On the Road

Trusting Technology

March 18, 2014

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You, dear reader, have the good fortune of reading the first words written for profit on my brand new Lenovo ThinkPad computer -- or at least what's left of it. The first for-profit words were to fly from this keyboard last week at the Technology and Maintenance Council's annual meeting in Nashville.

Alas, the machine had other plans.

Call me cheap, but I have always owned and used refurbished computers. You can grab a good one for about 300 bucks from any of hundreds of providers. They aren't hard to find, and reading the customer feedback provides some level of assurance that the company is selling reasonably good product.

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I've had good luck with those machines. While they may not be the latest and greatest in high-speed gaming technology, they work really well for what I do, namely email, word processing, surfing, photo editing, etc. They are usually a few years old, in from a short-term lease and as far as my experience goes, in much better condition that the price might suggest. In a nutshell, if I can get two years or so out of a $300 computer, my cost of ownership is about a $150 a year.

Compare that to a new mid- to high-end business machine at $1,000 to $1,200 with maybe three to four years of fairly reliable service. The actual cost of ownership is about double.

Recently, my previous workhorse, a five-year-old (third year for me) Lenovo T61, began acting up. The screen was a little loose, the cooling fan was rattling, the 'L' was missing and the wires on the power supply were beginning to fray. Having got my money's worth out of that one, I went to my favorite used computer vendor's webpage and started shopping.

I'm a stickler for the IBM/Lenovo keyboard -- think about it; I spend much of my waking life using the keyboard and I have developed a distinct preference for its feel, layout, sound, etc. -- so that limits my search a little. I also prefer the business machine look of the computer as well as its good build quality and the fact that they still (bless them) use a matt finish screen.

Yes, journalists, like truckers, have technology preferences. While the application may be different, we are just as adamant about the tools of our trade. You like Freightliner or Kenworth, Cummins or Volvo. I like Lenovo.

The choices this time around were somewhat limited, and to get into what I wanted in a refurbished machine, I was looking at about $600, not the usual $349. That's pushing the limits of a casual purchase, so I began reading reviews of the machines and soon realized there were better models on the market for a bit more money.

The place I buy from also has a selection of new, unsold inventory from the big computer manufacturers, so I was able to grab a brand new, T430 with a three-year factory warranty for just over $1,100. That was a bit more than I set out wanting to spend, but I got a good deal on a 2013-model-year machine.

Historically, I have always traveled with two computers. The larger one I leave at the hotel, the smaller of the two travels around the event with me. They are a bit heavy to drag around, and it usually raises eyebrows at the airport security line when they see me stuffing two computers back into my bag. So be it. It's a price I'm willing to pay for peace of mind.

Since I was traveling to TMC with a brand-new machine, I left my other one at home. I'm sorry I did and I learned a lesson. Computers are like shoelaces: they never break when you don't need them.

I'll spare you the gory details, but the computer became a paperweight on Tuesday, two days into TMC. While all my archived files, email, pictures, etc. are safely back up (another hard-learned lesson), the files I was working on at TMC were inaccessible. Consequently, I was unable to deliver some promised editorial. I lost over $1,000 in not being able to file work that was expected of me. Add that to the cost of the computer and the ownership cost calculations get quickly out of whack.

For various reasons, it was not until Monday, six days after the thing quit, that the technician arrived at my office to service the thing. She replaced almost everything that wasn't molded into the chassis -- the motherboard, the keyboard, the trackpad, the USB ports ... The hard drive remained. I asked her why they didn't just send me a new machine. She said that would be plan B, if the repair didn't succeed.

So today, two days later, I'm still up and running. How long it will be until Plan A repeats itself or Plan B becomes necessary is anybody's guess. The fact that it's under warranty compels me to keep it and keep the service desk's phone number close at hand -- along with my spare laptop.

The week's events, however, brought into much sharper focus the difficulties you folks have with today's increasingly complex equipment. Like my computer, there's little inside you can fix on your own. When some sensor misfires, you're down and your customers are mighty unhappy. All you can do is call someone and hope they have techs who can service the thing, and the parts in stock. Both are becoming increasingly unassured.

If you're a large-ish fleet, you might have some spare equipment you can repower a load with, provided it isn't a thousand miles away. For an owner-operator or a small fleet, losing a piece of equipment even temporarily is a nasty turn of events.

I have no idea how long this one will last, or whether I'll come out ahead on the cost of ownership calculation, but the thrill of firing up a new machine, rather than suffering through the inconsistent performance of the old one will soon wear off and I'll be left with a tool I don't trust completely. Sure, it's a drag when you're stuck in a hotel with no way to get the work done, but the frustration increased by several orders of magnitude when you're stranded on the side of a windswept highway on the high plains or on the Cross Bronx Expressway. At least my service call was free and the computer didn't need to be towed.

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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