nVidia: What Do You Do?

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A sword continues to hang over nVidia’s head.  What should you do about it?

Recently, nVidia said that there was a problem associated with some of its notebook video chips and took a one-time charge of $200 million meant to pay for fixes to such notebooks.  That sum, while significant for nVidia, would indicate this is a problem they expect to affect only a small percentage of notebooks with the video chips in question.   Beyond that, nVidia has gone autistic on the issue. 

Others paint a much different picture.  They say that this problem might affect just about every GPU nVidia has put out lately, and more likely would affect a much bigger proportion of notebook GPUs than the one-time charge would seem to indicate.  They also pointed out that nVidia recently made a soldering change which seems to be the “fix” to the problem.  You can find a very thorough, even-handed summary of the situation here

Who is right?  Who knows, yet?  What is known is that if nVidia had to repair and/or replace every notebook motherboard that might fail, it might go bankrupt, and if they had to replace every GPU that might fail, it would go bankrupt.  You may say, “Good riddance,” and you might even be right if the vast majority of these GPUs are in fact doomed, but what if only a small percentage fail?  It would be bad enough if nVidia went belly-up because they deserved it, what if they didn’t.  Either way, AMD would get a monopoly on advanced graphics at least until Larrabee.  That would be great for AMD, might well save them, but it wouldn’t not so good for video card prices.  I’m sorry, but there are no happy endings here.    

This creates quite a dilemna for both current owners and near-term buyers of nVidia-enriched notebooks.  For practical purposes, if you want an Intel-based laptop and Intel’s X3100 integrated graphics just doesn’t cut it for you, you can buy any graphics enhancement you like so long as it comes from nVidia.  While Intel notebooks with ATI graphics do exist, they are few and far between.  Presuming this “fix” solves the problem, this difficulty ought to go away shortly, but since there’s no way yet for consumers to determine whether or not they have a “fixed” product, you simply won’t know what you’re getting.  The problem will eventually fix itself; the issue is “when.”  (Keep in mind that if you or a loved one buys a notebook at a bargain price from some computer store a few months from now, it may well have been manufactured before the fix was in.)

Of course, these problems for potential owners pale in comparison to those faced by actual ones.  You own a mobile timebomb.  OK, it won’t explode on you, but if this solder problem is the issue, this doesn’t seem to be a “if it’s going to die, it will die fast” situation.  This seems to be a failure that will happen more often as the computer gets older and that lead solder weakens after many heating/cooling cycles.  You have to wonder if nVidia’s modest warranty charge is based on the expectation that most of these will pop after the warranty has expired.  True, both Dell and HP have extended their warranties on affected machines, and have done things like change BIOSes to use fans more to cool the wounded beast.  Maybe that’s enough, maybe it isn’t.  

So what should you do?

It’s easy to say, “Don’t buy it,” like we recently said about the iPhone, but that was a situation where a fix was forthcoming and in any event there were decent alternatives.  Here, saying “Don’t buy it,” often would mean, “Don’t buy a gaming computer for college.”  A general should never give an order he knows won’t be obeyed.      

While we certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from thinking twice about getting a gaming notebook, or look at non-nVidia alternatives, we do have an alternative approach, one with the advantage of being some help to those who already own such a machine.  Extend the warranty to at least three years.   Yes, I know it costs a lot of money to do that, could be three hundred dollars or more when you combine it with accidental coverage (you can often save some money by using the depot service rather than an at-home service).  I personally would never recommend this kind of coverage for a desktop, but I always do with notebooks simply because these things break a lot more often than desktops, and they cost a lot more to fix than desktops when they break.   

From my own personal experience, a large percentage of the notebooks I’ve recommended have died, and the solution was almost always a motherboard replacement.  Notebook mobos cost a lot more than desktop mobos (often more than the entire cost of the extended warranty), and dismantling a notebook to replace one is not for the faint of heart, or anyone the slightest bit sloppy, clumsy or just nonchallant about keeping track of dozens of screws during the operation.  This isn’t a matter of popping a CPU or video card out and slapping a new one in.  Believe me, upgrading parts or building your own box doesn’t make doing a complete dismantle of a notebook easy.  It is just so much easier and less stressful to let somebody who does it every day to fix it and more importantly take the responsibility for fixing it. 

Since it’s a good idea to have an extended warranty anyway, it becomes an even more excellent idea if you’re faced with this video problem.  Even if you already have the machine, most big OEMs will let you buy additional warranty service after a purchase.   

Of course, you can choose not to pay now, but if you do, don’t be surprised to see a $500 replacement and repair bill later, with a minimal warranty on the repair, and I’ve witnessed repair folks who did a minor repair and when the part failed again shortly after the thirty days later, their response was “Pay me again.”  On the other hand, I’m typing this on a used IBM Thinkpad where the mobo failed a week before the warranty ended, and IBM cheerfully replaced that. 

For sure, you can say until you’re blue in the face that things shouldn’t be this way, but the fact is they are this way, and your only options are: don’t buy, pay for warranty protection, pray for supernatural protection, or get burned if your prayers aren’t heard.   









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