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This has moved to my personal website.

It seems that Dell has set up their hardware to be very consumer-unfriendly.  Ever since the charcoal gray Dell Pentium 4 laptops came out, Dell started to force out third-party power-related items for some reason.  Dell laptops that take PA-9 series AC adapters have to be sent some sort of special signal that indicates a 90W-capable PA-9 adapter is plugged in, or else the laptop assumes a PA-6 is plugged in, issues an ominous warning about how it’s lowering the unit’s performance because of the adapter not being right, and forces you to press something in order to continue starting up.  Of course, using a different connector from the PA-6 type would have solved that problem much more easily, as no one could accidentally plug a PA-6 into a PA-9 power jack, but apparently Dell didn’t think about that.

The same thing happened when Dell transitioned from PA-10 to PA-12 adapters: they kept the huge outer ring with the tiny center pin, but the PA-12 tells the laptop that it’s the higher wattage model.  This sort of makes sense, though: a processor that requires the extra 25W boost to run at full speed would overload a lower-wattage adapter and present a possible fire hazard, or could just burn out the adapter and force the purchase of a replacement.

However, I have noticed a very annoying trend as of late: Dell laptops that use a PA-10 or PA-12 adapter seem to be very good at figuring out that an attached adapter is third-party, particularly the ones requiring PA-12 series.  I have purchased numerous Dell replacement adapters from third-party vendors, and it seems that initially these adapters work perfectly fine without a hitch for about a month.  Then, at some point, the laptop decides that the adapter is no longer a correct PA-12 adapter, claims that it doesn’t recognize the attached AC adapter, and has the usual tantrum.  How can an adapter work just fine for a month, then suddenly be not good enough, despite obviously powering the unit just fine?  What makes this even worse is that some units refuse to charge the battery when this happens. It sounds more like Dell is attempting to lock out third-party hardware (and doing a very good job of it) than trying to ensure the unit receives adequate wattage.

The saga continues with the plethora of third-party Dell batteries out there that these Dell laptops refuse to charge after an obscenely short time.  There are widespread reports on the Internet of people purchasing Dell replacement batteries that eventually stop working.  Of course, some failures are inevitable, but the problem being Dell’s doing became obvious after we helped at least four separate customers purchase (from four totally different vendors) third-party Dell replacement batteries for GD761 and KD476 laptop batteries.  In all four cases, the batteries would charge and work wonderfully, often holding a charge for hours of off-AC use, and then one day, for no apparent reason, the Dell laptop determines that the battery is not a valid battery and refuses to charge the battery with an annoying orange blinking battery light.

One or two batteries would be easy to write off as a fluke or a bad batch or a coincidence, but four batteries from four different vendors, all of which are similar only because they don’t have a “DELL” brand stamp on the pack?  It couldn’t be more obvious that Dell has put special circuitry and programming into their laptops to disable third-party batteries.  I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I call it how I see it, and four totally different batteries can’t all be wrong.  If Dell didn’t charge $200 for a replacement battery that costs less than one fifth of that to make and bring to market, I’d just tell everyone to buy replacement batteries straight from Dell.

The problems appear to be ongoing and systemic, too; for example, one poster reports that his two otherwise identical Dell branded batteries for a Dell Latitude XT and a Dell Latitude XT2 are not interchangeable, despite having the exact same Dell part number and being official Dell batteries.  If these laptops have serious problems recognizing official Dell batteries, what does that imply about non-Dell branded ones?  It sounds like Dell has spent too much time engineering ways to lock out third parties and not enough time thinking about their customers’ needs.

What would motivate this?  Two things.  One, profits from battery sales (and upgrades and accessory sales in general) are Dell’s biggest money maker, and two, every $200 battery sale seems (based on some third-party replacements being $50 or less) to carry a gross profit of over $150.

The problem is that I can buy any third-party component I want for an HP or Toshiba or Acer or Gateway, and it will gleefully run with my choice.  Dell appears to be the only computer manufacturer (sort of; Dell owns the Alienware brand) that designs ALL of their computers to discourage or outright block third-party components.  Even the desktops tend to be either the long-defunct and universally hated BTX case form factor (like a Dimension E510) or a small form factor variant of BTX (think of the XPS 200, which also has an extremely serious design flaw that causes the hardware to overheat).  Replacement motherboards for these desktops MUST be a matching Dell board, which usually forces the buyer to purchase even more parts to fix a motherboard failure, because now the computer’s case, power supply, and CPU heatsink/fan assembly all have to be replaced as well, often pushing the costs of a motherboard replacement above $200.

Such is the hidden cost of buying a computer from any manufacturer that does not adhere to the long-time industry de facto standard ATX form factor.  Every major computer parts outlet such as CompUSA and Newegg sells ATX cases, power supplies, motherboards, and standardized heatsink assemblies that only change depending on the type of socket a processor fits into.  Any computer tech worth a fig can find a replacement part for a fully ATX compliant design in a matter of minutes, and physically install or replace it without a single problem.  These weird cases that some manufacturers use now are a serious problem and the benefits of sticking with ATX compatible designs deserves an entire essay all by itself.  For now, just be sure that if you buy a computer, it doesn’t have one of those giant holes in the front and it isn’t a cute-looking itty bitty tiny case.  Also, when you look at the rear of the case, all of the connectors should be on the LEFT side with all of the add-in card slots on the BOTTOM; if either or both is reversed, it’s not ATX and you’re getting ripped off and locked in to that vendor’s own exclusive premium-priced parts inventory.  In other words, the cost to get OUT of that computer will be higher than a standard design.

I seem to have diverged from the original point, so in closing, I’ll just say this: DON’T BUY DELL LAPTOPS.  If nothing else convinces you, this will: one of my techs worked for Dell’s premium (paid) tech support (and was the highest rated support agent in the building!), and I ran all of this by him just to be sure that I wasn’t blowing smoke from my backside.  Not only did he agree that I’m hitting the mark squarely, he also confirmed with this exact quote: “I would NEVER buy a new Dell laptop.”

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