Dealing with a broken computer is never a welcome experience. When it is a mail-order computer, there can be added complications.
If you don't understand anything about the innards of your computer and don't want to, buying a mail-order computer--even one with a good on-site service warranty--may not be a happy experience.
We have two mail-order computers at our house. One has performed flawlessly for about four years, while the other, less than a year old, has been almost totally replaced piece by piece.
The problem machine, a 386 PC with a speedy 33 megahertz microprocessor, 8 megabytes of memory and a 200-megabyte hard disk, is my wife's. She saved thousands of dollars buying mail order and got a long warranty with free on-site service.
But from the beginning things went wrong. The color monitor would suddenly switch colors, even with black-and-white software that shouldn't be in color.
A telephone call to the manufacturer's 800 number brought another video board by overnight air freight. I installed it rather than wait a day or two for the on-site service contractor to come out.
But something else was wrong that I couldn't really diagnose. A special program my wife uses that requires prodigious amounts of expanded memory wouldn't work, although other programs were fine.
That can be a nightmare situation. Is it a bug in the software, a bug in the hardware or some undiscovered incompatibility between the two? The software publisher cooperated with a new copy of its program, which still didn't work.
Once armed with that information, I called the 800 number again, and the company agreed to ship a new mother board fully equipped with new memory. That must have been about a $1,500 decision, but it was made by the technical support technician who answered the call. I didn't have to twist any arms or work my way up some chain of command.
The board came by overnight air express, and the on-site service contractor installed it the same day.
Things were fine until a couple of weeks ago when the computer just quit running. The next morning, the manufacturer agreed with my diagnoses that the power supply had failed after asking my wife a number of technical questions that might have been daunting to a less experienced computer user.
This time they wanted to ship by surface but yielded to her request for overnight air freight.
I installed the new power supply rather than wait for on-site service, but it still wouldn't work. The conversation with the manufacturer's technician the next morning was much more rigorous. I had to take the cover off the computer and remove and then reinstall all accessory circuit boards to prove that one had not caused the problem by working its way loose.
A less technically inclined owner would just have to plead ignorance and wait for on-site service.
The technician concluded that the mother board was blown, and he agreed to express one overnight with all-new memory. Another expensive decision.
The weekend intervened and then the board got lost, so the computer was down for a week before the service tech installed the new mother board.
The computer still wouldn't work, and the on-site technician concluded that the real failure was a circuit board containing printer and communications ports. That little board probably costs the maker about $20 and is the least expensive part in the computer.
Another call to the 800 number brought a new I/O card, as it is called, which I installed. Once again the computer runs great.
The fan in the new power supply is quieter, and the new mother board is of a different design and from a more well-known manufacturer. But the new I/O card is identical to the one that failed.
In all this, the manufacturer has been exemplary, even though the computer has suffered three real component failures in its first year.
And the on-site service has certainly been more convenient than hauling the machine back to a dealer. But it requires you to participate in diagnosing problems--something you may not want to deal with.
Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.