Before I begin this rant I want to make it clear I am not a Dell hater. I am a rather happy owner of a Dell XPS desktop and I work on a team that professionally maintains a fleet of Dell laptops. Most of them are fine. Some are shit, straight out of the box.
Recently my boss wandered into the IT cave demanding a new laptop. This was quite unexpected because he has been overly protective of his old HP tablet with the swivel display. Even after he lost the stylus, damaged the cradle port, and had the sound card fail he refused to let it go. Each of us took turns trying to coax him into releasing the new machine and getting a new system. He would not hear about it. At least not until now.
He barged into our inner sanctum, woke up the slumbering intern and bellowed an order: he wanted something thin and cool like them Apple laptops. Stupidly I asked if he mayhaps wanted a MacBook Pro or Air cause we could hook him up with that, seeing how he owns the company and all. It would probably cause some support headaches, but it is not like he is not getting preferential treatment, admin privileges and etc already. Apparently this was the wrong thing to say:
“What? Are you crazy? I don’t want an Apple computer. I just want something like Apple. But cheap. And from Dell, cause that’s where we get corporate discounts.”
So essentially he wanted a cheap MacBook knock-off. Fair enough. I put together some options and pricing for him and we ended up with the following machine: XPS 14z.
It had a thin, glass to the edge display, back-lit chicklet keyboard an an aluminum case, a flush touch-pad and a slot loaded DVD. I guess it was jut ‘Apply enough to fit the bill.
Fast forward about a week. The machine is delivered, configured and ready to go. All the files are transferred from the old wreck of the machine and we are good to go. I hand it off to the boss and he happily takes possession of his new toy. He decides to keep the ancient HP as a “backup” which is fine, cause I would just retire and junk it otherwise.
Few days pass, and he reports a first problem with the machine. Apparently it “jumps off the network”. I read that ticket, I have the mental image of the poor laptop getting fed up with the abuse, and leaping off a cliff, AssCreed style. The poor thing probably never anticipated the things that would be done to it.
I look around at my peers to see if any of them wants to pick up this ticket. All of them flash the universal sign of “not it” which is made by extending the middle finger of your dominant hand, palm facing inwards. Unfortunately I have to field this one on my own. So I take the journey to the “oval office” as we call it. The big boss is sitting on his leather couch (yes, he has one in his office, he owns the place) with the legs on his coffee table, the machine on his lap.
“Ah, good thing you’re here. It jumped off the network again.”
He swivels the machine so that I can see it. The machine is still on his lap, and I’m quite unsure what am I supposed to do. Does he expect me to work on it while it’s still on his lap? I sort of reach for it, but then hesitate for a second. At that point he realizes that there are probably more optimal configurations for laptop support, and hands me the machine telling me to sit at his desk and figure it out.
I take the laptop, and unplug the Ethernet cable. You see, we don’t use wireless at any of our offices because of the security implications. No matter how much encryption you use, a wired network is always more secure. It is way easier to control access to available ports and cables than to try and secure the airways. I am really glad the expensive external consultants were able to sell the management on this idea, that we, the Internal IT, were advocating for years.
Anyway, I plug his machine at his desk, and it works. I pick up his by-the-couch cable, plug it in and it works. I hand the machine back to him, and it drops again. I take it back, unplug, plug back it – it works. Hand it back – it drops. I replace the Ethernet cable from the one he had by his desk – same scenario. As soon as the machine leaves my hands, the connection drops.
Now, techno-muggles often joke around that we, the Denizens of the NOC have special technomancer powers that allow us to temporarily coax machines into a working state by mere physical proximity. I never paid any heed to such folk tales but this was quickly becoming a live demonstration of just that sort of a phenomenon.
After troubleshooting some more, I managed to identify the problem. It was the Ethernet port. When you plug in an RJ45 jack into a port, it is supposed to be locked into place with a little click. Once locked, the pins should be in full contact and there should be no play on the wire – jiggling it, or pulling back on it should not cause a disconnection, unless the release latch on top. On this particular laptop however, the RJ45 would be loose in the port. Plugging it in would produce the familiar click, but it would still be possible to push the plug about two millimeters deeper into the port. In fact, pushing it deeper would be crucial to establish a connection. A slight tug on the wire, once it was locked in, would make it slide back a few millimeters, and the pins would lose contact causing disconnection. The cable would still be locked in place, and it would be impossible to pull it out without disengaging the latch – but connection could be easily broken and re-established by very subtle movements in and out. It’s almost as if the pins were nested too deep in the port. You can probably see how sitting on the couch, with the computer on your lap could produce a wire tension, ant thus cause intermittent disconnects.
RJ45 is a standard that has not changed in years. To actually make an Ethernet port that fails this way would require actual effort because all these parts are machine made to a standard spec. I figured it must have been a one-off manufacturing defect, and decided to call Warranty support and have it replaced.
I got Dell on the horn, and explained the issue to their support drone. He gives me an attitude right of the bat:
“Sir, I can assure you we have never had this sort of an issue reported for this particular model.”
That’s great buddy! I’m really glad to hear that, but it does not change the fact that my machine has a fucked port that does not work. This reinforces my guess about a factory defect, but then again, you are a worker at a call center in India, so what the fuck do you know. It’s a brand new machine, the port is broken and I would line it not to be. Eventually he reluctantly agrees to dispatch a technician and replace both the motherboard (with the integrated Ethernet card) and the bottom baseboard casing. Fair enough.
Next day the Dell technician comes in, I set him up in the conference room and let him do the work. About 20 minutes later, he calls me and says he is done. I pop into the room as he is packing up his stuff, and try to power up the machine. It’s dead. I ask him if he tried to power it up.
“Sure thing, all works now.”
I show him that it doesn’t. He starts packing faster…
“Oh, that’s just the battery. If you plug it in, it’ll be fine.”
I grab the spare AC adapter that’s underneath the conference room table for just this occasion and plug it in. The machine is still dead. I look at him, he looks at me and goes:
“Listen, I’m already late to my next appointment…”
I slowly inch the laptop towards him then point at it and I do my best impression of Liam Neeson from Taken and slowly and calmly explain the situation to him:
“This was booting up fine. You fucked it. Now I need you to un-fuck it. And if it’s un-fucked by the time I come back, I might be nice enough not to call your supervisors and not complain about this shit.”
Then I leave, slam the door and summon the artist formerly known as Intern.
“INTERN, YOU ARE BEING SUMMONED!”
Intern immediately materializes at my side as is in his nature and greets me in his internly fashion:
“What’s up, bro?”
I pull him aside, show him the conference room with the trapped technician.
“See that guy? Watch him and don’t let him leave, until I come back. If he tries to make a run for it, call security and tell them he is stealing our shit, trespassing and that he raped you or something.”
“For real bro?”
“Yes, he is raping, pillaging and infringing on our intellectual prosperity or something. I don’t care. He’s fixing the big boss’ laptop, and if it’s not working then shit will get really ugly around here.”
Intern salutes, and stands guard at the door, armed with a lukewarm cup of coffee and Nintendo DS. From his expression I know he is not afraid to use any of these weapons to amuse and caffeinate himself while he performs this sacred duty.
I come back 20 minutes later, and the Intern is dead asleep, out of coffee and his Pokemon is apparently losing a battle with a Charizard. The Dell technician is still there, slightly more sweaty than before. This time the machine boots up fine. I grab an Ethernet cable, plug it in and verify that the connection works. Then I use one finger and lightly tug on the cable. The RJ45 slides a few millimeters and the connection drops. I show him the problem.
“Did you actually replace the motherboard?”
He swears up and down that he did. Both the mobo and the bottom plastics have been replaced with brand new parts. He calls his Dell budies, they exchange secret codes, case numbers and pleasantries. Then he puts me on the phone. They give me two choices:
- Dispatch another mobo and bottom plastics and try another swap
- Have the machine sent in to their repair depot
I choose option #1 because I’m almost certain that this oaf somehow destroyed the replacement mobo while installing it (which is why the damn thing wouldn’t boot), and then swapped the old part back in to cover his ass. I also ask them to send a different technician.
Next day another technician arrives. This one looks slightly more competent, but then again, you never know with these guys. To be sure, I install the Intern in the conference room as my spy. I make sure I show the technician him the issue we are trying to correct and he gets to work. A little bit later he calls me over.
“Man, I don’t know what’s wrong with this thing. I replaced both the motherboard and the bottom plastics, right…” he looks to the Intern.
The Intern nods vigorously.
“I made sure everything is aligned perfectly, and it is screwed in tightly. But the cable is still loose in the jack though… You might have to send this one to the depot or something.”
He gets Dell on the phone again, and they give me the repair depot spiel again. You know what? Fuck the depot. If I wanted to send it to the depot, I would not pay for the “Next Business Day, On Site” warranty. I would pick the cheapo “we will spend a week looking through your shit, and copying your pr0n at the depot” option. I politely explain to them they can suck my proverbial dick, and get stuffed. Eventually they agree to replace the machine instead. They are sending us a replacement laptop and it should be here in a few days. If that one has a shitty Ethernet port, I will probably have The Intern punch himself in the face or do something even more drastic.
TLDR: Dell sold us a laptop with a broken Ethernet port. Tried to replace it twice, but each time it was equally shitty. Now they are replacing the entire laptop. I have a feeling the new machine will be equally shitty. Don’t buy XPS 14Z.