Nightmare scenario: the smoking laptop and Dell’s slow response

Sure, I’ve read reports about overheating laptops –even ones that get so hot they set on fire–but I always thought that it was the kind of thing that happened only to other people. You know, the really unlucky people.

Well, my luck, it seems, has changed: I recently lost a laptop (but luckily, nothing else) to sky-high temperatures. The experience was frightening, and resolving it with Dell, the laptop’s manufacturer, was often frustrating–far more exasperating than I would have expected.

Too Hot to Handle

I purchased a Dell Studio s15Z laptop from a Best Buy store in February 2010, and used it without incident until this July. That’s when I tried to boot up my laptop to do a bit of work only to find that it wouldn’t start. I pressed the power button a couple of times, but never got any sort of response. Thinking the battery might be dead, I made sure the laptop was plugged in, but still no luck. I took the battery out and reinserted it to ensure that it was properly connected, but that didn’t help. Mystified, I walked away.

A few hours later, I decided to try again. I set the laptop on a wooden coffee table and pressed the power button. Immediately, I heard the disk whir to life, giving me the false impression that it was about to start up–until I saw smoke seeping out from between the keys, that is. I thought my eyes were deceiving me, so I picked up the computer for a closer look, resting it on my six-months-pregnant belly. I was not imagining anything; smoke was pouring out of the keyboard, much heavier now, and the computer itself was shockingly hot to the touch. The air took on the odor of burning chemicals, and I quickly unplugged the computer from its charger.

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That’s when I noticed that the smoke coming from the keyboard was nothing compared to what was coming out of the back of the computer, near the battery compartment: thick, orange and black smoke that looked to me as if it contained flames. I slammed the laptop shut and dashed for the door, prepared to toss the laptop onto the lawn, away from the house and any of its occupants.

I never got that far; by the time I made it outside, the smoke had stopped, leaving an acrid smell and a toasty computer in its wake. I rested the computer gently on the lawn, letting it sit for a while before I dared to touch it again.

Dell’s Reaction

I called Dell’s technical support line as soon as possible after the incident (I had to wait a few days, due to a weekend and a Monday holiday). After I explained the situation, the support representative responded with only: “Is this something that is happening to your computer right now?”

My response: “No, I made sure the fire was out before I called, and I haven’t tried to turn the computer on since.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether the tech support rep failed to understand the full details of what I’d told him, or whether he was just completely nonplussed by my story. His reaction, however, turned out to be the same as that of all the reps I spoke to during that first call; it took almost an hour, and I was transferred among three different people (one of whom was a manager). No one seemed alarmed about my experience–which definitely raised some alarms for me.

Another cause for concern: Each of the three men I spoke with on that call assured me that Dell would fix my computer and send it back to me–no matter how much I protested that I did not want this computer back. I tried to explain that I was worried that the computer could set my house on fire, but the only assurance I could get was that if Dell really did determine that the machine was unsafe to use, they would send me a replacement system. I was not entirely comforted, though, as the priority of everyone I spoke to seemed to be returning my original laptop to me.

According to Dell, the reps take this approach because most people who send their laptops in for repair want their original systems sent back. “When a customer calls with a situation, we absolutely investigate it. We want to make sure our systems are operating in a safe manner. We need to capture the system to make sure we can investigate. Some customers are reluctant to send in their laptops because they don’t want to part with them or with the materials that the computer contains,” says Anne Camden, a Dell spokesperson.

Waiting…and Waiting…and Waiting

If I had known how long it would take for me to get a replacement laptop, I may have been more sympathetic to those other customers asking for their own notebooks back. The entire process of resolving this issue with Dell moved at a snail’s pace. During that first phone call, the representatives told me that I would have to send my laptop back, but that I could do so only in a Dell-approved box, which they would send to me.

I had to wait two days for that box to arrive; I could not ship the computer back in my own packaging. Dell’s Camden says that the company uses this procedure to make sure that all laptops are packaged securely and will not be damaged any further during shipping.

Dell’s tech support promised me that the box would arrive promptly, and told me that I would be without a laptop for approximately seven to ten business days while Dell checked out the computer. I asked if I had any way to speed up the process, and was told no–and that was before I found out how long the entire process would really take.

The box did arrive promptly, and I packed up the computer and sent it back within 2 hours of receiving the packaging. But Dell did not receive the computer and begin investigating its problems for exactly six days (four business days). Even so, I wasn’t terribly concerned about the timing; I assumed that Dell would take one look at my fried computer and offer to ship out a replacement.

But the next day, after Dell had had the computer for more than 24 hours, I received a call from a tech support manager who could not have been more dismissive of me and my concerns. He told me that Dell had discovered that the system was, in fact, running hot, and that the technicians were trying to figure out if they could fix it.

Remember my request that this laptop not be shipped back to me? I made it again–and got the same response. Dell’s staffers were still attempting to determine if they could repair this machine.

This was about the point where I, like my computer, lost my cool. I gave up any semblance of politeness and told the support manager that I was not accepting this computer back and demanded that they send me a new one. I also let him know that I was not at all pleased that no one had thought to ask me if I was okay, or if my house was okay, or if my unborn child was okay. I informed him that I had less than a week remaining before a planned trip, and that I needed a laptop before I left.

To the manager’s credit, he was quiet and listened to my entire tirade. He then sincerely apologized for my trouble (by saying “I sincerely apologize”) and promised to keep me updated–but he still refused to promise that he would not return my smoking laptop, and refused to promise that I would have a computer for my trip.

“On a personal level, I have to agree with you,” Dell’s Camden says about my complaint that no one ever inquired about my well-being. “I want to absolutely assure you that Dell is very concerned about our customers and that we care very much about our customers’ safety. The tech support team was very concerned with getting the product back and trying to determine what happened; they were very focused on their job, which is to fix the computer.”

Adios, Computer

Two days after I spoke to the tech support manager, another Dell rep called to tell me that the company had determined that my laptop was not fixable and that they would be sending me a replacement system. I was thrilled; I still had several days before I needed to leave for my trip, and I assumed that I’d have a computer in hand by the time I departed.

As it turned out, that would not be the case. The tech support rep went on to say that it would take two weeks to deliver the replacement system to me. He said the technicians would need at least a week to find a comparable computer from the available refurbished models, and then a few days to install all of my software on it. So I would be without a computer for at least another two weeks–meaning no laptop for my trip.

The rep tried to placate me by promising that the system I received would be even better than the laptop I returned. “It will have Windows 7!” he told me. My original system had run Windows 7, too, I said. “This one will have a 500GB hard drive!” he told me. My original laptop had a 500GB hard drive, too, I told him.

I wasn’t expecting a better computer, I said. I was just expecting a computer with the same features as the one I’d purchased, albeit one that could run safely.

In the end, I did receive the replacement system, a few days after I returned from my ten-day trip. In all, I was without a computer for almost a month, which was incredibly frustrating to me.

“A month does seem like a longer time than average,” Camden says. “Usually our circumstances that involve returning a system are resolved within a week or two. What may have impacted our ability to do a faster replacement for you is that your system is a model that’s available in retail only. In trying to find a like or better configuration, the team may have been a little challenged.”

Not only was I without a computer for a month, but also the replacement system lacked one of the key features found on my original laptop: Intel’s Wireless Display, which allows you to view the contents of your computer on your HDTV. When I called Dell’s tech support to tell them this, no one seemed to know what Intel Wireless Display was, nor how to get it on my computer.

Dell ended up sending a tech support rep to my house to patch the computer so that it could offer Wireless Display, but what he really provided was a workaround. Whereas my old system had a dedicated button for launching Wireless Display, this new system requires that I dig through menus and software apps to use it.

Camden notes that Intel Wireless Display is available on very few computers, and says the company will look into getting me a laptop that has it. I may take her up on her offer. But if it involves waiting for a Dell-approved box and going another 30 days without a laptop, I may have to say no thanks.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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