10 things we hate about laptops

Sure, laptops have revolutionized the way we compute. That doesn't mean they don't drive IT bonkers.

2. Laptops get banged up and broken.

The No. 1 place laptops get damaged is on airplanes, according to our highly informal survey of support managers. That guy in front stretches out, jams the tray table down and smashes the nice new laptop in the process.

"A lot of these laptops are assembled in China, and let's face it, they are flimsy," says Long Le, IT director at Atlas, a large international air freight company in New York.

Le oversees 300 laptops traveling to the far-flung reaches of Asia, South America and Europe. Not all of those laptops travel business class, so he sees a lot of broken hinges from tray-table mishaps, as well as cracked screens and cases and parts that just decide to fall off.

But not even business-class travelers are immune. At Harvard Business School in Boston, certain unnamed campus leaders and senior managers sometimes forget and check their laptops in their luggage, which makes CIO Stephen Laster crazy. "Laptops are way too fragile for that," he says, recalling more than a few cracked cases and screens.

But Laster doesn't stop there. With more than 3,000 laptops under his watchful eye, he's well aware the delicate machines are simply not suited for life in the real world. There are dangers everywhere: the spilled can of Diet Coke (particularly common at Harvard) or the venti latte (ditto) as well as everyday dangers like the drop into a puddle or the threat of children, who play with mom and dad's laptop a bit too roughly, and poof, there goes the door to the CD drive.

Imagine the potential dangers in the Manatee County Schools, where they've given each child a laptop of his own. While Tina Barrios, supervisor of instructional technology, says she's thrilled how well the rollout of nearly 10,000 Apple Inc. laptops has been received by her pint-size customers, she admits it's taken work to educate them on how to handle their new computing tools.

Of course, there have been a few problems. "The laptops seem to get tripped over a lot," she says, and then there are those few that have been dropped out of cars or trucks. It's not always a pretty outcome; luckily, she says, support is in-house. (For more on support issues, see To outsource or not.)

3. They're tough to fix, and they die young.

Laptops last, on average, three to four years as compared to the healthier four to five years of the average desktop, according to IDC. Even worse, anecdotal evidence indicates many truly mobile laptops never make it past the two-to-three-year mark.

Not only do laptops live shorter (and more difficult) lives than desktops, they definitely go down fighting -- which is to say they give IT departments a much harder time when it comes to upgrades and repairs.

Today's laptops are built just like today's cars, says Matthew Archibald, senior director of global information security and risk management at Applied Materials. Buy a new car, and the owner's manual will tell you to change the timing belt at 50,000 miles, he explains. If you don't do it, the timing belt will go -- at exactly 51,000 miles. It's a kind of built-in obsolescence, Archibald says, and he sees the exact same scenario with laptops.

"As the cost of laptops has come down, the parts -- from drives to boards -- last a certain length of time and that's it," he says. "Add to that the fact that they're tougher to work on, take more expertise and create potentially a lot longer downtime to fix if they have to be shipped to a service center, they're very frustrating."

Applied Materials, which has gone almost completely mobile, has more than 12,000 laptops deployed. Archibald likes to do a technology refresh every two to three years on laptops, but in recent years, it's much closer to two years "because the hardware starts to fail."

Motherboards are often the first thing to go, hard drives may need to be updated, and smaller things like the screen hinges or the locking switch fail, too. But Archibald employs a hard and fast rule: If it costs more than US$300 to refresh, it's time for a new machine.

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Valerie Rice

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