Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's Official: DELL. IS. CRAP.

I'm done. That's it, that's all, finito. I have officially decided that I will no longer endorse Dell computers.

While I'm sure the folks in Austin are quaking in their boots at the avalanche of lost business that my new official position will cause them, I felt compelled to share with you the experiences that led me to this point.

I've been a Dell buyer since college. When I decided to graduate from my self-built computer to an off-the-shelf model, Dell was the hottest game in town. I had good experiences with them for a number of years (a perfect record, in fact, outside of a brief period of horror caused by Microsoft Windows ME, which wasn't Dell's fault), and recommended them over and over to numerous people. I can't recall having a single hardware failure, and the customer support was more than sufficient on the few times I actually needed it.

Then...things changed. A couple years ago we purchased an Inspiron 1521 notebook. In short, it was crap. From the first unboxing, it had problems. I can't even begin to relate them all, but there were both hardware issues and software issues.
It also got extremely hot on the underside, so we purchased a slice with extra fans to help keep it cool. I do know that I spent hours upon hours on the phone with their tech support, who inevitably came back to one answer: reinstall Windows. As much as it is a pain in the tookus for non-techies to backup their stuff, reinstall Windows, and restore everything the way it was, can you imagine what it was like for a constant tinkerer like me? My favorite analogy to this is that of knocking down and rebuilding an entire house in order to fix a leaky ceiling. It's extreme overkill. It's just not practical, and there are other ways to locate and resolve the problem, but Dell wasn't interested in that. However, with over a decade of warm fuzzies behind me, I pluckily played the game with tech support for far longer than I should have. If it helps illustrate the depths of the problems we had with that piece of crap, let me tell you that I was able to request/guilt/cajole/demand the following items out of them for free:

- a replacement notebook (same model as the defective one)
- a new printer
- a second new printer (significantly better and much fancier than the defective one)
- a 12' printer cable (as opposed to the 6' one it came with)
- a wireless card for the fancy printer
- a kit containing a power adapter for home and car use
- a memory upgrade

Now, I'm no professional negotiator. And, if you've ever tried to squeeze any of these things out of a company like Dell or HP in the past, you know that they just don't give this stuff out. But, like I said, this beast was total crap. And it was running Vista, but again, that was a Microsoft thing, and they could only do so much with that. But mostly, it was crap. They knew it, I knew it, and they knew I knew it, probably because I would let them do their tech support thing and inevitably end at recommending I reinstall Windows, then do my own research to discover the real problem and fix it myself. Naturally, I had to call them back and inform them of just how incompetent and ineffective their tech support people were. It was quite an effective tactic, as you can see.

Not long after that, though, it was time to ditch this one and get something new. This time we were in a good place and prepared to spend a bit more money on a bit nicer machine. I still had that loyalty thing nagging me, and we'd only had one disastrous machine out of many, so I ended up purchasing another Inspiron notebook. I wiped and reinstalled the old one and set it up for the kids to use for their games and school work. It appears to be content with that minimal level of use, and has worked well ever since (as long as we keep it on the cooling slice).

However, after purchasing a shiny new black notebook (an Inspiron 1564) just a few months ago, the one-time disaster became a pattern. This new one was an entry-level notebook, but with a few choice upgrades, so it wasn't a bottom-shelf model at all. And's what's gone wrong with this piece of crap:

- the DVD drive was dead when I took it out of the box and had to be replaced
- there were immediate software issues, and they rolled out their standard answer yet again: reinstall Windows (after doing my own research, it appears it was not, in fact, Windows, but one of the other applications I was installing that was causing some kind of conflict...but they never dug deep enough to figure that out)
- the hard drive died and had to be replaced
- random reboots began occurring

That random reboot thing is infuriating. Sometimes it happened overnight (during a backup or other overnight project). Sometimes it happened during the day while it was just sitting there on the desk while I was away at work. Sometimes it happened right in the middle of me typing up an e-mail or document. Sometimes it happened as often as three times a day. Infuriating is definitely the word. I called tech support in late January about that, and they couldn't find anything wrong with the hardware. Guess what their answer was? Reinstall Windows. Shocker. I decided I would reinstall Windows when I was good and ready to do so, and I would just deal with the reboots until then.

About a week ago, I just about threw the thing through the office window after a reboot during a particularly important e-mail. I probably would have if I could have sold the pieces of the wreckage afterward, but that was the last straw. I listed the thing on Craigslist. In the process of forcing myself to put the thing (gently) back down on the desk, I noticed that the bottom of the laptop was getting hot. I mean REALLY hot. As in hot enough to make you pull your hand away. Hmmm...

Okay, fine. We're still within the warranty period (yes, as hard as all that may be to believe, this is a 9-month old computer!), so I might as well make certain they follow through on every possible replacement to which they are legally obligated. Also, I'm pretty sure no one is going to want to buy something that is literally smoldering through their pants and curling up the hairs on their thighs. So I called tech support once more. I was almost hoping they wouldn't find anything. Fortunately for them, one of their diagnostic tools revealed that the hard drive was failing. Yep, AGAIN. But I don't think it's an accident.

Consider how long you've had your own computer...have you had to replace the hard drive yet? I suspect some of you have, but those were more than likely at least four or five years old, right? It is far more common for the original hard drive to outlast the computer's processing power's ability to run current software. A standard hard drive is old technology and typically lasts for thousands upon thousands of hours of operation.
To have two of them fail in the span of 9 months stretches credulity. Consider also the fact that the previous version of this notebook (the 1521 noted above) had overheating problems, as well as the fact that the 1564 notebook is built with the back portion of it being on a raised lip, providing almost a full inch of clearance between the desk and the bottom of the notebook. Consider also that the 1564 was marketed for (from what I can tell) only a few months in 2010. What do all of these things point to?

I suspect there is some design flaw in this particular model that is literally frying the hard drive, and by the time Dell figured it out, the only recourse they had was to pull the model from active sales.

Since we're still under warranty, the new drive will cost me nothing, but it will cost Dell a long-time customer. As soon as the new hard drive arrives, I'll install it and try to find a buyer to take this off my hands. I suspect it'll work fine for at least a few months, and probably even longer if the new owner decides to use a cooling slice, which I will suggest. But I'm done. I'm tired of putting up with substandard junk because of outdated and misplaced loyalty. I'm not yet sure what I'll get to replace this thing, but I'm confident it won't be a Dell, and it'll be much less hassle. Heck, I may just stick with my Droid X for a while!

So there's my story. If you're looking for a new computer -- especially an entry-level notebook -- avoid Dell Inspirons like the plague.

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