In praise of IBM ThinkPad warranty service

It sometimes feels like every time we mention a big company's products or services here, it's to shame them for doing something terrible or making something awful. But every now and again, you get something wonderful out of a big company, and it's worth celebrating, loudly.

This time, it's IBM's Global Services, who do the ThinkPad service contracts for Lenovo. I switched to ThinkPads a few years back when I went Ubuntu Linux, at the suggestion of Chris DiBona, a senior free/open source guy at Google. The ThinkPads are moderately priced, come in a wide variety of models with different characteristics, are incredibly well-built with fantastic keyboards (the mid- to high-range machines have water-proof keyboards that have special, sealed drainage channels running to the laptop's underside) and rugged frames. They run GNU/Linux really well, too. I've been happier with ThinkPads than I've been with any other make of laptop (though there have been occasional hiccups, see below).

I'm hard on my equipment, so I knew that I'd want to get the world-wide, on-site, next-day replacement service, which costs about $100/year. This is exactly what it sounds like: if you have a hardware fault (even one due to dropping or knocking the machine), they will generally have a tech show up with a replacement part the next day, anywhere in the world. When I was an Apple user, hardware failures often meant standing in line for 40 min to drop off a Powerbook at a Genius Bar, then coming back a week or two later and waiting 40 minutes again to reclaim it.

My latest ThinkPad, an ultralight X200, just experienced a hardware fault in the built-in SD card reader. I tried booting it from a couple different Ubuntu versions and then installed the original Vista HDD and tried that (the ThinkPad hard-drives can be swapped in about two minutes with a single Phillips screwdriver, which makes it easy to buy giant third-party drives and install them when the ThinkPad arrives, building Linux on them and leaving the original drive intact for easy troubleshooting). It was definitely hardware. I called the service-center, got through in about two minutes, explained my problems to a level-one tech who nevertheless understood what I meant by "Linux" and "hard-drive swap" and ordered the service call after about five minutes of my describing the problem.

Today the service tech came by my office. He phoned ten minutes beforehand to let me know he was on his way, then sat down at my desk, spread out a lint-free cloth, and, in about 20 minutes, fixed the SD slot, replacing the daughtercard that it lives on. He didn't care that the Linux drive was in the bay, and let me boot it and show him that it was working to my satisfaction — he didn't insist on my swapping in the original Vista drive.

This is basically perfect. Exactly what I want from my critical infrastructure. Without my computer, I can't do anything productive. I've got edits due on my current novel by Friday afternoon, and a complete disassembly and replacement of a laptop daughter-card just took place without substantially disrupting my schedule. I only had to walk as far as the reception at my office building.

So, with all that good news, let me add in a couple of caveats: first, once Lenovo end-of-life's a model, they stop making parts for it and switch to refurbed parts, and those parts aren't so good. My old X60 had to have three defective motherboard replacements before the service center just upgraded me to a new, faster, in-production model (on the other hand, this swap was done by the head manager at IBM Global Service's UK division, who drove into London to personally handle the case).

Lenovo's ecommerce ordering and build system isn't nearly as good as IBM's service department. They lost the original order for this X200, waited two weeks to tell me, then told me I'd have to wait two more weeks to get the machine. Then they found me someone else who could get it to me in 24 hours, but I ended up paying a couple hundred pounds more than I'd been quoted from Lenovo themselves. They argued mightily about paying me back this sum, eventually promising to do so, but they never did.

So that's it: be prepared for some glitches when you order a machine, and watch out for refurbed parts. Apart from that, the ThinkPad with extended warranty can't be beat. I'm on my fourth laptop and I've loved every single one of them down to its adorable little trackpoint.

For the record, I have no affiliation with Lenovo or IBM Global Services. I have not been offered any sort of discount or reward for this post. They are not Boing Boing advertisers (though, seriously, IBM/Lenovo: we'll gladly run your ads! You folks kick ass!). This is entirely self-motivated, because, you know what? These machines and the service plan just rock.

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