Part of my Thinkpad keyboard.
As previously promised (patience! heart!), here is the complete story of how my IBM Thinkpad T43 was broken, sent in to warranty repair multiple times, became more broken, and then was fixed (possibly). The story recounted here has been in progress for more than a month. I am somewhat sure that the issues described below have been resolved. Hopefully, this is the entire story.

It started when I upgraded to Gutsy. Since Ubuntu 7.10 is going to be released in October of this year (and so is only in alpha right now), I assumed that I would encounter some bugs. I did encounter some, but they were all on the level of minor annoyances or less (if a program I never use crashes on my computer, does it affect me?).

But after using it for a while, I noticed that USB devices would spontaneously disconnect. Looking in the system log showed that the USB host controller was dying:

Jun 27 19:46:33 imperium kernel: [ 1237.672000] uhci_hcd 0000:00:1d.1: host controller process error, something bad happened!
Jun 27 19:46:33 imperium kernel: [ 1237.672000] uhci_hcd 0000:00:1d.1: host controller process error, something bad happened!
Jun 27 19:46:33 imperium kernel: [ 1237.672000] uhci_hcd 0000:00:1d.1: host controller halted, very bad!
Jun 27 19:46:33 imperium kernel: [ 1237.672000] uhci_hcd 0000:00:1d.1: HC died; cleaning up
Jun 27 19:46:33 imperium kernel: [ 1237.672000] usb 2-1: USB disconnect, address 2

Under the impresssion that this was a bug in Ubuntu 7.10 (as it had never happened in 7.04), I downgraded (losing my entire music collection when my external hard drive, connected through USB, decided to disconnect from the computer). The issue seemed to go away, but then came back. At this point, I figured I was either somehow overloading the USB bus (since both my Bluetooth mouse and my cell phone were connected the first few times the host controller gave up the ghost) or that it was a hardware issue.

Since my computer is under warranty until April 2008[1], I called up IBM/Lenovo EasyServ and explained the issue ("usb devices like my Bluetooth mouse would stop working intermittently"). The technical support representative was nice, but when he tried to have me reinstall Windows, I mentioned Linux. He immediately suggested that IBM did not support Linux, and was about to suggest that I install "a supported operating system" when I cut him off, insisting that it was a hardware issue. He then put me on hold for a long period of time. When he came back, he seemed happy, and immediately agreed to send me a box for me to ship my computer to the Solectron repair depot in Memphis. Before I hung up, he suggested I try Yellow Dog Linux, "because it was great." This really confused me, because he had previously given me the impression that he knew nothing about Linux, and because Yellow Dog only runs on PowerPC processors, and so it is impossible for it to natively work on my Thinkpad.

Because I wanted to be 100% sure that it was a hardware issue, I wiped my hard drive (since I am not aware of EasyServ having a data privacy policy, and the technician working on my computer does not really need access to my media files) and tried to install Windows XP. The computer froze during the first attempt at installation and again while rebooting after some Windows updates were applied. After this, it refused to get to the BIOS screen, must less load Windows, so I gave up. When my box[2] arrived the next day, I put my computer in it and sent it away.

Detail from the 'Repair Action Report' sent with my supposedly fixed computer.
An unidentified part of my computer.
Due to the fact that DHL's Next Day Shipping does not include weekends, I was not in the best of moods when my computer finally returned. My first indication that something was wrong was a small piece of black plastic that was loose in the box (see right).

On page 73 of IBM's Hardware Maintainence Manual for the Thinkpad T43, there is a section entitled "Screw Notices." Despite the fact that I have written about this in the past, here are some excerpts:

Loose screws can cause a reliability problem. In the ThinkPad computer, this problem is addressed with special nylon-coated screws that have the following characteristics:

Make sure that you use the correct screw. If you have a torque screwdriver, tighten all screws firmly to the torque shown in the table. Never use a screw that you removed. Use a new one. Make sure that all of the screws are tightened firmly.

It was clear the worn screw heads on the bottom of the case that this had not happened. Even more damning, one of the Phillips screws had been replaced with a Torx screw of the same length.

Turning the computer on greeted me with more surprises. The BIOS screen displayed a Pentium M logo instead of the Centrino logo, meaning that the wireless card was either disabled in the BIOS or not being properly detected by the system. Turning the computer off and removing the palmrest showed that the wireless card had not been reseated correctly. After turning on the computer again, I realized that not only was it suffering from the same issues of intermittent freezing that I had previously seen, but the touchpad was not working (I tried reseating this as well, but to no avail).

Calling support again, I was told that the case would be "escalated to IBM engineers" and that everything would be okay. A few days later, I received my computer, now with a new system board.[3] Everything seemed to work fine, so I figured that the "broken computer" chapter of my life was coming to an end.

My computer recognizes its own ailment.
Then Bluetooth stopped working again. This time, the issue was more severe - the Bluetooth device would disconnect while the computer was still booting up. The computer also now refused to go into standby or hibernation. I probably should have called support again at this time, but I decided to try a novel workaround: switching to Windows.

My Bluetooth device disconnecting from my computer in Windows XP.
Longtime readers should feel free at this point to call me a hypocrite, since I had the full intention to continue using Windows (for at least six months, I told myself every time my resolve would weaken) if the issues with USB did not re-appear. For almost a week, it seemed like they were gone forever. Then they came back.

I sent in my computer again. It came back on Friday, with a 2-inch gouge on the bottom and one of the screws clearly out of alignment (if you look in the hole, you can just barely see the edge of another hole in the metal part which the screw is supposed to secure to the case). While I have been using it this entire weekend, I am not sure whether the issue is actually resolved. If it comes back, I will send my computer in again (they have to fix it until April 2008, after all). I will probably also buy a new laptop - these troubles made me lose quite a bit of productivity in July; I do not want to see the rest of August disappear in the same fashion.
[1] While my initial thoughts when purchasing the machine were in the vein of "Three year warranty FTW!," the warranty is the only thing keeping me from buying a new computer.

[2] Actually, I received two boxes. I had been disconnected during my first phone call to the support line. When I called again, the support representative said that he had looked up the information from my old case, but apparently he failed to notice that the previous technician had decided to send me a box without telling me.

[3] Incidentally, this was the only time I sent my computer in and it came back with all of its proper screws, including the time last December that the fan needed to be replaced. Also, the list of repaired parts included "plastic part," which I can only surmise represents the replacement of that piece of black plastic I found.