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Dell: House calls over bad motherboards

The PC maker is replacing faulty motherboards in certain Inspiron notebook models, sending out a squad of technicians to owners' homes and offices.

Dell Computer has launched a service campaign to replace motherboards in nearly 20,000 Inspiron notebooks.

The Round Rock, Texas, company will replace the flawed motherboards inside nearly 20,000 Inspiron 2650 laptop models manufactured between the middle of November and the middle of December 2002, a company representative said Friday.

The replacement program was introduced by Dell to remedy a bad component that could short out and render the notebook unable to power up, when turned on.

Instead of requiring owners to send in their systems for repair, the PC maker will go to them.

"We are proactively contacting customers to schedule a service call at their convenience, at which time a Dell-authorized service representative will come out and replace the motherboard," said company spokeswoman Anne Camden.

The company has already notified many of the owners of the affected models. It started doing so in February by letter and phone call, Camden said.

Dell has replaced components on a large-scale basis in the past. In 2001, it replaced 284,000 flawed notebook batteries after a report that at least one had caused a notebook to catch fire. And in 2000, it replaced faulty memory modules in between 200,000 and 400,000 laptops.

The company's reputation for good service among consumers has suffered under a rise in customer complaints recently, analysts say. But that could be the result of an increase in customers from its push to increase market share, they said.

This time, the replacement campaign may prove fairly costly for the PC maker, because it involves an on-site service call.

However, Roger Kay, an analyst with research firm IDC, speculated that costs of the program would represent less than 1 percent of Dell's annual earnings--not enough to make a big impact. "Think of it as a fine to a sports player for swearing on the field," he said. "It's enough to be painful, but it won't make any material difference from a financial point of view."

On the positive side, the repair campaign could be viewed as an opportunity for the company to demonstrate its service capabilities, Kay said. The PC maker could win customers' loyalty by resolving the issue quickly, he added.

"I'm sure they'll do a good job cleaning it up," Kay said.

Inspiron 2650 customers with questions can contact Dell's technical support department at (800) 822-8965. Customers outside the United States should call local Dell tech support numbers.