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The HeliOS Project is now.....
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Friday, May 22, 2009

The Acer Debacle - Closing The Chapter

We have had our share of hassles and problems in getting the computers we build to our kids.

And for the record..."our kids" signifies the kids that receive our computers...not at all genetically linked here.

The problem with the Acer TravelMates however, has shown a disturbing trend that has been developing for over a decade. It used to be called "Customer Service"

Now I simply refer to it as "Customer Annoyance."

Not at all catchy or bright, but it gets to my point.

More and more we are spending inordinate amounts of time on hold, listening to inane tele-music or self-hyping ads for the company that is currently wasting your time by making you listen to it. You come close to meditation and prayer, hoping to hear a voice...a real voice, one that will assist you in solving your problem.

In my case, apparently the Deity I prayed to didn't speak English.

Neither did the "real voice" that I hoped for. Not well anyway.

So I want to recap what it took to solve the problem of the TrustedCore Setup Utility that I recently reported on.

The initial problem was that the computer came default with the Trusted Computing Module active. We have written extensively on Trusted Computing...fact is, in 2006, we wrote 11 articles on it. Simply put, this is big brother with it's boot on the throat of freedom. Now while I can see the value in someone losing their laptop and having this feature in place, I have first-hand, experienced the problems it can solve. Apologies were given as I fell into the "1 percent" that suffers its ill sux to be that one percent, trust me.

After trying the obligatory "000000" password, "password" and "acer", I was locked out of the password field to the left. I was then taken to an ominous black screen that said "entry denied". Under that was a 6 digit bracketed number. That number as it turns out, is the magic number you must give to the AcerTech. He then plugs it into the magic decifererererr machine that spits out 6 possible numbers that may or may not work.

They didn't...but fortunately for me, before I had to disassemble the machine and do the DIP switch machination, there was one looooooonnnnngggggg that seldom worked.

Making sure the AC adapter was plugged in, hit the fn + esc key and immediately smush the power button.

Yeah right, like that's going to circumvent this complex security chip.

I'll be damned if it didn't. Unfortunately, it did not work for the second Acer and I ended up with my hands in the guts of said machine. At least I now know what a DIP switch is. But to get to all of that, I had to go through some pretty unreasonable gyrations.

I got serious about resolving this problem on Monday, the 18th of May. My cell phone readout shows a constant connection to Acer Customer Service from 0917 AM until 1128 PM. In that time I was shuffled to three different departments and in the end, each one of their "sessions" ended with the suggestion that I pay the fee to ship the computer to Acer and let them "fix" it for 100 dollars.

The fact that I was a confirm-able charity didn't seem to interest them or sway the suggestion.

Tuesday, the 19th of May I decided on a new tact and began collecting Acer Executive phone numbers and email addresses for my days work. The best I was able to achieve in 2 hours and 57 minutes of phone calls was to talk to some admin assistant "gatekeeper", promising to have the Vice President of Pissed Off Customers call me right back.

Phone's been on since. VPOPOC has yet to ring me up.

On that Wedensday, I decided to start calling area technicians and stores that carried Acer products.

Don't ask...don't even friggin' ask. That was the day I decided that if I wasn't going to be able to get 2 extremely nice laptops operable for my kids, I was going to disassemble them piece by piece and start sending them, return receipt requested", to the various executives of Acer.

It wasn't to happen. Allow me to tell you what else isn't to happen.

And it would have been so much fun.

Michelle Minkin, a friend of this effort and an all-around nice lady; suggested that we auction off the opportunity to destroy these computers. We were almost ready to start soliciting the community for creative ways to make them go BOOM and film it for YouTube consumption.

You are right, it was a juvenile and silly idea. One I personally liked thank you very much. Sure it might have been silly.

So was spending 9 hours of my life seeking the solution for a problem that took all of 1 minute to solve.

I honestly don't know how AcerTech came to find out about our problem but it seems that two of them did at the same time. Both from the same city and extremely close to Austin.

Both were from Acer.

Both offered to help.

I am not sure if they heard about our plight and simply decided to take it upon themselves to fix it or were called from San Jose and told to put the fire out before it spread too far.

In the end, it really does not matter. Given some of the things said during the conversations we had, I would hazard a guess that number two would be most accurate. I am further supposing that there were calls made to different players and within the traceable chain of custody for this laptop to determine if indeed I had legal possession of it. If that's the case, then I can understand to a point. Then again, it shouldn't have taken three days of someone's life to untangle a seemingly small knot.

But again, it really doesn't matter.

What does matter is that there is an entire culture of Customer Annoyance within our society. Companies have gotten too big to care about your piddly-ass little problems and
the structure of Customer Annoyance has become bloated. Having worked in Tech Support myself, I know the Tier one, tier two....structure.

And it sucks.

Especially when you have to threaten to publicly destroy a corporation's property to demonstrate its worthlessness.

All moot now.

We have the laptops fixed and slated to go to good and deserving homes. Equally important, we know that voices joined are voices heard. And that some AcerTech somewhere decided that this had gone on long enough. My personal and sincere thanks to that guy,

Thank you for your voices.

All-Righty Then...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow-up Ken. I know that you left a brief blog letting us know the problem had been solved. This one kind of filled in the blanks. Being the first to comment here is always an honor so I will ask the question that someone is invariability going to ask. Since it is obvious that Acer has went to great pains to remove their manuals and how-to's from the internet

Are you going to publish this one?

Wonderful blog WordSmith. Your blogs make our day here in London Town. At least in our flat.

Kimberli Marsheak said...

Helios what an absolute nightmare to go through. Bless your hearts for going through this crap in order to give two kids a computer. I don't know of many people that would have hung with it to see it through. Those are very, very nice laptops by the way. I only hope the kids you give them to realize just how expensive a gift you are giving them.

I admire your dedication and passion for what you do. Your actions should act as an example for the rest of us. You do set a high standard.

Kim Marsheak
Detroit MI

Anonymous said...

Glad it's all fixed. However I wonder who's going to pay those phone bills?

Thinking about it and while speaking about children, someone should tell this story as a scary bedtime story to children, to make sure this behaviour can be changed in some far away future.

Best, hkwint

Elder Geek said...

Small companies seem to be the best to do business with. Not mom-and-pop small. Something like System 76 or Zareason or Emperor Linux.

1. They don't do DRM.

2. You get live bodies in the US that speak english.

3. You deal with a company that actually cares about the product they sell and the customer they are selling it to.

What you buy from them is $100 to $200 more in price. But you are paying for two things. The first thing you are paying for is excellent customer service. The second thing you are paying for is sending a message to Dell / HP / Acer.

Logan said...

I never did get a response from all the criticizing e-mail I sent them. I sent an e-mail to every address I could find on their site. Glad it worked out though. Sometimes a could of unhappy e-mails, a few political blog entries, and a youtube video threat can go a long way.

Anonymous said...

"We were almost ready to start soliciting the community for creative ways to make them go BOOM and film it for YouTube consumption."

For the good of the human race, this probably would have been a better solution Negative publicity is possibly what caused the solution, but others who don't have a blog with this much traffic are probably out of luck. Thanks for letting us know about this.

Teremok said...

I work in repairing and selling computers and laptops in australia. We refuse to deal with Acer, 1) Because of their high return rate, and generally useless cheaply built rubbish and 2) Because of their terrible customer service. At a recent conference with other people in the industry when someone mentioned the word ACER another business uttered the same words in the mocking tone we do - EPIC FAIL!

The point one poster made about using small business is a good one. In the west consumers have made it clear we just want the cheapest price, but this has come at the cost of good service. Large companies don't think they need to give it because of the reasons you mentioned. A small business relies on customer experience and word of mouth to stay afloat (but of course you would know that...woops) =)

Anyway, we had an issue with a Toshiba that was locked out like that....we had to solder together a serial plug with different pins attached to each other, plug it in and power on - it worked some kind of voodoo magic an reset the password. Makes you wonder who the hell sits down and designs these things!

Lee Ball said...

I've always disliked Acer, their laptops have seemed cheap and flimsy, everyone of them I've seen seem less then usable. I was very surprised by their Acer Aspire though, seems like a decent machine. Must be another build team.

Unknown said...

@ Solv

Odd that you mention Toshiba.

We receive a good deal of laptop donations. Most of them are old P3's that might act as a good starter laptop for a kid but really cannot function in a full-blown technical environment.

We began getting an inordinate amount of donations of Toshiba Satellite A135-S2386's. Every one of them had the same problem...they wouldn't post. Every bloody one of them.

It turns out that there is one simple flaw in the soldering of the motherboard and it is a fairly complex solder...way beyond my muffler-welding abilities. Every shop we take them to just wants to replace the motherboards at about 300 bucks a pop. That of course is totally unacceptable. These failures all report to happen right at 14-16 months use...just out of warranty range. We've contacted Toshiba about this but they do exactly what we expect them to do...they ignore our requests for assistance and deny there is any design or manufacturer flaw. I am looking at a large pile of their denials right now.

Acer and Toshiba are on our no-buy list...Dell sways to each side of that fence daily it seems and the only ones that haven't yet disappointed us is Asus.

I'm not holding my breath that they won't eventually.


piotr said...

Great article. I am glad it worked out in the end. One thing you left out though: what was the magic incantation that was necessary to unlock those beasts?? Do tell.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, to hear of your trip to the valley of the shadow of IT death.

I agree that the Acer Aspire line is very under built. I'm using my Acer Travelmate 5720 now and it is anything but flimsy.

I did have to have the optical drive replaced two months after I purchased it.

But when I missed the bottom stair and the Acer broke my fall - hitting the back corner below the open display, all I had to do was carefully pop a couple of trim pieces back in place and reboot the machine.

That was six months ago and everything is working perfectly.

Guess I'm just lucky, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

Unknown said...


patience...some time must pass but it will occur.

@ anon

As much as it grieves me to do so, I have to agree. I am in the habit of using one of our donated laptops until it is slated for a home and I have used both the 5720 and the 8210. They have both performed extremely well and put up with my abuse bravely. I haven't done a butt-plant on one yet but it's probably not out of the realm of possibility of happening. Both seem to be extremely nice laptops. Too bad the company is such a pain to deal with.

Elder Geek is right. Choose the smaller companies. The few extra dollars you might spend with them is an investment...if nothing else, you will save in the long run on medications for stress.


Anonymous said...

I'm kind of curious it you have run into another widespread defect that gets swept under the table. Compaq Armadas of the M700 class seem to have an incredible number of battery problems. I am not a charity and I was given one to save it from the scrap heap. The laptops just quit
at strange times because the battery shuts down. But these batteries are used in many other models. There is a calibration which they seem to forget soon after you repeat it.

Anonymous said...

My Acer TravelMate is 6 years old and I have never had a problem with it. I have taken it apart to expand the base memory and replaced the 40GB drive with a 120GB (via Apricorn product). It still runs rings around the Dell Latitude they gave me for work (both run XP-Pro).
I use my Acer every day and I would surely buy another Acer if it was built as solidly as my TravelMate.

Anonymous said...

Just curious.. did these acertech's disable the issue the cause this ...? can it even be disabled..? becuase id hate to think that some kid playing around with his/her new laptop (and we know how curious kids are) can make this happen again unwillingly,.

Rambo Tribble said...

One percent? It must be the camera, then, that adds ten or twenty points.

Unknown said...

@ Anon

If you go into the machine and do the DIP switch technique, then it permenantly disables the tcm. If you simply use the keystroke combination, I am not sure. I have used the laptop constantly since it was fixed and that screen has never come back. You have to do something like reverse those keystrokes to re-enable it again so I am guessing it could be done accidentally, however the fn + escape button are not common combinations.

Unknown said...

It's good Acer caved when they did. I had one of the major publications interested in running this story, when your post went up saying that an Acer tech had called you. They said that if anything like this ever happens again, that I should let them know, and they will be happy to run it.

But alls well that ends well.

Anonymous said...

can you imagine the horror that these types of things are going present in years to come, the ones that actually survive their first and maybe second owners are then going to be useless otherwise good pieces of hardware for the scrap, not very eco friendly!! i cant see the security advantage in having the feature, truth be told its only good for people to stop their kids, room mates, or james bond using the laptop quickly while your in the bathroom, this feature doesnt stop people taking a hard drive out. it does stop people from stealing the motherboard though, until the fix is public knowledge.