We've come a long way since the
ENIAC—that infamous, 30-ton beast of a
calculator, developed in
the 1940s, that paved the way for the modern computer age. One really
notable thing about machines like the ENIAC was that they broke down
regularly. Thankfully, modern computers built from integrated
circuits are much more reliable, but they're not always so easy to
fix. Laptops are a particular nuisance because they're miniaturized:
all the parts are compact and jammed into a really tight space. Worse
than that, some parts are made to fit only one specific machine.
While the external keyboard for a desktop computer is an off-the-shelf
component you can replace for a few dollars, the one on a laptop is
generally made to fit only one machine (or one make of computer) and
a replacement, carried out by a dealer, could cost you a quarter
the price of a new machine!
But don't worry, because some of the
most common things that go wrong with laptops are surprisingly easy to fix all by yourself. If you're reasonably
competent (and confident), and your broken machine looks like it's
heading for the scrap heap anyway, why not investigate whether you
can fix it yourself before you buy a new computer? Here are
some simple tips based on my own experiences owning and repairing
laptops over the last two decades or so.
Photo: Don't junk your laptop just because it develops a fault. Investigate and see how easy it is to repair. It'll save you lots of money. Make sure you use the right tools for the job, however!
Photo: Take sensible precautions when you venture inside your laptop. Here, I'm using an anti-static wrist strap to protect a new hard drive that I'm installing in my PC.
Be sensible. If your machine is still under warranty and you're covered, get it repaired
professionally at the manufacturer's expense.
Remember that a laptop is an electrical appliance and tinkering inside anything electrical can be dangerous. Unless you have a basic competence with
electrical things, it's best to leave repairs to someone properly
qualified. Generally (but not always), laptops are powered by external
transformers and use voltages of about 15–20 volts, so the risk
should be small. But there are still high-voltage components inside
(like the LCD screen inverter) that can give you an electric shock.
Take all appropriate precautions before you start: unplug the machine
completely, remove the battery as well, and maybe leave it like that
for a few days to let any stray charges leak away.
While the laptop may not harm you, you can easily damage
it. Even if you're not clumsy and hamfisted, stray zaps of
static electricity can destroy chips in a moment, so use
If you really don't know what you're doing, leave repairs
to someone better qualified: tinkering with your broken computer
could turn a minor problem into major damage and render your
machine totally beyond repair. If you're determined to
proceed, you do so absolutely at your own risk: don't blame me if you screw up!
“For most people, the biggest challenge is just overcoming nerves related to fixing. We’re told that we are not supposed to open, or even alter the products we own. But these attitudes are all relatively new!”
If your machine is still working, be
sure to back up the entire hard-drive (or at least your most important
documents) before you start. Copy the whole of your "My documents"
(or "Documents" on a Linux machine) onto a USB
flash drive or
burn it onto a CD-ROM.
(If it's not too big, you could even upload it to cloud storage.)
If your computer won't boot to let you back it
up, you may be able to boot it from a CD-ROM or startup floppy
(remember those?) and then copy files that way.
(Another handy tip: if you're familiar with Linux, you might
be able to boot using a Linux live CD,
mount the Windows partition, and then copy the files onto an external flash drive inside Linux.)
If you're pretty sure
the hard drive is intact, you may want to remove that and put it
somewhere safe before you try other repairs. You'll generally be able
to read the hard drive from one machine in another, though you
probably won't be able to boot up from it in a different machine.
One thing to note in passing is that
making backups only when your computer has just crashed is a bit
silly. Get into the habit of making backups regularly. Corporate IT
departments usually back up their systems every night. Since I work
from home, I make sure I back up the documents folder on my hard
drive once a week without fail: it takes about a minute to copy the
whole thing onto a USB memory stick, overwriting one of the backups from
previous weeks. Try to organize your computer so the regularly changed
items are in one place and quicker to copy. Backup less frequently
changed things (maybe your photo or music collection) less often.
Remember you can use things like MP3 players to store
computer files as well as music, so you can use those as handy
portable backups if you need to. Another good tip is to keep an
offsite backup somewhere. Keep a copy of your home computer's
documents folder on a USB drive in your desk at work, for example.
Then you're better protected against things like fire and theft.
There are also plenty of secure, inexpensive cloud-based storage
systems (such as Amazon's S3, Google Drive, and Apple iCloud) that you can use to backup your files online.
2. Work around with a plugin
Virtually every modern laptop has
several USB sockets and it's easy to plug in an external
hard drive, and so on. Most older laptops also have
a PCMCIA card socket (a thin slot on one side) where you can plug in
an external modem,
Wi-Fi card, or USB hub. If something obvious
breaks on your laptop, the simplest, cheapest, and easiest "repair"
you can make is often to switch to an external device. So,
for example, if your keyboard breaks, you can use a
plugin USB keyboard. (If your USB has broken as well,
switch to Bluetooth.)
If your sound card packs up, get yourself
something like a Griffin iMic (a little external sound card that plugs into
your USB port). If the modem stops working, and you have a PCMCIA port,
try a plugin modem card. If one of your USB sockets stops working, get a
plugin USB hub and use that in one of the other USB sockets instead;
if all your USB sockets fail, get a PCMCIA USB hub. You can usually buy
these sorts of addon "peripherals" for a few dollars on eBay and you can
fit them in seconds, yourself, without tinkering inside your computer
or worrying about making things worse. Job done!
Photo: 1) On older machines, plugin PCMCIA cards offer a good, simple solution to some of the most common laptop failures. This is a plugin wireless card; you can also get plugin USB cards, dialup modems, memory cards, and lots more. 2) Unfortunately, you won't find a PCMCIA slot on newer laptops; you'll need to use USB instead. The second photo shows a Griffin iMic external USB sound card.
3. Know your "service flaps"
Understandably enough, most laptop
users spend all their time looking at the keyboard and the screen.
But if you spend a moment looking at the underside of your machine,
you'll find there are maybe half-a-dozen little plastic flaps,
secured with one or two screw or slide clips, giving access to the
components most likely to go wrong and need replacing. Generally, you
can remove the battery, the hard drive, and add extra memory, and you
may also be able to replace the CPU fan—all without going into the
innards of the machine.
Photo: This laptop has five small flaps underneath giving easy access to the main components by lifting only a couple of screws. It varies from machine to machine, but on this one: 1 is the battery; 2 is the LAN card;
3 is the hard drive; 4 is for memory expansion; 5 is the CPU fan and CPU. Unscrewing flap 4, for example,
reveals the memory expansion slots, shown below. The two cards simply click in and out, so it's
easy to add extra memory to speed up your machine.
The components that live under these flaps simply plug into slots (in the case of memory expansion cards)
or ribbon connectors, as shown in the photo further down this page. You won't need to do
any soldering, or anything of that kind, but you will
need to be slow, careful, and patient to avoid bending the connecting pins.
In the photo below, I'm replacing one of the memory cards with a bigger one. After pressing aside two retaining clips, it's
just a matter of carefully pulling out one card and pushing in the replacement.
A few years ago, when I crashed the
hard-drive on my nearly new laptop, I took it into a dealer for a
very expensive repair, which would have involved unplugging the
broken drive and swapping it for a completely new one and probably
took about a minute. Shortly afterward, I discovered I could have
done the same job myself by removing a couple of screws on the base
of my machine. It would have been easy to look up the part number on
Google or eBay and order myself a new drive at a fraction the price I
Take a few moments to look through the manual that came with your machine. Find out what flaps it has
underneath and what you can easily gain access to and repair.
Some parts of your machine won't be accessible through service flaps—and it's usually far from obvious
how to get deeper into a laptop if the bit you want to replace isn't in sight. Once you start removing
the main case screws, everything gets more tricky: if you take the wrong screws out, you can quickly
find the machine falling apart in your hands! Some laptops have snap-off
plastic covers (quite common with the screen surround, which you can usually snap off after removing
a couple of screws hidden under circular plastic covers at the top and bottom). Others have snap-off covers over the power switches and around the keyboards. If you look closely, you can often see little recesses where a screwdriver can be inserted. But if you get it wrong and push or pull in the wrong place, you'll snap the plastic and damage it horribly.
Before you start wrecking your machine, search for online videos or repair sites that show you exactly how to get inside and access the part you want to replace. Bear in mind that some manufacturers (Apple in particular) go to
very great lengths to prevent you repairing their devices, obliging you to buy new ones, and some devices are just difficult or impossible to repair. Sony ebook readers, for example, have extremely fragile screens that are bordering on impossible to remove; even their batteries are firmly glued inside and difficult to replace. Nevertheless, you might still find a handy video on YouTube explaining how to do exactly the repair you need (always
check first to see if someone has blazed a trail you can follow!)—and that can make all the difference. If your gadget is completely broken, you've nothing (but time) to lose by having a go—and you may well find it a very educational experience, even if you end up with a load of broken junk that's entirely beyond repair (I got a fascinating insight into how
touchscreens work by taking my ebook reader apart, for example, though all I had to show
for my "repair" was a pile of broken glass, metal, and plastic).
4. Search your symptoms
If your computer's problem isn't
obvious, try looking up the symptoms on your favorite search engine.
That's how I discovered the LCD screen
inverter needed replacing on one of my old laptops: the screen
was flickering and occasionally going dark, but I could still see
what was written on it very clearly. Having learned about the risks
of replacing an inverter (it's a high-voltage component), I took
appropriate precautions, then removed a couple of screws on the
bottom of my laptop's screen and ventured inside. It was easy and cheap to
order a new part from eBay and I fitted a replacement in about thirty seconds.
I was amazed and delighted that I'd turned a useless machine, destined for the garbage dump,
into something as good as new with virtually zero effort. And the repaired machine is
still working well over 10 years later.
5. Find your spare part
Once you know what's wrong with your computer, you'll generally need to replace one or more parts.
Locating the right part is half the battle when you're making
repairs. Assuming you can get at them, fitting spares is often much
easier than it sounds. The parts most likely to go wrong are the ones
under the little flaps on the base of your machine. Simply read off
the part number and type it into Google and eBay and see what you
find. Often, you'll find an official replacement from the
manufacturer and maybe cheaper equivalents made by other companies.
You'll find secondhand bits recovered from broken laptops on eBay.
There are also lots of broken laptops for sale on eBay and it may be cheaper
to buy a "spares and repair" version of your exact machine and
salvage appropriate parts than to worry about finding one specific part. Then
you'll have other spare bits ready for future failures as well.
Photo: Some manufacturers make it deliberately difficult to open up their devices for repair because they want you to buy yet another new one. Even so, a bit of online research is usually all you need to get inside. With the right plastic tool, opening up an iPod Classic is relatively simple and does no damage at all.
6. Take care when fitting spares
The main parts of a laptop are
usually modular and designed to be replaced. Things like a laptop
keyboard, for example, simply plug into the motherboard (the main circuit board) with a
little clip you can remove yourself; they're not soldered in place.
That doesn't mean computer parts are robust: often
they're easily damaged and can't withstand hamfisted repairs. Even if
you handle them carefully, some parts (memory chips, for example) are
susceptible to damage from static electricity. Google around before
you fit a new part and read up on any special precautions you need to
take. Don't be in a rush; your computer's not going anywhere.
Broken "mechanical" parts of your laptop are a bit harder to replace and do require a bit of
dexterity and technical skill. For example, laptops that are opened and closed repeatedly will
eventually suffer from broken hinges. Replacing parts like that can be tricky: often you'll need to
remove quite a lot of screws and other decorative parts and there is a bit of scope for damaging
your machine in the process. Go slowly, be patient, and take close-up photos at each stage so you know
exactly where everything went; that makes it easy to put it all back again later.
Photo: This iPod circuit board uses flexible flat ribbon cables to link together its various modular components. The connections are easy to remove, but you typically need to lift a flap before you can do it or you'll snap them. Learn how to open and close one properly before you make a start!
7. How will it fail?
Although manufacturers probably don't
design their machines to wear out (computers make themselves obsolete
after a few years whether you use them or not), laptops certainly
don't seem as well built as they were about a decade ago. Failures
are more likely now computers are being used by a wider,
less experienced group of people. It's worth anticipating when and
how your new machine is likely to go wrong—and taking a bit more
care to stop that happening.
Photo: Laptop keyboards will not withstand years of constant pounding. Why not assume your keyboard is going to break and use an external keyboard from the start?
For example, I am a writer and I
pound my laptop for many hours each day. It came as no big surprise
when I wore out the keyboard on my first laptop after only a couple
of years, even though I'd owned typewriters that were decades old.
I had my laptop professionally repaired, at great expense, and then
did exactly the same thing again a couple of years later. This time I
got the message: laptop keyboards are very flimsy compared to desktop
ones and they're not designed for industrial-strength work. So, the
next time I bought a laptop, I bought a cheap, external keyboard
(which is far nicer to type on) and now I sit my laptop on a stand
and pound the external keyboard instead, while my laptop's own
keyboard sits there mostly unused. If I wear out the keyboard now,
it's about five dollars for a replacement. (You can use an external
mouse and screen in much the same way. Once your laptop is sitting on
a desk all day plugged into peripherals, you might ask yourself why
you didn't buy a desktop machine to begin with; they're generally far
easier to upgrade and repair.)
If you look through the broken
machines for sale on eBay, you'll find a few other common causes of
laptop mortality. Liquid damage is high up the list. Spill a cup of
coffee on a laptop and you can be reasonably confident it won't work
again, so get into the habit of drinking away from the machine.
Broken USB sockets are also reasonably common, usually caused by
people trying to force plugs in the wrong way around. USB connectors
are inherently robust—they're meant to be "plug and play"—but
that doesn't mean they're indestructible. Bear in mind that the
sockets you plug your peripherals into are soldered (sometimes not
that well) directly onto a circuit board in your machine and if you
press them too hard, too often, you can break the connections. So
treat your laptop with a bit of care and respect and it'll repay you
with years of faithful service. I have a Toshiba dating from 1996
that stills works fine; I'd still be using the ENIAC if it would only
8. Maybe someone else can help?
Some of the things I've suggested above are low-risk or no-risk: using a workaround USB device, for example.
But if you really can't avoid a physical repair and you're not confident enough to attempt it yourself,
does that mean you have to trash your laptop and buy a new one? Not necessarily! Check out things
like "repair cafes" where experienced volunteers get together to help one another with fixes.
There are some links in the "Find out more" section below.
9. What can you do with a really old machine?
You could be forgiven for thinking there's a conspiracy between people who make operating systems
(Microsoft, in other words) and those who make laptops. One of the biggest reasons people have for
ditching old computers is that they can no longer run the latest version of Microsoft Windows. A lot of
decent computers get junked when each version of Windows reaches its "end of life" date, even though they're still perfectly serviceable. One way you can escape this problem is to switch to the Linux operating system,
which will generally run on much less powerful (read: older) machines. I have two fairly old laptops running
up-to-date versions of Linux quite happily even though they were built for Windows XP about two decades ago
and one of them has just 512MB of RAM.
Problem solved? Not exactly. One issue you'll now come up against with old machines
(by which I mean 10–20 years old) is that they'll probably have what's called a 32-bit architecture, whereas most modern operating systems assume a 64-bit architecture instead. Versions of Windows up to Windows 10 will still generally run on 32-bit machines, as will most versions of Linux (technically known as distributions or "distros") produced before about 2020. But it's getting harder to find
even Linux distros that will run on 32-bit machines. (For example, Lubuntu, once "sold" as a low-resource Ubuntu distro, perfect for saving older machines, has now joined the 64-bit club.) There are still a few 32-bit distros, but using them will involve a little bit of compromise:
the Chromium web browser, for example, is now 64-bit only, so if you're going to use a 32-bit Linux distro, you'll need to browse with Firefox (or some other browser).
Still, if you're determined to save an old machine and you enjoy a little bit of geekery, installing
a 32-bit Linux distro (such as
and a few others) is probably the way to go.
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