How To: Put Together an Affordable Laptop Repair Kit

Having your prized laptop unexpectedly bite the dust is a real drag, but with an affordable set of tools ready, you can ensure your machine lives a long, healthy life with minimum downtime. Here are my personal picks that won’t break the bank:

Presented with a failing laptop, the first step on the road to recovery is figuring out where the problem lies. Even if you can’t yet narrow down the issue to a single component, identifying the essential parts and ordering them by “most likely” to “least likely to fail” will offer a prioritized checklist to run down while working. If you’re unsure of what may be causing a problem, a good rule of thumb is to start with the obvious and work your way back to the motherboard — often the source of problems is the least expensive part in the chain, as computer parts are generally purchased from the lowest bidder. If your laptop can’t find it’s operating system, the hard drive might be dead. No video on the LCD? Something screwy with the display assembly. CD won’t eject? Probably the optical drive. In most cases, replacing the motherboard on the computer is the most complicated and most expensive, so it’s worth your time and money to start at the cheap end and work your way back.

Researching problems on web forums is a prudent starting place, as are manufacturer service manuals. If you can clearly explain the problem you’re having and show that you’ve attempted to do some of your own research, most forum members (like those on MacNN) will gladly assist. As far as manufacturer-offered support goes, most manuals are free, however Apple in particular is picky about who gets this information. iFixit, MacFixIt, and xlr8YourMac are a few trustworthy and respected sites which help make up for Apple’s stinginess with documentation. If you look hard enough, though, Apple’s official repair guides can be found on the net, despite their best efforts (and, really, the iFixit guides are more detailed).

Screwdrivers

With knowledge in hand — or in PDF form — and the courage to crack open the case of your laptop, you can start with the basics: a screwdriver set. Many will make promises of years of durability and offer second-to-none craftsmanship, however I find that a cheap little set will do just fine for most projects. Stanley offers a $5 6-piece screwdriver set, with Phillips and flat screwdrivers of a couple sizes (also at Amazon. And if you’re not put off by Wal-Mart, you can pick one up there, as well.). Just one little set has served me well for years of computer repair, especially on laptops.

If you care to get a little fancier, you can find a more expansive $15 set on eBay. I also have one of these sets, and am unable to find a manufacturer on any of the parts, however identical looking screwdrivers can be found at RadioShack, made by Kronus. It includes a wide assortment of changeable bits, including hard to find ones like Torx T4 (for iPod logic boards and cell phones) and a number of Phillips sizes. Search eBay for ‘torx’ and look for the black and red handle and white bit case. This kit is, as advertised on eBay auctions, of surprisingly good quality, despite the curious absence of a manufacturer imprint on the tool or casing.

Nylon Pry Tool

An absolute must for performing professional-looking laptop repair is the ability to remove plastic bezels without chewing up the edges with a rigid metal tool. As noted in my earlier post, Apple recommends a nylon pry tool for accomplishing this, and I can vouch for its extreme utility on any brand laptop. Computer manufacturers often affix plastic covers with slightly flexible clips, and this $2 tool will effectively and cleanly undo them, allowing for future re-assembly.

Straightened Paper Clip

The standard computer fixing tool for many a geek, a straightened paperclip can be had for free, but offers the ability to exert pressure in the most narrow of spaces. It’s also no coincidence that nearly all tray-loading computer optical drives can be safely forced open using the tiny paperclip hole built into their front covers. Keep a few on hand.

Ice Cube Tray

Once you start getting deep into a laptop repair, keeping the screws of various sizes in order can be a monumental task of its own. By keeping a simple $1 ice cube tray nearby to hold loose screws (preferably labeled in a fashion you can understand hours or days from now), you’ll be able to remember how it all fits together. Keeping screws and parts organized takes time away from getting the job done, but if you’re interrupted or happen to bump the table, you won’t be utterly lost when it comes time to put everything back in place.

Hemostats

If you aren’t working alone on your laptop, nothing makes you look more tech-savvy than a pair of hemostats. Appearances aside, hemostats are outstanding tools for extracting otherwise impossible to reach connectors, as well as plugging them back in. The occasional runaway screw can also be retrieved with ease, possibly avoiding unnecessary disassembly. Prices range from $3 at RadioShack to upwards of $10, depending where you search. Both curved and straight nose hemostats are of nearly unlimited use.

Multi-meter

Last, but not required, is a small, decent multi-meter. Problems can often be traced to a lack of power or electrical connection, and even the cheapest of meters will indicate both. When set to measure voltage, you can check that a component has the necessary power, and when set to measure resistance, you can assert the continuity of a circuit just by touching a probe to either end of the wire and watching for a huge drop in resistance. Unconnected wires will show infinite resistance, while a good wire should have extremely low resistance. A self-contained, pocket-sized meter can be had for $20 at RadioShack, and is well worth the cost.

So there you have it: a complete kit for about $30, all of which will easily zip up into your laptop bag, ready to break out and make repairs on the go. Print out your specific laptop’s service guide for quick reference, and you’ll be poised to tackle problems whenever they may crop up. If you were expecting a “priceless” item on the list, then here you go: confidence. Work slowly, think before you pull on a connector or wire, and take pictures if you have to.

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How To: Put Together an Affordable Laptop Repair Kit

Hiding Your “Untitled” Boot Camp Drive

After getting back to Boot Camp from a dual-boot Mac OS X system, I remembered how disappointing it was that I couldn’t rename the Windows NTFS volume from “Untitled” to something more appropriate. The Garbage In Garbage Out blog has a tip that will accomplish the next best thing: Hide the Boot Camp volume from your Desktop.

Using the SetFile utility from the Developer Tools package that came with your Mac (on the second disc), you can effectively remove the volume from view in the Finder, while not affecting its normal operation or visibility anywhere else in the system. Great tip!

Hiding Your “Untitled” Boot Camp Drive

Xbox 360 HDMI+Audio Output

After purchasing my new HDMI-equipped Xbox 360, I decided to hook the console up to my LCD computer monitor to check out the video quality the system can produce. As I wrote about earlier, Best Buy pestered me throughout my visit with offers of pricey cables, including a $40 HDMI to DVI adapter, an $80 HDMI cable, and more. Not wanting to pay those ridiculously marked-up prices, I found a much cheaper solution.

Getting high quality video out of the Xbox 360 is quite easy with the help of a $15 (shipped) HDMI to DVI cable from NewEgg. Connecting the console and the display is a snap, and the video settings are easily adjusted to match the native resolution of the LCD panel.

Audio, on the other hand, is another matter. The placement of the HDMI port on the Xbox 360 is quite poor. It resides directly below the standard A/V output, and the component+composite cable that ships with the premium console is too bulky to plug in above the HDMI cable. It’s only possible to plug in one at a time, as one connector blocks the other. Frustrated, I turned to Google to see if anyone else had run into this design oversight. As it turns out, the Xbox 360 Elite package comes with an HDMI cable and an audio adapter cable with a much thinner plug. Unfortunately, the audio adapter cable is not available as a separate purchase, and can only be bought from Microsoft as a $50 HDMI+audio adapter cable kit (or on eBay for $30 and higher). Clearly a better answer was needed.

I took a trip to my local GameStop store to see what kind of cabling they had in stock, and I managed to score quite a deal that easily solved my audio problem. A standard composite+stereo audio cable, presumably from a now-discontinued Xbox 360 Core package, was available for $5, and it had a thin plug attached.

Using the HDMI to DVI cable and the regular video/audio cable, I can get crystal clear video and stereo audio out of the Xbox 360 for a combined total of $20, which trumps Microsoft’s kit by a great margin. After digging up some additional stereo adapters of my own, I now have a pair of headphones connected, ready to play Halo 3 in crisp 1280×1024 video without waking the neighbors.

Xbox 360 HDMI+Audio Output

Xbox 360 First Impressions

In preparation for the impending release of Halo 3, I finally got around to picking up an Xbox 360 yesterday, after nearly two years of waiting. Best Buy has stock of some of the newer consoles with a built-in HDMI port, so I opted to get one of those, so I could hook it up to a DVI computer LCD if need be. After being bombarded with offers of expensive extended warranties, unnecessary accessories, and “nitrogen injected cables”, I got out of there with just the new console and a game. After unboxing it and playing for a while, these were some of my impressions:

Power

The power brick for this console is huge. It’s quite literally the size of a standard red masonry brick, only a little longer. Taking a slightly modified computer power cord for AC input, the adapter consumes just over 200 Watts of electricity when fully active. It has a big indicator LED to let you know when it’s working or failing (yikes), and at least one fan for cooling. This is one power-hungry system.

Cables & Wireless

Xbox 360 came with everything I needed to get it up and running, including a few extras like a wired headset and RF controller. Noting that the headphone jack on the controller is the same mini port on the audio unit from the original Xbox, I was pleased to discover that my Halo 2 headset attached and worked with no trouble (sans the volume control and mute button). Being able to remotely boot up the console from the couch with the Xbox button is the ultimate in advanced laziness technology. Count me in!

Performance and Games

The system is louder than an off-the-shelf original Xbox, but no louder than my modified version, so the noise isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Graphics performance is quite good from what I’ve seen: high polygon models, textures heaping with detail, and plenty of processing power to sustain high framerates will serve the 360 well for years to come. I was decidedly unimpressed with gameplay in Gears of War, and felt thrown into action with little instruction. Normally, I enjoy first-person-shooter games, but the lack of a constant targeting reticle, somewhat confusing controls, and weak plot will send me back to the store hoping to swap for BioShock or another title.

Overall, the Xbox 360 seems to be a fine console with plenty of horsepower and extras, but my (admittedly short) gameplay has not impressed me so far, save for the graphics. Here’s hoping Halo 3 will make it all come together… Only 16 days to go.

Xbox 360 First Impressions

iPod touch

I’m sure you’ve all read the big news from Apple today: everything is smaller, and with video. Oh, and a touch-capable iPod, with WiFi and mobile iTunes Music Store. As far as I’m concerned (in my spacious AT&T-free Mountain Time zone) Apple took the best parts of the iPhone and the iPod, and made an ultra-slick little device that’s a mere 8mm thin. I couldn’t be more excited about it, not just because of the killer features and gorgeous interface, but for the true mobile web.

I’ve never owned a portable device that was capable of browsing the web, and I think Apple’s implementation is just spot-on. I can’t wait to develop for both the standard web browsers plus the iPod touch. Many have already jumped on board with the mobile web as presented by the iPhone, and I hope to add my skills to the fray, including CSS and JavaScript. I’ve been using both technologies full time for the last 6 months now, and am excited by the “limitation” of a small screen. Using a smaller space will undoubtedly lead to some simple interfaces and creative solutions for the pocket web world.

iPod touch