Why I won't buy a Dell next time
Or, Reason #11 to buy a Mac
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.
I have three IDE hard disk drives that I once used with my most recent system, prior to the 9200. One has a Windows image, one a Linux image, and one is dual-boot Linux/Windows. Because I recently moved overseas, and because the system I'd been using was a couple of years old, I decided to ship only the HDDs. At $3 per lb for overseas shipping, one discards anything one can.
Well, the new system has two SATA drives, which is fine with me. What's not fine with me is the fact that the motherboard has no IDE socket, only a power lead, although it does have a floppy drive socket. Unfortunately, I have got a lot of important data on those disks, and I naturally want to transfer it to my new system. For me, the easiest way would be to plug in the disks one at a time and simply copy the data using a file browser like Konqueror or Windows Explorer. Only there's nothing to plug them into. So I imagine I will have to find some sort of USB adapter or PCI adapter, or worse, build a slightly out-of-date system for my IDE drives and use some kind of "software solution".
Now for a real frustration, to me anyway: this machine has no Firewire port. I never thought to check the detailed spec sheet for information on this, because I simply expected a high-end machine to have one. I mean, do you expect to have to ask for power windows on a BMW? This is an expensive, upper mid-range machine for which I paid €2,100, including optional hardware upgrades, monitor and VAT. It ought to come "loaded", as they say in the automobile trade.
Firewire is the only way I can download video from my palmcorder. I do some very amateur video work  teaching cooking techniques, and I was planning to use this machine for editing. Obviously, this system doesn't suit my needs very well. And, after spending over €2k, I don't think that's something a person should have to say.
Dell suggests that this system is fairly typical of current PCs, and I don't doubt that. The company told us: "The Dimension 9200 is a high-performance entertainment device, and its port selection is in line with current requirements. Customers can buy Firewire as an upgrade, but at the time of your purchase, it wasn't available from Dell's online store."
So it's an option now, but it wasn't a month ago. Perhaps Dell miscalculated in withholding it from a "high performance entertainment device". But why not just make it standard? I seriously doubt that I'm the first person to be frustrated by the lack of IDE and Firewire support in a new PC. No person willing to spend two grand on a computer is going to balk at the few extra Euros needed to ensure that it's fully functional. I'm really appalled by the lack of backward compatibility and "xeno-compatibility" in today's PCs.
So maybe this is reason number 11 to buy a Mac . They certainly seem to have few problems with backward compatibility. And they all seem to have Firewire ports. Oh, and they seem to be quite heavily built, too.
Next, I recall that this machine was labeled "Vista capable" on the Dell.ie website when I bought it. I installed Vista on it, and filed a couple of reviews, here  and here , registering my various disappointments and doubts regarding the new OS. The machine might be ready for Vista, but Vista clearly isn't ready for it.
Creative Labs still has no decent Vista drivers for the X-Fi card. They work up to a point, but I've had problems with one speaker dead, and the whole sound system disabled when certain options are chosen in the Creative Audio Console, requiring the driver to be re-installed.
But Dell's own Vista X-Fi driver was a complete disaster for me. Installing it blue-screened Vista and required a cold restart, after which the audio was again disabled. I re-installed the latest Vista X-Fi driver from Creative, and now have a semi-functional sound system again. Needless to say, the sound card works beautifully with XP.
I have doubts about Nvidia's Vista driver for the GeForce 7900, too. The Nvidia Control Panel hangs and fails to apply changes when one adjusts desktop colour settings. The graphics card fan runs continuously under Vista, causing unnecessary noise and distraction. Yet the fan works as it should with XP, coming on as needed to cool things off and shutting down (or going very quiet) soon thereafter. But I wonder whether this is a driver bug, or whether Vista consumes so much GPU power for its little shiny icons that the fan simply has to run continuously. If so, the few improvements in Vista over XP aren't nearly worth the cost in loud, irritating fan noise (to say nothing of the cost in sticker price).
I bought the machine just before the Vista roll-out. Microsoft's untimely delay in launching the OS was a blow to the OEMs' Christmas shopping extravaganza, and this concern spawned the stopgap solution of labelling pre-Christmas PCs "Vista capable", loading XP on them, and issuing vouchers  for Vista upgrades.
The voucher gimmick has been plagued with problems, especially inadequate fulfillment resources, but also varying prices for shipping and handling depending on the OEM's arrangement with Microsoft's grossly overextended fulfillment partner, ModusLink. I never received a Vista voucher from Dell, but with the Irish Post being what it is, it's entirely possible it did send me one.
Now, admittedly, I have all of these problems, and a couple more, running the machine with Linux. The X-Fi card is completely dysfunctional: I have no sound at all. The video card fan runs continuously at its highest speed, making the noise absolutely intolerable. The machine is useless to me with Linux. But we all know that device makers rarely concern themselves with the needs of Linux users; and besides, this PC wasn't labeled "Linux capable". It was labelled "Vista capable". And so it is, I suppose, if "Vista capable" means merely that the system has the raw computing power, RAM, storage capacity and graphics capability that Vista so unreasonably demands in exchange for a little bit of eye candy. But most consumers will interpret "Vista capable" to mean that all of the hardware will work as it should, and that simply has not been my experience.
The not-quite-Christmas Vista roll-out has got to be a disaster for OEMs, which are stuck between their need to placate Microsoft and keep its advertising dollars flowing, and their need to ship computers that work properly to their customers. However much trouble Vista causes, MS makes money because OEMs are stuck buying and installing it. The OEMs get customer complaints about the voucher gimmick, increased support calls when things fail to work as advertised, and a blow to their reputations when customers sense they just paid a great deal of money for something that isn't quite right.
I had a wretched time learning the computer's service tag number. The label on which it's printed features minuscule white characters virtually invisible on a silver background, and to top that off, my eyesight is poor. Attempting to read it was a real struggle for me, and mildly humiliating. But it looked like C88402J. Or CSS402J. Or something like that. And maybe the C was a G, and maybe the numeral 0 was a letter O. I couldn't tell. I wanted to find the Vista drivers for my machine from Dell's website and try them, but every likely combination of letters and numerals turned out wrong. The technician, whose eyesight (apparently) is normal, read it for me when he visited. Turns out it was CSS4Q2J.
I couldn't use Dell's handy online service tag checker, because I had already installed a regular, retail version of Vista on the machine and did not have Dell's original software and utilities installed. But I did learn that the service tag is fairly legible in the BIOS setup screen, which should be a comfort to other folks suffering from poor eyesight.
Furthermore, the Windows authentication code label on top of the unit, near the service tag label, also features near-invisible tiny characters, although not quite so bad as the inexplicable white-on-silver business. Is there some reason why Dell finds it advantageous to humiliate its visually-impaired customers? I mean, if you're already stuck with two ugly labels on your PC case, why can't they at least be legible?
Dell told us: "Thank you for this feedback. We will pass this on to our manufacturing teams." Please do, before I go blind.
Delivery proved to be mildly comical. The system arrived ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, I had no idea that it had arrived (even though I was home at the time) because the shipping status information on Dell.ie's website was inaccurate and quite sketchy, and I was expecting delivery a day later. Oh, and because the delivery man never rang me when he arrived; nor did he leave a note advising me that he he'd been by. On the following day, I was again at home, expecting the delivery. But when I went downstairs to collect the mail, I found a note telling me that the driver had already attempted delivery on two occasions, the day in question, and the one previous.
You see, the buzzer downstairs had been out of order, and that was quite enough of an obstacle.
The shipping information on Dell.ie's website was inaccurate and inadequate. Inaccurate because it indicated the wrong date to expect delivery, and inadequate because I couldn't find a working contact number for the carrier. Even the carrier's own website had confusing contact information.
I also inquired about using Dell Financial Services - CIT Group Finance, actually - to buy the PC on credit. The sales person at Dell could not answer a simple question about the terms, namely, is there a penalty for early repayment, ie. do they charge more interest than you would otherwise owe at the time of repayment? "Ideally, no," he replied. But he suggested that I go ahead and order a system, and we would learn about the terms in due course. I explained that I really needed a clear answer to that question first.
So I rang up Dell Financial Services (CIT). It turns out that there is no interest penalty, just a modest service charge, so that was good news. When I bought the PC, Dell.ie was advertising on its website a three-month period without payments, which was also tempting, especially in view of the early repayment option. But CIT didn't know anything about the three-month offer. So communication between the two outfits is perhaps not "ideal", and the Dell.ie website doesn't always have the best information.
Care for another?
So, what went right? Well, the PC was shipped ahead of schedule. It would have been a pleasant surprise if my buzzer had been working, or if the Dell.ie website had offered up-to-date information, or if the driver had troubled himself with making a ten-second phone call.
The machine also functioned very well as shipped, that is, with Windows XP installed. It certainly runs my applications well. It's not a gamer's box, but its performance is quite good doing the things that I use it for.
Internally, it's modular: the sub-assemblies are easy to remove and replace, and things are fairly well laid out for those who like to tinker.
I have not experienced the reported Intel RAID controller issue  with Vista, for which I'm grateful.
I opted for the Dell 2007-WFP 20in widescreen monitor, and I'm very satisfied with it. For reasons already mentioned, I use a resolution of 1280 x 768, and big, sans-serif fonts. Images are clear, characters are well-defined, edges are smooth, and the screen is evenly lit; it's really quite pleasant to use. The black could be a little blacker. Other than that, it's fabulous.
The WL-6000 5.1 speaker system that I ordered is reasonably priced and not at all bad. It doesn't fully exploit the X-Fi card's capabilities, or the new audio capabilities in Vista, but it cost only about €150, so for an inexpensive system, I can't complain.
Since I reported my difficulties to Dell, after-sale service has been very good, just as it was the first time I bought a Dell PC. However, I did identify myself, because I needed to ask questions related to this story, and people generally deserve to know if their answers are going to be published. So, in seeking support and asking for explanations, I wasn't playing the secret shopper as I was when I bought the unit. I'm not implying that a computer outfit would necessarily be more attentive to a tech journo than to another consumer, but it's worth noting that such a temptation certainly exists.
I must disclose that I received one consideration that I suspect is atypical, although I think that disclosing it specifically would be unfair to Dell, on the fly-in-the-soup principle. I will say this much: there is a component in my original order that I would replace with a different, but largely equivalent one. Since the company offered to take back my noisy PC, I've asked for this substitute component in the replacement unit. This consideration is of little or no monetary value, and it does not involve any effort on Dell's part beyond putting a PC together, which they've already offered to do. So it is not an attempt to corrupt me with feelings of gratitude. Nevertheless, I'm not so sure that every person whose defective PC is replaced will be entertained when they say, "and while you're at it, I really wish I'd ordered it with the XYZ gizmo instead of the ABC one".
So, it has not been all bad. Would I buy another PC from Dell? That's easy: No. I bought a second one because of a largely positive initial experience. I won't buy a third, because of a largely disappointing experience now.
Actually, I think I'll take our Tony Smith's advice  to heart. My next system is almost certain to be a Mac.