July 28, 2012


Working on the keyboardYour computer is a box. The innards matter when problems occur in:
  • the quality of the components
  • the care in the assembly
  • the skill in the repairs
The innards matter for your financial purchases too.

A year ago, I bought a ThinkPad W520, “the industry’s fastest and lightest mobile workstation”. These are “pure-bred professional laptops that have earned a reputation for powerful performance” (NotebookCheck.net). Here’s a video tour (YouTube). This class of computer is for “a road-warrior who demands a lot of performance in a mobile package” (StorageReview.com). The main drawback is the price but since when do we really buy on price?

The W520 is easily the best computer I’ve owned. The problem has been the reliability.

Observation: You don’t always get what you expect. In the financial world, you’ll have trouble finding objective reviews for the products or the advisors who sell them.

The Problems

Here are the problems to date
  1. The speakers stopped working (workaround: use external speakers)
  2. One of the two video cards doesn't work reliably with an external display (workaround: use the high performance video card all the time, which increases heat and hurts battery life)
  3. One of the two hard disks crashed (workaround: none)
  4. The internal mic array stopped working (workaround: use an external USB microphone)
  5. The Pantone color calibrator stopped working (workaround: none, apart from judging color by eye)
  6. The light for hard disk activity stopped working (workaround: ignore since the disks still worked)
  7. The light for Bluetooth stopped working (workaround: ignore since Bluetooth still worked)


Since replacement parts can be expensive and repairs slow, I got insurance: a warranty with onsite next-day service.

While watching the repairs, I saw how cheap the innards are and how easily they could be damaged. The keyboard remains the best I've ever used (and a key reason for buying a ThinkPad). However, removing the keyboard to access the innards is a challenge. It's also surprisingly flimsy. I've heard a replacement costs $160, which probably doesn't include installation. The replacement might be refurbished …

Could an average technician do the repairs? I'm not sure. I don't want to take that risk. There’s a surprising variety in the number of screws used. It’s easy to mix them up.

Observation: The innards matter even if you don't seem them or fully understand how they work. Warren Buffett said: “If you don't know jewelry, know the jeweler.” When you're buying financial promises, look for an advisor who's shown they're worthy of your trust.

The Cause

I've got a CTO model, which means Configure To Order. These computers are the most problem prone because each is made one at a time. Quality control is tougher.

When repairs are made, the components could be refurbished. They may not be as reliable as the original ones. Any time a repair takes place, there’s the worry that something else could go wrong.

Observation: If you succumb to the lure of a "unique" financial strategy, you're getting a one-off which may not be built or tested to normal standards. It’s easy to overlook the risk of innovation until problems arise. Who does the design, maintenance and repairs?


This last time, I called for service, I was told to go to a depot where there are more diagnostic tools. So much for onsite service I was promised. The first place I phoned didn't answer calls. The second claimed to be too busy. The third did the repairs, which took a day.

The latest problems were caused during the prior repairs. For example, a cable hadn't been reconnected properly.

Observation: An advisor with low skill can cause great harm. A simple mistake in the paperwork may prevent you from getting the results you expected. You may not know how good an advisor you have unless you're able to compare if problems occur. If you get your financial plan, investments and insurance from unrelated advisors in different firms, you have the opportunity to notice differences in performance.

The Biggest Cost

The biggest cost is downtime. I've got a backup computer and backup all files online. That means I've got reasonable access to them but productivity does suffer.

Observation: Problems do occur with products and services. How do you react if they do? If you're less willing to take risk, you may want to pay more than the cheapest price. The margins help cover the cost of service and get you priority in the queue. You may also want a backup plan such as buying products from more than one company and using multiple advisors.

Next Time

I'm hoping there won't be any more problems with my ThinkPad. Everything's fine … until it isn't. I'm glad I had insurance the form of a warranty.


Podcast 179

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS I got the insurance extended for two more years


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