What to do, what to do…

So the Lappy’s Ethernet port is.. kinda br0ked. It’s not totally fux0red, mind you, just fux0red enough that it can make talking to the home network a bit of a pain in the ass. It usually takes a good four or five minutes of wrangling to ensure the cable has good contact with the connectors inside the port, and/or the connectors themselves have good contact with the Magic Voodoo Bus. I have in the past found the balloon pop-ups in XP to be endlessly annoying (especially the one that pops up every time I start the machine without a wireless connection that says “Wireless connection unavailable” — no shit!), but I have come to have a love-hate relationship with the balloon that says, “A network cable is unplugged.”

The first thing I think is, “Oh, good, I know that when my network requests fail, I’ll know why.” The second thing I think is, “oh, fuck, now I have to mess around with the cabling for a while.”

I had high hopes that this problem involved cabling. Most of my Cat 5 cable in my place is stuff I cut and crimped by hand, so there were thoughts that it might be, um, my own damn fault that I couldn’t get a good connection to the LAN. Maybe the connectors were cracking, or the pins inside flexing, but, alas, no: The cables are just fine (I tested them). It’s the Lappy, and in particular it’s a part of the Lappy that is probably (a) not cheap to fix and (b) not likely to be field-fixable.

One of the dangers of buying a laptop, as I’m sure almost everyone knows, is that it lockes you into a relationship with a vendor. I’ve been hacking too long to have anything but the dimmest possible view of vendors; when I have component-level failures, I want to be able to replace the component with another one, preferably made by someone whose products don’t suck (or which, at least, suck a lot less than the vendor whose product failed). Meaning that if my 3Com NIC decides to pack it in, I can simply swap it out and shove a new one in (probably another 3Com, since I like the damn things so much, and they don’t tend to break, period). Severing the vendor tie was and is one of the most wonderful things about PC ownership.

Arguably it is also the only wonderful thing about PC ownership, since it forces you to take responsibility for the entire machine. If you’re rich or value your time, having a vendor relationship is great because you can get them to take responsibility for your system from start to finish. Machine won’t boot? Here comes field circus. Hard drive craps out? Here comes field circus. I’ve been hacking too long to have anything but the dimmest possible view of field circus guys, too, but it’s tough to explain to some clueless VP (or spouse) that you’re going to toss your new-ish machine into a swamp because fixing it is too much of a pain; far better to have the Man From Maytag tell you you need a new washer than your idiot husband.

Owning a vendorless PC is possible, even preferable. Owning a vendorless laptop is not. While I’m currently on my second Dell (not because the first one broke, mind you, but because I sold it to someone else and used a loyalty incentive to get myself a much nicer machine), I’ve never had to deal with them once I finished shoving money at them at the end of the initial transaction. I tell people who buy laptops to invest in the extended service plan simply because component replacement is hard, and if it fails, it’s going to fail big — I have a friend who is on (I think) her third or fourth Compaq, and I shudder to think what the replacement costs would have been like had she not had the warranty options she does. (I also don’t think she’s likely to buy another Compaq, but that’s neither here nor there.)

But now, with Lappy’s Ethernet port failing, I am about to embark on a trip into the depths of Dell’s customer service department. Will this be fixable easily? Will Lappy have to go on a plane ride? How much is it going to cost me, if anything? How long will I be without Lappy? Will my data be safe? (We’ve reached the point where backup strategies are t-o-u-g-h to implement, so be judicious about it.) How much fighting am I going to have to put up with in order to make this work? I don’t know, and I’m afraid to find out.

This may be why I’m seriously considering door #2, which is to simply go and buy an 802.11g AP and stick that in here instead. Why fix the damn Ethernet port when you can hack your way around it? (Answer: because sometimes you can get Cat 5 connections but can’t get wireless ones. Potential solution: Buy an AP that’s portable enough that you can bring it with you. I know these exist, because I used one in Japan (not that it worked, mind you), but have yet to encounter any in North America. Any tips for me, Lazyweb?)