Alienware Sucks!

Another tale of woe from someone who bought an Alienware computer.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Bringing pressure on a bad vendor

Several people have written me in response to this blog, some whose experiences with Alienware were disappointingly similar to mine. Except that they hadn't gotten a refund (or any other satisfaction) from Alienware and they didn't know what to do next.

So how do you bring pressure on a company that has sold you a bad product and won't stand behind it?

What follows is not legal advice. It does not take into account the specific facts of your situation, it is not tailored for any particular state's laws or procedures, and you should not assume that any assertion that appears to state a legal rule has been researched for conformity with current law.

The first thing to do is to decide what it will take to satisfy you.This might be a solution to a problem, it might be a refund, it might be something else. If you don't know what you want, if you can't explain why it's reasonable that you should get it, and if you don't ask for it, you won't get it.

From there, you can push on several pressure points:
  • More senior people in the support organization
  • The corporate executives
  • The corporate counsel
  • The corporate ombudsman
  • The company that owns this company
  • The shareholders
  • The web (your own website)
  • The web (other websites)
  • Journalists
  • Magazines that have endorsed this product
  • Other individuals who endorsed or recommended this product
  • Consumer protection agencies: Better Business Bureau
  • Consumer protection agencies: Other private organizations
  • Consumer protection agencies: County-level mediators and investigators
  • Consumer protection agencies: State-level regulators and investigators
  • Consumer protection agencies: Federal
  • Litigation: Sue them in small claims court
  • Litigation: Sue them in a more formal court
Here are some general tactical tips:
  • Don't fire all of your bullets at once. I prefer to start with a little pressure and add a little more every week or so.
  • Do the easiest things first. Be considerate of your own time and aggravation.
  • Do some research on the web. Google is your friend. Find out how other people have handled their complaints with this company, what worked and what didn't.
  • Don't ever threaten to do anything. This can be misconstrued as extortion.Or as blowhard bluffing.
  • Be factual and polite in all of your communications. If you are rude, if you use abusive language, if you raise your voice, you weaken your own negotiating position.
Here's how I applied this to my case.

On May 30, I reached several conclusions about Alienware's support. (These are my personal value judgments. Someone else might have come to other conclusions.) I concluded that Alienware's support group was not going to fix the problems with my computer. I concluded that they were willing to spend (waste) an unlimited amount of my time in the process. I concluded that I no longer trusted the individuals I was dealing with. And based on what I saw as a pattern of similar reports on the Net, I concluded that I didn't trust Alienware. I would take my complaint through the Alienware chain of command, but I expected to resolve it through external pressure and I prepared for that.

I considered my situation.
  • What did I want from Alienware? I would have been happy, at the end of May, with a fast refund or a replacement computer that worked. I was willing to pay some extra money for a replacement system that was configured substantially differently (dual processors rather than a video coprocessor card). But I also knew that with the passage of time, as I lost more productivity (because my system was down) and as I burned off more time negotiating, my position would change because my costs had changed. Eventually, Alienware did offer to replace my system, giving me full credit ($5000) toward any other Alienware system that I wanted to order. But they did this so late that I was no longer willing to do business with them.
  • Another thing I decided was that I could not afford to lose productivity forever. At some point (soon), whether Alienware and I had reached agreement or not, I was going to have to get a working computer. I didn't set a time frame for buying a replacement computer from another vendor but I did start thinking seriously about what machine I would buy and how I could afford it. (Eventually, I did buy a replacement machine. That changed my negotiating position with Alienware because after that, Alienware could not satisfy me by fixing or replacing their defective computer. I needed one computer that worked, not two. At that point, all Alienware could offer was a refund for the system (which they eventually paid) and reimbursement of my other expenses (which they did not).)
  • I also considered adding consequences. I decided was that I would give Alienware some additional opportunities to change my bad impression of them but if they didn't, I would invest time over and above what it took to get a refund, to make my problems with Alienware public and encourage other people with problems to improve the effectiveness of their efforts to get redress.
From there, I changed my pattern of communication with Alienware so that almost all of my communication with them was by email. This gave me a set of records that I could quote, rather than my memories of phone calls against their memories of phone calls. (By the way, like many other vendors, Alienware staff sometimes put a confidentiality notice on the bottom of their emails. The legalese varies across companies, but the tale is that the message is confidential, contains valuable trade secrets, is protected by copyright or other laws, and may not be disclosed to others. That's an interesting assertion, but is it legally or morally binding? It seems to me that I never entered into a confidentiality agreement with Alienware. All I did was buy a defective computer from them and get bad support. They might not want me to talk about that, but that's their problem, not mine. They own copyright on their messages, so I can't reproduce them in their entirety, but I'm not aware of any law that stops me from quoting them and I never made any promise or hinted that I would ever agree not to quote from them.)

So, let's look at the pressure points again.
  • More senior people in the support organization. I worked with Mo, and according to Larry, the next level up for complaints was president@alienware.com. As I described in my previous posts, my experiences with Mo were unsatisfactory.
  • The corporate executives. I asked Mo for the name and address of Alienware's president, but all he gave me in response was "president@alienware.com." I saw that as an eloquent failure to provide information. Writing to president@alienware.com became a task I would do in parallel with other efforts to get redress from Alienware rather than being a task I would do before taking my problems to external people and organizations..
  • The corporate counsel. A brief, polite letter of complaint to a company's corporate counsel speaks eloquently. I would expect a letter to the company's agent for service to reach their lawyer. By sending the letter to this legal agent of the corporation, without ever using the word "lawsuit," you are saying that you are considering suing the company, you know how to reach them, and you know something about legal process.
  • The corporate ombudsman. A corporate ombudsman is an executive who investigates complaints that people have with his company and works to achieve a fair settlement. It's often a challenge to find out whether a company has an ombudsman or who it is--if you know enough to find the ombudsman, you know enough to be taken seriously. Several companies provide the Federal Citizen Information Center with contact information for an ombudsman or other person who sophisticated customers, consumer advocates or regulators should contact to resolve a consumer dispute. Alienware doesn't have a contact on this list, but many other companies do. As a general rule, when you have a problem with a company that isn't resolved through normal channels, this is a great list to check next.
  • The company that owns this company. Suppose BigCompany owns SmallerCompany and your gripe is with SmallerCompany. Sometimes, the best way to bring pressure on SmallerCompany is to write a letter of complaint to BigCompany's president, who sends it back to SmallerCompany with a note saying "Maybe you'd like to take care of this."
  • The shareholders. Alienware is a privately held corporation so this isn't a tactic I would use with them. But imagine being grumpy with a publicly traded corporation. Now imagine buying a share in the company. Buy a few more for your friends. Go to a company (shareholder's) meeting and protest at the meeting. You (and your shareholding friends) can circulate a letter of complaint. You can speak at the meeting. Send a before-the-meeting copy of your letter to the company's president (or to its Directors--you're a shareholder, so you can call the company and get contact info for the directors). Be careful about your wording. You don't want to say, "Pay me or I'll circulate this at your meeting" -- well, maybe you do want to say that, but don't. It's too easy to interpret this as extortion (blackmail). Instead, say something like, "I'm writing this note as a courtesy to let you know that I plan to circulate this memo at the shareholder's meeting. Please advise me of any procedures I am expected to follow (a) to circulate the letter to my fellow shareholders and (b) to speak on this matter at the meeting." That's not a threat, it's a request for information about your rights as a shareholder. Of course, the response might be to solve your problem before the meeting, but that's their decision, not something you demanded under threat .
  • The web (your own website). You're reading this blog. A lot of people have read this blog. Most companies don't like it when lots of prospective customers read bad things about how the company does business. If you do create a protest site, take care with your facts. If you make false claims about the company or its practices, you could get into a lot of trouble.
  • The web (other websites). Do a google on "alienware sucks" or "alienware problems" and you'll find web pages with long lists of customer complaints. Add yours.
  • Journalists. Several journalists write consumer protection articles. Some work for magazines, some for newspapers, some for television statements, and some are freelancers.

    Show some consideration dealing with these folks. Approach one at a time, ask them whether they're interested. If one agrees to follow up, leave it with her for several days.Imagine if your journalist worked on your complaint, started writing up his report, and then read about it in some other magazine--she might be pretty grumpy about wasting time trying to help you. Before I would take this to any other journalist or write complaint letters to the editor of any magazine, I would check with the first journalist who agreed to investigate. This is a basic courtesy that I would extend to any journalist in this situation. There's a time limit to this courtesy, but as long as I believe the journalist is actively investigating, I'll keep it exclusive to that person if that's how she wants to work it. In my case,I took my story to Ed Foster at InfoWorld's GripeLine. Ed was a serious and respected technology journalist and editor long before he started doing consumer protection work. He has a lot of connections and he's a really nice guy. So I sent him a note describing my problem, he agreed to look into it, and his report is here.

  • Journalists aren't always well-treated by companies--even people as credible and respected as Ed. Here's how Alienware treated Ed Foster:
    I contacted Alienware a few weeks ago to ask if they could explain their support policies in this regard, and their spokesperson said they would get back to me. They haven't, and my subsequent calls have gone unreturned.
    To me, this is outrageous, the kind of report that motivates me to keep this blog going.
  • Magazines that have endorsed this product. According to Alienware's web page, Smart Computing reports that "Alienware easily beat all the competitors we tested in this category [Customer Support]" I read that survey. That survey is one of the reasons I bought from Alienware. I'll never trust another Smart Computing survey again. Alienware lists lots of favorable reviews. If you had a problem with Alienware that they wouldn't resolve, it would be fair game to write every one of those magazines describing your situation--especially if their endorsements helped you make your buying decision.
  • Other individuals who endorsed or recommended this product. Alienware lists other people who've agreed to publication of their testimonials of how wonderful their Alienware computers are. You could write them too. Suppose you endorsed a product. How many complaint letters from other customers would it take before you started thinking about withdrawing your endorsement?
  • Consumer protection agencies: Better Business Bureau. Alienware's in Miami, so you should check the BBB in Southeast Florida. Alienware is a member of the BBB, which means (among other things) that they have agreed to take seriously all consumer complaints filed against them with the BBB. File a complaint here.
  • Consumer protection agencies: Other private organizations. I don't think Alienware advertises a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but if they did, you could complain to them. You might file a complaint with Consumer Action--they mediate many disputes. Also consider complaining to the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. These groups won't help you with your specific complaint, but patterns of complaints influence their legislative and regulatory agendas. If we had better enforcement of deceptive-trade-practice laws, I think we would have fewer consumer disputes of the kind I had with Alienware.
  • Consumer protection agencies: County-level mediators and investigators. Several counties have agencies that mediate consumers' disputes with businesses. The mediators are often trained volunteers--for example, I was a part-time volunteer investigator / mediator for the Santa Clara County Department of Consumer Affairs for almost two years, before I went to law school. Some of these agencies stand alone, others are affiliated with the District Attorney's office. If your county has such an agency (many have been defunded over the past 20 years), you can file your complaint with them. But if you're complaining about an out-of-state company, your county's agency will probably coordinate with the agency in that state. For example, if you were complaining about Alienware, you could complain directly to the Miami, Florida county-level agency that would normally deal with Alienware, which I would expect to be the Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department. For a listing of all of the county agencies in the USA, go to the Federal Citizen Information Center's page on State Resources.
  • Consumer protection agencies: State-level regulators and investigators. At the state level, you normally complain to the Attorney-General's office. If I was considering complaining about Alienware to state level regulators or prosecutors, I would consider filing a complaint alleging deceptive trade practices to the Florida Attorney General's office or asking for help from the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. In my specific case, I would consider a third angle--because I don't think that Alienware was living up to its service contract, and because Florida treats many service contracts as insurance, I might try a complaint with the Office of Insurance Regulation.For resources in other states, check the Federal Citizen Information Center's page on State Resources.
  • Consumer protection agencies: Federal. The obvious federal agency is the Federal Trade Commission. The 30-day rule (a business must advise the consumer if a product will be delivered more than 30 days after it was ordered, and get the consumer's permission or let the consumer cancel the order) and the federal rules against deceptive trade practices are enforced by the FTC. The FTC doesn't usually involve itself in mediating individual complaints, but patterns of complaints influence its decisions about what types of crimes to prosecute and who to prosecute. If you were the victim of false advertising (or any other crime) and the U.S. Mail was used in any way in the process, you can also complain to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for mail fraud.
  • Litigation: Sue them in small claims court. I think the Nolo Press guide to small claims court is the best nationwide source available. The rules differ from state to state. Some states offer excellent guides to their small claims courts, for free. Some counties offer free advice for people bringing small claims cases in their county. A few even have classes where you can go through the procedure and get feedback from the instructor. One question is whether you can sue Alienware in your county or state (if it's not Florida) because Alienware is a Florida corporation. Maybe not. You might have to travel to Florida to sue them.
  • Litigation: Sue them in a more formal court. In a small claims case, you would represent yourself. (Alienware can still send its lawyer, who probably knows a lot more about running a lawsuit than you do) whereas in the more formal courts, you would almost certainly hire an attorney. The costs of these trials are significant--court fees are cheap but legal time and costs of "discovery" (the formal process of investigation and document review) are significant. A basic, simple no-injury car accident that actually makes it to trial probably costs about $20,000. You're probably not going to bring a $5000 dispute to these courts. UNLESS. Unless you sue for violation of a deceptive trade practice law or an unfair competition law or some other consumer protection law in your state and your state's version of these laws is that the defendant (Alienware, if you sue them) pays your legal fees if they lose the case. A few lawyers handle cases like this. Many of them would combine cases, bringing a "class action" (a lawsuit that represents many people) to cover everyone who was cheated in the same way(s). Usually, these lawyers work on contingency, you pay them if and only if you win the lawsuit and you pay them only a share of the recovery from the suit, not from your own savings).

    Unfortunately, it gets harder every year to find lawyers who are willing to bring consumer fraud or other consumer protection lawsuits. The work isn't all that profitable, the lawyers who do it are constantly villified (often by the companies who most deserved to be sued and the politicians who take big campaign donations from these companies), and the courts are constantly rewriting consumer protection laws to make it harder to bring cases to court or harder to win them. The last 25 years have been very, very tough on your rights as a consumer and on your ability to enforce them in court--which (I believe) is why there is so much consumer fraud today.
With all these options, I proceeded as follows.
  • I worked with the tech support staff. That failed so badly that I decided to bring external pressure to bear.
  • I contacted a journalist, knowing it would take him a while to investigate and publish.
  • I wrote a letter of complaint to president@alienware.com asking for a full refund.
  • The same day I posted the letter, I started working on this blog.
  • A few days after that, I started posting links to this blog in other we-re-having-trouble-with-Alienware pages or discussions.
Amost two weeks later, with Ed Foster making reporter's inquiries and an alienwaresucks blog in full steam, Alienware offered a refund, which I accepted.

If Alienware had waited a day or two longer before offering the refund, I would have filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

A couple days after that complaint went in, I would have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida state-level agencies. I might have filed with the Miami-Dade Consumer Services Department or I might have waited a few days before filing that one.

Next planned stop was to the TV stations and local newspapers for their consumer watch shows or columns.

Your order of tasks might have been different. Remember my first two tactical tips:
  • Don't fire all of your bullets at once. I prefer to start with a little pressure and add a little more every week or so.
  • Do the easiest things first. Be considerate of your own time and aggravation.
Good luck handling your current (or future) complaints against computer (or other) companies. If you try the things I suggested here, I'd appreciate seeing how it turned out in a comment on this posting.

(Is this my last posting by the way? I doubt it. Stay tuned for a page that asks, if you were considering bringing a lawsuit against Alienware for problems like the ones I've described in this alienwaresucks blog, what legal grounds (causes of action) might you consider as the bases for your lawsuit? That page might not be up for several days. I want to do some more reading and thinking before I start the final draft of it.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

One last try to fix the machine. (No luck.)

June 10 - June 27, 2005

(Note: My gripe is with Alienware, not with any of its individual staff. To prevent this from reading like a personal attack on some of Alienware's staff, I am using obviously fictitious names instead of real names. I refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry, to Larry's boss as Mo, and to a third staff member as Curly.)


By June, I was getting desperate to get my computer working. I had a long stack of work that needed to be done and the machine was (still) down. Alienware wanted me to ship it back to them, but they weren't offering any information, even in response to direct questions, about how long the machine would stay in their shop.

I decided to make one more effort to get this machine working. The two most obviously problematic components were the defective RAID controller that had most recently taken down the system and the Matrox card, so I decided to pull both out of the system, leaving a fairly generic system that would be slower, less data-secure, worth much less (comparable to a system I can put together at Best Buy, with a long service contract, for about $1500 instead of Alienware's $5400), but much easier to troubleshoot.

This would be a simple change to the system--yank two cards, reformat the drives, reinstall the operating system. I asked Alienware for an onsite technician to do it (after all, we were taking out a RAID controller that they agreed was defective) but they said no.

I hired my own onsite technician and with Alienware on the phone (Alienware has to be involved whenever you open the box, or it voids the warranty) the tech pulled the cards, reloaded the operating system, reloaded the other system software that came with the computer, and for almost a week, the computer seemed to be work.

I didn't trust the machine, so I would check it out first before doing any real work on it. I did my real work on a borrowed computer, and as a parallel task on this system, I loaded some applications (Premiere, Firefox, Norton), installed updates, copied my data back onto the hard drives, ran some diagnostics....

And after a week, the hard disk (system drive) crashed.

I send Larry an email reporting the failure, and he responded:
Unfortunately, the problem described in your e-mail seems to indicate a problem with one of the hard drives on the system.

In order to run a test on the hard drives, Western Digital has a utility to create a bootable CD that will analyze your hard drives and give you a report of it.

You can download the image file from http://support.wdc.com/download/dlg/Diag504cCD.iso.

Another approach to the problem will be unplugging the main hard drive (Connected in the port 0 of the motherboard) and then try to install windows on a different hard drive. Once this is done, we will be able to test each hard drive to determine the source of the problem.

If possible, just let me know a proper time to call you back in order to help you with this procedure.
As always from Larry, the note was warm and courteous. But the choice was clear--send the computer back to Alienware for a no-they-won't-tell-me-how-long period of time, or spend time without limit trying to get this (stripped down) system working.

Enough was enough. I ordered a new computer from another company.

I wrote Larry and Mo asking for a refund. (Mo said no.)

I wrote President@alienware.com asking for a refund.

In early June, I concluded my note to Mo with:
My proposal today is cancellation of the sale. If we go much beyond this, your costs will probably escalate a lot faster than mine.
I know how to gradually bring more and more pressure to bear on a company that won't honor its promises. It was time to start that work.

My next few posts will lay out the plan I developed for bringing pressure onto Alienware. You might find them useful next time you have a problem with Alienware or some other computer vendor.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Who is Alienware's Agent for Service? A basic discourtesy.

May 31 - June 28, 2005

(Note: My gripe is with Alienware, not with any of its individual staff. To prevent this from reading like a personal attack on some of Alienware's staff, I am using obviously fictitious names instead of real names. I refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry, to Larry's boss as Mo, and to a third staff member as Curly.)


I wrote to Larry on May 31,
What executive in your company should I write to requesting a refund? I need both the name of a negotiator in the company and of your company's "Agent for Service". This may be your corporate counsel.
He gave me the name and email address of Mo, his direct supervisor. So I wrote Mo on June 1:
My first request of you is the name and address of the President of Alienware and of Alienware's Agent for Service.
(I also explained the problems, asked for a refund -- he refused -- and for onsite support -- he refused.)

Here's what I got back for the name and address of the President of Alienware and of Alienware's Agent for Service:
In regards to your first request, the email address for the President of Alienware is President@alienware.com. As far as the person in charge of Alienware's Agent for Service, I am afraid that I do not have an email address for this person or a name that I may be able to give you for; however if you write to that email address I provided above, you will get to the right person.
No name or mailing address for the President.
No name or mailing address for the Agent for Service.

I suppose it is conceivable that Alienware's Tech Support manager doesn't know the contact information for the corporation's Agent. But I bet he knows how to find out who this is. And I really strongly suspect that he knows the name and mailing address of the President of Alienware.

What's the big deal about an Agent for Service?

Incorporation is a creation of the government--it gives a business most of the rights and privileges of a "person." The agent can buy and sell, sue and be sued. But it isn't a real person, so its only way to interact with the world is through its human representatives. A person who you authorize to do something on your behalf is your agent for that purpose.

As a matter of law (Florida's statute is typical), all corporations are required to publicly designate an agent who will receive legal correspondence of all kinds, including service of lawsuits.

If you want to file a Small Claims Court action against a company, you typically have to write a demand letter first, before you actually file the suit. If you send the letter to the wrong person, or if you serve notice of the suit on the wrong person, the lawsuit fails and you have to start all over. Many cases fail because the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) doesn't properly start the suit before the Statute of Limitations runs out.

If you are seriously grumpy at a company and want to write an effective letter that conveys the fact that you are serious, one of the very best ways is to send a concise, courteous complaint to the Agent for Service. The confident, courteous tone of your letter gets across the message that you are not a nut. The fact that the letter went to the Agent for Service says you are thinking of suing them and that you know something about the law. You don't have to mention "law" or "lawsuit" ever in the letter. You don't have to make any threats or lay down any ultimatums. The fact that your letter is properly addressed to the Agent for Service (in this case, it would be "Nelson Gonzalez, Agent for Service, Alienware Corporation, 12400 SW 134 Court, Suite 8, Miami, FL 33186") sends that message all by itself.

Given that the corporation is required by law to designate an agent, and to post the agent's name conspicuously on its premises (read the statute), I see it as a discourtesy when a reasonably senior person in the company refuses to provide it--or even to provide the name and address of the President (you can also properly serve a Corporation--give them legal notice of a lawsuit--by delivering the notice to the President). This is too often done as an amateurish way to avoid delivery of legal documents.

Few consumers know what an Agent for Service is or how to find out how to contact a company's Agent, so refusing to provide this information to a consumer can be an effective way of discouraging some people. But getting information like this is basic training for lawyers and paralegals.

I couldn't find the name of the President on Alienware's website. I got the names of the founders, Alex Aguila and Nelson Gonzalez, from a web search (Entrepreneur.com). On June 28, when I wrote President@alienware.com, I addressed the email to both of these, and opened the letter with:
I asked [...Mo...], your technical support manager, for the name and address of the President of Alienware and of your agent for service. He provided no names, and an email address president@alienware.com. I trust that this is actually the appropriate way to contact you. I found your names online (in electronic magazines, not from your site or your staff) and don't know which of you this email will actually reach. This failure of your support staff to provide even basic contact information illustrates the problems I am having with a system that I purchased from your company and with your company's responses to those problems.
To find out the contact information for Alienware's the Agent for Service, I went to the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations. According to their listing, the Principal and Mailing Address for Alienware are the same:
12400 SW 134 Court, Suite 8
Miami, FL 33186
And the Registered Agent is
Nelson Gonzales
12400 SW 134 Court, Suite 8
Miami, FL 33186
These things change, so check the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations listing before sending a letter to this address.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The refund is in, but this blog will continue

I brought some pressure to bear on Alienware, and it was pretty clear that there was more to come.

Finally, they gave me a refund, which just hit my American Express.

When I look at all of the costs associated with this system and with Alienware's appalling support for it, I think the refund covers about 5% of my incidental and consequential losses. I don't expect to get any more than this, and I'm not pushing Alienware for more. I'll just never, ever buy anything from this company again.

It's tempting to stop this blog now, as I'm sure Alienware would like me to do ---

--- but so many legitimate-looking, serious-looking complaints about Alienware have been posted on the web and apparently never resolved on behalf of the customer ---

--- I think some computer buyers might find it useful to see how to assert their rights when a vendor treats them badly.

So, stay tuned. There's more to come.

Monday, July 11, 2005

How about some onsite support?

May 27-July 2, 2005
(Note: My gripe is with Alienware, not with any of its individual staff. To prevent this from reading like a personal attack on some of Alienware's staff, I am using obviously fictitious names instead of real names. I refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry, to Larry's boss as Mo, and to a third staff member as Curly.)

From May 27 to July 2, I sent 15 notes to Alienware. Larry sent me 7 notes and Mo sent 3. I also had at least one phone conversation with Larry and one other full reconfiguration of the system at my house.

I specifically asked for onsite support, or protested that they were not giving me onsite support, in emails on May 29, May 30, May 31, June 1, June 10, June 28, during telephone calls and in several previous messages. Alienware consistently refused to provide support.

Let's look again at the support promise on their website (go to the Warranty Bundle section and click on the "Click here to learn more!" link):

"Demand no less than the ultimate in protection. With this plan, not only will you receive a specially discounted price, but you’ll also enjoy ...

  • Peace of mind, knowing that you have an entire company at your disposal, equipped and ready to ensure that your computer is performing at the superior level you deserve....
  • Onsite Service. If at all possible, you won’t have to come to us for your service needs – we’ll come to you."
Here are some of the things Alienware said in response to my demands for onsite service.

Mo, on June 2, said:
Installing the raid controller card is an operation that our onsite techs can perform. The part that the onsite techs do not perform is anything related to the software side of things, including setting up the raid through the raid BIOS and re-installing windows for you. Our onsite technicians are there for anything related to replacing hardware.
Huh? I don't expect techs to configure my applications, but of course I expect them to handle the system software tasks needed to bring the computer back to its basic operational state--in this case, setting up the RAID (which I had specifically ordered and paid for) and reinstalling Windows. This is hardly a demand for ultimate protection, just basic, adequate, what-I-paid-for protection.

On June 1, Larry told me:
If you would like to review more information about the onsite warranty, you may follow this link to our warranty page: http://www.alienware.com/sub_pages/warranty.aspx. You may referrer to the paragraph entitled, "How will Alienware fix a defective, warranted product?".
Here's what that link says:

How will Alienware fix a defective, warranted product?

We will first attempt to diagnose and resolve the problem over the telephone. If we determine that the problem is with a defective component covered by your warranty, then we will, at our option, either: (a) have you send your product to our repair facilities for repair or replacement; (b) send a technician to your home or place of business to replace the defective component; or (c) send you a component part to replace the defective component. Option (b) will apply only if you purchased the Alienware Onsite Service along with your warranty.

If our technical support agents determine that your product must be returned to our facilities for repair or replacement, we will issue you a Return Material Authorization Number. We will then send you a shipping label for shipping your product, at our expense, to our facilities. You must, however, return the product to us in its original or equivalent packaging. We will, at our expense, return the repaired or replacement product to you. We will pay shipping expenses both ways only if you use an address in the United States (excluding Puerto Rico and U.S. possessions and territories). Otherwise, you are responsible for shipping the product to our Miami Repair Facility and we will ship the product back to you freight collect.

Alienware also offers, along with its Limited Product Warranty, the possibility of onsite replacement of defective components. Please check your invoice to see if your warranty includes onsite replacement. If we agree that a system component should be replaced by an onsite technician, we will send a replacement part either to you or the onsite technician and request that you then send us the defective component.
What does this mean? It means that Alienware has the right to decide whether or not it should provide onsite service. If they don't feel like it, they don't have to.

How does this square with their sales pitch?
Onsite Service. If at all possible, you won’t have to come to us for your service needs – we’ll come to you."
And how do either of these even begin to hint that if Alienware's tech swaps or adds a system component, the tech will stop there without making the necessary configuration changes to the operating system to get that component working?

Here's how Mo commented on July 1:
I am also aware that our website states, "Onsite Service: If at all possible, you will not have to come to us for your service needs - we will come to you." Please note the words, "If at all possible." If I were 100% sure that I could resolve this for you via the onsite service, I would. However, I am not 100% sure as to which components on your system are creating the problem. The best option that I can offer you is to send in the system so that we can examine it with the necessary tools that we have at our repair facilities.
Mr. Kaner, I would be more than happy to give you the onsite service, provided that I am sure as to which parts needed to be replaced. I am afraid that the current problem at hand falls beyond the capabilities of an onsite service that we provide. Thus, with all that said, I must now require you to send the system into us.

Not onsite because the problem in hand falls beyond the capabilities/contract with the onsite service. Depot is the only qualified repair center to deal with the case in hand, we are tech support and that is our diagnostic.
OK, I see the rationale of this argument. But how does it apply to April, when it was (seemingly) just a matter of adding a RAID card and reloading the operating system and the Alienware-installed applications? Or to June 15, when it was just a matter of pulling out the bad RAID card, pulling out the Matrox card, reloading the operating system and the Alienware-installed applications?

It doesn't.

"Demand no less than the ultimate in protection. With this plan, not only will you receive a specially discounted price, but you’ll also enjoy ...

  • Peace of mind, knowing that you have an entire company at your disposal, equipped and ready to ensure that your computer is performing at the superior level you deserve....
  • Onsite Service. If at all possible, you won’t have to come to us for your service needs – we’ll come to you.

How long will send-it-back support take?

May 27-July 2
(Note: My gripe is with Alienware, not with any of its individual staff. To prevent this from reading like a personal attack on some of Alienware's staff, I am using obviously fictitious names instead of real names. I refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry, to Larry's boss as Mo, and to a third staff member as Curly.)

From May 27 to July 2, I sent 15 notes to Alienware. Larry sent me 7 notes and Mo sent 3. I also had at least one phone conversation with Larry and one other full reconfiguration of the system at my house. Going through these emails in sequence paints a story that is too confusing. Instead, this posting and the next will focus on specific issues, that came up in several of these messages.
-----------------
I wrote several notes to Larry describing the failures that the system was showing May 27-29.

About the RAID failure, he wrote back,
"Normally, the "Incomplete RAID set" message will mean either a failure of one of the hard drives that are part of the RAID array or a failure of the S-ATA RAID controller card.

"The fact that you got random artifacts on the screen while attempting to rebuild the array makes me suspect of the RAID card."
Yeah, I thought these random artifacts were bad news too. That's why I had mentioned them to Larry repeatedly when we configured the computer with this card. He's the one who sent the card to us. We proceeded, trusting that he knew the characteristics of this type of card. He encouraged Becky and me to continue with installation and setup of the system, without once saying that this suggests a bad card.

Larry encouraged me to send the system back for repair at Alienware's factory. I concluded my May 29th diagnostics report this way:
"I need to understand expected turnaround time on this system once I do send it to you. The machine has been pretty much out of service since you called me in April. The fact that this machine is sitting idle now does not mean that it was scheduled to sit idle. I had expected to work extensively on this system throughout May and June. Some of those tasks involved collaboration with other faculty or students. Instead, I am postponing several tasks (which may mean losing them altogether) and squandering my own time and the time of a paid research assistant (Sam Oswald) on troubleshooting instead of collaborating on content development. I am extremely unhappy that the unresolved instability of this system is interfering with my summer research.

"I know that you have invested several hours in this system. I appreciate your work. But I still don't understand why this hasn't been a matter for onsite support. My expectation of competent on-site support isn't unreasonable. As an individual consultant-consumer and as a department manager, I've made a practice of buying the best support contract offered since 1980. I've seen a lot of good onsite support."
After that, Larry and Mo repeatedly refused to provide onsite support and instead encouraged me to send the computer back to Alienware for repair at their site. Posts on the Net had commented on the slowness of these repairs--even 45 days. I couldn't afford a long delay. I had plans for video work this summer. I needed a machine that worked, right away, now, not some distant time in the future. That's the biggest benefit of onsite support, which I bought--the technician comes, the technician fixes the computer, the computer is fixed today, and the technician goes away. No shipping delay, no sitting on the shelf in the factory waiting for someone to get to it, not much down time.

I raised the issue of turnaround time--how long would it take them to repair the computer and get it back to me after I sent it to Alienware for repair-- on May 29, May 30, June 10, and (I believe) in at least one telephone conversation. Larry and Mo both told me that the computer would get "VIP" treatment, with "timely" turnaround, but they offered no specifics.

I needed the computer NOW. I was working on a borrowed computer (and told Alienware that). I was so concerned about timely repair that I finally hired my own onsite technician, who reconfigured the system on June 15 (with Larry on the phone because I can't open the box without him or I void the warranty).

It wasn't until June 30, after the June 15-reconfigured system crashed, after I advised Alienware that I ordered a replacement system from Dell, that Larry finally sent me a note telling me that the computer would be repaired within "5 business days plus the shipping time both ways."

Crash! Boom!

May 27-29, 2005
I tried to create a data disk, copying files to a firewire-connected external hard drive. Hard to think of this as a stress test, but this Alienware computer froze during the copy. When I restarted the system, I got a message that the RAID set was incomplete. I pressed F4 during the boot, attempted to rebuild the RAID set, and got the random characters on the screen that we got several times when we initially configured the RAID. The system appeared to lock. I gave it an hour to see what would happen, hit reset, got the RAID message again, ignored it, ran CHKDISK and got no apparent errors on the drive.

I was making this disk as part of my development of a set of diagnostics, so that I could know / remember what to test for when this lemon came back from Alienware (they were going to do me the "favor" of troubleshooting and repair at their factory instead of providing onsite support). I wasn't comfortable working with a bad-RAID computer, but there was no other way to get the diagnostics, so I continued copying files to a USB (instead of firewire) drive and running tests. Several more problems showed up with Premiere Pro, with the Matrox card, and with Windows Media Player. Also, the RAID failure message came up sometimes when I booted and sometimes not. Like so many of the other problems on this system, this failure was intermittent.

Intermittent multivendor problems are a nightmare to diagnose, fix, and then retest. The testing problem is that if you partially fix an intermittent problem, it often doesn't go away, it just happens less often. So we could send this computer back to Alienware, they could "fix" it in good faith, do some basic diagnostics, and ship back a machine that still fails in the same ways, just less often.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

An unproductive month

April 18 - May 27, 2004
Background:
  • Alienware called on April 7 to advise me that the Matrox card in their box was incompatible with their motherboard. Refusing to send a tech (under the onsite service contract we had purchased) to install a new disk controller, they guided us by phone, while my wife and I installed the disk controller card, set up a RAID, and loaded all of the system software.
  • Soon after I had received the computer, I disabled the Matrox card--the Alienware computer was unstable in many ways, but several (far from all) seemed related to the Matrox video coprocessor. Alienware's technician encouraged me to keep the Matrox card in the system, to "get the value" of what I had paid for. He said this new disk controller would fix the problems. I accepted his advice.
  • I ran a long series of tests on April 18 to see whether the reconfigured system had stabilized. It had not. I was getting errors working with Adobe Premiere Pro (which the Matrox card is designed to optimize) and other errors including I/O problems with a USB drive. The system might have been more stable than it was out of the box (with the Matrox card active) but it was less stable than I had gotten it myself from January to April (disabling the Matrox card), certainly too unstable to use to create more video lectures, which is what I had bought the computer to do.
  • To achieve this unacceptable result, from April 7 to 18, I spent 70 hours preparing for, making, and troubleshooting the configuration changes. Becky spent an additional 10 hours. The system was out of use the entire time, preventing me from getting some important work done.
  • Becky and I installed the card and set up the operating system under protest. Alienware's service claims and reputation had played a big role in our decision to pay top dollar for this $5000 computer and its 3-year onsite support service contract. Their website promises onsite support, but Alienware had flatly refused to provide it.
The machine needed more work. Alienware was unwilling to provide the onsite support that we believed we had contracted for, but they were willing to agree to let me send the computer back to Miami, where they would diagnose and reconfigure the machine. I was to run further diagnostics and then send the machine back for repairs.This is where we left off on April 18. Mail-in support, which other companies present as the economy option, was something they were willing to do for me as a favor.

The challenge was in developing a clear set of diagnostics, to tell whether the system was in fact fixed and stable. Alienware had not suggested any diagnostics. I have a couple of decades of technical experience, including a lot of software testing--creating diagnostics is certainly within my competence. But it takes work. It takes time.

I head a research lab. I have courses to teach, funding to get (so that I can pay my students' tuition and salaries), students/staff to supervise, research to do, articles and books to write, conferences to speak at, technical standards committees to work on. I routinely work 90 hours per week, had been working 110 hours per week over this last term. There's not much time left over to play diagnostic technician for a defective computer. It was an unwelcome new hobby.

The rest of April, and most of May, I went back to my real work and put the Alienware problems on hold. From time to time, I loaded new software or ran some new tests. I did some writing on this machine, but I did most of my work on my Macintosh. I had agreed to load and evaluate some interesting test tools, but that had to wait until I again had a reliable Windows system of my own.

The critical next step was to run a series of parallel tests on another computer. I could get Premiere Pro to crash on the Alienware system, I could get it to fail to export files, I could get this system to crash in other ways. But how many of these problems were with Premiere or Windows Media Player? Until I knew which problems were unique to my system, I wouldn't know which problems to expect to see fixed with a fixed system.

The Computer Sciences Department chair was happy with my video coursework and agreed to buy a video production computer for my lab. We had to wait for that to come in, then make a disk of test files for it, then run the tests so that I could isolate the problems unique to my defective Alienware machine.

We were finally ready to start second-system troubleshooting in late May. I created a data disk, but in the process, had serious problems with the USB and firewire external drives. In this post, I'll just say that I spent yet another overnight with this blasted machine, babysitting copying large files in small batches because the system was too unreliable to copy a large set of files at one time.

I had several other serious problems, in this first challenging use of the system (It's sad to think of copying 350 gigs of data as a challenging use of a computer) since April 18, but I'll detail them in the next post.

In May, I also checked other users' experiences when they sent computers back to Alienware for "depot support." The web is full of horror stories. It's easy to dismiss complaints about a vendor, but several details of several of the complaints now rang true to me. Here are a few examples:
Assuming that I did send the computer to Alienware, how long was it going to take to come back? With reports of delays of up to 45 days, I was deeply concerned. I had commitments for the summer. If this system was going to be gone most of June and July, I needed something else.

Let me summarize. By May 27, I had spent an additional 30 unproductive hours (at least) on this system, raising my total loss to 100 hours. The computer still didn't work. My research assistant and I were in the process of creating, at my expense, diagnostics to help us tell whether the allegedly-repaired computer we would get back from Alienware could be trusted or not. And I was seriously wondering whether I would be better off getting rid of this computer and getting something else, from someone else, that worked.

We try again. They refuse onsite support.

April 15-18, 2005
(Note: My gripe is with Alienware, not with any of its individual staff. To prevent this from reading like a personal attack on some of Alienware's staff, I am using obviously fictitious names instead of real names. I refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry, to Larry's boss as Mo, and to a third staff member as Curly.)

On April 7, I agreed to what sounded like a simple board installation, but it actually required significant time and manual dexterity. On April 14, Larry gave directions over the phone and I tried to follow them. We spent 5 hours trying to get the system to work, stopping at midnight. We scheduled the next call for April 17, when we would take the boards back out and install them in the order (which board in which slot) Larry preferred. I had tried to do this but couldn't get the Matrox card into the desired slot. Becky (my wife) had been a tech specialist in a local school--essentially a network manager and support provider for a 300-computer network. I asked her to do the physical installation because she's better at this than I am.

Becky initially adamantly refused. We paid for onsite support. This was unquestionably a defect in their system--they had even called us to tell us about it. Her expectation was that they should install the board, format the drive, set up the RAID and the system software--essentially restore the system's software to what came loaded on the machine when it left the factory. She cited plenty of examples of vendor experience to me. I had my own examples, consistent with hers: many tech support groups would try to save money by getting the customer to act as the onsite tech, but if you asked for an onsite tech, you got one. I checked with some folk at school who had more recent industry support experience, and their experiences were consistent with Becky's and mine.

We decided to start the call on the 17th by asking Alienware to send a technician. But I was desperate. My computer was sitting on the desk in pieces, down for 10 days during the peak of my term. I tried piteous begging. Becky agreed that if Alienware would not provide onsite support, she would play technician.

When I called Alienware on the 17th, I didn't initially reach Larry. I reached someone who questioned whether I needed to speak with Larry. I don't have notes from that call. I wasn't expecting a public dispute with Alienware and wasn't making notes beyond those needed to facilitate getting this problem fixed. The person I talked with identified himself--I believe it was Mo. Mo initially wouldn't transfer me to Larry, even though I was calling a direct number on a scheduled appointment. He wanted to know why I was calling in detail. I explained my problem, and said that I wanted onsite support. Mo seemed flatly unsympathetic, he said this was a minor problem that was primarily software. It was my responsibility to handle it without onsite support, which I didn't need. My interpretation of his words and tone of voice was that they seemed rude and dismissive. Listening on the speakerphone, Becky formed the same impression. I insisted on speaking with Larry and Mo finally relented and put us through.

Larry refused onsite support more politely, but firmly. I made clear that if this didn't work tonight, Alienware was going to have to do the next fix, not me.

Becky successfully moved the boards around. To fit the Matrox card in the designated slot, she had to cut the ties that kept the internal cables neatly in place and move them out of the way. This tidy cabling system--Alienwiring, Exclusive Internal Wire Management--had been featured as a $99 value. Oh well, gone now.

Over the evening, two key problems developed:
  1. When I attempted to build the RAID set, the computer responded with random ASCII characters on the screen. This happened repeatedly and I pointed it out repeatedly. Eventually, we were able to create a RAID set, but this was disconcerting. Later, when the RAID set failed, Larry would tell us that trash on the screen suggests a defective controller card. If we understood that at this time, we would have stopped installation, configuration and troubleshooting until the card checked out or was replaced. Instead, we burned a lot of time now, and got hit with another unpleasant surprise, later. (More on this in a future posting.)

  2. The system set my drive letters as "I" and "J" instead of "C" and "D". I pointed out repeatedly that this was a serious problem, I needed my boot drive to be "C", not "I". Larry assured me we could take care of this later. First, we needed to install the RAID, then we could rename the drives.

    I know that people should not hardcode drive letters in their software, but my experience in testing software has been that several companies do this. The large retail software companies learned the hard way, over a surprisingly long time, to stop making this assumption. But the message hasn't necessarily reached the niche markets. Additionally, I work with software from students (I'm a professor) and with educational shareware -- they're still learning how to write software. In my situation, the last thing I want is a system that presents itself as a nonstandard configuration.
We finally got the RAID working--but we couldn't change the drive letters. Larry said that on a configuration like this, where there is a drive controller on the motherboard and a second controller in a peripheral slot, only the drives connected to the motherboard can be labelled "C".

I would have made a different decision about how we configured this computer (no Matrox and/or no RAID) if I had known up front that my boot drive would be "I" and not "C". This was another unpleasant surprise--and this time, I had explicitly raised the issue up front. I was unhappy to find the answer only at the end of the process, when we would have to spend hours to reverse this error.

We needed a third evening, April 18, to build a replacement Respawn disk (so that we would never have to rebuild the system again). (Of course, next time, we did have to rebuild the system again from scratch, but that's for a later post.)

Before the call on the 18th, I did extensive troubleshooting of the system to see whether we had improved anything, and whether there were any new problems. I tried tests that had previously failed with the Matrox card installed--and they still failed. As far as I could tell, the system had not improved. And now I had a nonstandard drive configuration. And I had failures, I think a higher rate of failures, with a connected USB drive.

I reported my results in a note to Alienware on the 18th:
As far as I could tell, the net effect was to make my system no better, and probably worse, than before.


We rebuilt the Respawn disk on the 18th and my computer came more or less (mainly less) back into service. The time to do the testing course's last two weeks of videos had come and gone. I got some writing done. Mainly, I spent hours reloading applications, downloading update patches and checking the system.

The system was down between April 7 and April 18. Becky and I made a running track of the time I was putting into this project. By the morning of the 18th, we estimated that I had spent 70 hours on these tasks.

I'm an attorney and a consultant. Over the past 10 years, I think the lowest hourly rate that I've charged was $100 (70 hours = $7000). Economically--and in terms of all of the work this troubleshooting stole time from--I would have been better off throwing the Alienware computer in the garbage and buying a new computer (from a different vendor).

---------------------

About that request for onsite support.

Alienware makes a big deal of its support reputation. Let me remind you of the support promise on their website (go to the Warranty Bundle section and click on the "Click here to learn more!" link):

"Demand no less than the ultimate in protection. With this plan, not only will you receive a specially discounted price, but you’ll also enjoy ...

  • Peace of mind, knowing that you have an entire company at your disposal, equipped and ready to ensure that your computer is performing at the superior level you deserve.
  • No fees for parts, labor or shipping for any warranty repair, no matter what the cost.
  • 24/7 Phone Support. Have a computer problem at 3am in the morning? No problem.
  • Onsite Service. If at all possible, you won’t have to come to us for your service needs – we’ll come to you.
  • AlienAutopsy, a tool that will provide the Alienware® technical support staff with a detailed incident report for quick problem diagnosis.
  • Respawn, a CD set, which can bring your computer back to its original factory condition in minutes...."
DEMAND THE ULTIMATE IN PROTECTION? Gosh, we just asked for basic onsite support.

ONSITE SUPPORT? They say:
If at all possible, you won't have to come to us for your service needs--we'll come to you. They can say they'll give onsite support, but despite our repeated requests, on April 17 and in many later contacts, they flatly refused, every time, to provide it.

ADVANCED DIAGNOSTICS? AlienAutopsy? I still don't know what this is. What I do know is that I got zero diagnostic guidance or support. Figuring out whether the drive worked, troubleshooting the Premiere crashes, troubleshooting the USB drive failures, all of that was on me.

A lot more work than I expected (and all for naught)

April 7 -14, 2005
My gripe isn't with the individual members of Alienware's technical staff. I believe they were following Alienware policy, so I don't want to create the impression of a personal attack by naming individuals' names. Instead, I'll refer to the primary technician who worked with me as Larry. Larry's manager is Mo. A corporate troubleshooter who came into the picture later is Curly. These are NOT their real names.

Larry (Alienware's technician) called on April 7 to tell me that Alienware had discovered an incompatibility between their motherboard and the Matrox video coprocessor. Configuring such a system with a RAID array would cause problems. He asked me to put a disk controller card into the system. We would connect the disks to the card instead of the motherboard. It didn't sound like a big deal, so I agreed.

I didn't expect to need to back up the operating system or Alienware-supplied applications, drivers, etc., because I had bought the AlienRespawn recovery kit. As their website puts it:

"RECOVER YOUR SYSTEM IN MINUTES!
AlienRespawn(TM) allows you to restore your
system to its original state from when it left the
Alienware factory. Fresh and clean!"
What I naively expected was that we would plug in the new controller, plug in the drives, and then read the existing data off the drives. If that didn't work, I figured we'd use Respawn (a Norton Ghost image of the shipped system) to restore the system to its original state and then I'd reload my applications and data.

Larry set me straight on this on April 13. We were going to have to reformat the drives, then reload the system one piece at a time because this was going to be a fundamental change to my system.

This was going to be a lot more work than the few hours I had expected, and way more than I would have agreed to do at end of term. I felt committed at this point--I had said yes, the controller was here, the configuration phone call was scheduled--so I continued.

I was a consultant for a long time. A red flag goes up when I get surprised about the scope of a job. Am I listening badly or am I getting only part of the story? That basic question--let me restate it--can I trust these people?--came up again and again until I finally ran out of trust on May 30 and demanded a refund.

Backing up the system was troublesome. Backup software (including the software that came with the USB-connected external hard drives) failed intermittently, so I had to copy files in batches, babysitting the process overnight. I made two full backups, to two 400 gb hard drives. (Compulsive? Maybe. But when the system failed a month later and took down one of those drives, I sure was happy to have the second.)

On April 14, we installed the replacement card. I did the physical work while Larry gave instructions over the phone.

The task itself was not easy. This card would fill the last open slot, had to be placed in a specific slot and moving another card (the Matrox card, which was huge) into its new slot was impossible given the cable configuration.

I eventually got the cards in, but we had significant problems setting up the RAID. When we attempted to set up a RAID array, we got garbage text (random ASCII characters in random places) on the setup screen--and no RAID. At about midnight, we called it a night and agreed to try again on the night of the 17th.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Alienware support calls to inflict some help

April 7, 2005
The system was somewhat unstable so I limited my range of uses and the set of applications that I loaded on the machine. I had done some troubleshooting, but wasn't planning to do more until late May. I had two weeks of class videos left to create, plus the usual end-of-term grading and conferences and grant proposals scheduled right after end-of-term.

Course videos took a long time to create (partially because the system was unstable) and I run a generally busy schedule. Through this term, I'd been working about 110 hours per week. I was looking forward to a break.

From the time that I received the computer, I didn't call Alienware once for support. I can read tech support information on the web without needing someone else to read it to me. I don't intentionally waste or abuse my support privileges.

I do make a practice of buying the best support contract the company offers so that I can expect good support when I really need it-- when I run into something that (a) I cannot solve and (b) I think they might be able to help me with, or when I am required to work with them to preserve my warranty. (Example: I expected to talk with Alienware in May or June to get permission to open the box, so that I could physically remove the Matrox card, which seemed to be one of the sources of instability in this system.)

I was surprised when, on April 7, one of Alienware's tech support staff called me to tell me there were fundamental problems with my system. He told me the Matrox card and the RAID controller on the motherboard were incompatible.

The support representative said he wanted to send me a card to swap into my system.

I've swapped cards in and out of computers for years. I was certified as a Level 1 Apple Service Technician back in 1981 or 1982. And over the many years in which I tested software, I frequently worked with open boxes on my desk, swapping various types of I/O cards ever day, to create new test configurations. This is rarely a big deal.

On the other hand, I've never claimed to be a hardware hotshot, and I don't volunteer to do hardware work. Mr. Dexterity, I am not. For example, when Apple passed me as a tech, the instructors praised me as an unusually good diagnostician, but even though soldering chips onto boards was a common task back then, they made me promise (and I was glad to agree) to never, ever to bring a soldering iron anywhere near one of their computers.

So I wasn't delighted about swapping the card myself -- and I had paid $300 for onsite tech support -- but I was surprised and pleased that Alienware was calling with a solution to my problems, so I agreed to put the card in the system.

(I was in fact so pleased that in a purchasing decision we were just making at Florida Tech, I chose to get an Alienware system for the school rather a different company's machine. In retrospect, that was a silly mistake.)

I did raise one issue. The technician said the problems I was having were caused by an incompatibility between the Matrox card and the motherboard. I told the technician that I had disabled the Matrox card because it seemed to make the system unstable. Reports I'd seen on the web (Matrox support and others) suggested that some of my problems were common to other systems--with other motherboards. Maybe the best choice was to optimize and stabilize the system with the Matrox card out.

The technician told me that he had a fix for this, and encouraged me to get the Matrox card working again, that I should do this to "get the benefit of the system" that I had paid for.

Alienware has this strong reputation for knowledgeable tech support. I had my doubts about re-enabling the Matrox card -- but this was clear advice from a senior tech support person representing a company that was reputed to be very knowledgeable about this type of system. This is what I was paying for when I bought this system. So, I accepted his advice.

I had no idea what a load of work I had just signed up for, and how consistently unsuccessful this work would be.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Early results; early problems

January to April 7, 2005
Here's a summary of this period:
  • There were problems, but I got work done.
  • Here's a piece of my original Macintosh work . This is what the Alienware system was to help me do faster and better.
  • Check this for one of the early (January) files
  • I got better at this over time. Here's a sample of my later work.
  • A "typical" lecture took 35 hours of preparation, taping, and editing. At two lectures per week, I was working 70 hours per week on videos for this course. Add grading, teaching other courses, writing grants, supervising student research, etc., and I was working 110 hours per typical week.
  • Intermittent hardware and software failures increased production times by up to 40 hours. Some of that was just wasted computer processing time. Often, though, I had to babysit production to see when a failure would happen. I could get work done in parallel, but I stayed up with the computer overnight too many times.
  • The results were encouraging. My students learned more (we're still doing cross-year comparisons of student work to provide publishable evidence of this, but I saw their work over the year and I know what I saw.) Other faculty at Florida Tech were so interested in this work that they wrote a grant proposal with me to extend the approach to their courses. Also, this is a Creative Commons course--anyone can use my stuff in their courses, and other faculty and other commercial instructors have started using it.
  • I wasn't Alienware's happiest customer, but if things had continued like this, you would never have seen a blog like this from me.
A few more details:

After a basic checkout, I started trying to get the video system working. There were a lot of problems. The machine didn't work well out of the box. It crashed frequently. It corrupted videos. It gave error messages and halted video processing at random times, and would sometimes fail to process a file and other times process the same file with no problem.

Processing of these videos was very time-consuming. It often took 10 hours to render a video and export it to Windows Media format. Adobe Premiere often crashed 80% or 90% the way through--so I wouldn't realize I had a problem until the system had been working 8 or 9 hours. Then I would run some experiments with small files, make a guess about what to do with the course video, and try again.

I'm used to dealing with software and configuration problems, so I went to the Alienware and Adobe (Premiere Pro) and Matrox websites, Googled for additional information, picked the brains of some of my students, and spent a lot of time trying things to see what I could do to get this system working.

Several people reported issues with the Matrox card that sounded like the problems I was having. Troubleshooting suggestions included a variety of updating tasks--I did those. Some helped, but there were still frequent failures. Among the common suggestions was advice to turn off memory-resident programs -- and I did seem to have fewer failures if I turned off Norton and disconnected the network. But this was awkward. I needed Internet connections and I needed Norton supervising them. Even with those restrictions, there were still too many failures and I could never tell when the next failure would hit.

In February, I decided to see what would happen if I disabled the Matrox card. I pulled its cables and revised the system files so that it wouldn't load the Matrox drivers at boot time. Video editing became slightly less smooth, but much more predictable.

There were still intermittent problems. Some were mysteries. Premiere Pro would halt with an uninformative error (dropped frame, or unknown error). Sometimes it would get through the identical file if I rebooted the system or turned off the network. Of these, some were probably related to memory utilization, maybe to memory leaks in Premiere Pro. I was able to improve reliability by severely restricting my use of filters.

Some files reliably caused crashes. Troubleshooting in May, a student of mine was able to show that one of the video files that I had captured through the Matrox card was corrupted in ways that caused Premiere Pro to fail.

The problem was not entirely with the Matrox card. Even when the Matrox card was not involved in capture or editing, there were still some Premiere Pro failures. There were also disk I/O errors, especially with the USB drives I was using for backup. There were intermittent failures to copy files on the main drives, many more than I've come to expect on Windows 2000 (this was my first use of Windows XP), but I could always redo it or do something slightly different and save the file, so it was disturbing, but not fatal.

Some problems were more predictable. For example, running Windows Media Player, exiting, and then trying to work in Premiere Pro was moderately likely to cause a crash.

Overall, I still couldn't predict how long it would take to process a video file (it would depend on whether Premiere and the Alienware system felt like crashing, and for how many times) But, by and large, I could get most tasks done, close to when people were relying on me to get them done.

During this time, I didn't call Alienware for help once. I wasn't happy with the system, but I learned enough on the web to doubt that I was going to get much improvement by pestering tech support staff. These looked like multivendor problems, which are the hardest for technical support staff to solve. I figured that come May, after the end of my Spring term, I'd do some troubleshooting, take the Matrox card physically out of the system, and see what else I could do to improve its reliability.

The fact that I could get work done doesn't mean I was a satisfied Alienware customer.
  • I had lost the Fall term -- If I'd known that I wouldn't get the computer until November, I'd have bought something else.
  • The sales process had left a bad taste in my mouth.
  • And the system didn't work well. The point of buying from a company that has expertise in video processing was to avoid the multivendor problems that you might reasonably expect when you push a system hard (big processing loads for long periods).
  • I'd paid a lot for a video coprocessor that didn't seem to add much performance but did seem to trigger a lot of problems--problems that I didn't expect on a system that was supposed to have been fully checked out with the Matrox card--that's what I had paid the big bucks to get.
So, I wasn't likely to buy another Alienware machine, or recommend it to anyone else. But until April 7, 2005, I was able to get work out of it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The computer arrives

November 1 - December 15
The computer finally arrived at the start of November.

Unfortunately, when it finally got here, I realized that I had run out of time to work with it this term. This would naturally be my peak season at work--midterms were in full swing, I was on the road to conferences, and I was writing my next wave of grant proposals. That's why I don't order new tools/toys for delivery this time of year. I ordered this machine for September delivery, when I had time to deal with it, not for November.

This year's hurricanes offered some extra distraction. Becky and I had to deal with damage to our houses, there were messes to clean up at Florida Tech, and all of us faculty were working overtime with our students, whose academic schedule and performance had been mauled by three hurricanes in six weeks.

I brought the box home, put it in my study, and didn't open it until I finished grading the last exam (December). By this point, my 30-day inspection period had expired.

Oh well. It wasn't such a big deal. I was finally done with Alienware's sales and manufacturing organizations. Now I could experience what Alienware was famous for: fast systems and its terrific tech support.

I'd ordered the fast system, and they'd delivered it. It didn't get here so quickly, but now that it was here, it could run fast.

Most computers work out of the box or have easy-to-fix problems. In case there were problems that I couldn't solve myself, I'd paid for three years of 24-hour 7-day-per week support and onsite support, plus "AlienAutopsy" (a diagnostic system) and "Alienware Respawn Recovery" (which turned out to be a Ghost image of my hard disk, as originally shipped) so if there were showstopper problems, we could probably get them fixed pretty fast.

I started the new year with optimism.

More nagging and they finally ship the computer

October 12-28, 2004
Alienware's manufacturing process takes so long that they send order status messages. Their process goes through (I think) 12 phases.

Originally, delivery was supposed to be September 23. In response to my query, on September 23, they advised me to expect shipment in the second week of October. When I called to see if there was anything that could be done to speed the order, they gave me a discount, but no further information or help on the ship date.

October 12 (second week of October) rolls along and Alienware tells me the computer is now in Phase 9 (Production: Assembly & Integration).

So how long does it take to assemble and inspect a computer, once all the parts are in (that was Phase 8, which started September 25, with the machine in queue for manufacturing until October 12)? A day? Two days?

I ran out of patience on October 25 and started shopping for another computer. If I had realized that the Federal Trade Commission's 30-day Mail Order Rule gave me a right to cancel, I would have cancelled the order at this point.

Alienware gave me a right to return the system, but they would probably charge a 15% restocking fee ($750 on a $5000 system). I didn't want to reward Alienware with $750 for their non-delivery of this machine, so I opened discussion of cancellation of the order:

I ordered this computer in August and was told to expect it September 25. Your last update to me said it was in order status 9 (assembly) on October 12. It is now October 25. In the meantime, you are advertising that you are shipping other computers with 5 day delivery.

I needed this computer in September, and in October. I am beginning to look for an alternative computer. Please advise me when you will deliver this computer.
They sent their usual automated response (acknowledge receipt of the message and promise response within 24 hours) but they never did respond to that note.

However, they finally shipped the computer three days later, October 28.

I learn that Alienware customers can and should demand discounts

October 4, 2004
When I checked out vendors on the web, the most common complaint about Alienware seemed to be their high prices.

I'm not fond of high prices, but I recognize the value of good equipment and good support, so the prices didn't scare me away.

But I expect prices that are presented as fixed to be reasonable and consistent.

I called Alienware to see if anything could be done about the ship date. I also mentioned the problem I had with the advertised-but-not-given free delivery.

To my astonishment, the Alienware sales representative immediately offered to reprice the system, bringing the price down by $539.28. This was not the result of aggressive bargaining on my part. I hadn't expected anything different from the price I paid (minus the shipping charge). The salesperson volunteered the idea that the prices of components might have dropped and that he could reprice the system.

This might sound like a small victory, getting a 10% discount that I hadn't even asked for. But I didn't order from Alienware to get a discount price. I ordered to get a fast, reliable, well-supported video processing machine.

The price break concerned me in terms of credibility. The problem is that it told me I didn't understand Alienware's pricing model. I'm used to consumer prices on the web being fixed prices. This told me that these prices -- widely reputed to be higher than normal -- were probably negotiable.

So, what's the "fair price" for the system I bought? What price is Alienware actually happy to sell it for?

If I wanted to have the experience of buying a used car, I could call the Better Business Bureau, find out who they don't like, and then go haggle with them. That's not what I thought I was getting into with this computer.

If you're a prospective Alienware customer, I want to suggest three lessons from this blog so far:
  1. Even though there's no place on the website to negotiate price, it seems that their prices are negotiable. Certainly, if a system starts out overpriced, there's room to negotiate. So, if I decided to buy another computer from Alienware, I would get a quote on their website and then call to haggle.
  2. The Federal Trade Commission 30-day rule gives consumers an absolute right to cancel an order that will be filled more than 30 days after it was made. This is not the 30-day-return policy that Alienware allows (with a 15% restocking fee). This is pre-delivery cancellation with a 100% refund.
  3. Buy your computer from a different vendor.

The long wait begins

September-October 2004
Alienware delivered my computer late, and only after some aggressive nagging. There are several complaints about Alienware's late delivery on the net. For example,
http://www.ichbineinauslander.com/archives/2005_01.php, http://str8dog.com/articles/182.aspx, and http://www.consumeraffairs.com/computers/alienware.html

According to the Federal Trade Commission's 30-day Rule, a company that sells goods by mail, phone, fax or internet order should only sell merchandise that it has a reasonable basis to believe it will ship within 30 days. According to the FTC:
"If, after taking the customer’s order, you learn that you cannot ship within the time you stated or within 30 days, you must seek the customer’s consent to the delayed shipment. If you cannot obtain the customer’s consent to the delay -- either because it is not a situation in which you are permitted to treat the customer’s silence as consent and the customer has not expressly consented to the delay, or because the customer has expressly refused to consent -- you must, without being asked, promptly refund all the money the customer paid you for the unshipped merchandise."
Time of delivery was a big issue for me. I bought the computer to use during the Fall term, in teaching one of my classes. I needed it in September. The estimate on the website was September 23, which was a little later than I wanted, but I could work with it.

I got status emails that showed the system was only in Phase 7 of a many-phase (at least 12 phase) process. Clearly, it was not coming by September 23, so I wrote to ask when it was coming. They wrote back saying that my order had been delayed and would be ready in the second week of October.(It wasn't.)

Alienware's note contained no statement that I could cancel the order and no request for my consent.

It had been years since I studied the Mail Order Rule (before law school). Frankly, I forgot that I had a right to cancel.

I wouldn't have cancelled in September--things were pretty busy in other ways:
    Hurricane Charley destroyed the roof on Becky's house (After 20 years of teaching, Becky (my wife) went back to U Central Florida for her doctorate and lives near school during the week.) Frances and Jeanne landed just a few miles south of my house, did a bit of damage there, 5 million dollars damage to Florida Tech where I teach, and displaced a lot of our students. My top priority this term was helping students get through the term. I still did some video work on my Mac, and would have done much more if the Alienware system had come when promised, but spending extra time dealing with a troublesome vendor was low, low priority in comparison.
However, when the system still hadn't arrived in late October, I was ready to cancel, probably would have done so if I had realized/remembered that I had an unconditional right to do so given the lateness of (non)delivery.