Dell and HP balk at replacing bad Nvidia chip

Michael lasky By Michael Lasky

An old urban myth claims that the microprocessors used in PCs and other consumer electronics are designed to fail within days or weeks of their warranty expiration.

For tens of thousands of people who bought Dell and HP notebooks whose motherboards fried — often a few weeks after their warranty expired — there’s nothing mythical about it.

The cause of the machines’ fried motherboards is an overheating Nvidia graphics chip. The failure rate is so huge that Nvidia had to take a $196 million charge against earnings in the second quarter of its 2008 fiscal year in anticipation of the reimbursements that would result from the faulty GPU (more info).

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What’s particularly scandalous, though, is how HP and Dell first handled the deluge of complaints from customers with notebooks that failed after their warranties expired. The companies either charged the customers (victims?) for repairs or refused service because the systems were past the warranty period.

Even worse, HP and Dell continued to sell notebooks with the same Nvidia chip long after the companies were aware of the problem. (Ultimately, Nvidia released a new version of the GPU that didn’t cause overheating.)

Unwary consumers who purchased the affected notebooks — no doubt based in part on the heady reputations of the vendors — were left in the lurch when their PCs failed, which usually occurred after 18 months or so. The purchasers had no recourse except to yell and scream at clueless tech-support reps.

When the heat from consumer complaints became as hot as the faulty Nvidia chip, HP and Dell relented and published a list of defective model numbers on their Web sites. Dell extended the standard one-year warranty to two years for the systems they identified as having the problem. HP offered a 24-month warranty extension for the specific issue.

However, instead of issuing a recall — as you would expect in such a clear case of a defective part — the vendors instead merely offered a BIOS upgrade. The “patch” for the affected notebooks made their fans run continuously in an attempt to lower the GPU-induced heat, which was cooking the motherboards onto which the chips were soldered.

This “fix” merely extended the time before the motherboards finally burned out while simultaneously devouring the machines’ battery life — sort of like putting a Band-Aid on a coronary. Of course, notebook purchasers became further inflamed by the power drain on their systems due to the constantly running fan.

(Unlike Dell and HP, Apple quickly acknowledged the presence of the defective Nvidia chip in some MacBook Pro notebooks and offered repairs or replacements to its customers.)

How to get vendors to respond to your gripes

There ought to be a PC lemon law, like the lemon laws enacted in many states that protect purchasers of defective automobiles. Those laws came about because legions of consumers complained after they got stuck with cars — new and used — that were clunkers. Until such protections are available, you can take the following steps to get redress for your grievances:

  • Post a description of your gripe on consumer-complaint blogs. People who bought the defective HP and Dell notebooks would have been out of luck if it hadn’t been for the rising power of Internet communities and blogs — ironically, some of which were on the vendor’s very own sites. These grass-roots efforts demonstrate that consumers are not powerless when they own a lemon PC, even in the absence of a lemon law to back them up.

    As the number of postings about the problem on gripe sites rose, HP and Dell could no longer hide from their customers. For example, the site HP Lies was created specifically for consumers to fight back against what the site calls “HP’s cover-up of the Nvidia defect.” A massive number of people who had bought now-dead HP notebooks that fried due to the overheated Nvidia chip not only spewed their venom at the company but also offered legal and logistical advice to others who shared their misfortune.

    Surprisingly, many burned customers discovered the HP Lies site through links on HP’s own Business Support Forum. Likewise, news of Dell’s offer of a limited warranty enhancement with a list of affected units was reported at Dell’s Direct2Dell user-community blog as a response to the thermonuclear anger expressed by unhappy customers at the site.

  • Take it to court. Many customers went the legal route and filed lawsuits that were consolidated into a class-action complaint against Nvidia, Dell, and HP last September. While less effective in getting a full reimbursement or replacement, lawsuits serve as a wake-up call to corporations and produce corresponding action to mollify the plaintiffs.

  • Skip low-level tech support and go directly to the top. If you have a PC problem that’s been proven to result from a defect, ask to speak to a high-level tech-support representative, who will be more empowered to address your complaint — and likely more knowledgeable about the issue as well.

    Be persistent, but keep your cool (which may be more than your PC is doing). Advice at the HP Lies site suggests going the corporate route and obtaining a case manager to get free repairs or a replacement, which standard tech support might not provide.

  • Buy an extended-service warranty. HP and Dell customers who had extended warranties got no-charge repairs and/or replacements for their Nvidia-murdered systems. Because cheaper components are used in most of today’s low-cost computers, chances are those components will fail sooner than in the past. Extended warranties generally offer no- or low-hassle tech support and repairs for up to three years beyond the standard warranty.
PCs may be unreliable and vendors unresponsive to customer complaints, so it pays to know your options.

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a former PC World senior editor who currently writes for Laptop Magazine, Wired.com, and other technology news sources.
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Michael Lasky

About Michael Lasky

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.