The old coffee-in-the-keyboard trick

The old coffee-in-the-keyboard trick

Summary: It was early Sunday morning, I was sipping my morning coffee while working on a post for today when the telephone rang. I was surprised.

TOPICS: Hardware, Laptops

It was early Sunday morning, I was sipping my morning coffee while working on a post for today when the telephone rang. I was surprised. Why was someone calling at 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning? I grabbed for the phone so that my wife wouldn't be disturbed and the coffee sloshed.

The small amount of coffee flying through the air didn't head for the floor or the papers on my desk. No, it headed straight for the keyboard of my new Dell laptop computer. Bullseye! The machine immediately shut down. While I was telling the caller that I would call back in a few moments, I used up a whole box of tissues blotting up the mess.

I then took the laptop over to the kitchen sink and held it upside down to allow the coffee to seep out. I put the laptop upside down on a kitchen towel so that any final drops of coffee would go back out through the keyboard rather than down into the laptop.

Then, using my other computer, I immedately connected to Dell's online support. At that moment, I wasn't all that upset because 1) all of my work is backed up to a file server several times a day and 2) I had purchased an extended, on-site, 1-business day support contract with the machine and was holding on the the vision of a tech visiting sometime on Monday to set things right once again.

As an aside, I have experienced other hardware issues over the years and having an on-site, next-business-day contract meant that the pain was short lived. So, I was expecting to only have to engage in a short online conversation with a company representative, present my customer ID, my support contract number and then be told that a tech would come out to my office the next day.

Nice dream but, this time something else happened.

The tech came into the chat room quickly and was very knowledgeable. After a quick conversation, he wanted me to send the machine to the depot to be repaired or replaced. When I asked how long that would take, he said it typically took 5 business days but, could take up to 15 if the depot was very busy.

I told him that I purchased a next-day, on-site contract just so that I would have, at most, one day of downtime regardless of the reason for a failure. I then politely asked him for another choice since sending the machine to the depot wasn't an acceptable option for my production machine. What followed next was a complete surprise.

Before we continue with Dan's adventure in Dell-land, let me bring up an old joke. "How many software engineers from (name your favorite hardware company here) does it take to change a light bulb?

"None, they'd call a service tech because that's a hardware problem."

Well, that's me. I don't touch the hardware because I always honor the guideline "don't touch it, you'll break it."

Back to our story. Our intreped hero is still connected to Dell's chat line.

The tech told me the only way to expedite things was to do the diagnoses ourselves. This meant dissasembling the machine to see how far the coffee had gone. So, he led me through the process of removing the optical and hard drive, the keyboard and the wireless card!

My trembling hands worked through the process of disassembly and guess what? I was able to do as he asked. It became clear that only the keyboard took high-caffeine bath. Everything else in the laptop appeared to be dry.

The tech told me that he ordered a new keyboard and a new motherboard (just in case the power surge damaged it) and that a tech would come out to my office to install it.

In the past, I've had problems with Compaq, Dell, Gateway, IBM and Lenovo machines. In each case, I had an extended, on-site service contract. This is the first time, I was expected to either ship the machine somewhere for up to ½ a month or partially disassemble it to diagnose the problem. What's happened to customer service?

I guess that the new rules of the game mean extended service contracts that specify on-site support no longer really mean having on-site support.

Have you experienced anything like this? What did you do?

As this interesting adventure in hardware land unfolds, I'll keep you informed. [See Day 2]

Topics: Hardware, Laptops


Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. In his spare time, he's also the managing partner of Lux Sonus LLC, an investment firm.

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  • Wow, that's an almost exact mirror of my experience..

    My liquid was different, and coated the entire guts of the laptop, but
    pretty much the exact same experience. Take a look at the CompleteCare
    T&C's some time - they do say that this is how it works, just don't make
    it obvious. :/
  • I had a similar experience

    I had to diagnose, remove and re-install a Zip drive from my desktop. The tech for my area "couldn't make it" to where I lived during normal business hours... he was located too far away and started telling me all about traffic, his other commitments, etc. After making sure it was the Zip drive causing the problem I removed the drive and left it in a location where he could pick it up and leave me a replacement. That was the last Dell I'll buy.
  • I think it's cool!

    It seems a pleasant and instructive experience to me: get to know the hardware of your laptop without any risks (Dell bearing the responsibility for the hardware surgery). In your place, I would have been thrilled!

    About 12 years back, I had a similar experience with a Pentium I 60 Mhz desktop, when the tech support asked me to open the case and alter something to the phone modem. Great fun!

    Greetz, Pjotr.

    Greetz, Pjotr.
  • Exact opposite experience experience was the exact opposite.
    I too had a Dell laptop with the next day in home service.
    It is a Dell 510 and the service contract was just going to expire in the next week of so, so I decided to "overhaul" some of the issues I had been putting off...mainly my onboard bluetooth module stopped functioning a year or so ago...
    Called Dell and they dispatched a tech with a new bluetooth module the next day. Unfortunatly, upon opening up the laptop, it was discovered that it wasnt' the bluetooth module at all, but instead the connector that the module attached to on the motherboard. So the tech, right there in my kitchen called Dell and had a new mobo ordered. Since he was going on vacation the day after next, it was sent to a second tech who showed up the day after and installed fuss, no muss...quite painless and all it required of me was to be home to "babysit" the tech.

  • Hate to play "Can you top this" but...

    I Had a "Platinum" contract with CompUSA on my HP Laptop, for which I paid about $400, in addition to the $2000 cost of the computer.

    About three months after the purchase I brought it into the service center where I bought it due to a defective drive. Despite my explicit request to have both drives imaged and restored they did a reinstall and erased everything. Even with backups it took several days to get all my data and programs back on. Not even an apology, very frustrating to say the least.

    About three months after that I brought it in to another one of their service centers in my area for what was initially diagnosed as a software conflict, i.e., a program I had recently installed was causing problems with one already loaded. Should be ready in a couple of days, I was told.

    Shortly thereafter, CompUSA tech called to let me know that after further investigation the issue had still not been resolved and my laptop would have to be sent to HP for a more detailed diagnosis. A week or so later I was told that coffee had been spilled into the keyboard. Funny, because I don't DRINK coffee, and I work at home -- alone. Coffee does not come anywhere near the computer, ever.

    Of course, CompUSA was not about to let that excuse pass and refused to take responsibility. On top of that they declared I would need to pay nearly $700 dollars for repairs, Platinum service plan notwithstanding. The issue is still unresolved.
    • Service centers. Tip: imaging and backing up YOURSELF!

      Well, you can't ever rely on the service centers to do the imaging for you. Just as you need to make your own backups. Also, you noted that your drive failed, so you expect them to do a full forensic scan on your drive to see what's still usable??

      I have done several of such attempts with drives that were near-failing (giving SMART errors/warning) to failing (only working for a limited time). I can assure you that with drive sizes of even 20 gigabyte this is time consuming as hell. I recently had to do such thing with files that were just deleted with the drive itself in perfect condition, so perfectly intact on the file system but with there entries in the FAT tables removed. It took me about a day to recover 60 gigabyte. A crashed or failing drive will work more slowly, will get you a lot of files that are just scrambled but the only way to check that is to recover them.

      If you really want to be sure they don't erase your data you will need to hire someone to do it for you, or just agree with them that you keep the disks at your place (or more simply: do the backup yourself, although not everyone has the technical knowledge to do so; you must understand that recovering from a disk is too lengthy to expect a simple service center from a 'cheap' computer store to do it for your).

      Concerning your software problem, if it really was software; this is why you would need a good image of your hard disk. This process isn't that hard to do, but the setting up of your computer will require some technical knowledge. I can give you a few pointers, perhaps you have a nephew that knows how to do them. First of all, you will need to take a full back up of your system and its documents. Afterwards, just to a full reinstall of the system and make two (or more) partitions. On the first partition you put the system files (C:/Windows, C:/Program Files, ...) on the second one (or the second disk) you only put your settings (your profile directories that are in C:/Documents and Settings on a normal installation). Then you install ALL applications that you need on your first partition. After everything is installed, you just take an image from that C-drive only and take regular back-ups of the other partition/drive. If you get a major software failure, you will have 2 choices: or something is wrong with the program files, just put back an image and it will run again. Or something is wrong in your profile and you just put back a backup of your profile directory (excluding your documents) and it should run again. Note: this only works for software problems. Taking and resotring an image or a backup isn't that hard, but getting your system to be configured smartly is something that requires some knowledge (about the installation of Windows, partitions (letting them have enough room to install all programs you will need)). A few pointers: Windows Unattended (for installing Windows), PowerQuest/Acronis/Symantec (for imaging and partitioning). You will need someone who is familiar with these procedures to get it to work, but is certainly worth your time and money.
  • "intreped"??

    The coffee must have shorted out the spell checker, too. ;)
  • honestly you're not going to break anything

    it's pretty hard to mess up computer hardware, you cant really plug something in wrong. most components are not touch sensitive(meaning touching them will do no harm), unless you don't discharge static that you may have built up. of course you need some knowledge to properly build or reassemble a computer

    frankly I dont get why people are scared of taking things apart(for sure after they've broken), I've been doing it since I was 6-7 and even back then I never broke anything, but my ability to fix things myself sure has come to reality.

    perhaps people think that warranty void sticker is still valid after 5 years.