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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  • PandaBear - Thursday, December 13, 2007 - link

    Consider how much prices drop on computer component, by the time when your 3 year $400 warranty reaches the end, your laptop losts 2/3 or more of its value.

    Reliability problems usually come with a bathtub curve: lots of initial defects that should be fixed under warranty free, then a long period of reliable operation, then the problems start to show up. So by the time you use the extended warranty, you are using your $400 warranty on a $500 laptop (statistically).

    Also consider the fact that when you can choose to bail on the $500 laptop by either buying a used one on ebay (well, assume it is a legit seller selling a good laptop) or craigslist with $100 overhead, or put up with the problem insurance company throw at you and all the stress, I wouldn't call extended warranty a good deal at all. There is a reason they make so much money, with a 1/27 claim rate it is more money than selling you the laptop. Also when you already paid, the insurance company has much fewer incentives to keep you happy and/or offer you a better deal (personal experience with car extended warranty not covering head gasket, WTF).

    Also consider the fact that the most frequent and expensive repair (battery) are not covered, and used parts are so plentiful and cheap used on craigslist or ebay, why bother buying so much insurance?

    If you can't afford to take a risk on not having the insurance, buy it, but if you need to buy it for a small item like laptop, you probably should buy a cheaper laptop or spend more on a better quality laptop anyways. Just like a car, I would rather buy a reliable car with $1000 more than a lemon and a free $1000 value warranty.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 13, 2007 - link

    It depends on how much you pay for the laptop initially and how important it is for you to keep your system running without a lot of down time. As I pointed out in the article, I think failure rates for laptops are WAY higher than 1/27. That sounds like failure rates for a desktop in the first year, if that. My experience with laptops is that before the second year is over, failure rates may be as high as 50%; certainly 33%. Some laptops are better than others, but even if it's only 10-20% that's still a lot.

    If you grab a business notebook from Dell or HP (or similar companies) you can get a 3-year warranty with on-site service. Usually, that means going to a local service center, but there's certainly no huge hassle with tech support. If you get a cheap warranty where you have to send in the laptop, it may not be worth the trouble.

    So, if you buy a ~$2000 laptop, after two years it's still usually worth at least $1000. By the end of three years it's down to around $700. After that your warranty is over regardless. Very likely, you will have something break before the three year period is over... at least if you carry your laptop around a lot (which is ostensibly the whole point of a portable computer).
    Reply
  • PandaBear - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    That's true, it matters how much it cost as a percentage of the initial price, and how good the service is (instant replacement and keeping your original HD would be nice, as IT dept of work place).

    My experience with cars and manufacturing warranty is usually not as easy as getting replacement parts myself and fix it, or sell it on ebay and buy another one.

    I also don't spend more than $1000 for a laptop.
    Reply
  • Christoph Katzer - Sunday, December 09, 2007 - link

    I had an ASUS laptop for about 5 years now and in all that time it has been running great. I hope my next one from Dell will stick up to that time... Reply
  • just4U - Tuesday, December 11, 2007 - link

    I just configured a Dell laptop that cost $1350.00 While I didn't get the spiffy in home warranty I did buck up for the 3 years at the price of 149.00.

    I hadn't read this blog at the time but you know I figured it was worth it overall when it comes to a laptop. A one year standard warranty is not enough, not when you consider that most are intended for use for atleast 2-3 years.
    Reply
  • andrew007 - Tuesday, December 04, 2007 - link

    I have a Toshiba R-100 ultraportable. Now nearing the end of its 4th year. A pretty expensive "executive class" laptop ($3000 but I got it for about half that price) and very well built. I had the LCD screen develop major spottiness problems and had to be replaced in the first year and I had a hard drive failure in the 3rd year. Plus another hard drive failure early on which I fixed and paid for myself because it was my fault (and 1.8" drives are very flimsy).

    Luckily though, Toshiba provides 3 year warranty on their executive class notebooks. Plus all you need to do is find an authorized service depot in your town (there's at least a dozen in Vancouver), take it there and wait about a week for them to fix it.

    There's no way I would ever buy a laptop that doesn't have either at least a 2 year warranty - or alternately get an extended warranty. However, this only applies to buying a laptop that costs well over $1000. I wouldn't get an extended warranty for a cheap laptop. But an expensive laptop should come with at least 2 year warranty anyway - if it doesn't, it's a major strike against that model when it's time to make a purchasing decision. After all, extra several hundred dollars is a pretty important factor.
    Reply
  • iootnega - Tuesday, December 04, 2007 - link

    I got a 3 year warranty when I bought my laptop 2 years ago. Just a few weeks ago the graphics processor went out on it. Called up support and I had a guy at my door the next day with a new part. Reply
  • CandiKane - Tuesday, December 04, 2007 - link

    How much more transparent can the intent of this blog be? Obviously you are in bed with the laptop companies. How many extended warranties have you purchased for your personal laptops? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 06, 2007 - link

    Yes, I'm making the laptop companies very happy by saying, "I have serious concerns about the long-term reliability of laptops. Most seem to start having problems withing three years." If I'm lying about that to try to get people to buy unnecessary warranties, I'm trying to sell people on buying a lemon car with a good warranty rather than a good car with no warranty. I haven't done car sales, but I don't think that would work.

    "Hey, you should get this Camry, but make sure you get an extended warranty because the car is really only good for the first 50K miles. After that, you're going to have regular repair costs! Upgrade to the 100K warranty and then all you have to do is take the car in for service every 5-10K after the first five years of use. Isn't that super convenient?"

    LOL... I'm sincerely hoping that you were just kidding. If not, can you tell me whom I need to contact to get my kick-back checks? Because I haven't seen any. :(
    Reply
  • Foxy1 - Tuesday, December 04, 2007 - link

    Tell you what, Jarred. Next time you buy a laptop, send me $400 and I'll save it for you. If it fails at some point in the following three years, call me up and I'll speak with an Indian accent and give you the runaround for a few days. If you're persistent, I might actually let you send me the laptop, at which point I'll lose it for a few weeks. Then I'll fix your laptop and send it back to you, only I'll reformat the hard drive. Reply

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