Manufacturer support policies impede PC reuse

Budget-conscious businesses and cash-strapped nonprofits complain that they can't get vendor support for preexisting problems in older PCs

From both an environmental and an economic perspective, there's a strong case to be made for extending the life of older PCs, whether that means keeping machines a while longer at your organization or donating them to a worthy cause. Unfortunately, some companies are discovering that there can be risks associated with using older machines: A computer manufacturer may have stopped offering free support for preexisting manufacturing problems.

Let's hop into the Wayback Machine for a moment and set the destination for October 2005, when Dell acknowledged that faulty capacitors could be found in the motherboards of some of its OptiPlex SX270, GX270, and GX280 business machines. An incorrect electrolyte formula within the capacitors caused the production of hydrogen gas, which in turn caused the components to bulge, seep brown goo, and eventually fail.

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Dell's response: Rather than issuing a full product recall, the company offered to replace the motherboards [PDF] of affected machines for free. Customers had five years within time of purchase to take advantage of the program -- with a deadline of Jan. 31, 2008.

"Customers whose machines failed prior to January 2008 got the free motherboard swap. Customers whose machines failed with exactly the same problem after January 2008 got an explanation that the [program] had expired and some additional comments about Dell 'company policy,'" said Neal Nelson, operator of an independent computer testing lab in the Chicago area.

Now, Dell had launched the program in 2005. Why would anyone be using machines dating so far back? It could be that the machines still meet their needs -- or given the state of the economy, they can't afford to upgrade. Another reason: Organizations such as schools and nonprofits are receiving these machines as donations.

Troy Brown, who sells computer parts through his Web site The Cap King, has seen a spike in demand for replacement capacitors. "There are a lot of people looking for replacement capacitors," he told me via e-mail. "I get a lot of small orders but also a few large accounts like schools, hospitals, and computer refurbishing companies. If the economy and Vista were in better shape, I am guessing a lot of these machines would just get scrapped, but with tight IT budgets, a lot of places and people need to keep these machines up and running."

Brown noted that replacing the caps is more economical than replacing entire boards. "I work during the day for a large nonprofit hospital, and that's were I first ran into this issue. I have made our director very happy with the amount of money we have been able to save by not buying refurbished replacement boards from Dell at $200-plus each or scrapping the machine for a new one."

Capacitor-replacement kits range from $7 to $25, Brown says, depending on the size and quantity purchased.

Unfortunately, some sellers are reportedly hawking machines that they claim have replaced caps but don't. eBay user bill820buys has written a guide on the auction site titled "Capacitor issue with Dell SX280," which has been viewed 1,481 times. The guide was created in April of last year and was updated as recently as last February. The author wrote, "[A]s usual, 'let the buyer beware.' Many, many [eBay] listings state 'working, boots, boots to BIOS, whatever.' This is meaningless. Buy from a seller you can trust who will provide proof the [motherboard] has been re-capped. You may buy an SX280 for $180 and in a few months buy a new [motherboard] for $130. Not an especially good deal.

"I speak from experience," he adds. "I own a beautiful SX280, warranty expired in January, 2008. [C]aps die in February, 2008. Dell will sell me a new [motherboard] for $280."

Postings about the problem have appeared on other Web sites, too, such as FixYa. One poster wrote in October of last year, "I have a GX280 and when you power it on, it has no video and the CPU fan runs wide open and is very loud. Is it a processor problem?"

He followed up earlier this month: "I found out I have bad caps."

Used and useless
In all fairness, it's not just Dell machines that are now failing users years after manufacturers acknowledged capacitor problems. Apple and HP also produced machines with faulty capacitors that are just now affecting some consumers. Those systems include iMac G5s and HP xw-series workstations made in 2004.

A computer engineer going by the alias Linuxiac38 posted an interesting response to an article about faulty capacitors in PCs, saying that bad capacitors have adversely affected the nonprofit for which he works, Gift From God Computer Foundation. The article was dated 2005, but his comments were posted in the middle of 2008. He wrote, "A major issue here is that millions of used PCs are donated to non-profit organizations ... for free recycling with Linux [for] students from pre-K through college. ... I am looking at about 1,000 unused computer donations this year ... due to the failure of capacitors, and the ruin of motherboards, processors, memory, and power supplies."

Manufacturers won't fix the problem, the commenter wrote. "Visits to the technical support sites and phone calls placed to their support numbers are always answered with the comment that can best be summed up as, 'Screw off, you have no warranty!'

"As a computer engineer, I find this to be an unethical situation, which does affect the retail sales of those products, because word of mouth is the pre-eminent form of advertising. '[Company X] sucks' can affect both the bottom line and the stock value of major publicly traded corporations like Intel, Dell, Apple, MSI, ASUS, and others," Linuxiac38 wrote.

Has your organization been affected by this type of problem? Should computer manufacturers offer indefinite free support for pre-existing hardware problems? Please weigh in.