Posted on

Vendor Rant: Dell & Asus

First off, let me say this is not just a post purely to rant. About once/week I have somebody asking me “what brand laptop/desktop/servers” should I buy. OK, servers are less often but do come up about once/year when other CTOs ask me what I’m buying these days.

Now on to the venting & then some useful info…

This is a rare 2-for-1 rant. Let’s start by re-kindling the old rant with Asus. Talk about a company that has utterly failed in a new market after being successful. Asus makes great motherboards. Asus makes REALLY REALLY HORRIBLE laptops. My top-of-the-line (at the time) Asus G73JH has been nothing but a disaster from day 1.

Asus Service Round 1 : Epic Fail

To recap last year’s rant, my Asus G73JH stopped working in less than seven months. Actually it never quite worked, at least not properly. Seven months in it became unusable with the now infamous “Grey Screen Of Death”. The video processor was completely fubar and on boot the system would hang or just display the gray “pinstripes”. Some blamed it on the video bios, but whatever the problem it had to go in for repair. That is when all hell broke lose.

The “1 week repair” took 4 months. Asus, after random claims of my not shipping it or their not receiving it, finally admitted they “lost it”. The “fixed in 3 months or we refund your original purchase” did not hold. They said that policy does not cover my laptop because technically they’ve not started the repair process, they just can’t find my laptop.

4 months later after having purchased another laptop from Dell, the Asus came back.

Asus Hardware : Epic Fail

Fast forward almost exactly 1 year to the day. We are ready for Asus failure round 2. I have a brand new RMA sitting on my desk and I’m waiting for my new HP laptop to get here so I can ship this piece of junk back to Asus. This time I ordered the laptop BEFORE shipping the Asus as I have no idea if I’ll ever see my Asus G73JH again.

This time around the disk controller built into the motherboard is failing randomly. The disk I/O interface freezes at random times. Usually at boot, due to the high amount of disk I/O, but it can happen at ANY time. Typically this will leave traces in the Windows event log that iaStor 0 has stopped responding just moments before the system hangs. After suspecting a drive failure and replacing the primary drive with a brand new unit, it was apparent it is NOT the drive but the controller. This week the laptop started telling me to “insert the boot disk”, the answer to which is to power-off/power-on and pray. One in ten times it will then boot fully.

The other issues: two distinct “bright spots” on the LCD where the back lighting bleeds through fairly severely making any graphics work on the laptop monitor difficult, a touchpad with dead spots (and I RARELY use it, maybe once/month when travelling), and a usb port that if you happen to TOUCH a usb connector to it upside-down (and who EVER does that) immediately turns off the system with a hard power off.

So, the laptop has a new RMA and will go away for who-knows-how-long.

Dell Customer Service : Epic Fail

I like Dell. Always have. They are my go-to supplier for desktops and laptops and have long been my recommended solution for most of my business clients. However the last few times I’ve dealt with them their service has been horrible. They outsourced all their customer service about a decade ago. It was a horrible experience. About five years ago they brought most of that back on shore, things got better.

Apparently Dell has not learned their lesson. My recent order for a new Dell laptop has shown that Dell decided to go the cost-cutting route and outsource once again. What a huge mistake. This has been the WORST customer service and product ordering experience I have ever had in 20+ years of purchasing hardware.

First off, I ordered a Vostro 3750 Fastship model. It was not exactly what I wanted but I compromised. I needed it here YESTERDAY to replace the failing Asus. I went with this model because they had a special deal AND free overnight shipping AND it would ship the next day. I’d have it in less than 48 hours. Perfect!

But wait, NOOOO… that would not be the case. The day the laptop was promised to arrive I has finished moving all my files off the Asus to an external drive. I cleared out all my settings and my passwords in preparation for repair. After an hour of this process I booted the Asus and got my first email messages.

“Dear customer – your order will NOT ARRIVE TODAY as promised, your new *anticipated* arrival date is this Friday”. Forty eight hours AFTER their promised next day service with their FAST SHIP system. Damn it. The only reason I ordered this system and compromised on the specs was because I could have it in < 48 hours.

Dell : Service Rodeo

The first thing I did was call the 800# that was listed on the order for “more information” or to cancel the order. “John”, clearly in India somewhere, answered. He asked “The Four Questions”:

* “What is your name?”

* “What are you calling in refrence to?”

* “Can I have your order number?”

* “Can I have a call back number in case we get disconnected?”

After answering all 4 questions he looks up my order and basically reads the email I already received back to me. I tell “John” that I need to know why the order was delayed and need to be certain it will ship within 24 hours so I can have it before the weekend. He tells me the cookie-cutter response: “The order was delayed due to a parts shortage, I will look into that for you. Sixty second pause. I don’t see any parts on back-order. It *should* ship tomorrow.”, given the emphasis on SHOULD (his emphasis, not mine) I ask him, “Should? Is there any way to find out for certain, or at least with some high probability that this will actually ship. It is important I have this laptop by Friday.” The response from “John” is “I can’t answer that but a customer service representative can, if you will hold I will get one for you.” I hold. Two minutes later I’m transferred.

“Steve” picks up. Funny accent for Steve, but OK. He asks EXACTLY the same questions. He reads me EXACTLY the same script, a version of my email telling me the order will arrive Friday. I ask the same exact question, he gives EXACTLY the same response as “John”. We follow the same path and he transfers me to a “customer service” representative.

“Prapeet” picks up. Literally a nearly IDENTICAL exchange as John & Steve. Almost verbatim. What the hell.

Twenty five minutes later I’m on the phone with a different “John”. I’ve now spoken to FOUR, no kidding, FOUR people that did the same exact routine. When Steve answers I just about lose my mind. I tell him if he can’t give me an actual answer and tries to transfer me to a customer service agent I’m going to “go postal”. At the end of that conversation he tells me “I can’t get you an answer, but let me have your number and I’ll call you back by end of the day TOMORROW”. WHAT?!?! I need to know before end of day tomorrow or I’ll have no other option but to order something else. He promises to call back within 4 hours.

Dell: The Truth Comes Out

To “John #2’s” credit, he DOES call me back. Guess what? After four people tell me my order *should* be here Friday he gets me the truth. One of the MAIN PARTS is on backorder and there is very little chance my order will ship anytime this week.

What the hell? Dell not only took the order knowing this, but they have trained their customer service reps to lie (or are purposely feeding them mis-leading/inaccurate information). After a series of email exchanges, and thanks in part to “John’s” honesty I ended up having to cancel my order.

The best part is that before the order is fully cancelled, I get an email from Dell on the SECOND PROMISED SHIP DATE saying:

Dear Dell valued customer,

During the process in creating your order, we encountered an error. To resolve this issue, we were required to cancel order number 937687130. Please contact your account representative if you have any questions.

They cancelled the original order more than 72 hours late. Wow. What a cluster.

Dell : On Site Repair Fail

As a side note, which is related to the comments in The Summary below, our last Dell purchase has been great. Until last month. A year into service the motherboard failed. Luckily we had next-day on-site business repair services. It was easy-to-use and well executed. They arrived promptly the next morning and repaired the system.

Sadly, however, the technician used a MAGNETIC screwdriver to repair the laptop. That is a huge problem when you are re-installing a hard-drive after replacing a motherboard.  Shortly after the tech left the laptop was exhibiting drive corruption issues. 1% of the sectors were bad and some files were lost.

We had to purchase a new drive & transfer all the data. We did on our own after a 10 minute run to the local computer shop to buy a drive. We didn’t have time to setup another ticket and schedule another service call with Dell.

The Summary

Bottom line, customer service in general and especially in the consumer electronics world has gone to complete hell. There are virtually NO computer companies remaining that provide professional business-class services any longer, whether on a business or personal computing level.

I blame it on the constant downward pressure on computing devices and the harsh competition between the manufacturers as they attempt to garner market share purely based on pricing models.

The only standout exception to this is Apple. If anyone wonders how they command such large valuations on Wall Street and why their market cap is so high with barely 10% of the market, just look at their price models. They are consistently higher priced. However for that price they at least make SOME EFFORT in customer service.

In fact the ONLY thing Apple is missing, in my opinion, that keeps them from storming the corporate world is the fact that they have ZERO offerings for next-day on-site support. If your laptop, server, whatever breaks and they can’t fix it over the phone you are screwed. If you are lucky enough to have a local Apple Store they can fix generic run-of-the-mill problems for their best-sellers and get you online in a day. However, for any serious problems or for stuff that is not on the best-sellers list like the highest-end laptops or servers you are out 3-5 days while they ship it out to a repair depot.

Someone in the “PC World” needs to get back to SERVICE FIRST and not play the price wars game. I, for one, will gladly pay a higher price for a better quality system with some real customer service.  Next-day, on-site service is a must to retain business continuity.   Today, that leaves me with a single choice: HP laptops, desktops, and servers with an on-site Extra Care warranty.

Apple could easily be there as they already have the quality-of-experience issue down pat, but they need to address the next-day on-site repair service to be viable in an enterprise setting.

My new laptop arrives soon. It is an HP. Dell is now off my list, even though they have next-day onsite, I can no longer recommend their systems due to deplorable service.

Based on dozens of systems purchases over the past 24 months, here are laptop/desktop brands I now stay away from:

  • Sony – Stay away at all costs, the systems come with bloatware, are overpriced, do not have on-site services of any kind, have a horrible repair process, and have horrible driver support. The $4,000 Vaio best-of-breed laptop was discontinued less than 4 months after launch and had ZERO 64-bit support. It is the most expensive laptop in the office and NOBODY wants it.
  • Asus – Again, great motherboards, horrible laptops. Just Google for a bit and ignore the planted 4 and 5-star reviews. You’ll find dozens of laptop complaints, primarily about major system failures.
  • Dell – Decent price for decent equipment, but heaven forbid you have any problems. Both the sales & service customer support is some of the worst in the business. If they could fix this they could recover.

Recommended laptop/desktop brands:

  • HP – But keep away from the low-end or mid-range consumer junk. There are distinct differences in build quality. Spend the extra $100-$300 and go upper-end only. The stuff at Walmart, Best Buy, etc. is mostly junk. For businesses get the Extra Care on-site warranty.
  • Apple – You pay a premium but their support people are zealots. That can be a good thing. The only down-side is that this is a no-go for business continuity if something major goes wrong. A laptop motherboard on a 15″ Macbook meant 5 days with zero use of the system. Just be prepared for that if it happens. It is not as rare as you think. Apple still uses the same chip suppliers and device suppliers as everyone else.

There you go, my experiences and recommendations… at least for Q1 2012.

 

Posted on

HP 2509M Display Truncating With Intel HD Graphics

The new Dell Inspiron 17R that was purchased recently is a good office computer with a couple of notable “gotchas”.  The audio “buzz” on the headphones due to internal electrical noise is a bit of nuisance.   However, as a programmer and 15-hours-a-day computer junkie, the screen resolution problems with the Intel HD graphics was even more annoying.    As a gadget geek, I knew going into this that integrated graphics would never perform as well as discrete graphics cards when it comes to high end applications like Photoshop or when playing modern games such as Starcraft II.    However, what I didn’t expect was the problems with various HD monitors that we would be connecting to this laptop.

After many hours of research both online and with the clueless technical support people at Dell (ok, I’ll give them a break, I don’t expect the $18k/year phone support employee to know much) I realized knew the problem was simply due to a driver compatibility issue.   On older HDMI capable monitors the Intel HD Graphics driver had no problem recognizing them as a standard computer monitor, which conveniently gets recognized as an RGB device.    This is an important point, because many monitors connected with HDMI report back that they are actually a television display.

That is notable since there IS actually a difference in how television displays and monitors are handled, even though they are nearly identical these days when talking about LCD or Plasma displays and how they function.   The way television was broadcast and how those old CRT screens were made led to some creative innovations.  One of those innovations was something called overscanning (or sometimes referred to as underscanning, which is a misnomer).    The simple explanation is that the picture coming into the device would be painted beyond the edges of the screen to hide annoying flicker and other artifacts of the synchronization issues between the broadcast signal, the code/decode mechanisms, and the dispay device itself.   The bulk of the picture showed up on the screen with a small 5% border being “trimmed off” all the way around the display.  On most tv programs, who would notice?
As it turns out, modern devices still account for that overscan.   In this particular case, the HP2509M monitor is being seen by the Intel HD Graphics built into the Inspiron 17R as a television.    The Intel HD graphics card is then sending a signal to the HP monitor that is automatically overscanned by about 5%.  As such I cannot see the start menu or anything else on the edges of the screen on the extended display.     However, there is a fix for this.

The Fix

NOTE: This will replace the Dell OEM driver.  Dell will no longer support your video configuration and you may render your computer inoperable if you do this incorrectly. If you do not understand what is going on here then STOP NOW and call Dell support and beg them to update their custom driver to include Intel’s latest patches.  Just because this worked on my Inpsiron 17R does not mean it will work on yours.

Replace The Dell OEM Driver

First – go to Intel and find the HD Graphics page.  Go to the drivers & download page and snag the proper ZIP FILE driver kit for your video card.  Make sure you get the right 32-bit or 64-bit version for the card you have.   Do NOT get the exe version, as you have no control over the vendor check and it will abort your install.

Once you have the downloaded ZIP kit, extract the graphics folder to your desktop.    You will use a driver file in that folder to update your graphics driver.

Right-click on your display, select “change resolution”, then go to advanced settings.    Go to the adapter tab and click on properties.

Click on driver, then select update driver, browse the computer, have disk, and go find the kit*.inf file in your extracted graphics folder.

After you install the updated driver, restart your computer.

Eliminate Overscan Via Graphic Properties

Now that you have the new driver you can eliminate overscan by setting up a custom resolution.  Start by right-clicking on the extended HDMI connected display.  Select Graphic Properties.

Click on custom resolutions.   Make sure the display has your HDMI connected display selected.  Set the width and height to your NATIVE resolution for the monitor (1920 x 1080 for my 2509M).   Set the refresh rate (60hz is typical).    Set the color bit depth, normally you just want 32 Bit.    Set the underscan percentage slider to 0.   Set the Timing standard to CVT-RB (that is a newer one supported by most modern monitors).    Click ADD.     It will ask to overwrite the existing setting, choose YES.

It will then apply the new custom resolution.  If you had set your scaling under general settings to something other than 100% you will want to put it back to 100%.  You should NOT need to scale if your native resolution & overscan in custom settings is set properly.

Unfortunately I’ve not found a way to name these resolutions uniquely, which means when I go home and connect my Asus 1920×1080 display with 32-bit graphics at 60hz it will show a black border.  My fix will be to set the Asus to 59hz thus giving me 2 different “custom settings” with different overscan settings (the Asus is recognized as a monitor and thus the default resolution was not overscanning).

Summary

Now I am enjoying the 25″ HP 2509M monitor in full 1920×1080 resolution with NO SCALING.    Trust me, this is a HUGE difference when working with text.   There is no more blurry text ANYWHERE on the screen.  This is how these monitors is supposed to look.  Don’t settle for less just because Dell doesn’t give you the tools you need to make this work.   Who knows, maybe someday they’ll have newer drivers that let you set this up properly.

Posted on

Dell Inspiron I17R Review

When my Asus laptop died last week I was left with no choice but to purchase another laptop.  I could not go a week (or more) without a computer.    Since I was planning a new computer purchase for a new hire it happened to be good timing.   After a good amount of research I selected a Dell Inspiron I17R.  The exact specs are here:

Dell – Inspiron Laptop / Intel® Core™ i5 Processor / 17.3″ Display / 6GB Memory / 640GB Hard Drive – Mars Black

Since I’ve had several different laptops now in the past 2 years, I thought you might want to learn about what is better and worse with this laptop than the others.   Since I am not comparing apples-to-apples here (or any Apples at all for that matter), I’ll share some background on what I am comparing this Inspiron I17R against.   The first laptop I purchased 2+ years ago was a $3800 Sony Vaio VGN-AR890U, supposedly the best-of-the-best as far as Sony goes (that model is not longer available).   The second laptop I purchased just over 90 days ago was a $1500 Asus G74JH-A1, the most powerful laptop they had at the time.    In comparison the Inspiron I17R is right at the top-end of their mid-range laptops.

Fit & Finish

One of the first things I noticed , right out of the box, is that the Inspiron I17R has  a MUCH better fit & finish than either the Sony or the Asus.   While the Sony comes very close in the fit & finish department, the Asus isn’t even close.    Some of the items on the fit & finish are purely a subjective matter based on the “look” of quality.    Others are quite obvious, especially in the case of the Asus system.

The Dell Inspiron I17R has a nice aluminum-looking finish on the surface around the keyboard.   It just looks that much more solid, and compared to the cheap black plastic look of the other laptops this is a much nicer appearance, IMO.   I’m fairly certain this is just a finish over a plastic surface, but whomever said “looks don’t matter” was quite possibly blind in one eye and had cataracts in the other.

Another key item to point out is how the pieces FIT with one-another.   Where the pieces of the case come together the seams are nearly, to us an appropriate term here, seamless.   One thing I notice almost immediately was that the edges of the LCD screen are a rounded bevel that curves AWAY from the user toward the back of the laptop when the screen is open.  That does a GREAT job of hiding the seams compared to the other laptops.  The Asus, in particular looks very cheap & cheesy in comparison, like a black plastic box just snapped into the lid.  Which it is… in fact the top right corner has popped out more than once leaving a gap between the LCD bezel and the case cover.

This laptop also has all of the expansion and accessory ports exposed, much like the Asus.  While I never really thought of this before, the Sony had most of them behind a closed door.  While that may look nicer when you are not using the laptop, when it comes down to business you almost ALWAYS are using a port and thus the “doors” need to be opened which make it look WORSE while actually in use.  More importantly, the constant opening & closing of the cheap plastic doors on the Sony are going to break something… which is EXACTLY what happened about 13 months into using the Vaio.   Also, the black paint used over the clear-white plastic started to wear off that Sony within a couple of months.  The Sony finish was CLEARLY inferior in many ways, very sad given the $4,000 price tag.

Port Placement

Again, this is something I’ve never put much thought into.  All 3 laptops take a different approach.  The Sony puts MOST of the ports on the sides hidden behind closed doors.  The Asus puts ALL of the ports on the sides.  The Dell puts some on each side and the back.

I’ve learned that for my daily use, where I move the computer from the house to the office EVERY DAY and connect a variety of peripherals, the Dell setup works the best.    Power in the back is a great option since my extra power cords are always hidden behind the desk at both offices (home & work).   It also keeps the power out of the way.    The Dell also has the 2 primary USB ports that I use for the keyboard & mouse on the back.  That means much less “pulling” on the cords to plug them in, like I have to do with the Asus.

Another important feature of this Dell that is distinctly different than both the Sony & the Asus is the port spacing.    The Dell is the ONLY laptop of the 3 that gives a decent amount of space around all of the ports.  In fact the USB ports are all in completely separate locations on the left & right side of the back of the laptop and on the left & right sides of the laptop itself.   This is a BIG thing when you plug in some USB devices.  On my Asus I find I often need to unplug my USB printer any time I need to plugin my larger USB stick.   That’s a pain with the Asus and something that I immediately noticed with the Dell layout.

System Hardware Performance

Ok, so what about the performance of the system, not just the cosmetics?   Well, the Inspiron I17R is OK.    Basically exactly what I expected.   Both the Sony (literally 8x the price) and the Asus (nearly 2x the price) outperform the Dell in nearly every way.  However I did NOT purchase this to be my primary gaming & work system.   This is meant to be a workstation for a programmer first & foremost, and be able to provide a little entertainment like streaming Pandora as a secondary feature.

Video Performance

The main screen is very nice looking.  Kind of surprising given the lower resolution (1600×900 versus 1920×1080 on the Asus and 1920×1200 on the Sony).   However, one thing I learned with this purchase… DON’T JUST SHOP NUMBERS ON PAPER.   In fact I am going to try to actually go SEE the next laptop before I purchase.  It is very obvious that the “glass” (the LCD as a whole) is of MUCH higher quality than the Asus and even a little better than the Sony.   The colors are crisp, clear, and vibrant right out of the box.   Nice job Dell!

However, one thing I did notice once starting to work is those extra pixels really do matter.   Going from the external 1920×1080 HDMI monitor back over the the laptop’s primary display makes it readily apparent just how much LESS real-estate I have at 1600×900 pixels.   While it is still very usable, I am quite a bit less efficient with the 25% reduction in screen real estate.  I didn’t think it would make a big difference, but it DOES have a notable impact.

Another issue with the Dell I17R is that it the built-in Intel HD graphics (don’t be fooled here, “HD graphics” means LOW END graphics a pet peeve of mine as it is clearly deceptive advertising & branding from Intel IMO) pales in comparison to either the Asus or the Sony.   Yes, I could have purchased the Dell I17R with a discreet Nvidia graphics card, however I could NOT get that the same day from the local Best Buy store.   However, if you have a few days to wait and do want an I17R, spend the extra $100 and get the upgraded video card.  It makes a BIG difference for work and ESPECIALLY for play.

For work, the Intel HD graphics has a problem working with the full 1920×1080 resolution of my external 25″ HP monitor.   Every other system I’ve used with HDMI connectivity recognizes & configures itself properly for the full resolution of that monitor.  On the Dell it only fills the screen if I use custom scaling on 1920×1080 or set it to 1600×900 resolution. Both make that HP monitor blurry for text, which I learned leads to eye strain very quickly when coding for hours at a time.

Another thing I noticed very quickly with the graphics is that once you connect an external monitor the video card has a hard time keeping up.  Even the main windows login screen has problems rendering.  When I type my password there is actually rendering lag.  In fact it is so bad that the password screen gets half-erased leaving odd corners, then fully erased, then the screen blanks out as the login process occurs.  I have NEVER seen a video card so slow that you can see the screen rendering taking place.

For play, the Intel HD graphics doesn’t even come CLOSE to the discreet graphics cards.  While playing a challenge series on Starcraft II, which has limited moving 3D objects unlike an interactive game, the Dell I17R had a hard time keeping up even with all settings set to medium.  Starcraft II has settings from low (blah graphics) to Ultra, with 3 steps in between (5 total).    Low is like watching a movie through a dirty pane of glass, and a re-mastered 1950’s classic at that.   Ultra is like seeing Avatar 3D in a fully digital IMAX theater.     The I17R is only usable in gaming if all the graphics settings on modern games are set to their lowest setting.  If you’ve played at any of the higher settings this will be very noticeable and will reduce enjoyment of the games.   If you are playing Solitaire then you’ll be fine, but anything else will be a challenge.    It is important to note that this issue is not unique to Dell, but a typical issue with integrated graphics or “Intel HD” graphics which is their misnomer for an integrated graphics system.     Discreet graphics cards, even low-end cards (which typically have 512M+ of dedicated video RAM these days) has a HUGE impact on gaming.   If you are even THINKING about playing games on a laptop ALWAYS get the discreet graphics card option.

Audio Performance

For those of you that don’t know me, I am an avid music listener.   I probably listen to anywhere from 4-12 hours of online music every day.   Often streamed by Pandora, but as any music listener knows, no one service suffices and I do jump around from my private collection to Pandora to Rhapsody and others on a regular basis.    Music is important to me, as is the QUALITY of the sound.

In general, laptops FAIL at audio quality.  Much like most mobile devices, they simply cannot pack the processing oomph into a small package.  Actually, if ANY of the system engineers were audiophiles they COULD make it happen.  They just choose to allocate that precious real estate to things that typical users will eat up like extra LEDs on every key & port, extra buttons scattered around the box to make it LOOK like it does more cool stuff, and a half-dozen extra useless ports.   Granted, Dell keeps this to a minimum on this particular laptop, but in general audio is WAAAAYYY down on the engineering hit list.

Audio, however, is very HIGH on the marketing hit list.  This makes for an interesting dynamic when it comes to laptop audio, and this Dell is no different.  The I17R boasts “SRS Premium Sound”.  The marketing guys find this important enough to plaster all over the box and so much so that it is the ONLY screen-printed (versus stuck-on stickers) graphic other than the Dell logo on the laptop itself.   However it is truly a farce.

The audio quality of this Dell is by far the worse of all 3 laptops.  To be fair, for the price they did not put in any extra speakers nor should they as it adds weight and price.   BUT the audio they do have is sub-par IMO.     The built-in speakers are VERY tiny and nearly impossible to get any semblance of bass.  Even after tweaking the “SRS Premium Audio” settings in the control panel it is simply not possible to eek out anything but an overly tinny sound coming from any audio track.  

Side Note: SRS Premium Audio, which Dell has plastered all over this I17R, is nothing more than a software application that tweaks the Realtek audio chip a bit to provide different audio profiles.    It means NOTHING as far as the laptop’s ability to actually produce quality sound.

Plugging in the headsets really doesn’t help much.    The sound is still very tinny, but surprisingly it is marginally better than on the laptop itself.  However, it is very obvious that the Realtek chipset and the physical connections on the audio components simply are not up to the job for anything other than basic business-class sound (meaning Skype conference calls in most cases).

In fact, the headset audio on this particular I17R has a very annoying hum & whine while there is NO AUDIO playing.   It is an obvious intrusion of electronics noise as it is louder and more prevalent when the case cooling fan kicks in, which is fairly often.    If you have a quiet music passage, or the music just plain stops, you are always greeted with that subtle-but-very-noticeable audio noise on the headset.

Also important to note, that of the 3 laptops, only the $800 Dell I17R does NOT have digital audio output.  That means no option to connect this system to my external surround sound receiver, which is something I did do at the home office with the other two laptops.  Nothing like letting a real receiver do all the “heavy lifting” and let the computer do what it does best, process digital signals and send them down unfettered to an external device via the impedance-free Toslink cable.

CPU Performance

Overall the CPU, does very well.    While playing Starcraft II there was lag but most of that appears to be caused by the video performance.    While running the Linux VMware virtual machines, firing up a variety of applications, and doing “real work”, the system performed fairly well.  Every now & then a bit of a slow-down, but in general the I5 M460 processor did BETTER than I expected.      Yes, it WAS noticeable at times when compared to the I7 processor in the Asus and the quad-core Q-series Pentium in the Sony, but it could keep up and was certainly viable for getting work done.    No complaints in the processor department.

Summary

So when I look at the system overall, would I recommend this purchase?    Well, that depends.    For myself it is a definite no.   The audio & video performance just don’t meet my admittedly high standards.   However as a general laptop for work & some play, absolutely.

Since this particular unit was  a Best Buy purchase we also get the best of both worlds.  If something goes horribly wrong in the next few months we can bring it back to the local store and get it swapped out as long as they continue to carry the I17R in stock.   Beyond that we get over a year of on-site service from Dell by registering the service tag on the Dell website.  Given my recent spate of failed laptops (both the Sony and Asus had premature screen deaths), this is an important consideration.  Neither I nor my employees can be without a computer for days-on-end.

Also important to note is that when we called Dell to ask about warranty concerns and for general information while considering this purchase, they provided EXCELLENT phone support.   This is quite a stark contrast to the Dell from 3 years ago.

The Dell Inspiron I17R is reasonably priced for what you get.   Unless you are a gamer or an audiophile, I would recommend this purchase over most laptops in this price range.

Posted on

How To Buy A Business Laptop

Lesson learned, don’t always go for the latest laptop with the fastest processor, most memory, and biggest screen.   Not that those traits are BAD things to look for.  Making a decision to purchased based on those metrics cross-referenced with the price IS a bad way to buy a laptop.  At least if that laptop is your primary computer, which it is for most of us, and DEFINITELY the wrong way to shop when it is your primary BUSINESS and personal computer.  I admit, I was foolish in how I bought my most recent laptops.  Not just once, but TWICE.    Shame on me.   Luckily I’ve learned my lesson and am sharing that lesson here with you so that you may avoid the same pitfalls and maybe short-circuit your buying research and save a few hours in your day.

Mistake #1: Sony Vaio VGN-AR890U

The first laptop I purchased in a very long time, just over 2 years ago now, was a Sony Vaio.    I knew what features I wanted, a big screen (17″+) with true high definition and a fast CPU.    I wanted to be able to replace my desktop tower that handled HD video editing of my then-2-years-old son with aplomb.   An hour of video rendered, fully edited, in less than 30 minutes.    Not many laptops could do that, but I found a FEW that did.   The Sony Vaio was one of them.    It got rave reviews from the few people that actually purchased them as well as a LOT of editors at places like CNET that get plenty of advertising dollars from companies like Sony.     I figured it was a big company with a lot of resources and I was buying from Newegg, a well-known online retailer.   I even bought the extended 3-year warranty with accidental damage coverage.

Wow, was THAT a mistake.   This $4,000 high-end laptop had virtually NO accessories that make life more bearable with a highly mobile laptop.  No docking stations, no stands, and barely a backpack that would fit this 9-pound guerrilla.  I wound up with a generic Sony USB docking station, that never really worked right.   It NEVER supported the full HD resolution afforded by the HDMI connection even though it had DVI output.   It also never had properly updated drivers that would work with the 32-bit Vista OS that came with the system.     In addition, Sony made NO EFFORT to put forth ANY drivers beyond those initially released, which meant all the bugs, system crashes and other problems where there to stay.   (Interesting side note: The system touts 64-bit all over the place and 4GB of RAM, but ONLY Vista 32-bit is supported so 25% of the RAM is useless and NOTHING is executed 64-bit).

Then the pixels started dropping.   About a year and 1 month into service the pixels started dropping.  Some red, some white.  It was starting to look a bit like Christmas.  Every day.   Then the bad pixels decided to get together and form a band.    A little bad-pixel mosh-pit opened up in the top right quadrant of the screen in a very conspicuous space that you’d never even notice; about 1.5″ down from the top and 2″ in from the right edge.  Perfect.   Just before I sent the Sony out for service to fix the broken door latches and these bad pixels I swear they formed an outline of someone flipping me the bird.

Now came my first lesson in buying a laptop:  DO NOT BUY AN EXTENDED WARRANTY FROM SERVICENET.    After many painful hours on the phone with ServiceNet, which was the only extended warranty option offered because I bought this laptop from Newegg, we finally got an RMA number.   They told me to send in my laptop (sorry, no advanced replacement) and I’d get it back in about a week.  THREE WEEKS later it finally showed up.    We powered it on and it promptly decided to show the full screen with no dead pixels for about 30 seconds and then relegate the screen to a permanent cloak of darknesss, operating at about 25% of the lowest brightness setting.    You couldn’t even see the screen in a dark room.   What a joke.

Lesson #2: DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING SERVICENET TELLS YOU. We sent the laptop back in for repair AGAIN.    This time they told us it would be “a couple of weeks”.  By which they mean TWO AN A HALF MONTHS.    Guess they use a different calendar in that part of the country.    After countless calls where we would ask “where is our laptop” and getting a “parts are on order, but we WILL get this back to you next week” we finally gave up.   Then, suddenly, as if by some God-given miracle a beat-up box arrived with our old friend the Sony Vaio laptop inside.    We promptly erased the drive, installed Windows 7 64-bit (after all Sony didn’t support this thing with THEIR drivers), and it’s been running happily for about 5 weeks now.     (Another interesting side note:  Sony stopped selling & supporting this laptop after just 6-8 months on the market.   Good luck getting ANY support on this $4,000 “top-of-the-line-best-we-make” product from Sony).

Lesson #3: The “BIG BRANDS” (Sony) Are NO MORE Helpful Than Smaller Brands. After dealing with this debacle for almost a year I also learned the Sony really had no clue about their laptops.  The supposed “Vaio premium support” was no better than support for any $500 off-the-shelf Taiwanese computer.  They spoke English no better, provided just as horrible after-hours support, and knew nothing about the product.  The read the same cookie-cutter scripts & had us uninstall & re-install the drivers, operating system, power off for 5 minutes, and other routine technical support tricks.  When they finally decided the system was fubar they offered NO ASSISTANCE in getting it repaired.  They simply said “contact the place you bought it from”.   Great.  Nice job Sony.

Mistake #2: Asus G73JH

When I finally realized that there was no way around sending my Vaio out for repair for more than a week I knew I had no choice but to get a replacement laptop & load it up before sending out my Vaio.  This time I played it smart and went with a laptop that came WITH ITS OWN extended warranty & support.   After a bit of searching I found a company that touts its warranty coverage for laptops as “head and shoulders above the competition”.    They claim the fewest laptop defects of any manufacturer (a claim reinforced by their on-hold advertising while waiting for customer support for an RMA claim, how ironic!).      They also are the only company that comes with a 2-year factory warranty with accidental damage “out of the box”.      They do a great job marketing their customer service, their warranty, and their below-normal failure rates on their laptops.

Lesson #4: Don’t believe the marketing hype. Even though I read CONSUMER reviews and avoided any opinions written by paid editors or the company itself, Asus told a good story.  Most early consumer reviews were good.   The marketing hype was better.  I mean, here was a company that truly has fooled itself into believing it’s own hype.  They have GREAT warranties and GREAT support.    Woah, not so fast.     In the 48 hours we’ve been dealing with trying to get my dead screen serviced we’ve spent nearly 20 HOURS combined with two of us trying to hunt down a knowledgeable customer service rep.   My technical support ticket, now 30 hours old, has yet to receive a response of any kind.      This is starting to feel just like any other laptop manufacturer to me.

Lesson #5: Don’t buy new release models. Although the initial reviews of the G73JH were positive, in the months since I purchased this laptop the reviews have turned sour. There are HUNDREDS of people complaining that this gaming laptop cannot run games properly.  There are serious design issues with the ATI video board and how it plays with the Asus BIOS.   Asus blames ATI. ATI blames Asus.  The consumer is caught in the middle.  The bottom line is that graphics don’t render properly in many games.  Even when not gaming many video cards show what has become the infamous “gray screen of death” and the “psychedelic screen of death” (different colored striping on the monitor).    My laptop just suddenly decided not to communicate with the built-in LCD, what has become known as the “black screen of death”.    One laptop, less than a year in production, and so many creative new names all ending with *SOD.   Wonderful.     Problem is, this laptop is the first one Asus has put out on this platform. Clearly all the bugs are NOT worked out.  In fact it appears that Asus has already taken this model out of production (much like Sony did with the VGN-AR890U) and has released a similar G73JH-X5 model.  Guess they are hoping a new suffix will prevent all that bad feedback posted on the old model from following around their new platform.

Preventing Mistake #3

At this point I have realized that I know have to purchase a THIRD laptop to replace my new “bucket of fail” that has been delivered in the form of an Asus laptop.    It is obvious that Asus will not help me with preventing an interruption of work, so it is up to me to fend for myself before sending away the Asus for a service that will take “just a week”.  Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that they will not “pull a Servicenet”, a week is way too long to be unplugged as a computer consultant.  That leaves me on the hunt for a new laptop.    Below is a summary of the brands I’ve reviewed in light of what may be the most important lesson of all:

THE BIG LESSON LEARNED:
When buying a laptop that is your PRIMARY computer for daily business use
make certain you have NEXT DAY SERVICE or ADVANCED REPLACEMENT available.

While that lesson is fairly obvious to some, what I’ve found out is that many – in fact most – laptop manufacturers do NOT consider this an important feature.  In fact I found ONLY ONE manufacturer to provide viable warranty and support services if you simply cannot be offline for more than 48 hours.    Here are some of my findings and who I will be buying my next laptop from.   It may not have all the latest & greatest bells & whistles, but it WILL allow me to stay online and keep my business running without interruption.    I can sacrifice and inch or two of screen real estate and a few Hertz on my CPU cycles as a trade for getting back online quickly should something fail.    First, the systems I WON’T be buying:

Apple

That’s right.   For all the hype about how well built their products are, they are NOT flawless (Google iPhone 4 and the initial launch, Apple makes mistakes too).    While I do like Apple products in general, after all they are shiny and look cool, there are TWO main reasons I won’t be getting one this time around.   The first is price.  You pay a premium for SHINY not for advanced technologies.  You simply do not get what you pay for.  The second and BIGGER reason is that Apple does NOT provide advanced replacement or guaranteed 48-hour turnaround.   If you have a catastrophic failure on a laptop you have to pack it up, ship it out, wait for repair, and hope it comes back soon.   That is at least 4-days before you see this thing again, *if* they have the parts in stock.   Sorry, but for business use that is a deal breaker.

Acer

Consumer brand.  No good extended warranty support and NOTHING close to professional class customer service or support via their website or toll-free numbers.

Asus

Another consumer brand.  Again, no options to get advanced replacement.  Also their much-touted customer service is all based in India from what we can tell and that makes it very hit-or-miss on whether or not you get a qualified support person to assist.

HP

If they have extended service or business service options they are nearly impossible to find via the website.  Also, the business class systems they offer which DO appear to have a premium level of support are LAME.   I guess business  users can’t possibly want anything over a 15″ screen or want to use it as a multimedia system after-hours.     Obviously HP thinks business laptops belong nowhere outside of the boardroom.

Lenovo.

See HP.

Sony

Well, the lessons are pretty well spelled out in the case study above.   Also, they charge as much a premium as Apple… almost.   But you get much LESS service.  No local “Sony Store” around here, and even if there was they are clueless at those places.   At least Apple Store employees have a clue most of the time.  Also, no advanced replacement or 48-hour turnaround.    Sony, much like Apple, is a CONSUMER BRAND.   They are not geared toward business users.

Toshiba

Nope.  Good brand, but the ONLY offer extended warranties through Servicenet.   I’d rather have my head put in a vice and have it tightened slowly for 6 hours straight than deal with another Servicenet support call.   No WAY am I going with a company that only offers Servicenet support.

What Will I Buy?

Dell.

That’s right, Dell.  The same company I stopped buying from 2 years ago because they could NEVER ship a system on time.  They also went through nearly 2 full years of ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE customer service when they outsourced nearly the entire operation to India.    Lately they’ve been cleaning up the mess.   The new Mexico-centric support center is MUCH BETTER at understanding and dealing with support issues.    They also seem to be getting better at at least estimating the delays in shipments BEFORE you buy.    Even though you may have to wait, at least it’s not “wait 10 days” then “wait 10 more days” then “wait another week”.    At least that is what I’ve been told from others in the industry.

More importantly, nearly EVERY high-end laptop and EVERY business laptop comes with NEXT DAY ON SITE SERVICE.   Most for just the first year, but ALL have a 3, 4, or even 5-year extension available.   That’s right, you debug the issue on the phone (to save a useless, “oh just press FN-F7? duh” trip) and if they determine it truly is a problem, a Dell representative will show up the NEXT DAY and fix your laptop.     They also offer damage protection and all the other goodies direct from Dell.   Sure, they may outsource all of that, but you still deal with Dell directly.

Do I know WHICH laptop I’m going to buy?   Nope.  But I can assure you it will not be their latest model.  In fact I’m leaning toward the Precision laptops that have been around for ages.  They even have REAL DOCKING STATIONS based on the same proprietary port that all Latitude & Precision laptops have had for years.     THOSE systems have real drivers that have been fully debugged and tested by thousands of users over the years.

So Dell, here I come.   I’m bringing my business back along with the $100,000 in annual purchases I make and/or recommend for myself and my clients.    Are you ready to do it right this time?   I am.