A Primer For Taking Advantage Of Your Computer Warranty

Reader Shin-GO's laptop recently went on the fritz; here's how Shin-GO dealt with that issue, and plenty of tips for everyone else.

Since it recently happened to me, I thought I'd share how to get your laptop warranty to work for you in the event of misfortune. This tip assumes the reader does not know much about computers (okay, so you can email and use Microsoft Office and you know about Skype and maybe Dropbox, but no scripting for you). Feel free to pipe in with your own suggestions.

Photo by eirikso.

Take The Time To Read Warranty Coverage

First, it's important that you take the time to actually read the warranty. If you don't read it when you buy your computer, the next best thing you can do is at least keep it someplace it won't get trashed. I usually take the time to at least know the general time frame of its effective use. The language can be a bit tricky (as most legal-related language is), but the main things you want to look out for are terms in limited liability warranty. Typically you'll see terms that basically equate to "anything that happens to your computer that you would have no way of knowing happened or anything that happened without a willful act are covered". Basically this means if your laptop has been sitting on your desk operating normally for months then suddenly the heatsink or fan goes kaput, it's totally not your fault. Hardware failures that can be proven within reasonable bounds typically fall within your warranty's coverage.

Pick The Right Warranty For Your Needs

When you buy a computer, unless you know the computer will be seeing some difficult times (like if you travel on business often for example), you're better off with the warranty that comes standard with the machine. But before you jump in, make sure that warranty exists! Some extra warranties cover incidental damage (e.g., someone knocks your laptop off the desk), but these usually cost more than a hundred bucks extra and the coverage period is not very good. Most of the time your machine will only have warranty coverage for 3-5 years max, and most standard provided limited liability warranties range from 6 to 12 months. Unless you're really uneasy about sending your machine off to be repaired, the extra cost for in-home service (if available) is a waste of money.

Basically, there's no use trying to argue repair or replacement through warranty if you don't know the terms or have an idea of the terms. You have nothing to stand on legally from a technical support view.

So Something Happened And It Really Wasn't My Fault

Use the scientific method or logical approach of your liking. If your computer is acting funny, test it in a few ways to support your warranty claim. If you're not too computer savvy, this is probably going to be most difficult for you. (Though I actually believe getting technical support to buy into your claim is the real hard part). No fear though.

Take the time (if your laptop is still functional or you have an alternate system handy) to check out basic computer architecture. Get a rough idea of what things do. Just know this though: If hardware that is integral to the machine is on the fritz, it's covered. Yes, even down to the Ethernet port and the battery.

If you suspect something has gone awry with your machine, take steps to reproduce the failure or at least get an idea of what conditions trigger it. As a software engineer/programmer, we typically consider this sort of "poking and prodding" black box testing. In other words, you don't know the exact process of why it works, but you know what to expect from a given input. If you turn the steering wheel of a car left, you do not expect the air bag to fly out.

You can add credibility to your black box testing by creating a relative baseline for the failure. For example, if your Ethernet port is out then try connecting wirelessly. Try several cables too. If it's a problem involving peripherals on a piece of hardware, technical support will try to write your issue off as being caused by the interfacing peripheral, not the piece of hardware itself. ("Oh yeah, sounds like maybe you have a bad cable." — sure, bub.). To do your own black-box testing on other hardware issues, like cooling (heatsink and fan), try pushing your system hard to see what it does. Just break out the high-resource applications (video encoding is always a good choice) and make note of your computer's behaviour when they're running. If you really feel savvy, open up Task Manager and check the resources the application occupies and the relative CPU usage during its execution. This is a good way to test memory failure (I've had RAM die in a dual channel DDR2 system running 2GB when 2 gigs was considered pretty good where the system didn't acknowledge that one of the channels had died. Result: system had 1 GB actual memory but was claiming 2 GB. You can imagine the effects).

However, it's tricky with things like RAM because this could be caused by not keeping the house clean—I like to defrag my hard drive and wipe out anything I'm not using anymore to reduce seeking time for files (which gives the impression of the computer behaving sluggishly). Also be aware of background processes and startup processes (MSN Messenger is one of those irritating processes that decides it wants to start up with the system). Depending on your OS, there is a way to weed out unwanted start up processes. The quickest built-in method for Windows is hitting Win+R, typing msconfig, and heading to the Startup tab to remove items you don't need. Ed. note: Our old guide to speeding up your PC's startup is a good place to look, too.

Though it's been said many times in many places, I'll say it again here: a slow computer is not caused entirely by CPU or RAM failure for the average user. The CPU does not fully dictate how fast your files open.

If you think it's a virus or malware, you need to figure out if you've got something or not (and if you do, you better get rid of it before looking to tech support for warranty-related maintenance).

Take careful note: If you suspect a cooling device failure, do not run extensive testing. If you can, get into the BIOS (at start up when you first power on the machine, there is a small window of time where typically hitting Esc or Delete will open the BIOS) and see if there are any utilities that allow you to view the internal temperature of your machine, fan speed, and heat threshold. If no such utilities are there, you may want to check the manufacturer's site to see if an update exists. You want to avoid too much testing if you suspect a cooling issue because it will eventually lead to motherboard damage, which will utterly cripple your system.

Preparing For The Worst

If you suspect something is critically wrong with your system (or it's just not responding anymore) that suggests motherboard damage, do your best to back up your relevant data if you already aren't doing so. Try to avoid a situation where you need to have the contents of your drive migrated through an interface device at a computer repair store—this can run you a lot more than you'd want to pay. External hard drives are getting more affordable and expansive, so I'm going to be a shameless plug and play the Lifehacker card and suggest using Dropbox, Google Docs, and/or buying an external drive for your non-operating system files. It'll hurt a lot less if the worst comes to pass.

I felt irrationally stupefied realising that I could potentially lose all my personal source code, several documents for personal projects (game walkthroughs/translations), and those rare BBC documentaries I downloaded! The horror!

Take Time To Test The Stupid Things

The last thing you want to do is send off your computer for a hardware-related repair to find out you'd forgotten to check something rather simple. So before you do, take time to check those "stupid" things you may have overlooked:

"Plug your computer in so it runs on A/C power and remove the battery. Does your computer turn on?"


"Remove the A/C power from your computer and insert the battery. Does your computer turn on?"


Don't let this conversation take place. Take the time to test your computer out if it's dying on you in as many "no duh" situations as is reasonable. Trust me, I had a hard time believing the technical service rep wasn't just screwing with me when that very conversation took place. If this conversation does take place, keep your cool.

Talking The Talk

So you've done testing and narrowed down your issue to a list reduced from "the damn thing isn't working". It's time to call customer service or tech support.

Do not mess with menu options. It's their best method of deferring issues (even my company's enterprise help service does this) from ever being addressed. Saves them millions.

Before you speak one word, make a firm resolve to not lose your patience (though I knowingly and whole-heartedly understand the frustration of dealing with unsympathetic customer service). Be prepared for a lot of dumb questions and letter-by-letter spelling ("B as in boy, A as in apple"—yeah, I hope your name and address aren't very long). There will be dumb questions, but here are the important answers you should have ready:

- Approximate date you purchased or received the machine (if it was a present you can just estimate when you think it was purchased).

- Serial number off the machine. This is typically found on the underside of laptops. You might find it close by your Windows Serial.

- Laptop model. Be specific as possible. You can usually find this somewhere on the machine itself or you can view it by checking the System properties via the Control Panel.

- Operating system. They need to know this in case you may have upgraded.

You'll need then to describe your woes. Be general at first regarding the nature of your problem. Being specific right off makes people want to believe you've only walked down one bunny trail. Let the rep know you've done testing within reasonable bounds so as to not aggravate the issue. A rep with some sense of reason will understand and accept this (because opening up your machine voids the warranty and if you happened to open it or ask questions just lie and say the screws were loose so you tightened them). Take this time to explain what you tested as thoroughly as you can. Make sure you don't mince words and try to juggle terminology—if you're talking about the hard drive say it's the hard drive or storage. If it's the memory, say RAM—they'll try to get you on terminology like this sometimes.

Also, do not mention anything about viruses or malware. At best you'll kindly be told to take the machine to a computer repair. At worst, maybe they'll mock you and tell you to stop downloading 197 byte "Super Hot Sexy Celebrity Make Out Videos". Maybe you can take comfort in making the rep feel awkward by retorting that all your Celebrity Sex Videos are HD and a minimum of 2.1 GB with a minimum resolution of 720p. But remember, remain civil!

White Lies

If you don't feel like you're being taken seriously, consider squelching your conscience for a while and let white lies slip.

At some point they're going to ask you about activities involving your system, such as if you've traveled with it or if it has received any kind of physical shock or blow, etc. If there is no noticeable blemishing or scrapes on the machine just say no. By even hinting you've actually been carrying it around with you leads to the evaluation that even if the hardware has failed, it's caused by accident which isn't covered by warranty.

The rep will usually never ask you about your activities (I've never been asked something like "do you download music or other media from the internet illegally?"). It's usually broad like "what do you typically use your system for?". Be somewhat specific but remain vague. If you are downloading stuff, just write it off as using your machine as a home media centre. If you're emulating, just say it's gaming (okay, when I had my hard drive backed up at a computer repair store they almost refused to copy my Steam folder over because they didn't believe a folder that was 30GB could contain anything legal).

Conversely, if you've heard rumours of similar failures on your machine, do not make it known to the rep unless those rumors/reports are from the manufacturer or well-known sources. Otherwise you may be bombarded with questions you cannot answer.

Use The Force

At some point they're going to try to sell you off on something—repair and tech support is typically a drain, so a lot of effort goes into not having to do it. You might get your heatsink replaced but they will try to sell you off on an extended warranty. Don't buy into it. Just politely decline the offer or say you'll consider it after giving it some more thought.

Be firm and take the lead with the details. If something can't be done and you aren't sure of alternatives, press them for alternatives. If there are terms you aren't clear about, ask them for clarification. So long as you remain civil the issue should see resolution. Tech support and the process of getting your computer repaired and back to you can be expedited through the testing you performed before. It usually shaves a day off the repair time on their end if they can easily reproduce the issue, so remember to be clear on the steps of getting the problem to manifest.

I do give my utmost forewarning to those of you who are seeking technical support without much hands on knowledge of your system. Be prepared for a trench battle. Try to understand that it isn't always easy for someone to explain things to those who don't already know or have an inkling on the matter. Likewise, unless the rep is openly irritable or hostile, assume they are trying to understand you and where you're coming from too - though that's a stretch considering some, errrr, many of the horror stories.

Extra input and success/horror stories are welcomed.


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