When those strange and unfamiliar electronic tones emitted from my PowerBook, I knew it was going to be an expensive day.
I've lugged this PowerBook G4 from Apple Computer for the better part of four years. I've replaced its hard drive once and its battery once. Only once has it given me any significant trouble, and that was when, during a trip to San Francisco, the hard drive decided go on an intermittent strike, working only some of the time.
But this time was different. I arrived in Dallas on a business trip, and was just settling into my room at the Hilton Park Cities when I decided to go online and start checking e-mail. Three beeps indicated that something was wrong. I held down the power button, then tried starting up again. This time I got the familiar startup tone and the Apple symbol and soon saw my desktop, but within about three minutes the entire system had seized up.
There was simply no way I going to accomplish what was needed on this trip without a working laptop. I seem to have become plagued with some new digital iteration of Murphy's Law that applies only when I'm traveling.
A long visit with a friendly technician at the Apple Store on Knox Street was frustrating--through no fault of his--but mostly because after I carefully described the problem, the machine exhibited none of the symptoms. It displayed both a normal startup routine and refused to freeze up as it had for me. The technician patiently ran a long battery of tests that determined the laptop to be problem-free as far as his testing battery was concerned.
Since time was short and I had no confidence in this machine, I opted instead to plunk down the cash for a new PowerBook. I opted for the 15-inch model with the 1.67-gigahertz processor, an 80-gigabyte hard drive and a SuperDrive that can burn both CDs and DVDs. This machine's debut had just been announced by Apple earlier in the week, and so it seemed an auspicious moment to upgrade. With the machine, installation of Microsoft's Office for Mac, an AppleCare warranty plan and taxes, the bill came to about $3,100.
I fell in love with this new machine right away, especially when the keyboard lit up as I dimmed the lights. But the episode has me thinking about the entire economic experience of laptop ownership, repair and so on. I don't know what the typical lifespan is for a laptop computer, but I'm betting it's not long.
I'm willing to bet I'm not the first person who's experienced laptop failure on the road and, when faced with the prospect of being unproductive for a few days, decided instead to buy a new machine. Replacement shouldn't be the easier option compared with repair.
Today's laptop designers are being lauded for their design expertise and for their ability to cram all sorts of features into ever-thinner and lighter bodies. But why aren't hard drives as easy to replace in a laptop as the battery in a mobile phone? Why should I have to pay a professional to do the work to replace it, and in some cases lose the use of the machine for a few days in order to get it done?
Desktop machines are another matter. With a little technical know-how--or a knack for following printed instructions--there's really no secret to replacing a desktop's hard drive or installing a second drive if you have room. I wish the same were true of notebook PCs, as in my experience they're the ones more likely to fail.
And furthermore, why is it that computer problems are always so hard to define? In one case, I knew definitively I had a bad hard drive, but in almost every other case where I've had some kind of computer failure, the best professional experts I could find were baffled by the problem's exact nature. After some tests on the hardware, they usually narrow it down to what seems more of a catchall description than anything else: "software conflict." That's vague, and I don't do vague.
At least one laptop vendor I can think of doesn't do vague, either. IBM has its magical blue button that on ThinkPads can boot the machine into an emergency mode, during which you can diagnose problems, help recover lost data and even restore the machine to a previous save state.
But such cases are rare. Manufacturers like putting in features because they improve profit margins. Fancy features are great. But I rarely see careful planning and resources devoted to that moment when the machine fails and all those extra features become worthless. I'd gladly pay more for a machine with fewer bells and whistles but engineered to be less likely to fail when I need it the most.