Ooh, goodie, my ThinkPad X41 Tablet has finally shipped. Now, I cannot wait for it to arrive...


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Sniff. After being a long time Dell PC/laptop owner, I decided to go with IBM (well, actually Lenovo) this time around.

Why Dell

Now, I will not say that I am dissatisfied with Dell at all. I expect to get a solid deal at reasonable price from Dell, and I love their software approach - straight forward, no frills, and no extra junk. I cannot say the same about IBM, Toshiba, Compaq, or HP. For example, suppose I want to blow away the OS that came pre-imaged on my machine and clean install another OS... using the Compaq "Restore" CDs, I can only go back to the original image, drivers and all. How do I get those drivers into a new clean OS installation? On the contrary, Dell gives me the OS CD separate from the drivers CD and the other optional software CDs... so I choose a la carte exactly what I need. And, having written lots of OS/Software automation, I appreciate the automation put forth by the Dell drivers CD to try and smooth over the often wildly different installation process by its hardware partners. It is not exactly point and click, but it is pretty darn close enough for me.

Dell's Support is Slipping?

As for support, the one time that I had to call Dell tech support a year ago to get a hard drive replaced, my experience was excellent.

  • I called in on a weekday afternoon and a couple minutes later I was talking with a pretty knowledgeable technician who efficiently stepped me through some backdoor diagnostics built into the Dell laptop's BIOS and determined that the hard drive was close to failure and hence need to be replaced (I had heard it make loud, repeated clacking sounds the day earlier).
  • Two days later, the replacement hard drive arrived at my door step, and I did the replacement myself after locating the Technical Manual for the X200 (I was impressed with the document - it showed in painful detail all of the individual parts and the appropriate sequence on how to completely disassemble and re-assemble the laptop from those individual parts - including the count, length, and size of all the screws, pin-layout of all the standard ports, etc).
  • The return was likewise hassle-free. The RMA label was pre-printed and paid for, and a strip of re-seal tape was also provided. All I had to do was schedule the pickup (or just drop it off at a pickup location on my next trip out of the house)...

Yeah, I would say that I am a pretty satisfied Dell customer. :-)

Why IBM and not Dell

So, what made me go with IBM this time instead of Dell was simply because all else being equal, Dell did not have the exact laptop features that I was looking for, IBM did, and after a reasonable discount, the Thinkpad did not cost that much more than the comparable Dell. For reference, I last mused about the laptops on this blog entry ... I am basically in the market for an ultraportable laptop because mobility matters to me. The Dell X1 is basically a technology upgrade of the Dell X200 I own, except they decided to go with a non-business design of leaving off the PC Card slot (where do I put my smart card reader?) and a wide-screen LCD resolution. The IBM X41 Tablet is basically in the same weight/design class as the Dell X1 and stuck with a more business-oriented design (the extended battery is standard, PC Card slot is there, and the LCD is a standard 1024x768... and the rest of the features are pretty much standard laptop fare).

How to NOT Delight your Customer...

Now, if the Thinkpad was not a better technological and feature fit for me, I probably would not have even considered IBM. Why? Well, let's just say that if the IBM.COM website is representative of the best of their "on demand" eBusiness offerings... then they better take a page from APPLE.COM and have good marketing because their technology is otherwise pathetic (and no, I like the APPLE.COM website - I give them A+ marketing for B grade laptop technology). My shopping experience with their site over a period of days would have easily driven all but the most determined potential buyer from making a purchase. No wonder IBM is getting out of that business - I simply do not think they understand how to sell computers, certainly not customize them, as well as Dell can.

To start with, the website is just plain confusing. You get deluged with a mountain of model numbers for the X41 Tablet, and the dimensions (like price, RAM, OS, HDD size, Wireless) meant to narrow down your choices does a poor job - I want to choose the model and then select different OS, HDD, Wireless choices based on price . The website is clearly not geared toward shoppers intending to configure/compare prices - it is clearly geared toward the Corporate purchase managers who just swoop in with some model number and order a bunch of them without much configuration. And even in that scenario, I am not certain it works well.

Then, the website is just plain slow. Yup. That's what you get when you run JSP, Cold Fusion, and CGI on WebSphere and then try to wire them all together with expertly written spaghetti code by the army of IBM consultants. I can tell you that just by looking at the URL resources, tracking the redirections, and watching the network traffic. Ok, sorry for the geeking out here... I work on the competing network/application framework stack, so I pay attention to these details. :-)

On top of being slow, it is definitely not reliable - over a period of days, while I was in the middle of trying to make a purchase, the server/cluster that I was on must have gone down multiple times for several minutes at a time, obviously losing my session state as well as dropping the network connection. I swear, I got very good at logging in, navigating the mountain of model numbers for the exact one I want and selecting the correct options as quickly as I can, clicking through to checkout, and praying that it does not lose my session state for any random reason before finalizing the purchase. After many such attempts over days, I finally did get one successful order in. Ugh!!!

Yeah, that's is certainly a wonderful purchasing experience... NOT. Buying from DELL.COM was infinitely easier, even three years ago, with their snappier ASPX pages, easy shop/compare features, sessions that never got lost, and servers that always responded. I was never "hurried" into making a purchase; I made it at my own leisure.

Well, I am expecting to get the ThinkPad Tablet next Tuesday. I will certainly continue my evaluation of this entire "IBM" purchasing experience. I will be paying attention to the laptop reliability (as a general rule, I treat and protect my electronics equipment exceptionally well, so I do not expect to factor myself in as a "risk") as well as service and professionalism at the warranty/support end of the spectrum if/when it comes into play.

I paid the extra $100 for a three year business-class warranty upgrade to get the 2 business day parts delivery and premier tech support. I wager that over the three years of the warranty, SOME issue is bound to come up (all my previous laptop experiences have found this true, if not multiple times within three years), and when it does, it is worth my money to get good service. Well, I have paid in advance for my EXPECTATION and gave Lenovo the benefit of the doubt; now it has to get fulfilled. :-)

Supposedly, Dell has been slipping in support the past several years, but if my recent experience was "slipping", I cannot imagine where it slipped from. IBM also had better numbers in the 2005 PC Magazine Readers Survey of Service/Reliability in that same time period, so my expectations are high. Well, let's just see how this works out. I'll probably try to scribble out a blog entry on the Tablet some time next week just to experiment. :-)

//David