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Miraculous recovery strikes new computer

By WES PLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 1998


In March, after months of seeing me drool at the very whisper of the words "Pentium II," my wife buckled and bought me a 300 Mhz computer with a 17-inch monitor and a 24-speed CD-ROM drive, built-in answering machine and remote-controlled icemaker and orange peeler.

Then, in July, I walked into my den one evening to surf the World Wide Web for a while. The Gateway computer whirred contentedly on the desk, showing me the usual Windows 95 desktop images on the screen. I called up my dial-up networking software, which quickly popped onscreen and prompted me to enter the information.

But the modem just clicked instead of dialing.

Hmm, curious. It had happened once or twice before -- sometimes the modem just seemed to think it was off the hook -- and rebooting had fixed it then. So, I tried restarting the computer.

The computer didn't come back from oblivion.

I tried restarting it again.

Nothing happened. The computer sat silent. The screen mocked me in its blankness.

I was concerned, of course. But the computer was still under warranty, so I took it into the shop in Tampa. A few days later, I called expecting to hear that the memory chips had gone bad and needed replacing. Or maybe it was a power supply problem. The technician suddenly adopted the tone of a doctor breaking news of a loved one's terminal condition.

"Mr. Platt, your computer was the victim of a lightning strike," he said.

"But ... I had a surge suppressor on my computer and it wasn't even storming outside," I replied.

"Did you have a surge suppressor on your power outlet or your phone line?"

"Power outlet. Not the phone line."

"Phone lines are very susceptible to lightning strikes," the tech explained. "It looks like what happened is the lightning came in through your phone line, knocked out your modem and then spread to take out your motherboard, your video card, the microprocessor and the memory chips."

And, of course, lightning strikes are not covered by the warranty.

"But it should be covered by insurance," the technician said. "I've got 17 computers in the shop right now. Fifteen of them are lightning strikes, and they'll be covered by insurance."

It would cost more than $1,000 just to get the parts to repair the computer -- and hundreds more for labor. I could buy a new system at that rate. The technician agreed and said we might be able to upgrade and have insurance cover most of it.

But something just didn't sit right with me.

If lightning hit my computer, why would it still be functioning at all when I walked in that afternoon?

Wouldn't it be dead, period?

I had a chat with the manager. I wondered aloud how lightning could hit my computer, then leave the computer operating just fine until I rebooted it. He couldn't explain it. No one could explain it. It was one of life's great mysteries. He assured me that he would get to the bottom of it.

I made it clear I thought the whole thing reeked. He told me that if necessary, they would do the work under the warranty to keep me a happy customer of the company that likes to claim, "You've got a friend in the business."

Two days later, a technician called and tried to persuade me that lightning hit the modem and definitely knocked it out, then the damage suddenly spread to the rest of the system when I rebooted, like some kind of catastrophic delayed reaction.

"You know," I said, "I'm not a computer genius, but it seems to me that if lightning hits my system and takes everything out, nothing would work -- I wouldn't even be able to try to reboot."

He insisted that the modem had definitely been hit and that the other components had been zapped by lightning, too. I told him that if lightning clearly took out my modem, but the other components were debatable, I'd be willing to pay for a new modem. But not for everything else.

Gateway agreed.

A few days after that, the computer was fixed. The clerk handed me a box with the fried modem, the computer system, and a work order invoice that showed exactly what was done.

They had, according to the invoice, replaced the modem and the motherboard. But the video card, microprocessor and memory chips were untouched.

"Excuse me," I said. "I thought all these other things were fried."

The clerk said, "Oh, no. The components did suffer degradation as a result of static discharge, so there may be some reduced efficiency. Your 300 Mhz processor may only be running at 299 Mhz. It's not something you have to worry about right now, but you should keep an eye on it."

Funny how the patient was utterly terminal weeks before, but now it was just mildly wounded.

"We weren't trying to pull something over on you," the clerk added without prompting.

Uh-huh. I sure hope not. Because, if they were, they might need to change their slogan to "You've got a friend who gives you the business."


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