship to you & at no cost. I have used this with a presario laptop and one HP Ipaq.

  9. I have owned 3 Toshiba Satellite laptops. I have only had problems with one.
    It was returned to the place of purchase within the first three months because of a dead screen…. hooking up to another monitor was fine. I returned the laptop to Future Shop and they shipped it away to a Toshiba warranty depot. It was returned to us a month later…. Monitor was working, but my Centrino 1.5Ghz machine was now running at 678MHz with a FSB speed of 398MHz…. It was again returned to Future Shop, who sent it away again. It was returned a month later, still not working…. the ‘Technician’ (and I use the term only because that is what the service department called him) stated there was nothing wrong with my machine… it was running as it was supposed to… I was told that 678MHz was the proper speed for a Centrino 1.5GHz chip… yeah, Right! I returned it once again to Future Shop, and was told by an onsite technician to take it to a local authorized Toshiba warranty depot. I took it there for servicing…. a new motherboard was ordered for it…. Three months later, the machine was returned…. still not working… same 678Mhz with FSB of 398MHz. Upon returning it for another time to Future Shop, we were told to take it to another ‘Authorized Service Depot’ The technician there also stated that there was nothing wrong with the machine. They had run diagnostic software on the laptop. The software said that the computer was working. Of course, it still wasn’t. One more return to Future Shop…. talked to the store manager…. he stated that there was nothing they could do and I would have to contact Toshiba directly…. of course, I had been in contact with them for the past 4 months without any success. I contacted them once again and was told to return the machine to them (at least it was at their cost). I packaged it up and returned it to them. I was in daily contact with a representative of Toshiba. The laptop had been taken to an engineer to look at… after 5 days of running tests, it was actually opened up. They found that somewhere during the past ‘servicing’, that some internal parts had be broken. They fixed things up and returned the laptop to me…. It finally works!!
    I was without it for a little over 5 months… I was into the 9th month of warranty…. After much harrassing, I managed to get a 3 month extension on the warranty. Hopefully it will last out the warranty.
    As I stated earlier, I have had 3 Toshiba laptops. Only trouble with one… and if the servicing from their ‘Authorized Service Depots’ was any good, I would not have to complain about a Toshiba product. I have since been told not to take a product to a depot without calling Toshiba first…. then they will say where to send it…. This from the Toshiba rep. I guess until I give that a try, I won’t know if it will do any good. You would expect proper servicing from any ‘Authorized’ service depot. Maybe the authorization only comes to those that can afford to purchase the authorization, because from what I’ve seen, of four ‘Authorized’ service centers, none was able to fix a problem that should have been easy to recognize and repair.
    Will I buy another Toshiba…. I’m not sure…. Two out of three isn’t bad…. is it?

  10. I have a two thousand dollar paperweight masquerading as a Dell laptop. Yes, I bought the 3 year extended warranty – but my phone records reflect an excess of 40 hours spent with online tech support – much of that with service that has been farmed out to India with techs that have extreme difficulty understanding my very plain midwestern English (I do not have any speech impediments either) – – – and who speak English with an accent so thick that it becomes embarrassing asking them to please repeat nearly every sentence not just once, but three & four times.
    The Dell worked fine for the first two months & then began to crash &/or freeze up shortly after booting up. Tech support instructed me to reinstall XP, uninstall then reinstall XP, download SP1 patch (by the way – it took nearly 2 hours for tech support to resolve the laptop’s inability to access my DSL line – just to get the patch. Grad school just finished – so I have time once again to try to make getting Dell to fix their paperweight a full time job for now.
    My budget prohibts buying another laptop right now, but the next one sure won’t be a Dell!

  11. The corporation for which I work uses Gateway laptops. I’m in the Network Services group and get(?) to support all sorts of hardware. I know, I know… Gateway used to be interchangable with PackardBell . But these are really nice machines. They are sturdy, and have few problems if any and support has been great, including trade-ins. Some of this service after the sale might be due to a large corporate contract, but that can’t have any bearing on hardware. I have an older Solo 9500 on my desk now that is to be re-deployed.

  12. I’ve talked to suppport guys that were in cars traveling, I’ve even gotten a couple Gateway tecs more than once,which thye said was rare (st that time).. 😛 The shop closed for a hurricane and I could not get it o ut till afterwards, addn we had cable and power the whole time is what was frustrating!! Sent comp back and they found no problem, or would not admit they sent me a bad copy of windows!! Their install worked fine,but the one I idid off my disk they sent me did not…

  13. Brand New Sony Laptop.
    Online at work with broadband.Working fine for 2months. One day I plug in and it wont connect. I check my network connection on my laptop and it says “Automatic IP Adress”
    The IP for my Broadband connection is not the same anymore. I use IE and detect network connection. Again, my laptop detects it and then goes to “Automatic IP Address”.
    I check everyway to see why my laptop is now using “Automatic Private Address” What ever I do, it goes to “Automatic Private Address”
    I talk and send and talk and send my Laptop to Sony. 3 times it goes back and forth to sony and myself. Each time it gets worse with every so called fix. 3rd time it comes back and just Dies!
    Now its back in my possesion and guess what. It still wont connect to my Broadband connection.
    Phantom “Automatic IP Address” wont go away.
    So its dial up for now
    UNREAL….no one at sony has figured it out.
    Thanks for listening.
    sony Viao
    512ddr ram.

  14. Two comments.
    1. Tech support horror story: Bought a dell axim x5. screen failed. never heard back from dell despite repeated calls and emails. happy now with samsung i700.
    2. Not a tech service problem, but I’ve owned numerous laptops and all but one have had a problem with the cursor jumping around the screen at random when I’m typing. The problem was severe in the Nimantics and the Sony VIAO, and is moderately severe in my current Dell L600. The IBM x20 didn’t have the problem that I can remember. Anybody else have this problem? Anybody have a fix for it? Tech guys just stare blankly.

  15. I wanted to install another hard drive in my Dell computer, so I called their tech support to try to purchase the 2 plastic rails needed to mount the drive. I have several rails, but Dell seems to use unique ones. I was transferred back and forth from the technical support and small parts departments a total of 6 times, put on hold each time, and told that the other department was the one I needed, even though I explained that I had just been transferred from that very department. Each time I also had to give the same information: name, phone number (why is the phone number incorrect? I don’t know and nobody would change it to the correct one!!!), my problem, did I buy the hard drive from Dell (no), why do I want to add another hard drive, etc., etc. After a full hour I finally gave up and wrote Dell a letter asking them to have someone who a.) spoke english (the people on the phone didn’t), b.) knew what was in the computer case ((the people on the phone didn’t), and c.) could actually send me the part I needed. That was 2 weeks ago and still no call. So, for me, the two new laptops I need to buy will NOT be Dells. Dell’s motto is “World Class Service.” What they REALLY have is “Third World Class Service”!!!!

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