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.