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How HP Lost Me

Two years ago my wife and I purchased an HP tx2500cto laptop. tx2500 was the HP touchscreen notebook/tablet pc, cto means I had it customized to my specifications.

Heavy and a little awkward looking, it still performed well. Microsoft’s OneNote was a real champ, accepting input when the screen was flipped and folded using the pen to write notes and then transcribe those notes into text.

Problems were than it has an AMD processor which meant lots of heat and sometimes sluggish performance despite it’s 2+ Gigahertz processor speed.

This laptop worked well enough the first year, serving my wife through her last semester of college (before pregnancy put the kibosh on that) and then serving as her workhorse and work computer.

August last year brought some odd problems. The touch interface began developing peculiarities. Odd, random, and infrequent issues. Odd, random, and infrequent spells the technologists nightmare as problems that cannot be duplicated cannot be predicted, and problems that cannot be predicted cannot be diagnosed, and problems that cannot be diagnosed cannot be resolved. Good thing we’d purchased a 3 year warranty.

Note on warranties: ain’t worth the paper their printed on for most people. If you’re good at not breaking things, laptop warranties are one of the few warranties I’ll recommend. With any desktop computer, the cost of a repair is usually a component less than $100. And most of the time it’s a lot less than $100. With laptops, you can’t get components. And even if you could, the laptop computer generally crams every last component directly on the mainboard as chips, and if you need to replace the “soundcard” on a laptop, you’ll be replacing the mainboard. If you need to repair the 56k modem that ancient historians are starting to recognize, you’ll be replacing the mainboard. If the network adapter fails or the video card, yup, you got it, you’re replacing the mainboard.

So, call HP, convince the 1st level repair person operating out of India or Bangladesh that I’ve already completed his script and that this issue takes more than his ability. Convince his manager of the same fact. And get a ticket escalated to the case managers.

At HP, the case managers control the actual repair. They’re usually US based and quite technically competent themselves. My case manager sent a box that included fast FedEx shipping to their repair center. The computer was back within 4 days working great. They’d replaced the mainboard, the screen, memory and a few other things. About the only things they hadn’t replaced was the external case of the unit.

Excellent. I was happy. The wife was happy. There’s a reason HP gets high rankings in support. This is it.

So, winter rolls around and the hard drive fails. Easy fix. I call HP, convince the first level I’ve already done his work. Convince his manager of the same. Get a replacement hard drive shipped out. Replace it, make sure it works, and ship the faulty unit back.

Fair enough. Laptop hard drives tend to be the part that fails the most frequently. A hard disk (at least the common kind) has glass or ceramic platters spinning at between 5,400 and 10,000 rpm whenever the computer is on. And over those platters, at a distance only a small fraction of the width of a human hair, are magnetic reader heads not too unlike old record players had. Except instead of diamonds running through grooves, this is a magnet reading magnetic polarity of individual bits on the disk.

A jostle or shake can cause those heads to contact the platters themselves, and when that happens, no matter how slight the touch, physical damage occurs on the hard drive.

Computer manufacturers will not fault you for physical damage on the platter, because to get at the platter they’d have to destroy the drive. Relatively few companies can actually open hard drives without damaging them. They will fault you for obvious trauma to the computer itself.

So it’s a fact that hard drives on laptops, which get carried around and generally suffer much more abuse than their desk-dwelling bigger brethren, have a relatively short lifespan.

But when the second drive failed in just a couple months, I was beginning to get concerned.

As part of that communication with HP I asked what the standards were regarding replacement of the system. They informed me that 3 repairs was the general rule and if the laptop failed again I’d be getting a replacement.

Ok, not bad, I thought.

Cue July this year. Grace mentions the laptop screen has been going blank at times and the only way to get it to come back is to turn the unit off with a hard shut off and then power it back on. Grace is no technologist, but she’s been married to me for a couple years and so she’s no slouch either.

It’s not happening when I’m around and it’s not happening frequently enough to warrant much concern. Just a fair warning to steel myself for the inevitable confrontation with HP. Though, I was a little jazzed at the opportunity to get a replacement system out of this.

We took the laptop on vacation with us, as the card reader on my 6 year old laptop hasn’t worked in eons and we’d need to empty our memory cards several times considering we shoot raw images with the camera.

Towards the end of vacation the memory card reader wasn’t working so well. It may have been software, it may have been hardware. I’ll never know. I’d planned on reinstalling Windows 7 to complete the 1st level support script and in the off chance this was all a drivers and service issue.

Meanwhile, I’d seen the black screen now a couple times and the systems also started deciding it didn’t like to power on every other time we asked it to. All the indicator lights would come up, but the screen stayed blank. Sometimes the system would shut itself off after a few seconds, sometimes it would stay in limbo like that until we shut it off.

So, we get home in late August and the next evening I back up the system and begin installing the operating system.

Or at least I tried.

The system shut itself down after ever shortening intervals of running. I’d try booting from the OS disk and installing clean, the system would shut down. I’d load into windows and initiate the install from inside windows, the computer would power itself off. I opened the BIOS and watched it, and the system shut off.

Ok, definite hardware issues here. This is something for HP, not me.

So, commence the fateful call.

1st level is convinced rather quickly that I’ve already completed his script and as he looks back at the support records for this computer, confirms they will definitely be considering replacement this time. 1st level manager does the same and attempts to connect me to the Case Managers. The call reverts back to 1st level. Woops. Another round of convincing, this time that I’d just called. But once again, he’s convinced quickly and takes initiative to find out whats going on. Oh, Case Managers work US hours and close at 10pm. It was around 10:05 when the first person tried transferring me. Frustrating but understandable. It’s bedtime anyways.

Next day I call and find my Case Manager is Oscar. He once again has me describe the issue. This is a problem but necessary when you’re dealing with technologically unsavvy 1st level. The problem descriptions can be confusing at best and one must always confirm issues and, optimally, hear from the customer’s own mouth the problem description before dispatching support.

However, Oscar says that because I’d repaired the unit myself twice (the hard drive episodes), that only counted as one actual HP repair and therefore the system didn’t qualify for replacement. Repair, yes. Replacement, no.

Oh, that got my goat! Because I’d been technically proficient and interested in getting the system done more quickly than they could, because I’d saved them time and money, I was being shunted to second-rate service. I was not going to lie down and accept that.

The next day I called back and learned it wasn’t actually because I’d done the repairs myself, it was because there had only been 2 repairs in the last year. Which is technically true. The first repair occurred around August 17th or so of 2009, and it was August 25th of 2010 when I opened this service call. Though the issues had begun well before then I wasn’t going to call while on vacation or when the issue was just the system going dark once a week or less.

But now I’d been told two different things. This was not going well and I was getting frustrated.

Oscar wasn’t budging though. Regardless of his reasoning, he wasn’t going to submit an order requesting a replacement.

I tried to pin down a policy, but Oscar said over and over there is no policy regarding replacement. There is a group that evaluates all repair orders that he has to submit the request to, and he told me they would not accept a replacement order which did not meet criteria which I could not get them to lay down.

Oscar did say that if the repair failed to resolve the issue the unit would be replaced and he was very firm in that statement. However, when I asked that he put in writing that any failure not attributable to physical damage by myself would qualify this system for replacement, he would not. He’d email me something to that affect, but nothing in writing.

I asked to speak with his managers or someone higher up the chain and he informed me he was the highest link in the chain.

So, from Oscar I learned there is no official policy regarding replacement but for sure a replacement would not be approved. I learned that it might be because I repaired the system myself and it might be because the there weren’t four failures in a single year, either way I wasn’t getting a replacement.

So I sent an email using the HP corporate contact form on their website detailing my concerns and request. Pat called me back and said they would refer me to my Case Manager who already owned the issue. Great help, Pat. If I was getting service from the Case Manager why would I try and contact you?

Friday afternoon Oscar says there’s nobody higher than him for me to talk to, but he can offer a second opinion. So he puts me on hold long enough to give the talking points to another Case Manager who I then describe the issue and my concerns to. After a bit of verbal sparring he concedes that if he told me what I informed him Oscar had told me, he’d give me a replacement. But then we end the call without my going back to Oscar. Oscar is on break. Or his shift is over. I work until 5:30pm and then take a noisy train home. A Case Manager who is only available until 6pm doesn’t work for me.

Which brings us to today. I talked with Oscar again. After informing him what the second opinion told me, he read the notes and did not see any such thing. He reiterated all his talking points a few more times, refusing to budge. Even when I asked that he simply submit the request for replacement to the people who determined those things and let the chips fall where they may. Not an option, he says.  But I can tell he’s becoming frustrated. Poor man, I’ve been hounding him for 4 days.

He puts me on hold and finds someone higher than himself for me to talk to. An Executive Case Manager who has such a bad case of the muffles that I don’t catch his name.

But that shows that Oscar was inaccurate in his statements over the previous days that there wasn’t anybody else higher up for me to talk to.

So, lets recap. Back in April a tech informed me I’d be getting replacement next service. No mention that it had to occur within a year of three other services or that my having performed the actual physical repair for the 2nd and 3rd service would cause any problems. That was apparently a misstatement.

August, it was either my having performed 2 of the actual services, or that it was just outside a year from the very 1st service, but there wasn’t an official policy, just some accounting trolls who’d burp fire in the face of any plucky Case Manager who tried getting a replacement. But it’s not official policy. Get that? It’s not written down anywhere.

Second opinions are pretty much more of the same, but what they tell you verbally and what they write down in the notes are two different things. Note to self, I need to be using this Google Voice call record system at little more.

Now, there’s nobody higher than Case Manager I can talk to. But wait, there is after all. Executive Case Manager points out the warranty I paid for is a repair warranty, not a replacement warranty and that he’s sorry I felt I’d been misinformed and he’s sorry I am not satisfied with replacement, but nothing’s written except repair and there’s nothing else to do.

So, that’s how HP lost me. Which sucks. Their hardware is right, their price is right, even their support is right, so long as you aren’t trying to get something significant out of them.

For 90% of the time, HP works. But for that 10% that really needs above and beyond service? No can do.