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).
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.
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.
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.