Ailing Laptop: Repair or Replace?

Remember the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead? A young woman and her brother are visiting their grandfather's plot in a graveyard. A creepy pale-faced dude approaches them, and the screaming begins.

That's how I feel when I check my investments these days. Horrified, shocked, appalled, doomed. I'm not alone, of course. Everyone else I know feels pretty much the same.

Acute anxiety over the economy makes it tough to part with whatever funds you still have. Still, laptops are impervious to your financial woes. When they feel like misbehaving, crashing, or expiring completely, they do it. You're left to figure out the least expensive solution: Repair the laptop or buy a new one?

What's the Problem?

Before you take action on an ailing laptop, find out exactly what the problem is. Sometimes a little common-sense deductive logic will uncover the issue. For example, you might try some of the troubleshooting techniques in "35 Things Every PC User Should Know," "Troubleshoot Your Boot-Up and Shutdown Problems," or "Never Call Tech Support Again!"

If you can't figure out the problem, ask a tech-savvy friend or relative, or an IT person at work, for their opinion. Otherwise, you may need to take the computer to a repair shop for an estimate. The diagnosis may cost you $50 to $70 or so, depending upon the shop, where you live, and so on. Some repair shops will waive the diagnostic fee if they make the repairs.

Repair or Replace?

Once you have a diagnosis and an estimate, how do you decide if the repair is worth the money? Answering these questions will help:

What would a new laptop cost? Some say that if the repair cost is more than one-third the cost of a relatively comparable, brand-new laptop, your money is better spent on the new computer. Consumer Reports says if the repair is over half the cost of a replacement machine, don't repair it.

Here's another way to look at it: Would a replacement laptop offer you at least two important features or benefits your ailing portable doesn't? Examples might include a lighter weight, longer battery life, a built-in Webcam or cellular modem, or an ExpressCard slot. If so, that should factor into your decision.

How old is your laptop? Consumer Reports says spending money to repair a laptop five years old or older isn't worth it. Laptops three or four years old are a toss-up. Anything under two years is generally worth repairing. In general, I'd agree.

How significant is the problem? If the main logic board of your laptop has failed, that's pretty serious, and it may not be worth repairing. Other problems, such as a failed hard drive, may be a hassle to deal with but will cost only a few hundred dollars to fix.

Are you sure your warranty can't be extended? Some electronics manufacturers have been known to extend a warranty for free, if it expired not too long ago. Or you may be able to extend an expired warranty for an additional cost. Also, keep in mind many credit card companies automatically double or extend a manufacturer's warranty. So you may already be covered and not know it. Don't spend money on repairs until you're absolutely sure the laptop's warranty is kaput.

If You Go the Repair Route

Let's say you've decided your laptop is worth repairing. Fine--but before turning it over to a shop, ask them lots of questions.

What's their warranty on repairs? The shop should offer at least a 90-day warranty on their repairs, meaning they'll fix it again if necessary for free during that period. You may be able to negotiate for more time.

How long will the repairs take? Repair shops may be unable to turn your laptop around for a week or longer. The next questions are for you to answer: Can you live that long without a computer? Can you borrow another one until yours is fixed?

Is the shop listed on Yelp, Citysearch, or another online directory? If so, read customer reviews to get a sense of the shop's repair quality and customer service.

Will they back up your hard drive before making repairs? Some shops do this without your asking. Or they may perform a backup for an additional cost. But to be safe, back up your important files (if possible) before taking the laptop to the shop.

How secure is the shop? Small computer repair shops are sometimes targeted by thieves. One day after my partner, Nick, took his laptop to a local repair shop, the store was broken into. His was one of several computers stolen. This raises another question.

What happens if my laptop is stolen or damaged? This may be a question only the manager or owner can answer. Even so, you may not get a complete answer. But it's worth asking. It took Nick six months to extract an insurance settlement for his stolen laptop. The repair shop owner kept giving him vague promises and half-answers. Finally, Nick said he wouldn't leave the shop until the owner called her insurance agent on the spot. Even then, the insurance company gave Nick the runaround for another month or so. Ultimately, the insurer cut a check for about $1500, which was a fair settlement for the two-year-old computer--too bad it took so long and was so painful to get.

If your computer is truly beyond hope, don't just leave it for the repair shop to dispose of. Either remove the hard drive yourself or ask the shop to do it. Why? An unscrupulous computer expert could retrieve your personal data off an apparently dead hard drive and use it for ID theft. Once the hard drive is in your hands, take the computer to an electronics recycling center.

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