Satellite Crash (or How Dell Frustrates Their Purchasing Customers With A One-Cent Error)

by Jon Davis 17. September 2009 22:56

Two years ago, I blogged with great excitement the huge investment I made in the most expensive laptop I could find at Fry’s Electronics, a Toshiba Satellite X205-S9359. Keep in mind that software, computers, and the web, are my career and my primary hobby at the same time, so I felt that this was a justified investment, and in the long run it ultimately paid off, as my Toshiba has served me every day non-stop for two years straight. (And needless to say, I’m single.) I reviewed it on Amazon as a "Fully Loaded Do-It-All Portable Mega-Station”, giving it only two stars, though, because of the price, because of its slow hard drives, and because it was HD-DVD and not Blu-ray.

Now the pay-off ends. This beast has eaten eight hard drives like a dirty cassette deck eats cassette tapes. And this week eat ate the last one I’m willing to tolerate being eaten.

Yes you read that right, eight hard drives. How?

Start with two hard drives. They’re slower than a turtle, crawling at 5400 RPM. Toss ‘em, replace ‘em with 150GB 7200 RPM’ers. Use ‘em for a year, watch ‘em fill up. Got no more room! So those get replaced with two 250GB drives. Half a year later, those stop working; data gets corrupted and the whole machine freezes up regularly. So I replace those, now 350GB. The machine works perfectly. Use ‘em for a few months, and the first drive pukes, I can’t even keep it running for a session. So the first of two drives (the main drive with Windows and all my programs) gets replaced.

Now here I am a couple months since the last replacement and I’m seeing the same symptoms—worse, actually, now system files are corrupted and I can’t open several apps I normally use because of corruption. In fact, I couldn’t even boot until I ran chkdsk to repair the data.

There’s a simple explanation for this “melting drive” behavior. Obviously, a fan’s not working right. Maybe a couple fans inside this monstrosity of a laptop are down, I dunno. I used to be able to hold my hand up to the side and it would blow hot air on my hand and scorch it like a hair dryer, now when I hold my hand up I can barely feel any air flow. So there’s no question it’s a fan outage.

The problem is that this is a laptop. I’m typing this blog entry on my mid-size tower PC, not the laptop. It’s a black white box (a black-colored “white box”), a home built PC. If this machine’s fans went out, I could just go to Fry’s and snag any standard PC fan. But laptops are proprietary little devils. You have to either seek out an equivalent unit on eBay that is broken down but hopefully has the working part I need (this investment costs hundreds of dollars) or you have to acquire it from the manufacturer (and this takes months of paperwork and waiting).

[UPDATE: Looks like I might be in luck. Part is here and here.]

Or, you can just toss the laptop and start over.

I don’t have the money to do that, but I think I’m getting antsy enough to be willing to shuffle some personal budget plans around to make it happen. It’s my primary PC, I can’t function without it! ;) (Actually, I literally can’t, even this mid-size tower won’t meet my needs because some software, namely SQL Server 2008 Express, won’t run right on it until I figure out why.)

That’s what I’m going to try to do; I’m going to rearrange my budget and make a laptop purchase happen. However, earlier this week when I discovered that Windows wouldn’t even boot because of corruption and concluded that my laptop itself is in an unusable state, I hopped onto Dell’s web site and made a selection. Given what the Toshiba has done for me for the last two years, I wanted this to be an investment that wouldn’t necessarily be a functional downgrade. I wanted a decent machine I would continue to enjoy like I have enjoyed the Toshiba all this time. So I made my selection—a beautiful Studio XPS 16—and went to check out using the online order form. I selected Dell Financing as my method of payment because I have a line of credit with Dell with which I bought a Dell Mini 9 a while back, which is fine for social networking but otherwise worse than useless for what I need of a primary computer. But the order form told me I didn’t have quite enough credit with Dell Financing to handle the purchase. It let me split the order to two forms of payment between Dell Financing and another card, so that’s what I chose to do.

Dell’s order form determined my available credit and split the charges using that value. I changed nothing. I only entered my address and debit card information for my bank to cover the leftover costs.

Within hours, however, I received an e-mail in my Inbox indicating that my order was put on hold because a payment method had been declined. So the next day (that was yesterday) I stepped outside from the office and called them up to ask what had happened. They told me that it was Dell Financial that declined my order. I spent literally 30-45 minutes on the phone with Dell trying to figure out what went wrong and to ultimately cancel my order. What happened was that when the order form gathered my available credit from the Dell Financing department, there must have been some kind of rounding error because the order form overcharged my line of credit by one cent ($0.01). One measly penny! I asked, “Can’t you extend my line of credit by one penny?” “No, I’m sorry, sir, when I put you on hold a minute ago I was asking if there was anything we could do about this. But there isn’t, you need to ask the sales representatives to submit an order that is less than or equal to your available credit.” Well they weren’t exactly able to help, I knew that the person I was speaking with wanted to help but her hands were tied. Anyway, I didn’t want to fix this problem, I had already decided to cancel the order before it was even “declined”, my selection was made too hastily without consideration of other options, but I was very angry with Dell for making me have to be the one to suffer the follow-up efforts on behalf of their own mistake.

I am truly befuddled by the one-cent mishap. How many customers have to go through this? Does this happen every time the payment methods are split? There is no “complaints and suggestions” e-mail address to pass these people a hint, either. Best I can do is blog about it.

I have since been looking at other brands such as HP. Dell has gone the way of Apple anyway, the Studio XPS, Adamo, and (*gag*) Alienware product lines charge way too much for making an artistic statement rather than for being practical. I’d be interested in the Dell Precision line but my line of credit only applies to home/personal products (which makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever). But I expect I’ll find a laptop, something practical that I’ll enjoy within the next couple weeks.

Meanwhile as for this Toshiba, I think I’m going to try to salvage it. I’ll keep looking for that fan I need, maybe I’ll get lucky and find just the fan on eBay sometime. I don’t see myself getting it working particularly soon so it’ll ultimately be a backup machine but a backup machine has to be in working order or else it’s not a backup, right?

Pimping Out My Satellite

by Jon Davis 24. August 2007 00:10

I decided to buy a laptop to replace the cheap one I had bought at Wal-Mart about ten months ago. It was a rare (read: unpopular) Acer laptop. It was just a cheap $700 thing (could sell now for $500-600 new), and I upgraded the RAM and hard drive but my biggest problem with it was that the screen size and resolution was just too small and weak. The 'O' key on the keyboard thing fell off while I was typing. It's still under warranty and still out getting its free repair. It took me several months for me to get around to sending it because it was still usable. I prefer to use a laptop for everyday home use (even though I've got a couple desktop machines sitting around at home, I like using the laptop while the TV is in view, not to mention the obvious need to take it with me on the road and to the office). With that 'O' key missing, I was still able to use it by pressing into the little hole there, which is why it took so long for me to get around to sending it off for repair, but it was awkward enough that I simply didn't use the laptop hardly at all.

Due to some handy alignment of the moons and stars, credit, and cash, I was able to have an almost unlimited budget for a replacement, on the expectation that I will sell my obsoleted laptop along with some other stuff. I definitely wanted to spend four digits on an upgrade laptop, and I wanted something that I could depend on more regularly that would be performant, high memory, and plenty of hard drive space. Since I'm a gamer, I was also looking for DirectX 10 support. I was looking at the revised XPS line of Dell laptops, namely the Dell XPS M1330, but as handy as ultraportables are I like big keyboards and I especially wanted to get a high resolution display (in the 1600 pixel range for width), and the Dell XPS M1710 looked too similar (or was the same model as) a co-worker's machine (I like to be somewhat unique), and the Dell XPS M2010 isn't really a laptop, nor a "portable desktop replacement" so much as a full-blown desktop PC with a handle.

There's a Fry's Electronics not far from where I work, so at the end of the day yesterday (Wednesday) I went over there to see if they had anything interesting. I wasn't impressed; everything they have--everything almost everyone has, it seems--is either expensive, useless mini-gizmo gadgetry like the Sony UX Micro PC or just a bunch of cheap low-end consumer stuff in the $500-900 range. But out of three or four aisles and forty or so laptop models, they did have five or six mid-range to high-end consumer PCs. And I wasn't impressed with them, either, except that one of them really kept drawing me. It was a Toshiba Satellite X205-S9359, selling about $500-1000 over my planned price range, but the more I looked at it the more I felt compelled to consider it. Besides looking absolutely stunning on its own, the bulleted list of features on the display decals had me raising my eyebrows:

  • 1680 x 1050 resolution WSXGA TruBrite display @ 17 inches
    • this is perfect; Dell's high-end laptops have had even greater resolutions but just too small, making me squint
  • Intel Core 2 Duo processor (T7300)
  • GeForce 8700M GT (DirectX 10 compatible) with 512MB VRAM
  • 320GB hard drive space (two drives)
  • 1GB/s LAN
  • .. and some other, rather expensive stuff I didn't care about like ..
    • HD DVD-ROM
    • USB HD TV Tuner
    • 4 Harman Kardon Speakers with subwoofer
    • Dolby Home Theater technology
    • Built-in webcam
    • HDMI output
    • firewire / IEEE 1394
    • fingerprint scanner
    • 2GB RAM
    • Bluetooth

Since I already have an Xbox 360 with the HD-DVD add-on, and I have an external HD TV tuner that I bought at a recent CompUSA going out of business sale and I'm not using it, and I have an extra webcam lying around, and I knew I wanted to upgrade the RAM to 4GB which meant eBaying the 2GB, and I have no need for fingerprint security, it seemed to be an obvious waste of money. But I bought it anyway, because the processor, display resolution, future-readiness of the gaming graphics, and keyboard quality could not have been more perfect. Nobody else hit the nail on the head so perfectly from what I could tell, except for HP. I could've gone with HP. I didn't because this one was right here, I could put my hands on it, plus I could buy a RAM upgrade to 4GB while there at Fry's.

The hard drive speed is the only other option that needed an upgrade. 5600 RPM is faster than 4200 RPM but it's still slow, and I can feel it. Hitachi has a 200GB 7200 RPM drive, and this laptop supports two drives, so I bought two of those Hitachi's today over the Internet. I'll eBay the 5600 RPM drives after the 7200 RPM drives arrive.

Since 4 GB upgraded RAM requires Windows Vista 64-bit to use all 4GB (you can use the /3GB switch, but that is prone to running out of user resources due to device hardware address space utilizing the upper registers of RAM), the new question becomes, does Toshiba support it? After all, at this point the only scenarios when Windows Vista 64-bit does not work for most people is the lack of hardware driver support. Fortunately, for the most part most OEM hardware vendors have caught up with the demand for 64-bit drivers; this was not true just months ago, but seems to be true now. Unfortunately, however, Toshiba is not among those vendors.

None of the drivers that Toshiba provides on their support web site for the Satellite X205-S9359 are even labeled as 32-bit, yet they are all essentially 32-bit. It's almost like they are living in some kind of wacky dreamland where 64-bit operating systems don't even exist so there's no reason to differentiate the downloads. This is ironic, because the Toshiba hardware (Core 2 Duo) fully supports a x64 operating system, despite the lack of drivers.

On the other hand, many of the downloads that Toshiba's support web site provides are OEM software packages that are dual format 32-bit & 64-bit. I was able to get the essentials installed, but the video card drivers--the most important driver after the LAN driver--had to be obtained here: http://www.laptopvideo2go.com/forum/index.php?showforum=66. This had me uncomfortable, of course, as I posted here: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?webtag=ws-laptop&nav=messages&tid=82942. Even so, I have full resolution with Aero support, and Lord of the Rings Online at maximum quality settings looks absolutely stunning.

Among the hardware devices on the laptop that I noticed are working with Vista 64-bit:

  • video adapter (using the laptopvideo2go.com drivers) and Direct3D support
  • LAN
  • audio
  • webcam (full software install worked)

 Among the drivers that wouldn't install or don't seem to be configured correctly in Vista 64-bit:

  • the fingerprint scanner / software, despite the same version being available in 64-bit format for purchase at the OEM manufacturer's web site
  • one or two of the Intel chipset driver installers
  • Bluetooth software wouldn't detect the hardware

Not yet tested:

  • HD-DVD playback
  • HDMI output
  • Wireless LAN
  • DirectX 10 functionality on the video card
  • TV tuner

 UPDATE: To follow-up, among the "not yet tested" list, these proved to work:

- Wireless LAN
- DirectX 10 functionality (using laptopvideo2go.com drivers)

.. and these proved not to work:

- HD-DVD playback
- TV tuner

I'll have to reinstall everything when my hard drive upgrades arrive, but so far the test run seems to be going successfully. There's a 15-day return policy at Fry's that I expected to take advantage of, but I am feeling more and more confident that there will be no need to return it. But on a side note, one additional disappointment is that there is NO media / restore disc provided with the laptop, so if you're not as self-sufficient as I am with my MSDN software access to Windows Ultimate, etc., you'll have to plan on going through hassle-channels rather than fetching a disc. First thing I did was use the "back up my computer" function in Windows Vista so I can restore the system to the original configuration (and I backed up to the second hard drive). But except for Windows itself, the software including bloatware was available from Toshiba's web site.

With my basic (even if costly) customizations, this is by far the most expensive computer purchase I have ever made in my life. That said, though, it's also going to be the coolest and most versatile gaming and software development workstation PC I've ever had.


 

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
 
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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