Seattle Times: Laptop Protection for Younger Users Takes Many Forms

Extended warranties, service plans, soft covers and more rugged designs are some of the ways parents can protect their investment in a teenager's laptop.

Buying a laptop for a teenager is a big investment, and parents often consider purchasing an extended warranty or service plan in case something goes wrong. They should take their time before they purchase one, though, to compare options and plans, and understand whether accidents are covered.

Basic manufacturer warranties that come with a laptop typically cover parts and labor costs for defects in materials and workmanship for up to a year. Consumer Reports says additional warranties that only extend the factory warranty are bad investments. Its surveys found that the vast majority of those types of repairs are made while items are still covered by the original warranty.

Credit-card companies will sometimes extend or even double the time of a factory warranty if that credit card is used for purchase, but that still just covers defects, not accidents.

Some extended-service plans do cover accidental damage, and those are warranties worth considering for teenagers, according to Consumer Reports.

Kristina Messner, spokeswoman for NEW Customer Service Companies, which works with major retailers to provide service plans, says more claims come in as the result of accidents (six out of 10) than from other causes that service plans cover.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable. "The younger the owner, the more likely that something will drop, spill or break," said Messner.

Families may feel pressured by a retailer to buy a service plan at the time they purchase the laptop. Some retailers allow the plan to be purchased up to 30 days after the computer is sold, so parents should ask how much time they have to decide.

Third-party warranty providers also offer service plans, which may give similar coverage for less money. They include companies like SquareTrade, Protect Your Bubble and Worth Ave Group.

Some extended warranties and service plans go beyond equipment failure or accidental breakage and include technical support for hardware and software. Others even offer a way to track and erase the laptop's hard drive if it is stolen or lost.

Parents should think about how many years they expect the teenager to use the laptop, how often and in what environments it will be used, and consider the service plan accordingly.

It's also important to save the receipt for the device and service-plan documents on paper or electronically. Owners should also register the service plan online.

There are other ways to protect the electronic investment teens are toting around. One is a padded laptop case or a padded backpack. With the backpack, it is important to have padding on the bottom to prevent damage from repeated contact with hard floors.

Companies are designing laptops with teenagers in mind, trying to make them thin and light but still able to stand up to the everyday bumps and thumps.

David Zavelson, director of Inspiron product marketing at Dell, says the company does extensive endurance testing. "We open and close the lid 20,000 times to test the hinges; we twist the screen to see if it will break off; we drop it, we hit the keys a million times" he said. The company's Inspiron line, designed for students, was announced recently.

Some elements that can make a laptop sturdier are a spill-proof keyboard, solid state hard drive and an outer shell made of aluminum, or plastic that's been reinforced with fiberglass. Some laptops have little doors that can cover ports and keep out dust and backpack crumbs.

These elements can also make the laptop more expensive or heavier. Solid state hard drives have no moving parts inside so are less likely to break when dropped, but parents will pay "significantly more" for them, said Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the Money Crashers Personal Finance website, which offers financial advice to consumers. Metal casings can be heavier than plastic ones.

Parents may want to buy the sturdiest laptop they can find, but the most durable or "ruggedized computers" are made to meet military specifications for use in wet weather and other extreme conditions. "It would be overkill for a student to buy one of those," said Zavelson.

Mary Clarfeld, a Seattle mom whose 15-year-old daughter takes her laptop to and from school every day on the bus, looked for something sturdy.

"It's easy for kids to have some kind of accident with their computers, so I buy a warranty," she said, "and I always read the fine print."