The kids were watching an insipid show about teen superheroes when my 10-year-old said with more enthusiasm than usual, "Dad, the TV set is on fire."
Sure enough, sparks were flying out of the back of our 42-inch Gateway plasma TV, and the room smelled like burning plastic. I hustled the kids into the kitchen and singed my fingers yanking the power cord out of the wall. (Turns out my experience wasn't unique; a class action lawsuit claiming defects in Gateway's plasma power circuits was pending at press time.)
Then I started calling some repair shops. The TV was out of warranty and would cost at least $1200 to fix. That hurt worse than my fingers. Should I repair it or replace it? And what about all the other dead gadgets in my closet? To answer those questions, I had to ask more.
How dead is it? If you've run over your cell phone, or lightning has fried your laptop, it's time to buy a new one. But failures are often caused by bad software or a loose connection, says David Milman, CEO of Rescuecom, a franchised PC support business that Milman says gets a surprising number of repair calls for VCRs and iPods.
In most cases, you can pay a small fee to have the problem diagnosed. Milman says Rescuecom techs will typically spend an hour sussing out the problem; hourly rates for diagnosis and fix start at $88 and go up depending on where you live. Alternatively, you can bring the balky item to any Radio Shack store and pay $20 for an estimate, says Matt Burns, manager of store operations projects for the chain.
How old is it? The technology underlying gear like MP3 players and cell phones changes so fast that products are obsolete by the time you buy them. In contrast, devices such as VCRs, speakers, tube-based TVs, and turntables haven't changed much in ten years, so new models won't be a lot better than what you have now. The less digital something is, the better a candidate it is for repair--assuming you can find the parts. Electronix.com and PartStore.com stock a healthy selection of electronics parts. For rare or vintage parts, try UltraElectronicActive.com.
How much will it cost? This is the money question--literally. "I apply the '40 percent rule,'" says Thom Howard, a technical consultant for Crutchfield in Virginia. "If the repairs cost less than 40 percent of the price of a new one, I say fix it."
Here's my own Fix or Forget Algorithm (FoFA): If the thing cost more than $100 new, is less than three years old, and can be repaired for less than 50 percent of the price of a new model, then I'll pay to have it fixed--if my wife approves, of course.
Where do you go? Ask the original manufacturer for recommendations on repair shops in your area, or peruse the list of authorized service centers on its site, advises Howard. And be sure to obtain a written guarantee. For example, Rescuecom's site states that if the repair technician can't fix a problem, you don't pay a dime for the service, while Radio Shack warrants its repairs for 90 days.
What about your data? Before you drop your gadget off, back up any data that's on it--if you can. Most PDAs and MP3 players automatically do this by syncing to your hard drive. For pointers on backing up your phone, check out Grace Aquino's recent Dialed In column, "Back Up Your Cell Phone's Address Book."
Can you fix it yourself? If pro repairs are too costly, you can always pry the device open and tinker with it yourself (unplug it first). Start by reading the detailed consumer electronics FAQ compiled by longtime electronics guru Sam Goldwasser. You can also tap the collective wisdom at Fixya.com, a repair-oriented social networking site.
So I applied my FoFA to the plasma. The thing cost $3000 three years ago, but higher-resolution models go for $2000 today. And the kids no longer watch that stupid show, so my wife is happy. But I'm going to wait for the price of LCD sets to drop before I replace our broken TV.
Anybody want a dead plasma?