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Computer Problems Got You Stranded?

Here's how to find emergency care for your ailing laptop.

You look at things differently after your first time.

There I was, the dreaded blue screen of death staring back at me from my well-used Apple PowerBook G4. In a dim Chicago hotel room far from my New Jersey home, I had suffered the ultimate mobile warrior betrayal: My aging notebook was refusing to start up after more than a dozen attempted reboots.

Fortunately, the presentation I was giving later that evening was safely stored on a USB thumb drive and on my client's computer. Not so fortunately, I had counted on those extra hours to finish writing not only a story for Entrepreneur, but also an entry for my daily blog about green technology. I would later use my Apple iPhone to update the blog and to e-mail my editor begging for an extension--to pitch a story about how to cope with such a situation as my next Mobility column topic.

Although I've been using mobile computers for close to 20 years, this was my first-ever notebook emergency, which meant I had no idea where to turn. So, I used the internet browser on my iPhone to search for help on the Apple website and decided to visit the Apple Store network for repair advice. I figured it was a good time to test the expertise of the Apple technicians who work the retail stores. Knowing I'd be returning home to New Jersey in a few hours, I snagged an appointment close to home for later that day.

When I arrived for my half-hour appointment at the Genius Bar, I had to wait about 10 minutes beyond my scheduled time, just like at a crowded doctor's office. Once I handed over my laptop, however, it took my technician less than five minutes to reassure me that my notebook wasn't a lost cause. That was the good news. The bad news was, he wasn't certain I hadn't lost any data. Plus, he needed to keep the notebook overnight to reinstall the operating system. I made my exit, somewhat chagrined, vowing to get better about my total system backup strategy.

The store called me promptly the next day with an update. Success! Not only did my system have a pulse, but it also looked like none of the data had been compromised. I had my notebook back before the end of the day. What's more, even though my PowerBook was way out of warranty, even with the three-year extended AppleCare protection plan, the store opted not to charge me.

Total time without notebook: Three days. Total cost to repair: Zero. No doubt a secret ploy by Apple to make me feel favorably inclined to replace my aging PowerBook with one of its newer systems.

I realize most readers of this column don't use an Apple laptop, so I collected information about repair services for other top-tier notebook makers. Considering the rough-and-tumble nature of business travel, repair options might be an important check-off item when you're selecting a notebook. Most IT services companies will offer some good service options, but if you're buying from a retail office supply store or from an internet site, you'll want to make sure your system maker has things covered.

For $175 to $575, Lenovo offers various tiers in the ThinkPlus EasyServ warranty repair service. The company will pick up the system, have it repaired and return it. One drawback is that EasyServ is only available in the United States and some parts of Canada. Repairs take an average of five business days.

Hewlett-Packard offers similar coverage through HP Total Care, which is handled by its network of IT service providers and resellers. It promises a seven-business-day turnaround for notebook repairs. The typical price tag for three years is $460.

Heather Clancy, a freelance journalist and consultant, has been covering the high-tech industry for close to 20 years. She can be reached athccollins@mac.com.

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