BRADENTON, Fla. -- When I took a job last summer with AAA Computer Repair in Bradenton, I quickly learned from observation that the most frequently repaired machines coming into our shop were Dells. We got them in every shape and form, including laptops.
But I was still shocked to read a column two weeks ago by consumer guru Christine Young in my alma mater, the Middletown, N.Y., -based Times Herald-Record, that described exactly how cynical Dell's management has become about machines they sell.
As Christine's Oct. 23 article points out, Dell has known all along about a design flaw that cripples the computer - often within days of the expiration of its warranty. I asked her for permission to publish her entire article, and in lieu of one of my own, here it is:
October 23, 2005
Design flaw ruins computer
This Dell's definitely a dud
Hey dude, before you buy a Dell, listen up: The computer giant has been cashing in on two well-known design flaws in one of its laptops. The defects, which have surfaced on hundreds and possibly thousands of Dell Inspiron 5150 notebooks, render the model useless right after the warranty runs out.
But instead of issuing a recall, Dell charges $179 to "diagnose" the problems and then hundreds more to fix them.
No wonder Dell reported record-setting revenues of $11.7 billion in the second quarter of 2005 - 20 percent higher than in the same quarter a year ago.
That's small comfort to Maritza Vasquez, a 13-year-old honor student from New Windsor who saved every nickel of her allowance and birthday cash to buy a Dell laptop.
"There were several other brands I would have preferred, but she had to have a Dell, which I attribute to their aggressive advertising," says David Levy, Maritza's stepfather.
On Aug. 9, 2004, Maritza purchased the Dell 5150 Inspiron notebook, which came with a one-year warranty. Levy says he went along with her choice because she was using her own money, and because he thought Dell was "a decent and reputable company."
Fast forward 14 months - to last Monday afternoon. Maritza was typing a report about Julia Bowman Robinson, a renowned 20th-century mathematician. Suddenly, her cherished computer shut off. Kaput.
"The problem is it will not turn back on," says Levy, who made several attempts to fix it by following Dell's Web site instructions on what to do if your Inspiron 5150 craps out.
Gee, you'd almost think the company expected it.
"It was obvious to me that there were documented problems," Levy says.
And indeed, there were.
Joe Kabalan of AQS Computer Services in Tonawanda says he has repaired about 500 of the 5150 Inspirons, which came out in 2003 and have since been discontinued by Dell.
"They should do a recall," Kabalan said, explaining that the laptop has two factory defects that cause permanent power shutdowns. "But very rarely do (computer manufacturers) recall anything. It just costs too much money."
The Inspirons 5150 "have a big design flaw in them," agrees Mike Prisinzano of Computer Experts, a Buffalo firm whose Web site offers a flat-fee repair of "the Dell 5150 power cut-off problem."
"We're seeing more and more of the Dells," Prisinzano said. "I have about a half-dozen right now, and a few came in today."
One of the problems is a faulty jack that loses contact with the plug, shutting down the power. The other is a poorly designed motherboard that easily overheats and then warps, usually after about 14 months of use.
"And unfortunately, there's nothing people can do," Prisinzano said, "because the warranty is one year, it's beyond that, and they're stuck with either getting these fixed, buying new ones, or getting replacement boards."
In fact, an Internet search yields hundreds of complaints from hapless Inspiron 5150 owners, some of whom have even started a "Dead Motherboard Club." Maritza might become its youngest member. Her stepdad followed all of the instructions on Dell's Web site, with no success. He called technical support and reached a guy in India, who gave him a case number and transferred him to the "Out-of-Warranty Department."
Translation: Get out your credit card.
Levy was told that for $179, he would receive a box to ship the computer back to Dell for a diagnosis. Levy said "no thanks."
That same evening he got a call from Dell offering a discount on the diagnosis. Again Levy refused.
On Tuesday, I contacted Dell. Two hours later, a media-relations flack called Levy and offered a free diagnosis, but not a free repair.
On Thursday, after many attempts to reach someone at Dell, I finally spoke to Venancio Figueroa III at the company's Texas headquarters.
"The issue has been brought to our attention," Figueroa said, "and first and foremost I will apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused the customer."
Customer? How about "customers" - hundreds of them?
"It's due to a design flaw," I told him. "It's a well-documented design flaw."
Figueroa: "Well, uh, the issue, I mean, it, it's, the system functions as designed and so, um -"
"What do you mean, the system functions as designed?"
Figueroa: "So basically, you know, the way our systems are designed, you know, when they detect overheating systems, which is what this particular inquiry was, you know they're gonna shut down automatically."
"And you can't turn it back on again," I reminded him.
Very long pause. "Uh, well, uh, I don't know about that, uh..."
"What is Dell doing for this design flaw?" I asked.
"Uh, we have improved, uh, the fan vent design which is going to impact air flow into the system, you know, so we've done that."
"What are you doing for the customers who bought the computer with the design flaw, who paid $2,000 for a computer that only lasts one year, just past the expiration date? What are you doing for those people?"
"We're advising customers, as we have with our direct business model, that uh, uh, they can certainly contact us directly."
Contact Dell directly? Didn't Levy try that? Let's make sure I have this right: The customer pays $2,000 for a laptop that has manufacturer's defects. The laptop dies after 14 months, and the customer has to call India, only to get hustled out of more hard-earned cash to diagnose this well-known defect.
"Is it going to cost them $179 to diagnose the problem if it's past one year?" I asked Figueroa. "This well-known design flaw?"
"If the system is out of warranty, there is a fee we charge for the diagnosis. We will also charge for the repair if it's out of warranty."
Hear that, Maritza? Sorry, kid. Better luck next time.
Levy says he's probably going to send the laptop to a private computer expert, such as Prisanzano or Kabalan, both of whom do the repairs for about $200. If Dell fixes it, the cost will be about $500 and won't last anyway. "If they put the same exact board in there, it will have the same problem," Prisinzano explained. "We modify the board so it doesn't happen any more."
For Maritza, the purchase price of $2,000 over the 14-month life of the Dell amounted to about $142 per month.
"She would have been better off leasing one," says Levy. "The bottom line is, shame on Dell for selling a product they will not stand behind and then actively marketing it with "Dude, you gotta get a Dell!"
Hey, dude - no, you don't.
Been ripped off? Too busy to stay on hold? If you're having trouble with a product or service in the private or public sector, let me know. I'll see what we can do about it. Send me the details - who you're mad at, why, their address and telephone number (and yours) at ContactChristine@th-record.com. Or write to me at Contact Christine, Times Herald-Record, 40 Mulberry St., Middletown, NY 10940.