02 November 2008

XPS of Sh*t

I feel like I’m watching something crash in slow motion: my three year old Dell XPS 400 is apparently dying. And lucky me, I get to watch.

If you are thinking about buying a Dell computer any time soon, you should read this.

A few days ago, I came home and turned on my computer. (I no longer use the “Suspend” feature, since doing so disables my peripherals. And I am still having trouble with my WiFi connection.) It went through a series of beeps and whirs, and then turned off. Then it turned back on, beeped and whirred again ... and then turned off. It kept running through this cycle. Eventually, I interrupted the process and, having seen this bad behavior before, I did what the Dell technicians told me to do the last time: I unplugged all the cables, opened up the box, and looked inside to make sure there was no massive dustball causing a static electric short. (Answer: no.)

I re-started the machine—and got a message telling me that the PCI Express Card is running in X1 mode. If you can actually figure out what that means, you’re in better shape than I. Yes, I can Google it, too. Yes, the most common answer is that the card isn’t firmly in place. And no, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Practically, it seems to mean that my USB mouse and keyboard work, as does my wireless network adapter, but not my USB printer or camera connection. Go figure.

Moreover: I am now afraid to turn the machine off. The last time I did—after first getting the PCI card message, in order to check the problem—the computer entered the same non-boot-up “static electricity” routine. It’s working now, but for how long?


If you are planning to buy a Dell computer, I urge caution. And unfortunately, you should probably pay for the extended service warranty. Based on my own history, I can tell you: you may need it; there’s just no telling.

My history with Dell is mixed. On the one hand, my firm bought me a new computer in October 2001 It was a top-of-the-line Dell desktop unit, with a great processor, dual optical drives, lots of RAM ... it was an expensive machine, but I use my computer a lot, and it seemed worth it. It just died (pure hard drive failure) four weeks ago, almost seven years to the day from its purchase.

On the other hand, in 2003 I purchased a Dell desktop unit for my home-office. Like the company computer, this was a top-of-the-line machine, with a great processor, dual optical drives, lots of RAM ... it was expensive, but just as at work, I use my computer a lot, and it seemed worth it. It was cheaper than the equivalent machine from other PC makers, and certainly cheaper than an Apple of the same power. Two years later, it died: from one day to the next, it simply wouldn’t turn on. Extensive time with Dell customer support led only to increased frustration. Over the course of several weeks, Dell screwed up each effort to fix the machine, sending the wrong part or a technician who spoke no English, and like phone company visits of yesteryear required me to stay home all day waiting. Unwilling to settle for such treatment, I eventually resorted to the only weapon I had left: a human sense of shame. Fortunately, I had saved the online chat sessions from my various “conversations” with Dell support. I FedExed these, along with a sharp letter, to a list of top Dell executives, and copied both some well-known technology journalists and stock analysts who cover the tech industry.

Dell replaced the machine entirely. That replacement machine is the XPS 400 that is currently dying, a mere three years later.


I also have a small Fujitsu laptop, a machine that is almost five years old and has survived trips to South Africa and around Europe, Mexico and Canada, and to at least 15 different states here in America. It has been left running endlessly, and been shut down on the fly; been through endless airport x-ray scanners, shoved in bags and tossed in the trunks of cars; and endured a lot of abuse of its processing power and hard drive in the name of on-the-go expediency. And it still works.

Yet two Dell desktops that have sat un-assaulted and unabused in my home-office—with a stable climate and a good surge protector—have had endless problems; both software problems (mostly stemming from Microsoft Windows; not really Dell’s fault) and hardware problems (definitely Dell’s fault). It does not even matter what kind of problems they are. It’s the fact that there are problems that is, itself, the problem.

SO, I might have to replace this computer soon, and I do not think I will be buying another Dell. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I might even switch (back) to a Mac. Maybe I will change my mind, or maybe it will turn out that I’m wrong about the state of the current computer. What I know is that I don’t have the patience for this crap any more: I just want them damn thing to work, and seven years sounds a whole lot better than three for an average life-span.


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