When Good Laptops Go Bad

by Jarred Walton on December 3, 2007 9:00 PM EST

We probably see a lot more computer hardware over the course of a year than most people are likely to use in a decade. (Okay, some enthusiasts might go through a lot of hardware, but I'm talking about your everyday average Joe.) For one reason or another, not all of the hardware we actually see ends up getting a full review. Some of it fails and the manufacturer decides not to send back a replacement, sometimes the manufacturer discontinues the product before we finish the review… whatever. The point is, we get our grubby little paws on a lot of different hardware, which hopefully means we are able to provide better advice on what's hot and what's not, even if we haven't personally tested every aspect of every device.

Since I began doing notebook reviews, I've received various email messages asking for help with a problem. Sometimes it's just a setting or feature they don't understand, but often it's about a flaw or some other difficulty. Usually, my response for hardware issues is that they will have to contact the manufacturer. After all, unless I encountered the same issue during testing, I really have no idea what's going on. I can't touch the notebook and try to troubleshoot things, and since I don't work for the manufacturer I have no idea if this is a single fluke incident or if there is a bigger problem. Regardless of how experienced a user might claim to be, there's always the potential for user error.

As an example issue, consider a laptop that's crashing during heavy use. We frequently comment about how hot some laptops can get, and though we often use "laptop" and "notebook" interchangeably, there are certain notebooks we really would not enjoy having on our laps. Similarly, we wouldn't think about running them while they rest on top of some soft cloth, particularly on models where there's a lot of ventilation on the bottom. I once had a contact that was experiencing instability while gaming… on his couch, in the winter, with a blanket on his lap. The laptop was sitting on top of the blanket. While he was certainly keeping warm that way, the laptop was also warm… a bit too warm. Other laptops however have been known to overheat even while sitting on a flat, hard surface. So what do you do when a formerly stable laptop starts having problems? That's what I wanted to discuss.

I'm not the type of person that typically worries about warranties; by the time you actually need to use your warranty, it's often too late. The other side of the coin is that frequently you encounter problems with a particular component and it breaks during the first couple of months, so purchasing an additional warranty isn't necessary. I've known people that work in the car industry, and most money put into extended warranties ends up being pure profit for the dealership. The manufacturer knows how well-built their vehicle is, and few problems will occur during the warranty period for most users - or even during the extended warranty period. Basically, what you end up doing is purchasing peace of mind.

I usually have the opinion that when it comes to computers - speaking about full systems here, not individual components, since most individual components often carry a two or three year manufacturer warranty - if you take the money you would have put into purchasing an extended warranty and simply save it, over time you will almost certainly come out ahead. (The same is probably true for cars, too.) You might periodically have to replace a part in your computer that breaks after the first year, but only on rare occasions. I supported almost 200 computers as a network administrator for a while. Very few had problems during the first year, a small percentage had difficulties (failed motherboards, power supplies, memory) the second year, and by the end of the third year we had probably had repairs performed on close to one third of the systems. (The fourth year was looking even worse, but I left a few months into my fourth year.)

By that point in time, of course, we were getting old, outdated hardware fixed, when what we really wanted was new hardware. The extra $300 per system almost certainly ended up costing more than if we had been able to handle all of the service and repairs internally, but that's not the way most big businesses want to run. Of the ~200 systems, 160 were desktops, 20 were servers, and 15 were laptops. The servers, I should note, experienced a total of three hardware failures while I was there, but what happened with the laptops?

Rather than a failure rate of roughly 33% after three years, we had issues with maybe 15% of the laptops in the first year. By the end of the second year, every single battery had been replaced, but beyond that we had various failures on at least half of the laptops. After three years, I doubt there was a single laptop that hadn't experienced some sort of failure outside of the battery (screen, keyboard, HDD, and various motherboard issues were common).

Not surprisingly, laptops go through a lot more use and abuse than your typical desktop computer. No matter how careful a person you tend to be, given enough time using a laptop it will almost certainly experience a few bumps and bruises. "Oops - tripped over the power cord!" Even the simple act of putting a laptop in the carrying case and hauling it back and forth to work every day is likely to create problems down the road. Imagine picking up your desktop system and shaking it around for 15 minutes or so twice per day; it doesn't matter how well you put the thing together, eventually that will have a negative impact on the system.

I tested quite a few laptops during the past year or so, and frankly I'm shocked at how many minor issues have occurred - usually after I finished with the review, unfortunately. Those tiny little fans seem to get louder and louder as the months go by, which can result in overheating/stability problems. Replacing those fans isn't as easy as swapping a case fan on a desktop, and if you get a "normal" warranty you're faced with the prospect of shipping your laptop away for a few days to get it fixed. I had one laptop that developed a short somewhere - probably in the motherboard - and if you bumped it at just the right spot, it would BSOD/restart. Let's not even get talk about how frequently people damage hinges or LCDs.

The bottom line is that, were I to go out and buy my own laptop today, I can guarantee I would purchase something with a three-year warranty and accidental damage protection. There's still a chance that I will never need the warranty coverage, meaning I probably spent $400 extra, but outside of minor items like hard drives, optical drives, batteries (which often aren't covered anyway), and memory, most repairs to a laptop can end up costing a decent chunk of change. If you need a new motherboard, the cost to replace one on an 18-month-old laptop might be high enough that you simply decide to purchase a new laptop instead. You'll still be missing a dear friend if your laptop happens to attack your pet and get chewed up in the process - that's why they call them "limited warranties" - but at least you might still have a laptop to use at the end of the day. We should also note that given the potential for data loss due to a failed hard drive or a stolen laptop, you should continue to make regular backups of important data. Outside of something inexpensive like the ASUS Eee PC, however, you probably don't want to be stuck footing the bill trying to repair your 13-month-old laptop.

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  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    Then buy a Thinkpad. You talk to someone in Atlanta when you call, you get a DHL box the next day, and your system back a day or two after that.

    I've long given friends the same advice as here. In a desktop, extended warranties are a ripoff as for most systems any one component is worth roughly as much or less than the cost of the warranty. So if you only have to replace one thing you come out even or ahead, multiple repairs and you might lose out. Laptops OTOH I recommend the warranty for, as far less stuff is user-replaceable and parts are more expensive. Also, I don't know anyone who has a laptop that sees even moderate use and has not had some issue with it. A friend in college had the screen of her laptop replaced at least 3 times under warranty, as it kept developing bright spots at the same location on the screen, and the on-campus repair place was willing to replace it under warranty.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    Did I forget to mention I would want local support - the "at home" service is the way to go. If I have to ship my computer off for a few days, I'm not going to be pleased at all....
  • Kougar - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    If the notebook/laptop spends more time turned on than powered down, then I would suggest a extended warranty is a must for most notebooks. At one point I went around telling people I was Folding@home on my laptop, and I got a kick out of how many people were shocked, either because they thought a laptop wasn't designed for heavy use or because of overheating concerns. (A little undervolting negated any heat/fan noise issues, even after the notebook cooler itself had long perished)

    My point is, the longer extended warranties also serve a second purpose that can directly benefit you, besides peace of mind or insurance. Sure that old beast of a laptop may not compare to the new advances in technology sitting on the shevles, but meanwhile until then you can get full use out of your laptop knowing when it breaks and they can't replace the part, they give you an upgrade or a off-the-shelf comparable system.

    No heavily used laptop will be lasting four years including those that are regularly maintained and well treated, so the longer 3-5 year warranty plans guarantee you a new system in the future. My Dell notebook lasted one year and one month before the GPU went bad, and I got a GPU upgrade from a GO 6800Ultra to a GO 7800GTX for nothing. Of course other parts wore out soon after that, but today if anything breaks I’d be getting one heck of a laptop upgrade as not even the Pentium M CPU is used anymore.
  • hands - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    I was a bit surprised to read the last paragraph. This is the first time that I have seen someone that is fairly knowledgeable about computers recommending an extended warranty. Granted, that recommendation is only for a specific case, but since notebooks are being purchased more than desktops now, it becomes a significant issue.

    With that said, I can't say that I completely disagree with the conclusion either. It is far too easy to damage a notebook computer. Anything that is being used for business purposes is bound to get significant abuse compared to a desktop. The good thing with work computers though is that they are often supplied by the employer. So, it is up to the IT staff to decide what should be done with regard to warranties, and you would really have to look at your own environment with relation to economies of scale to determine the need for extended warranties in that case.

    If you own a personal laptop, you can probably gauge your own need for an extended warranty by any other extended warranties you may have used (or needed) on portable electronic equipment (PDA, cell phone, iPod, etc.) in the past. If you are hard on your devices, you are likely to need that warranty. If not, it's probably money down the drain.

    Overall, I still don't think that an extended warranty is worth it for personal use unless you just don't know how to take care of your stuff. If you're in an IT department, economies of scale make extended warranties less attractive as well, but that doesn't mean that they aren't worth it in some circumstances.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    I should probably clarify that if I were to go out and buy a laptop right now, more likely than not I would be shopping in the small business offerings that often include a 3-year warranty. I don't use laptops for gaming - that's what my desktop is for - so if anyone asks me what laptop to buy these days I'm more likely than not going to recommend HP, Dell, Gateway, or Apple. ASUS is decent as well, but prices are usually higher. If they specifically want something with the ability to run games, things change a bit.
  • gochichi - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    I've had an iBook for about 5 years and so far so good. I've had a PowerBook for 3 years, and so far so good. At the same time, I have a friend that had a REALLY high end PowerBook go out in about 15 months and he didn't get a warranty, it cost $800.00 to replace the motherboard. (Somehow I feel that since he spent a little over $3000.00 on that computer, it should have been covered under some special "damn you're a REALLY good customer complimentary service agreement".)

    Anyhow, it's all about your comfort level, knowing how to prevent bad situations and firm gentleness (I don't "baby" my laptops, I just handle them steadily). By comfort level, I mean it's like any other insurance. I think in the case of the $3000.00 laptop, it was clearly a bad call not to get an extended warranty... but EVEN THEN, the cost of repair was $800.00. What would you rather, pay $300.00 FOR SURE, or maybe pay $800.00?

    If you get a decent $800.00 laptop, adding another $200-$300 to insure it to a limited degree really sours the deal for me. Especially since it could still be stolen or lost (More likely than dropping it, at least for me). Another way to look at it for me is, it would have been $250.00 to insure the iBook, and $300.00 to insure the PowerBook... so let's just pretend I socked that insurance fee money away instead. Now I have $550.00 already, so adding another $200.00 to that and I have one heck of an insurance plan... it covers up to $750.00 of damages on my $800.00 laptop. Isn't that something?

  • Ratinator - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    As for insurance, at least where I come from, house insurance can usually cover if you drop your laptop and break it. Of course that is if you have house insurance of any sort. Then of course your premiums go up a bit too.
  • gochichi - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    I think insurance is best left for things that can really derail you. There's a reason there's huge margins on computer insurance.

    When you get insurance work it's also not quite the same. For instance, you may decide that you want to maintain your laptop with a RAM upgrade. In fact, a common thing that gives your laptop longevity is having a healthy battery (so it probably needs to be replaced every year or two)... but it doesn't cover you.

    See in this case, it's so affordable to provide your own insurance, that you should do so. You will be far more flexible than any company on what to repair, what to replace etc.

    To each their own, I know I will continue to not buy insurance on most of my computers and just deal with issues as they come if they come.

    One more thing though: if you have a $3000.00 and are completely uncomfortable using it b/c it's so pricey and you're afraid you might loose it, then by all means get the insurance so that you can go on with your life.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - link

    True - there's a balancing act to consider. I'm thinking more along the lines of $2000 laptops. I wouldn't bother with a $400 warranty on a $1000 laptop, and it's odd how often warranty prices seem to be static with some bigger OEMs. The same warranty that costs $400 to cover anything and everything on a budget notebook applies to high-end $4000 notebooks. My own experience is that long-term, most notebooks tend to have significant problems within three years.
  • abieanarna - Tuesday, May 8, 2012 - link

    As technology rises laptop evolves its quality. It is the user responsibility on how to expand the life of his laptop. Anyway we can also consider this blog reading

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