Supporting PCs from a vendor which no longer exists is a real challenge. There’s often no one to call about drivers, hardware configurations, replacement parts, or system settings. If you’re lucky, the vendor has been sold to another company which will provide product support. If you’re unlucky, like I was, the company declared bankruptcy almost two years ago and shut down. Here are a few tips to help you avoid being caught in such a dilemma and advice on what to do if you are.
An ounce of prevention
The old axiom, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” certainly rings true when buying a computer. Before running out and purchasing the cheapest system on the Internet, do a little homework on the vendor. Find out how long the vendor has been in business and how well it supports its products through its support staff and warranty. The information is out there, but you may have to dig through the vendor’s Web site, technical magazines, and technical Web sites such as CNET and TechRepublic. You should also ask colleagues for their word-of-mouth review.
While I can’t overstate the importance of vendor service and reliability, the type of system you’re purchasing is also important. Desktop PCs are traditionally easier and cheaper to support than laptops. Many laptops have propriety hardware that can be very expensive or impossible to replace if you do not go through the original vendor. Desktop PCs, on the other hand, often use standard hardware that can be easily replaced. I am much more comfortable buying desktops from less well-known vendors, but for laptops, I stick to the name brands.
What do you mean they’ve gone out of business?
My brother, unfortunately, did not stick to the name brands and is paying for it now. In early 1998, he bought a laptop from a company called ProGen located in Tustin, CA. Several PC magazines had reviewed the company and laptop favorably, and the price was perfect; about $2000 for a PII 266 with 64 MB of RAM, a 4-GB hard drive, CD-ROM, and a 13.3" active matrix display (see Figure A). The system came preinstalled with Windows 98 and was perfect for his needs, which consisted of mainly e-mail, Internet browsing, and word processing.
Things were fine until late 2000 when the 3.5” floppy stopped working. After digging around on the Internet for a few hours, we learned our unfortunate fate. ProGen had gone bankrupt in 1999. We eventually resolved the 3.5” floppy problem, which you can read more about in my article "Reinstall the OS before abandoning all hope," and the system ran smoothly for a few weeks. Then the battery stopped holding a charge and the system was unable to run many new applications adequately due to its limited 64 MB of RAM.
I always wanted to be Hercule Poirot
Normally, I could solve these issues in a few minutes by installing some more RAM and buying a new battery, but with ProGen out of business, replacement parts were not readily available. I searched vendor Web sites for hours trying to find one with parts for a ProGen laptop. For memory, I tried Crucial, PNY, Kingston, CDW, and Insight with no success. I got the same results when looking for a new battery. The situation did not look promising.
After my vendor search failed, I broadened my investigation by using the keywords ProGen and laptop on Google, Yahoo, and Excite. After a few hours, I finally stumbled upon ComplaintCenter.com. This was my big break. ComplaintCenter.com provides a forum for consumers to post their complaints about products and services. On this site, I found a host of people with grievances against ProGen. I also found the clue that would crack my brother’s current mystery. ProGen computers were actually made by a company called Twinhead, a Taiwanese company with offices in Fremont, CA. Best of all, Twinhead was still in business.
I went immediately to Twinhead’s Web site and wrote down its toll-free technical support number. I called, and, to my astonishment, was talking with a real person within a few minutes. The tech informed me that Twinhead had indeed made my brother’s laptop and it was a Slimnote EX2 model. This was the crucial bit of information I needed. I asked the tech if he could point me to a vendor that carried RAM for this model laptop. He said Twinhead could get the RAM, but it would cost around $300. It seemed this particular laptop had a propriety RAM chip that would have to be special-ordered from Taiwan. Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic about this price. I thanked the tech for his time, figuring I would call back after consulting with my brother about the expense.
The more I thought about paying $300 for one 64-MB SODIMM chip, the more I thought there must be another way. Besides, the laptop’s manual and Twinhead’s Web site said this model used industry standard SODIMMs (see Figure B).
I decided to recheck the memory vendors I had previously used but with the new Twinhead Slimnote EX2 model name. I was in luck. Crucial had a 64-MB SODIMM chip available for $32.39, including free UPS 2nd Day shipping. Next, I turned my attention to the battery and was able, using the new model name, to find a new Li-Ion battery from BiX Computers for $149. I ordered the RAM and battery on the spot. For $200, my brother was able to breathe new life into his aging laptop, which should now last him at least another two years.
The moral of this story
So, what, you ask is the moral of all this? First, remember the famous words from Douglas Adams: “Don’t panic.” Supporting older laptops takes a little extra work, but it is not impossible. Second, start with the computer vendor and work from there. Try the vendor's Web site, phone numbers, Internet search engines, and word of mouth. You’ll find something eventually. Third, don’t give up! Sometimes, you’ll stumble onto the solution just when you think the situation is hopeless. Fourth, avoid getting into this mess by choosing a vendor that's likely to be around for a while or at least one that uses standard equipment that can be replaced without giving up your left arm.
Supporting older PCs
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Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.