Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Laptop Lemon and the Hardware Handyman

My current laptop has been something of a lemon at best--if not an outright cursed piece of hardware at worst.  Less than a month after I'd gotten it, it fell out of my laptop bag from a height of only a foot or so, but nonetheless cracked its case such that the stylus pen would no longer stay put (and I subsequently lost two $20 styluses). 

Now, I feel pretty comfortable doing repairs and work on laptops myself, including taking things well apart beyond pulling a drive or replacing the keyboard.  A prior laptop's power connector broke apart, and I replaced it with a metal-reinforced connector (out-of-warranty at the time); another had a fan failure which I later remedied.  But for the cosmetic case damage above, unfortunately, Gateway won't sell end-users the "plastics kit"--replacement plastic case parts--unlike some other manufacturers, so I've just had to live with that physical damage (Gateway wanted $300 to fix it, something I declined.)

But what else leads me to call my laptop a lemon?  At less than two years old, the keyboard began to fail, with several keys no longer responding to anything short of a right hook.  Fortunately, I'd bought the extended warranty, and Gateway shipped me a new keyboard free-of-charge.  Just after the warranty ran out, the internal network card began to fail; it dropped connections regularly (but unpredictably) and also saw weird signal degradation problems where an 11 megabit connection would slowly but unavoidably dwindle away to 1 megabit.  Fortunately, I found a replacement card--an upgrade to 54 megabits, no less--on eBay and swapped it out without much further issue.

Last year, the hard drive died; fortunately, though the death came all at once, it affected only the write heads--so I was able to plug the drive into a USB enclosure, set it to read-only access, and pull off all essential data.  I took that opportunity to upgrade the drive as well to something larger and faster.  At the same time, I maxed out the RAM by replacing one of the 512 MB DIMMs with a 1 GB module, having already done the same to the other DIMM when I replaced the keyboard.

The hinge on the laptop screen has been one of its worst-designed features; within a year, cracks began forming around the hinge's connection to the LCD panel, eventually widening to full-fledged breaks in the plastic.  This put stress on the wires and circuit boards within the screen and hinge, such that moving the screen would cause the tablet buttons to randomly fire (changing the screen orientation, etc.); fine, I disabled the button functionality.

For the past year or so, either the LCD screen backlight or the inverter powering it has been going kaplooey; at first, the screen showed an awful pink cast along the bottom, and more recently, the screen began to flicker.  A couple of days ago, the inverter began overheating to the point that the laptop screen's corners turned black (LCDs respond to heat--running the screen at a lower brightness or directly cooling it allowed the screen to recover).

This morning, the worst happened: the backlight failed altogether, and I haven't been able to resurrect it.  I'm hoping it's the inverter, but I'm following a couple of full screen modules on eBay at the moment, too, just in case the backlight itself has failed.  Worst thing is that I'm on the road for business travel and don't have access to any tools to take the screen apart... but at least I've got my work laptop, and being in Silicon Valley, I am hopeful I can find at least a replacement inverter, if not a whole screen unit, along with the tools I need to fix it (and which hopefully the TSA won't try to confiscate--they're allowed in carry-ons, but since when has the TSA followed their own rules?)

Sigh.  What a pain in the butt.  I'd buy a new laptop if (1) I weren't hoarding cash for our impending home purchase; and (2) installing and setting everything up again wasn't such a huge pain.  I may be a hardware handyman, but sometimes this job gets old.

1 comment:

John Nolley II said...

It's a good thing I ordered a whole new LCD assembly in addition to a new screen bezel and inverter. I replaced the original inverter, and the screen... came up PINK again, and flickering. Seems not only had the inverter failed, but the LCD's backlight itself was bad or failing (and perhaps led to the inverter's own failure). So I went to the new LCD assembly (bought on eBay for $26)... which had a lot of case damage. So I used the new screen bezel with the screen from the new assembly and the new inverter... and now everything works again!

The eBay-bought LCD is great; as advertised, no dead pixels, etc., though the listing did say the bezel had only "a scratch," when it in fact had a large chip (about 1cm long) all the way through the plastic.

But the hardware handyman strikes again--and I'm back to having a working laptop again.