I strongly suspect the reason most people pass up great deals on used computers is that they're afraid of getting one that breaks soon after they buy it. While there is always that risk, in my mind, paying as little as 5-10% of the price of a new laptop for a used, yet functional and useful one, far outweighs the risk. So, I have decided to explain the basics of laptop computer repair and upgrade. Next week, I will present a case study of a rather typical purchase of a non-functional laptop that I have recently repaired and upgraded.
You may ask why I've decided to write about something so far outside the normal realm of the articles on this website. Well, in addition to the reason I gave above, I'm hoping that at least some of you will realize that you don't have to be a genius or some kind of computer wizard to fix an old laptop. So, there is really no reason to be afraid of buying one. Another reason I'm writing this article is that I could only find three websites that are specifically dedicated to helping people make use of older computers: lowendmac.com, www.old-computers.com, and classic-computers.org.nz. Spending several hours reading lowendmac.com articles gave me a really nostalgic feeling, but I didn't find anything that was specifically dedicated to helping a novice acquire the skills to repair old computers. Classic-computers.org.nz does have much to say about repairing old computers, but it is geared toward vintage computers, rather than computers that are still useful today.
All you politically liberal people out there should be perturbed by the fact that so much pressure is put on you to "recycle" your old computers, which is Orwellian double-speak for handing them over to a company that will throw them into a landfill in a third-world country. Many speculate that the real reason for this is to keep cheap, used computers out of the reach of buyers, in order to force them to buy new ones. Fight back by learning how to keep useful computers running for as long as possible.
The fact that old computers are not all that hard to fix has been brought home to me by my three successful laptop surgeries over the last couple of weeks. I have built and rebuilt something like 20 to 30 desktop computers in my life. I have also completed several minor-to-medium laptop repairs and upgrades. However, I had never had the guts to go as far as replacing a laptop motherboard until two weeks ago. This experience was brought on by the sudden death of my second Dell Latitude E6220 laptop about a month ago while I was traveling. Luckily it died on the second-to-last day of my trip, so it wasn't a major inconvenience. I bought both Dell E6220's used on Ebay. The first died after about 30 months of daily use. The funny thing is that my second E6220 died in exactly the same way as the first. It began freezing on the BIOS boot screen (the one that says "DELL" in big letters, followed by "Latitude E6220" in smaller letters, followed by a boot progress bar). I suspect that the electrically-erasable PROM BIOS chips were corrupted, either by static electricity, or by age.
Since it's easier to replace a motherboard than to learn how to reprogram a BIOS chip on a non-booting laptop, that's what I tried first. After the first successful motherboard replacement (with a new, $29 motherboard), I decided to take my newly-acquired knowledge and replace the second motherboard. I now have two working Dell Latitude E6220's.
You will need three things to successfully repair an old laptop:
The attitude required to fix an old laptop consists of an interest, a willingness to try, a willingness to learn, and patience. The ability to fix a computer is something you learn, just like you learn to do anything else. People teach classes on this, but the best way to learn is by hands-on experience. The more you work on computers, the better you get. You learn how to fix computers by recognizing when you don't know how to do something, looking for a guide or explanation of how to do it, and trying it out. The explanation is often wrong. So, you look for another explanation and try again. This is a trial-and-error method of learning, so the best learning aids are old, cheap computers. Don't start out with the latest $2000 HP Wonderbook. Start out with a $10 thrift-store desktop or laptop. Try taking it apart and putting it back together again. And, remember that your first couple of computer surgeries will be frustrating, so be patient and try to stay calm.
As long as you stay out of power supplies (because they can contain voltages as high as 600 volts), taking a computer apart is not the least bit dangerous to you. It can be dangerous to the computer, however, because it can be fried by the static electricity on your body. So, the most important rule to remember when working on a computer is to ground yourself and then ground the computer through exposed metal on the outside of the case (like, for example, the metal on the circumference of the VGA connector). Then, make sure you re-ground yourself periodically to the case, and if possible to a true ground. That means grounding yourself through the ground of an electrical outlet (without touching the "hot" part of the outlet) or a metal water pipe or a kitchen stove. You can also plug your computer into an electrical outlet and ground yourself to the case of the computer. This is safe, as long as you stay out of the power supply, because the maximum voltage you will encounter in the rest of the computer is only 12 volts. The only way this could hurt you is if you lick your computer. So, don't do that! Also, try to handle RAM modules, wifi modules, and motherboards by their edges, both to minimize the chances of discharging any residual static electricity and to prevent the corrosive acids on your skin from getting on wires and the metal surfaces of components. To summarize, it is perfectly safe for you to touch the inside of your computer (except for the inside of the power supply). And, as long as you manage to prevent your body from building up static electricity and practice patience, your computer should also be relatively safe from you.
These days, you can find on the internet all the detailed knowledge you need to diagnose and fix a laptop computer. You can start by learning the basics of replacing or upgrading RAM and hard drives. Many websites explain how to do this with text and pictures. Youtube also provides many videos that give good visual demonstrations. From there, you can go on to successively harder repair jobs.
Diagnosing the causes of problems can sometimes be hard. More experience is required to diagnose problems quickly. Error messages and beep code can help sometimes. You can find the meanings of these by searching for them on the internet. If all else fails, you can always switch out parts until something finally works. In fact, some people keep spare computers around just for this reason.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that only certain parts will be compatible with the computer you are working on. For example, my Dell Latitude D400 uses a 2.5" IDE hard drive. That means I can't just walk into a Best Buy, pick up any hard drive and put it in that laptop. You need to know what type of hard drive (i.e. IDE, SATA, or other) goes into the particular laptop you're working on. The thickness of the hard drive is also limited on many laptops. These are the types of things you should be aware of before you buy parts for an old laptop. Otherwise, you will most-likely be wasting your money. On the internet, you can read all about this and compatibility issues associated with other laptop components. There are even websites dedicated to telling you which parts go into which laptops, for example, the Crucial System Advisor.
Once you've learned how to replace memory and storage drives with compatible devices, you can move on to other, more complicated laptop repairs. Guides that professionals use to repair laptops are available for free on the websites of most major computer manufacturers. These manuals are just like shop manuals for cars. They guide you step-by-step with illustrated instructions through the often complicated replacement of almost every part on a particular laptop. To find them, search on the internet for "user guide", "service guide", "repair guide", or "service manual" followed by the name of the laptop. Here is a page on the Hewlett-Packard website that gives the details of repairing the HP EliteBook 840 G2 Notebook PC. On this web page, find the HP EliteBook 840 G2 Notebook PC HP EliteBook 740 G2 Notebook PC HP ZBook 14 G2 Mobile Workstation - Maintenance and Service manual. You can download it and read through it to get an idea of what you'll be up against.
The last piece of detailed information you'll need to learn by experience. Laptops are filled with tiny, delicate connectors that connect hard drives, touch pads, keyboards, and other devices to the laptop's motherboard. These connectors are so small that they can often be very tricky to figure out how to use. In the heat of battle, you need to remember that they don't require a lot of force to operate, just a little force in the right direction. You'll have to figure out for yourself by trial and error how they work, because laptop service manuals don't explain how to operate them. This is one of those areas where patience comes in. It is very similar to working on a car. The shop manual for your car will tell you which bolts to remove in which order, but it won't usually tell you that you need to use a breaker bar or a cheater bar attached to a breaker bar to get a particular bolt off. And, it won't tell you what to do if the bolt is rusted on. This can be the hardest and most time-consuming part of the whole process, and you learn it by experience. During my motherboard replacement on my first Dell Latitude E6220, I spent 45 minutes figuring out how one, seemingly-microscopic connector worked. Sometimes you may need to use a magnifying glass.
Not many tools are required to work on laptops, if all you are doing is replacing parts, not repairing them. Repairing parts, like trouble-shooting the chips on a motherboard, can require some expensive equipment, and you have to be either an electrical engineer or an experienced electronics technician to know how to use it. The other 99% of us stick to replacing parts, so we can get away with a very basic set of essential tools. These tools will make things much easier on you and safer for your computer.
Shown above are most of the tools you will need. Plastic prying tools prevent you from marring the plastic case of your laptop or damaging its motherboard. These are often invaluable aids to seperating laptop cases held together by plastic clips. It's nice to have at least one screwdriver with a magnetized head to pick up screws that fall into tight spaces. I have also found that tape can be very useful for attaching screws to the part they come from. This makes it easier to remember which screws go with which part. Another technique for keeping track of screws can be seen in the scene in the first Laura Croft movie where the clock is being taken apart. You can see it in the movie, so I won't try to describe it here. On rare occasions, a soldering iron and wire cutters may also come in handy. If you are no longer a teenager, a magnifying glass may also be an essential tool for you.
Although old laptops are generally harder to work on than desktop computers, if you're willing to learn, you can repair them with some simple tools, a little specific knowledge obtained from the internet, and patience. Knowledge of laptop upgrading and repair can save you a lot of money over the years, and it can give you the sense of security you need to take advantage of some great deals on used laptops that most other people will pass up. So don't be afraid to start learning by doing.
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