“Smart” Laptop Power Adaptors – The Travelers Curse

Many modern laptop power adapters contain a PIC (Peripheral Interface Controller) micro controller that communicates with the computer. Unfortunately when they fail while traveling, the laptop user is left stranded. From seeing my first “smart” laptop power pack, I knew these devices were going to be a travellers curse.

The first time I came across “smart” power packs was in 2004 with a Dell laptop, which was supplied with two power adapters, one for the laptop itself (low power) and one for when the laptop was in the docking station (higher power). If you tried to plug the low power adaptor into the docking station,  the computer would display a message that you were using the wrong adaptor, and no power would go to the laptop.

This was fine until one day in Hong Kong on a business trip, when I discovered my Dell powerpack was missing, and I had nothing to run the computer. All my laptops in the past had used non-intelligent power packs. With no chance of getting a Dell replacement, I set off the to the local electronics store. After finding and purchasing a universal adaptor, I discovered it would only power the computer but not charge the battery….. curse….. curse…. curse…..

Universal power packs are great as you can use them on any AC input voltage, including 12VDC car or plane cigarette lighter systems, and are very useful if you are in remote areas or third world countries and using the laptop alot. They often come with multiple tips for use on different machines, and can even charge cellphones and ipods. My favorite adaptor was made by Targus, a major manufacturer in the market since the early days.

I expect Dell designed their own smart power adapters to block out other manufacturers and rake in the  the extra money on accessories. What they did not realize was that traveling customers hate these smart systems. (I think they eventually realized this, as a couple of the later Dell systems I have seen have been designed using universal systems.)

Unfortunately the engineers at HP copied Dell and installed the smart systems in some of their new laptops.

I was on a trip to South America recently and a wire in the powerpack broke. I was unable to run the laptop or charge the battery without holding the cable in a particular shape. I could not use the universal powerpack, because in their infinite wisdom, the HP engineers designed the laptop not to be charged or receive power from a non-HP non-smart power pack. …. .. curse….. curse…. curse….

This went on for several weeks until I returned to Australia.

I purchased a new HP power pack (because a broken wire does not fall under warranty). The new unit arrived within two days, but started misbehaving soon after. It would switch itself off and on several times a day, until it eventually stayed off, and needed to be unplugged to be reset. After a week, the power pack would not charge the battery at all…. curse….. curse…. curse….

HP again replaced the faulty power adaptor within two days, but I am just waiting for the next failure while travelling.

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