California Bar Journal
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Notebook PCs are a pain you can't live without
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Dana ShultzNotebook PCs are a pain. They're expensive for the computing power they offer. They break because they get banged around. Proprietary components are so costly that upgrades are impossible to justify.

But not having one is even worse. I found that out recently when my almost-three-years-old Dell Latitude LX died.

Fortunately, the PC was still under warranty (parts and labor during the first year, parts-only for two more years). I had a choice: Ship the Latitude to Texas, where it would be fixed at no cost and returned to me after several weeks. Or pay to have a technician come out and do the repairs two days later. I needed a working PC for two upcoming presentations, so I chose the second option.

Multiple problems

The day after a new motherboard arrived, a technician showed up. The motherboard worked, but it could not find the hard disk. So much for my first presentation. I had to use overheads - not a terrible problem, but not exactly state-of-the-art for a technology consultant.

Dell figured the new motherboard, rather than the disk, was failing, so it sent another replacement. The Latitude still could not find the hard disk.

Time was passing. Dell agreed to ship a new hard disk. I agreed to install it.

The new hard disk did the trick - or so I thought. I spent eight hours reloading all my software. Every once in a while - unpredictably, inexplicably and temporarily - the Latitude would lose the hard disk and freeze. Usually, if I turned it off and waited a few minutes, it would start back up. But sometimes even that did not work.

Best guesses

Dell Customer Support thought that perhaps the hard disk was loose. I removed and reinstalled the disk. The problem persisted, and my second presentation was approaching.

I took the Latitude on the road. While I was setting up, the PC failed twice. But it came back to life and, in a stroke of good luck, made it all the way through the presentation. I headed home.

I called Dell and reached a technician who had a new idea: a BIOS upgrade. I was willing to try just about anything.

The tech e-mailed the upgrade software. I installed it in a few minutes. Finally, after almost four weeks, the problem appears to have been resolved.

Important lessons

This saga refreshed and reinforced three important lessons. First, it is critical to buy from an established vendor that will stay in business and stand behind its product.

Second, a strong customer support staff helps (check PC Magazine, which surveys user satisfaction twice each year). Even though it took a lot of tries to fix my problem, Dell's personnel always were polite, friendly and hard-working.

Finally, a three-year warranty is essential. Without a warranty, the cost of parts, alone, would have been well over $1,000. With the warranty, I was spared the expense and hassle of buying a new notebook PC.

Dana H. Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer, certified management consultant and speaker specializing in office technology and online marketing. He may be reached by e-mail at and on the World Wide Web at