best buy, i call bullshit

Today, I got my computer a bit of an extra lifeline. As avid readers of this blog (ahem, myself) would know, my HP dv5z pretended to kick the bucket a couple of weeks ago. It being my primary computer and me not being much of an internal-workings-of-the-laptop junkie, I decided to take it to Best Buy to get it fixed. Seemed like the consumer thing to do, right? Wrong. Best Buy quoted me $253 to fix what was quoted as a heat sink/fan assembly requiring replacement. Which is what I expected. Except that the part costs about $15 online (from eBay). It is out of stock in HP but the most expensive quote for it I saw was about $70. In the best case for Best Buy, that meant a cost of about $170 for labor (given that they have already stolen my $85 for “diagnostics”).

I got my computer back today and given that I have pretty much decided to buy a new one, went ahead and cored it. It was fascinating seeing all the little pieces that make up a laptop. I had gone about 3/4th of the way in previously but this time, with my HDD safe and a new laptop purchase in the near future, I went all the way. I got all the way down to the heat sink and removed it. I had purchased a can of compressed air from BB and used it to clean the fan assembly out. Sure enough, it seemed to be hitting something.

Feeling adventurous, I went ahead and disassembled the fan assembly. Using some suggestions I found on the internet, I applied some machine oil (or, in my case, the oil I use to oil my electronic clippers) to the axle that comes in contact with the fan system. I then put the piece back together and tested it out with the compressed air. No noise. I let it sit for a bit and then tried again. No noise. I put the rest of the laptop back together. I am now writing this post from that laptop. No noise.

In no way is this a permanent solution. In fact, I’ve gone ahead and ordered a replacement part from a vendor on eBay (and even got Bing CashBack back already!). But the fact of the matter is that what I did is not worth $170 in labor, any where in the world. It took me a little under 1.5 hours to disassemble the laptop, disassemble the fan, ponder what the problem is and reassemble the whole thing. And I’ve never done this in my life before (well I’ve disassembled this laptop a few times but not enough to do anything useful). That means that in Best Buy’s most convenient case, they’re charging about $113/hr to fix this issue.

That is a ludicrous value. I currently get paid a bit more than $30/hr if I estimate based on 40-hour work weeks. A Best Buy “Geek Squad” engineer makes 4 times this for being able to read a manual? Ridiculous.

Well, I’ve learned my lesson. If I can do it myself, there’s no need to go into a consumer electronics store to get stuff fixed by their highly overpaid “technical staff”. I feel a bit bad for all the consumers who are not technical at all who get duped on a daily basis. $85 for a diagnosis? Absolutely ridiculous.

The worst part of it all is that from what I saw inside my computer, no one seemed to have really opened it up to investigate it. I feel like I should have put a little sticky post-it note saying “remove this if you opened the computer” to see if someone actually looked into it or if they just mailed it to each other and fed me a extravagant quote.

Anyways, when the replacement fan comes in, I’ll go ahead and install it. The positive here is it buys me a few more days to make a decision on a new laptop.

narrowing down the contenders (part 2)

I took a look at two more configurations today before my patience, or rather impatience, got the better of me. On a side note, I’ve been doing a lot of personality surveys over the last few days as part of work and I realize that while I’m kind of analytical, etc., I’m still kind of spontaneous when it comes to making decisions. I’m sure my parents can vouch for this–when I was a kid and I wanted something, I usually wanted to get it from the first shop we visited. All the price comparing, looking for the best deal, etc. just came in the way of me getting the toy. Not much has changed–just the toys are more expensive, now (and I’m buying them). ๐Ÿ™‚

So the two computers I added to my list were the Dell Latitude E6400 and the Apple MacBook. Here’s a short summary on each one’s spec:

Apple MacBook

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P7550 2.26GHz
Screen: 13.3″
Weight: 4.7lbs
Battery: “7-hour battery life”
Warranty: 3-years AppleCare
Price: $1,248 + taxes

The things to note here are that this uses an old processor (didn’t look to closely at the benchmark) and a slow hard-disk. I was also surprised that I had to pay about $350 for the 3-year AppleCare warranty; for some reason I was under the assumption that that was included in the premium price (my mistake). Given that this computer is pretty expensive, pretty crippled comparatively and is a Mac, it’s not high in my prioritized list.

Dell Latitude E6400

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P8800 2.66GHz
Screen: 14.1″
Weight: 4.3lbs
Battery: 9-cell
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $1,071 + taxes

I looked at a couple of Latitudes since they seem to be the business machine of choice (NI business laptops are usually Latitudes, although interestingly they are not available on the Dell EPP page). Unfortunately, they haven’t refreshed their line yet, as they still have the old-school Core 2 Duo’s and only DDR2 RAM. Isn’t a big deal, but not really future-proof, considering that I am getting a 3-year warranty.

Needless to say, I’m not going to be buying either of these configurations.

In fact, I have pretty much decided on the Sony VAIO CW Series. I’ve spec’ed out a couple of configurations and it seems to have the most power for the best price. The only downside is that the machine is 5.3lbs, which is only about half a pound lighter than my HP dv5z, but then again it is only half a pound heavier than the Apple. I was strongly leaning towards the EliteBook 8440P, which has so far got lots of good reviews. However, it made more sense to go with the VAIO: (1) Double the RAM (4GB vs. 2GB) and using only one slot so upgradable, (2) 70GB more of HDD space, (3) cheaper by $70 and (4) I can engrave something into the bezel (currently I have decided “sohummm”). In fact, I’m so sure about getting the VAIO that I already applied for financing and was approved for $3,500 of credit with 6 months on 0% APR. Given that I’m looking to pay this out over 3 months max, I don’t know how I can let this deal go (not to mention the credit approval makes me lean towards looking at one of the more expensive lines, too).

Anyways, that’s it. Looks like VAIO is going to re-enter our family after my Dad had one of the ultra-portable models back in the day.

narrowing down the contenders (part 1)

As I have mentioned recently on this blog, I’m in the market for a new laptop computer. I’m tired of big, bloaty, excessively hot, heavy computers so I’m looking for something that is small and lightweight, yet powerful enough to do some development on. With my home entertainment center all set up and performing at peak, I have no need to invest in a decent graphics card or a ton of RAM, although these things would be useful while doing some development work.

Over the last few days I’ve looked at several different contenders and have come up with the following shortlist. This list can still change and it even includes an HP (even though I had sworn off them). This research has demonstrated to me that buying a business laptop (which all of these unilaterally qualify as) is a much more expensive affair than buying a consumer laptop. The HP that is quickly going to waste and was my previous laptop was purchased for under $700 before warranty. These business notebooks are minimum of about $850 before I spec them up.

Anyways, enough dilly-dallying. Here are my contenders. I’ve chosen them based on price, size, weight, sexiness and heat dissipation (one of my major factors!).

Dell Studio 15

Processor: Intel Core i5-430M 2.26GHz
Screen: 15.6″
Weight: 5.54lbs
Battery: 9-cell
Warranty: 3-years premium + LoJack
Price: $1,011 + taxes

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is a consumer-level laptop that suffers from all the issues that the HP did. It is about half a pound lighter. Could be lighter if I went with the standard 6-cell battery. I know, putting this laptop up makes me seem very hypocritical or perhaps even appear like one of those people who do not learn from their mistakes. Well, this laptop isn’t my top choice. I’ve included it more to show the price disparity than anything else!

Dell Onyx Adamo

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo Su9400 1.40GHz
Screen: 13.4″
Weight: 4.00lbs
Battery: 6-cell
HDD: 128GB Solid State Drive
Warranty: 3-years
Price: $1,395 + taxes

This is a laptop that was recommended to me by Jesรบs. It is sleek and at least the stock graphics make it look immensely sexy. It has a small form factor and is designed to rival the Macbook Air, although it weighs in at a pound heavier. One drawback is that it is the only laptop in my list that does not have an internal optical drive. I’d have to purchase a USB CD-ROM drive to be able to install Windows, etc. If I chose to get the Onyx Combo Drive, that’s another $120 (I think it is actually included in my price above).

HP EliteBook 8440P (WH256UT)

Processor: Intel Core i5-520M 2.40GHz
Screen: 14.0″
Weight: 5.20lbs
Battery: 6-cell
Warranty: 3-years
Price: $1,199 + taxes

And the HP option returns. I was very vehement about not investing in HP in my earlier post, but having read a few reviews, it seems HP’s busines line (EliteBook) is a world apart from the consumer line Pavilion series. I read several reviews for this unit, and did searches specifically for heat issues, fan problems and other issues. It seems that this EliteBook is a hell of a lot better at handling heat than previous EliteBooks, which were way better at handling them than the Pavilions, to begin with. The downside here is that the machine comes only packed with 2GB of RAM and it’s still quite heavy (5.20 lbs) compared to the Adamo. If I recall (and I will verify this) my HP dv5z-1000 weighed in at around 5.8lbs.

Sony VAIO CW (VGN-CW290)

Processor: Intel Core i5-520M 2.40GHz
Screen: 14.0″
Weight: 5.30lbs
Battery: 6-Cell
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $1,129 + taxes

This is the first time I’ve looked at Sony for a laptop. Again, this is slightly heavier than what I’m interested in, but it’s got a good spec sheet. It’s coming in at $70 less than the HP EliteBook, although the finish looks a lot more plasticky compared to the aluminum finish that the EliteBook supposedly has.ย  Otherwise it seems like a good deal–in fact it is the only deal on the Sony VAIO line that seemed anywhere near affordable. Given that Sony is a luxury laptop line to begin with, I’m hosting that their general consumer offerings are better than their counterparts from Dell and HP.

So that’s part 1. Part 2 will probably contain a few Mac offerings as well as a few of the less powerful, more portable offerings. I’m hung between getting a computer that is really light because I don’t want to end up with a Tablet PC-like Visual Studio experience.

taxes and technology

I don’t think I’ve griped about my iPod Touch potentially dying last week. Apparently my iPod freaked out when I plugged it into my entertainment center last weekend to play some Ke$ha (yes, this was probably my mistake). The iPod was unsyncable through iTunes for some reason and since we had people over and I didn’t really feel like troubleshooting, I let YouTube and my collection of music on the hard disk take over. Later last week I took my iPod into work to listen to some music. Unfortunately, it would play only one song. I repeat, only one song. At the end of the song, I’d hear approximately 0.83 seconds of the next song and then the music app quit.

Any other app I opened did not work either. Just boot up and shut down immediately. I did a reboot on the system a couple of times and there was no improvement. Finally, I got the chance this weekend to try and figure out what the problem was. When I plugged the iPod in, it told me I needed to update my software. When trying to update my software, it said that it could not backup my profile. I had all my music on my computer and all my apps are on my iPhone now so I thought, what the hell, let’s just do a full-scale restore operation. Restore failed. A couple of times.

Luckily I was watching TV at the time (I think Modern Family or The Office or maybe even an NBA game or something) so I had the patience to keep trying. Finally, the restore went through. However, it then promptly hung when I tried to name my iPod (configuring it as a brand new device). I quit iTunes forcefully and upon restarting, it gave me the “Cannot Sync” message, forcing me to restore it again. I had to do about 2-3 clean restores before I was finally able to configure the device to work (I think). Once I finally managed to name my iPod (going with the generic sohum’s iPod instead of something as exciting as sohummm or maybe even iSohum) I decided that I had had enough of iTunes.

Fortunately for me, I had stumbled upon an article a couple of weeks ago about how an iPod user wanted to divorce iTunes. If you recall my “iTunes kills the iPhone experience” blog, you will note that I was in much the same position (except that I would never be able to overlook iTunes’ many flaws to ever marry it in the first place). One of the alternatives was MediaMonkey, which I promptly downloaded, installed and fired up. While the interface isn’t as clean-cut as iTunes, it is infinitely more performant. It took me about 25-30 minutes to set up my sync list and then I clicked one button and it was ready to go, quietly doing its stuff in the background. The last time I tried to use iTunes to set up a new iPod with my music (my iPhone, in that case), I had to live through about 2 hours of iTunes trying to figure out whether each song in my library should be included on the “gapless” playback list before my computer was usable.

I don’t change my music all that often–just add new tunes here and there, so it seems MediaMonkey is the perfect hands-off tool for me to sync my iPod without having to deal with the crapware that is iTunes. I’m not interested in buying crippled, low bitrate music from iTunes and even if I did, I would do it directly through my iPod (if that’s possible).

Anyways, that’s the technology part of this blog. Tomorrow will be a test of whether my iPod is truly fixed or whether it was just pretending to do so.

The other thing I wanted to touch upon was taxes. Yep, tax season is coming up! While at Rice, the international student office kindly set us up with a license of the CINTAX (hilarious name, yes?) software to help us crunch the numbers. It had always seemed like such a painful and tedious process? Doing it on my own this year showed that it is actually not that complicated, especially if you have a simple financial situation, as I do. First of all, since I’m still technically a non-resident (in fact, an NR student, to be precise) I don’t really qualify for any extra deductions/exemptions. The tax treaty with India (Article 21(2) to be exact) allows me to get the standard deduction ($5,700) and my lowly income allows me to get the standard exemption ($3,650). However, this may be the final year that I will have such a simple process since next year I will be in H-1B status for part of the year, meaning that I may need to split my taxes or do something exciting like that. I will probably need to consult professional help at that point in time, but for now I am rejoicing in having solved one of those annoying life problems. ๐Ÿ˜›

Anyways, I got a lot of information from a website called, if any of you are international students and have stumbled upon this blog because of tax season. Here are a few more keywords to hook you into this blog (is this unethical?): 1040NR, 1040NR-EZ, Form 8843. Grin. ๐Ÿ™‚

C’est tout!

toasted laptop

Today I found out that my laptop has been effectively toasted. Not a great result for a computer I bought about a year and a half ago (I think I bought it in September 2008). Turns out that the CPU fan and heat sink assembly apparently needs to be replaced. Best Buy quoted me $253.06 to do the replacement, which is ridiculous given that I bought the computer itself for about $650 including a 1-year warranty. I looked up the fan and heat-sink assembly part number on the web and a new one costs between $30-$50 (depending on which processor/video card assembly I have), so, to me, it looks like Best Buy is trying to take me for a ride. Of course, the “diagnostic” costs ran up $85, which I don’t get back. Ridiculous how much repair companies screw over less-technical consumers. Most consumers wouldn’t even attempt a repair themselves–I tried it but didn’t want to wreck anything, so stopped halfway.

Anyhow, this means I’m once again in the market for a new laptop. I think I’m going to go with a Dell, this time, given that I haven’t heard too many problems about them and NI has some nice employee discounts with Dell. This is the first time I’m stepping out of the HP market in nearly 6 years (basically since college) and given my experience with Toshiba (in high school) and Compaq (which has now been bought by HP), my realistic choices are basically Dell, Lenovo and Sony. And, I guess, Apple. I will be not-very-seriously looking at Apple during my purchase, this time, and if the pricing matches up properly, who knows? Of course, I’d have to sacrifice 64-bit Windows (I think?) unless Boot Camp can run that stuff now.

With my old laptop, I’ve already salvaged my hard-disk so what I could do is reuse the RAM in my new purchase (if their timing, etc. matches up) or try to buy the fan/heat sink assembly online and fix it myself. We’ll see after I get my laptop back.

Anyhow, that’s it for now. Just a bit of grumptastic news, but the bright side is I will be getting a new computer soon (oh, my!).