My stick doesn’t work.

The Dell Latitude D630 is my favorite laptop, just the right combination of light weight and computing power and screen size, with nothing left out – a full complement of USB ports and an integrated DVD drive and a hefty battery. The super lightweight laptops (the MacBook Air and the Thinkpad X300) are sexy but a lot of things are left behind to get that sleek design. (Do you know about the Thinkpad X300? Steve Jobs slides the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope and the press goes nuts, reporting it on the front page as the eighth natural wonder of the world. Lenovo introduces a similar super-skinny laptop with a far better set of features – builtin DVD drive, 3 USB ports, removable battery, builtin Ethernet port – and it might as well be invisible. Sigh. Well, at least Walt Mossberg likes it.)

The Latitude D630 has a pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard, in addition to a touchpad. It’s a personal thing. I hate touchpads. I’m constantly dragging things around and clicking things by accident and feeling clumsy and slow. I’ve used a pointing stick on my laptops for more than ten years.

Last month my pointing stick stopped moving the cursor sideways. Oh, it goes up and down – if I want to go up or down, I can make that cursor fly! Not so much the left and right thing. Interestingly, there are times when you’re moving a cursor when it’s useful to go left or right in addition to up and down.

I’d never seen that problem before so I rolled up my shirtsleeves and went digging. Online research turned up nothing. Update the Dell software for the touchpad and pointing stick. Turn them on and off in various ways. Dig into Device Manager and uninstall everything related to a mouse and restart so it’s reinstalled from scratch. Check the BIOS in case there’s a setting there to turn the pointing stick off and on. Update the BIOS. Try a system restore.

Up and down, up and down.

A week later, I installed Vista Service Pack 1. I’ll be damned! The mouse cursor is flying in all directions, the pointing stick is back to normal. What was that about, I wondered.

Ten days later, at a moment when nothing else interesting was happening, the cursor started moving up and down, up and down.

Same troubleshooting steps, same lack of response.

Maybe it was a coincidence and this is really a problem with the stick itself, I hear you cry. I’m way ahead of you. I steeled myself and called the Dell parts department to order a replacement keyboard.

Now unlike other experiences with the Dell parts department, this one has a happy ending. I got the correct replacement keyboard the next day. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t always go like that. I could tell you stories – oh, goodness, I could tell you stories.

There’s something unnerving about phone conversations with the Dell parts department. When I get off the phone, I have a relatively low level of confidence that I’m going to get the right part. “Keyboard for a Latitude D630” seems like a fairly precise description but there were long pauses and “let me place you on hold” and “okay, I think I’ve got the right part” and a part number that doesn’t match anything else I can find.

As with other encounters over the years, the process of paying for the part seemed rather frightening to the rep, as if he had never been faced with that question before and had to find a piece of paper to jot down my credit card number. “Are you sure you don’t want a Dell account? Are you sure? Are you sure?” The sales price and shipping cost were repeated to me 16 times before the end of the conversation. No, 17 times – I forgot one.

It was a 20-25 minute call. The cost was $20.44, including shipping. I asked for standard shipping; the part arrived 21 hours later. Which is fine, of course, just a little weird.

It’s interesting to disassemble a laptop. Dell has online manuals that include well-illustrated instructions for a wide variety of repairs. I worked carefully and managed to remove the old keyboard and put in the replacement in half an hour or so without damaging anything.

Up and down, up and down.

So next time I’m bored I’ll spend more time digging deeper. Reformat the hard drive? Maybe, but I think the pointing stick also wasn’t working in the setup shell that came up when I booted from the Vista DVD, which suggests a much deeper problem.


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