Is Your PC a Lemon?

Pending legislation may put the squeeze on unresponsive PC vendors.

Anne Kandra
Monday, July 10, 2000

As a PC user, you expect things to go wrong: Windows crashes; Web sites hang; hard drives croak. Usually, you reboot or bring the system in for repair, and you're fine. But occasionally, unlucky users buy a new PC that is plagued with so many problems that it seems to have been cursed. Worse still, PC vendors are notorious for dodging accountability for these types of mysterious and insidious problems.

Just ask Steven and Amy Judlick of Baltimore, Maryland. After researching PC vendors for product quality, support policies, and price, they settled on a Gateway Select Athlon 650. The PC arrived in late April, and they'd barely set it up when a litany of problems worthy of a PC exorcist began. First, the modem would disconnect at random. Then the display settings would randomly change resolutions. Next the computer would lock up during shutdown. Over the next two days, Steven made half a dozen calls to Gateway tech support and says he spent hours reloading video drivers, modem drivers, and Windows 98, and even reformatting the hard drive, all of which only made the problems worse.

More Calls, Another Possessed PC

Three or four tech support calls later, Steven asked for a supervisor and requested a replacement computer. The supervisor initially tried to convince the Judlicks to take the wayward PC to their nearest Gateway Country Store for repair, but he eventually agreed to send a new system when the Judlicks argued that the turnaround time for repair was unacceptable.

A few days later, the Judlicks' new PC arrived. Apparently Gateway's ghosts had gotten into this machine too. Steven found himself back in driver hell with Gateway tech support, trying to resolve an all-too-familiar range of problems. "I've spent way too much time on the phone and at the computer troubleshooting problems," says Steven. "The bottom line is we feel we've purchased a substandard computer, and we want retribution. We want a PC that works all the time, and anything less [than that] is unfair and immoral."

The Judlicks again shipped the PC back to Gateway, which has offered to repair or replace it. But the Judlicks want a refund and are disputing the charge for the PC with their credit card company. Gateway representative Beth Etler says the company will work with the Judlicks to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution.

A PC Lemon Law

An increasing number of lawmakers agree with Judlick, and if they get their way, consumers will someday enjoy the same level of protection for PCs--under the proposed PC Lemon Law--as they do with automobiles. Introduced last summer in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by State Representative T.J. Rooney (D-Lehigh/Northampton), the bill, which could become law by year's end, would protect consumers, including home PC users, students, or businesses with less than 30 workstations, by defining a set of standard rights and remedies for all PC manufacturers.

The current bill would only protect Pennsylvania residents and consumers who purchase PCs in that state, but PC owners interested in a local version of the bill (PA House Bill 1718) should write their own state legislators.

In short, the bill requires that PC manufacturers provide the consumer a working system for at least two years after purchase. In the event of any system defect--hardware or software (as long as the manufacturer installed it)--the vendor must cover any and all costs associated with fixing or replacing the system, including all shipping costs. Vendors who fail to comply would face steep fines.

"The law [would] really put accountability back where it belongs: with the manufacturer," says Craig Kimmel, a Philadelphia-based attorney who specializes in lemon law litigation. "It removes from the manufacturer any discretion to do any less than what's right and fair."

What About Warranties?

All consumer products, including PCs, are covered by federal warranty law, and most PC vendors also provide reasonable-sounding warranties that should protect you from situations like the Judlicks'. But getting vendors to live up to the promises in their warranty can be harder than fixing the problem yourself. For example, Steve Judlick was told that Gateway's standard warranty does not allow on-site repair service for problems that "do not appear to be hardware-related." Guess who decides whether the problem is hardware-related?

Meanwhile, what can you do if you've gotten a sour deal from your PC vendor? First, keep careful records of all repair orders, phone calls, and correspondences--and don't save the information on your PC. "Document everything," advises Kimmel, "including a log of all the problems you've had. Write to your vendor, and include names, dates, and all the information you've collected." Be specific about what you want, whether it's on-site repairs, a refund, or a replacement. And finally, don't give up. Says Kimmel, "The more you fight, the more the manufacturer is compelled to do something."

Anne Kandra is a contributing editor for PC World.