Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dell, you're killing me!

I discovered last night that the keyboard, in my fairly new Dell laptop, isn't installed properly. I'm going to have to disassemble it to fix. Why me?

I've had numerous issues with the Dell XPS 15 (L502x) since I got it about a month and a half ago. Up to now, it's mostly been that I get app crashes when I come out of hibernate or sleep. Sometimes it's Outlook, but more often it's some behind-the-scenes Windows components, like PC Doctor.

I've run the recovery, but that hasn't helped. I also obtained the Windows OS disc from Dell (once again, they're not shipping units with the discs), but I've also had problems during a clean install, such as the system freezing at different points, including the BIOS splash. I really started to feel like I have a hardware problem, probably RAM. Luckily, the app crashes aren't catastrophic (yet). I suppose I'll keep my fingers crossed that things don't get worse.

But this keyboard thing is really irritating. I noticed since day 1 that the keyboard had some play to it (flexible/spongy). I saw this criticism in some reviews, but figured I'd mainly use an external keyboard with it at home anyway. I recently got a monitor stand to elevate the laptop, which gave me a viewing angle on the keyboard that allowed me to see it was raised up on the left side. After looking closely at it, I can see that there is a retaining tab that the keyboard should be under, but instead it's above it on that side. I was so frustrated by this that my inclination was to force it down, but I kept my composure and instead looked up the manual online for instructions on fixing it proper.

This is just the latest disappointment I've had with Dell. The absolute worst experience was two years ago when I was forced to buy a video card upgrade to support dual monitors on a computer I bought through the Dell website for work, only to find out that the card didn't support dual monitors at all. Repeated calls to Dell accomplished nothing but headaches, and they ultimately ripped me off by not providing a refund after I sent the useless video card back to them, at their request.

I've long planned to blog about that, and may someday in a separate post. It was truly sad, and I'll never feel the same about Dell again. I boycotted them for awhile, and I will still look to other brands before I shop Dell. The only reason I came back at all was that I like Dell products and their technical aspects, but their customer service is atrocious, I mean really despicable.

That brings me to why I don't just send my new laptop back to Dell, with all the problems I've been having, as my wife tells me I should do. To be honest, I'm truly afraid of what I may be subjected to by Dell support personnel. I think about the only thing that would really force me to deal with that is if I end up convinced I have a motherboard problem, or something I absolutely can't fix on my own, or without significant expense. I only hope that if I'm going to reach that point, that it comes before my 1 year warranty is expired.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Direct2Drive: More Nails for the Coffin

I feel like I've been on a Direct2Drive (D2D) bashing binge the past few months. I don't mean to be, but as a customer, I'm in a position to be critical of this service I once felt very differently about. Of course, D2D is obliging by continuing to offer me reasons to be dissatisfied. In this latest episode, I have two irritations to mention. One involves inconsistent pricing on their site, the other is in regards to their poor excuse for a price match policy.

Last night I was checking to see if they had any deals running, something I've been doing more often lately, and I saw they had Mass Effect listed in their "Top 10" section of the home page for $7.95. In the past couple of weeks, I had missed an opportunity to pick it up for around $5, I think also on D2D, but I can't remember for sure. But seeing it for only a couple bucks more than that, I figured I'd pull the trigger and pick it up. I clicked the link to take me to the product page but the price listed there was $19.99! I refreshed both pages to see if a caching issue was amiss, but that didn't clear up the disparity. It was listed in two places for two wildly different prices.

I admit, I didn't proceed to add the game to my cart to find out which was the "real" price. To be honest, I was so blown away, that didn't occur to me. I speculate that the price on the product page is what would have probably carried through, that makes more sense to me. I was disappointed, not only because I wasn't going to be able to grab Mass Effect for under $8, but perhaps more so that such a sloppy pricing error could happen at all. I kind of figured it was par for the course, and I'd just as soon forget about it. But then I had another issue with D2D today that made me want to mention both.

I recently discovered (D4D), a site that aggregates sale listings for digitally distributed PC games. This has become my first (or sometimes second) stop now every time I feel like dropping a Lincoln on a new game. I don't know how they populate their list, I haven't thought that hard about it. It doesn't seem to be run by user submission, but, whatever. Either way, it's super convenient. You can sort the listings by price, popularity, age, or how much you would save off the regular price. It also makes it easy to compare the prices between online retailers. I like it.

On my perusal of D4D today I saw STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl for $4.99 on Impulse, which is GameStop's digital distribution store. A few months ago I bought STALKER: Clear Sky for probably about that much from D2D. I haven't played it much, but at the rate I've been buying games this year I don't suspect my primary objective is to play them all that much. It's more like I just want to have them around so if I get a hair to play something, I have a nice selection to choose from.

Anyway, Shadow of Chernobyl is the first in the STALKER series, so I figured I'd add it to my collection. But I've not purchased from Impulse before, and I know they require an Impulse client software to be installed to download games. I'm not a fan of this approach. I put up with Steam's platform only because it's been around so long, and I was forced to start using it years ago during my Counter-Strike addiction. I've recently made my first purchase from Green Man Gaming, and they too require a download client. At least with D2D the client has always been optional; I've never used it.

I had a brainstorm, remembering that D2D offers a price match for (very few) selected online retailers, GameStop being one of them. I thought I'd try to take advantage of this, opting to make my purchase with D2D, keeping more of my games under one roof, and avoiding the Impulse download client. It seemed like a win, win, win! Ha-ha, not. D2D's version of price matching isn't really a price match at all. I was hoping to be able to purchase STALKER for $4.99, but D2D would still require that I purchase it for the full price of $19.99, then they would issue me with store credit in the amount of the difference. So I could buy the game for full price (again, no matching here!) and then be forced to make additional purchases from D2D if I wanted to realize the credit.

Sure, there's value in that proposition, but it's not a price match. Not really. The policy is heavily tilted in D2D's favor, and doesn't leave much for me to be pleased with. I understand it's a business, and that they are trying to force encourage me to make future purchases with them. But my understanding of this doesn't keep me from wondering why they can't just sell me the game at the matched price, as a "price match" might suggest. It's not a technological barrier. It's purely a matter of principal, and in this case, policy. Once again, policy decisions at Direct2Drive keep them from putting the customer first.

Also, I don't need to be encouraged to make future purchases. On average I buy about two games per month from D2D. Not only should this make it obvious that I'll likely buy again in the future, but it also makes me a pretty loyal customer that deserves a proper price match when I'm looking for one. I realize that one could argue that since I do foresee making future purchases, that the store credit will be useful and that I should not complain. However, I disagree. In addition to my opinion about what constitutes a proper price match, I also have a budget, albeit self-imposed, which would be exceeded by about 100% if I were to drop $20 on the game.

I will typically only spend in the neighborhood of $5 on a game, once or twice a month. This budget, somewhere around $10 per month, keeps me under the radar with my wife, who would not approve if I spent a quick $20 on a game for myself, let alone one that I probably won't play anytime soon (if ever). It's not that she won't know about the purchases, she manages our money, so she sees all. But by keeping the transactions low, I avoid incurring her wrath, which is something I desperately want to avoid ;)

I submitted a ticket to D2D support, which is the way to go about getting a price match. I had to create a new "support" account. Apparently support cannot be tied to my primary D2D account. I suspect this is due to the support site being provided by a 3rd party, but yeah, that's lame too. Whatever. I was pleased to receive a rapid response, but less than pleased with the response itself. It was explained to me that it did "not qualify" for the price match. My first reaction was "WTF do you mean it doesn't qualify?" But I soon realized this was merely a poor choice of words on their part. It turns out I have to actually purchase the game first, and because I didn't, they couldn't do anything.

But wait, how can they match the price on a game I already purchased? That doesn't make any sense. Maybe they will issue a refund. Kind of like if I purchased the game not knowing it could be had for less money somewhere else, then after bringing it to their attention, they refund the difference, right? Wrong. As I've already stated, it's not possible to buy the game at the lower price from D2D. You buy it for full price. Then you can get a discount on your next game. Um, no thanks.

I went ahead and purchased the game from Impulse for $4.99. It's my first purchase from them. Now that the ice is broken, it probably won't be the last. D2D lost this sale, and now potentially others. The transaction was pretty painless. They accept PayPal (so does D2D). Now that I've downloaded Impulse, I see that it bears strong resemblance to Steam. Oh well. Hello new friend.

I feel like I should say something positive about D2D. Here goes. No download client required. They do run some pretty sweet deals. I suppose they have to with all the fierce competition that's cropped up recently in the digital distribution space. I just saw Fallout New Vegas 70% off at $15, as part of their "31 Days of Deals" promo. They do offer some titles DRM free, although not enough for my taste, but I can't imagine this is entirely their fault. They keep track of your purchases and you can re-download them as many times as needed (or so they say). I don't know if this translates into unlimited activations on DRM-protected titles. I might find out someday.

A couple of admissions on my part. Whatever this deal that D2D has is, if they didn't call it a "price match", I'm not sure what they should call it instead. And the terms are spelled out in a mostly clear manner on their site. It may not be 100% crystal clear, but it doesn't leave a ton of room for misunderstanding. But I have to say, the lure of "price match" does leave something to be desired. Rather than trying to find an appropriate name for the policy, I suggest they just change it to be a true price match and sell the games at the same price they are advertised for at other retailers on their "authorized" list. Give customers something to cheer about.

UPDATE 2011-09-06:
Watching prices for digital download games fluctuate at an insane pace for months now, it occurs to me that it can't be easy to keep up with for an online retailer that might try to offer a true price match policy. I think it might be better to simply price match against other retailers regular advertised prices, and not sale prices. However, Direct2Drive's price match policy doesn't even lend itself to this more conservative approach. I just spent some more time looking over their policy and I can't really be sure if that's the way they already have it structured. They do include the following statement:
Offer not valid on coupons, rebates, promotional offerings, percent-off advertisements or membership pricing for other sites.
This could very well mean exactly what I'm suggesting anyway. If that's the case, it would be a real bummer. Given the aforementioned price fluctuations, it seems that most any game is always on sale at a reduced price somewhere, thus removing what few teeth D2D's price match policy may have left. Since I've never made it all the way through that process myself, this is pure conjecture.