Are laptop computers designed to fall apart after three years? Three and a half years ago, we purchased a set of Dell Latitude c840 laptops for our science teachers and laboratories. Over the course of three years, some were used heavily and some lightly, as is the case with most laptop installations. This fall, we replaced the computers with newer laptops, as per our customary three-year replacement schedule for laptops. They were experiencing typical third-year hardware faults, and the extended warranties we had purchased had expired. The c840s were migrated into our loaner pool, where they were distributed as needed to students and teachers.
The surprise was how quickly the laptops fell apart in their fourth year. Each time we attempted to use the laptops for a training, most of them had problems. We discarded half the remaining inventory within three months. The problems had nothing to do with the processor speed (1.6GHz P4) or disk size (20-40GB). They were always related to a hardware fault, such as a motherboard failure. Fortunately, we received an in-kind donation of a number of laptops from parents who work at HP and IBM, so we are now able to replace the loaner pool without incurring additional cost to our operating budget. However, our plan to use laptops retired from primary duty as loaners seems unsupported by our experiences.
The three-year problem is a major issue for our proposed student laptop program. If families only had to buy one computer over a student’s high school years, it would be a lot easier to launch a student laptop program. Currently, we face the prospect of charging an annual fee that allows us to purchase two laptops during a student’s career.