Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dealing with bad purchases

There is something emotional tied to every purchase we make. We spend time deciding which option is best, maybe check out review sites, and, at some point, cross our fingers and hope that the purchase decision is correct.

Of course, a percentage of the stuff we purchase will end up, for all intents and purposes, be total duds. There is a threshold of expense that determines how far we will go to make a dud somewhat tolerable to work with. When it comes to computer technology that tends to be expensive, we are willing to waste hours on the phone with technical support just so we can get back to our lives.

So, where is this post coming from? Well, back a couple years when netbooks were all the rage, I saw an opportunity to pick up a cheap Linux box via a Dell Mini 9 pre-installed with Ubuntu. It was $200 and I had plans for it and it has come in quite handy a few times for purposes I never really intended for it. It would have been a worthwhile purchase except for one little teeny-weeny problem:

The batteries "die" after 6 to 12 months. The orange battery light blinks incessantly and, when that happens, the netbook refuses to charge the battery.

The first time this happened, it was under warranty so Dell replaced the battery free of charge. I also did some research around that time and found a surprising number of posts online with plenty of other people complaining about the issue. So this was not some isolated incident.

The light came on again yesterday and I spent a good chunk of a perfectly good Saturday wrestling with a few suggestions I found online to upgrade/downgrade the BIOS. Hence, yesterday's post about how to flash a BIOS. The Dell Flash utility I found didn't allow downgrading to previous BIOS versions. So, I had to scour around a while to find the phlash16 command line I needed to get A00 loaded (phlash16 /x /n /s /mode=3 910_A00.ROM). Nothing worked. The orange light keeps blinking. Never mind that the battery is an official Dell battery, the contacts are clean, and it held a charge without any issues 48 hours ago.

So, basically, the Dell Mini 9 is a complete dud. But here is the thing: I'm pretty certain that the hardware is 100% okay. The electricity to the device is carefully regulated through an APC UPS unit. The forums online interestingly complain about alternate unofficial batteries causing the lights to blink erratically with BIOS versions A04 and above but NOT with A00 through A03. This leads me to believe that the BIOS software and the hardware are attempting to detect battery issues and then simply refusing to charge the battery if it "fails" and perhaps memorizing the battery ID or something lame like that in the process. Therefore, most of the "tricks" to get it to work again really involve getting the netbook to forget about the last battery that was connected to it. Let's suppose for a moment that the power fluctuates momentarily such as removing the power cable from the laptop, that transition to "battery only" is a delicate moment - if something during that transition fails, the system memorizes it as a battery fault and begins blinking the orange light of death. This may be why, during boot, I get about 7 seconds where the orange light stops blinking and then starts up again.

BUT! I'm not going to fiddle any more with useless equipment because Dell was unable to put together a decent piece of hardware and then coupled it with shoddy software (e.g. someone who can't type *BIOS* in correctly shouldn't be writing code let alone deploying BIOS updates).

But this post isn't really about the Dell Mini 9 but about dud purchases. For all intents and purposes, I've come to the inescapable conclusion that this was a dud purchase. So, what do we do when this happens? The seven steps of grief seem applicable here: Shock/Denial, pain/guilt, anger/bargaining, depression/reflection/loneliness, the upward turn, reconstruction/working through, and acceptance/hope.

Right now, I'm somewhere in between the "I'm angry at Dell for selling me junk hardware and then having the gall to replace the battery on a known issue instead of refunding my money/fixing the real problem" step of grief and the "I'm a bit depressed that I'm going to throw away what seems like a perfectly good piece of hardware" step of grief. The solution is probably to just go find another Linux-friendly laptop that doesn't cost a lot and walk away from this disaster. Having a laptop with Linux on it is fairly handy because Linux can work through certain complex technical scenarios a lot more easily than Windows can, plus some software either only runs on Linux or works better there.

I've made bad purchase decisions over the years. Review websites have improved things a bit by exposing bad manufacturers and forcing them to improve their quality through bad reviews. But I've still encountered dud purchases - which makes the feelings that follow even worse, "How could I possibly have believed that amazing 5-star review? Why, oh why, did I not pay attention to that one guy with the 1-star review? Why is there no 0-star review option for this product?"

There isn't a good way to deal with the grief that follows a dud purchase except to plow through the stages of grief as quickly as possible and move on. Sometimes it is fun to wallow in grief for a while because it does garner attention. I got you to read this far anyway. :)

Got a dud purchase you've made recently? Write a nice long comment about it. It'll make you feel better, I promise! Now I'm off to look at newer laptops.

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