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Why I won't buy a Dell next time

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Comment I recently bought a "Vista capable" desktop PC from Dell. It was a good opportunity to play the secret shopper and report the experience as an ordinary consumer, instead of reporting as a tech journo reviewing hardware supplied by the maker and tweaked to perfection before delivery.

I had bought a PC from Dell years ago and had a good experience overall. Its prices are high, but I was impressed with the after-sales service. About three months after delivery there was a problem and I had no trouble persuading Dell's tech support folks that a component had failed. A replacement part was dispatched immediately, along with a pre-paid return shipping label for the defective one.

It was about as painless as I could have hoped. So, yes, the kit was expensive, but I found that I had got something of value for the money. And an experience like that does tend to build customer loyalty - which in fact led me to buy another Dell machine about a month ago.

Fit and finish

The new PC, a Dimension 9200, has a few problems. One of the more frustrating concerns is the media-card reader assembly, which is loose and buzzes loudly. The noise is intermittent, but quite distracting.

Dell sent a technician to look at it and he determined, first, that a screw which guides the assembly into the bay had been put in the wrong location, and second, that the assembly itself had been fitted into the wrong bay. There is a plastic stop in the upper bay that catches the screw. On my machine, the assembly had been installed in the lower bay, which lacks a plastic stop and is most likely intended to accommodate an optional floppy drive. So, with the screw inserted into the right hole, and the assembly inserted into the right bay, the technician expressed hopes that the noise problem would go away.

I will allow that it's no longer as bad as it was. But it's still there, despite my having stuffed bits of cardboard around the assembly to isolate it from the chassis. Dell has decided to replace the entire PC, because it'd like to examine it and learn if there's a design issue with the 9200 - a potential problem for others - or if my machine simply didn't get put together right at the Limerick plant. If it was assembled on a Friday, well, that's all I need to know...

The 9200's case and chassis seem lightweight, flexible, and rather tinny compared with my old Dell system. I sense that the new one is made of thinner-gauge metal and is fitted together less solidly, allowing it to flex and creak under gentle hand pressure. The old one had, I believe, thicker-gauge metal that was nicely fitted together and bonded to a plastic sheath that dampened noise and vibration. Nothing inside it moved, and the chassis didn't flex, rattle, or buzz. It was silent, solid, and looked and felt as if it would survive a fall down a flight of stairs without the slightest internal harm.

Meanwhile, I have a hard time imagining the 9200 surviving a mere fall off a desk without serious internal damage. So there has been a paradigm shift in the philosophy of PC cases. Previously, the case was meant to protect the internal parts; today, it is meant merely to contain them.

The video card, an Nvidia GeForce 7900, seems loose. There appears to be a friction fit on one side, where not long ago there would have been a screw fastening it to the chassis. The technician said it appeared to be fitted correctly, and I believe him; but the cable connecting it to the monitor is exceptionally beefy and able to apply a great deal of leverage to the card, which looks to me like an opportunity for someone to do expensive damage just by picking up their computer and moving it.

Finally, for a bit more evidence of possible carelessness at the Limerick plant, I note that the speaker set came fitted with the ubiquitous Europlug, which, admittedly, fits a broad range of electrical sockets, except those in Ireland and the UK. Dell has agreed to rectify that minor issue as well. It's not a major inconvenience - adapters are readily available - but it suggests slackness, which, in combination with the other "fit and finish" problems, gives me a poor impression of the unit's overall quality and durability, and the diligence of Dell's factory staff.

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