Monday, December 7, 2009

To Buy or Not To Buy... a new laptop

I was being a bit of a pest to a friend on facebook today, insisting I give her a second opinion on her laptop. She was diagnosed by another computer place that her motherboard was "going out". I really would like to know what it did, because while laptop motherboards do fail, it's typically an on one day -- off the next kind of thing. It's not a "going" kind of process.

So, that got me thinking and I decided to post something about it. I'm going to be not-PC and say something negative about "other" computer places. I'd be willing to bet that at least 1/2 of "your laptop is dead/failing/etc) type diagnosis that people get from their local computer stores (especially the big box stores) are wrong. That said, it doesn't mean your laptop is always worth fixing either. But, don't worry, your data is most likely salvageable.

If you're getting an error, chances are most likely that your laptop is repairable. Whatever you do, if you care about the data you have saved to your notebook, do not.. do Not, DO NOT run the restore CD or the options to restore your computer to factory defaults. Be careful if your technician is trying to walk you through running a system restore to a previous point or a complete system restore. It can mean life or death for your data. If you realize you've started that process (or you just realized all your data is gone) turn off the computer immediately and bring it to us so we can attempt to recover some of your files. The longer you use the system after that has happened, the higher the likelihood that your data will be overwritten and not recoverable. (We can recover a lot of files even when you can't see them anymore.)

Here's a list of the most common mis-diagnosed hardware behavior/diagnosis we see (that I can think of off the top of my head). Oh yeah, I know this list doesn't cover everything... hence the "most common" and "off the top of my head" disclosures.

My laptop gets power and the lights turn on, but it doesn't get any video on the screen and it doesn't make and of the normal noises when it boots up.

Answer: If this is an HP and you've had it for less than 2 years, you may be eligible for a "service enhancement program". See . Some laptop models will do this if your RAM is bad, or has become unseated. Usually this behavior indicates a failed motherboard.

Does the laptop turn on and beep constantly, beep in a pattern, or have a beep code? Does it turn on and the lights blink constantly or blink in a pattern?

Answer: Your notebook is trying to talk to you. Those beeps and blinks usually indicate a specific error. Perhaps the video has failed (new laptop time), the RAM failed (or has become unseated), or it has overheated.

My notebook turns on and gives me an error message like ntldr error, SMART FAIL, or something about a dll error or cannot boot.

For most of our customers this is the scariest error because it has the highest risk of losing your important files. Rest assured, if your computer tries to boot into Windows at all, your data is most likely intact. Most of the remaining scenarios are recoverable via our data recovery service. Worst cases when a drive just clicks, won't spin anymore, or doesn't detect at all your only option will be an expensive "clean room" recovery from a data recovery center. There your drive will be disassembled in a special "clean room" and your data will be recovered manually from your hard drive platters. Your laptop is still repairable even if your data is not.

My laptop turns on but I can only see a faint image or a ghost of my screen if I look at it from an angle.

Answer: Your LCD screen needs a backlight to "light up" your screen so you can see the images on it. Usually this behavior just means you need a new inverter. Sometimes the actual light in the LCD has failed and you can replace the screen. (replacing the light is labor intensive and risky) In some instances the switch that detects whether your laptop is open/closed has gone bad and can simply be disconnected (so far, I've only had this happen on a few older HP models).

My laptop turns on and makes normal noises, but I can't see anything on my screen. Or, your notebook turns on but only displays video to an external monitor.

Answer: This may be the backlight problem (like I listed above) but is more likely a failed LCD. LCDs are readily available and more cost effective than buying a new laptop (unlike motherboard replacements).

My notebook turns on but gets lines through the screen, only turns on half my screen, my LCD flickers, or there is static, or the video on my screen is all mixed up like it is scrambled.

Answer: These are LCD versus video card problems. Vertical lines, half blank, flickers, or changes when you push on the edges usually indicates a bad LCD (repairable). If you see random letters or a bunch of garbage that doesn't change when you touch or move the LCD it could be your video card (not worth repair). Hook up an external monitor and see if the problem is the same there (you may need to use a function key to tell the laptop to switch to the external monitor). In some cases the cable connected to your monitor gets pinched in the hinge and breaks (repairable) causing these behaviors.

My laptop only turns on if I wiggle the power cord, or My notebook used to turn on if I wiggled the power cord but now it doesn't. Also, my laptop doesn't turn on at all or my notebook doesn't turn on and the power cord is loose and wiggles.

Answer: These are common indicators that the power jack (DC Jack) inside your notebook on the motherboard has broken. The longer or harder you "wiggled" it to make it work, the higher the chances are that you damaged the board so it can't be repaired, but in most cases we have a very high success rate with this repair. In some cases it's just a short/failed power cord, so we always test that first.

My laptop is a brick. My notebook won't turn on at all. My laptop is dead.

Answer: Any of the above solutions are possible. It could be as simple as a bad battery, as complex as a short on the motherboard, as obvious as something you spilled on it, or as disappointing as it really is dead. Good news is that with the exception of spilling something on it (or submerging it in the bathtub, lake, rain) your data is probably fine even if we can't fix the notebook for you.

Anyway, as I told my facebook friend... I am stubborn and it's a real pet peeve to know how many people have sadly given up on their notebooks and threw them out or shoved them in the basement and had to spend several hundred dollars or more on a new one when $100-$200 would have fixed the most catastrophic of issues they had and restored the laptop to performing even better than it did new. Bring it in and let me take a whack at it.

Oh, you just realized you have a Mac and don't know why you're reading this? Apple does spend a lot of engineering efforts to redesign their hardware which has a lot of benefits (and a lot of disadvantages when it comes to the repair versus replace decision) but we suffer from the same problems as I listed above. I can help you with your Mac too! (What I cannot do I have a friend with a Mac shop who can. )

If there aren't any options to repair your laptop, we can have it recycled for you (for free). See you for a 2nd opinion soon?

Monday, October 19, 2009

More New News

We are currently working out the details but soon, very very soon, we will be a drop-off location for free electronics recycling. We should be able to accept everything EXCEPT TVs. We can, however, accept CRT monitors. We should have things finalized by next week, so if you have a stash of computers, old monitors, keyboards, mice, telephones, dvd players, vcrs, etc. we can finally prevent you from having to put them in the landfill.

In other news, Toshiba A105 series laptops have a well known BIOS issue that randomly decides to assign a BIOS password to your laptop preventing you from booting again. In the past we have had to refer you to a Toshiba authorized service center, but I finally am able to resolve this issue. If you gave up on a Toshiba laptop because of the BIOS Password bug, please feel free to stop by and let me try the fix for you too!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Class: Going Deep - Unix Commands You (Think You) Already Know

The UNIX command line is a portal to an astonishing amount of power and control, but most people only use a fraction of the capabilities that are literally at their fingertips. In this class, we'll explore surprising features of familiar commands, learn about useful but lesser-known utilities, and discover how to combine these capabilities in powerful (and often unexpected) ways.

The price for this one-day class will be $299, with lunch included.

Contact for more information or to sign up for the class.

This class is currently scheduled for Tuesday, January 18, 2011 (8AM-5PM).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Class: Your Router and You

This class will cover the open-source alternatives to the stock firmware for the WRT54G[LS] and related devices. You'll learn how to perform tasks such as:
  • Setting up wireless bridges
  • Enhancing coverage
  • Running a large network with a small router
  • Setting up captive portals
  • De-bricking a router
The price for this one-day class is $299, and includes a free Linksys WRT54GL router.

Contact for more information or to sign up for the class.

This class is currently scheduled for Saturday, December 12, 2009 (9AM-5PM) and Monday, January 11 (9AM-5PM).

Class: Virus and Spam Filtering

There are a lot of ways of doing email virus and spam filtering. This class is not about that. It's about the way Steve does it.

More specifically, it's about the following stack on Fedora:
The price for this class is $99.

Contact for more information or to sign up for the class.

This class is currently scheduled for November 30 (8AM-5PM).

Class: The Black Art of DNS

Ever feel like your knowledge of DNS is rooted in myth and superstition? Then this class is for you!

In this one-day class, we'll
  • de-mystify the resolver
  • learn to cobble together DNS zones
  • illuminate the incantations that make BIND (the open-source DNS server) function
and cover innumerable additional incidental minutiƦ. (Please someone take away our thesaurus!)

The price for the class will be $299, with lunch included.

Contact for more information or to sign up for the class.

This class is currently scheduled for December 10, 2009 (8AM-5PM) and February 5, 2010 (8AM-5PM).

Monday, September 14, 2009

New Laptop Express Service

Laptop users are on the go go go! For that reason we tested some new methods for laptop repair this summer, set up a new laptop work area, and bought some new repair equipment that allows us to get laptops done more quickly. Most express services are completed within a week or less (excludes DC Jack repair, Data Recovery, and some special order parts). Due to our aggressive pricing, our in-store services are more popular than ever and we have had no fewer than 100 systems in our store for repair at any one time. Early this year we had over 200! We expect to upgrade all services (including desktops) to the new express service as soon as the "end of summer" and "back to school" repair backlog is caught up. In the mean time, as there are only a few of us to complete all these jobs, we appreciate your business and your patience to let us get your job done right (and keeping your personal data in tact!).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Don't Trust Your USB Flash Drive

Repeat after me, "My USB flash drive is going to fail". It's going to be in your pocket and go through the washing machine. It's going to get dropped on the concrete and bust into pieces. It's going to randomly lose files after you shock the door handle from static. It's going to get kicked out of the front of the computer and bent. One way or another, it's going to fail and you should never keep the only copy of important files on any USB flash drive (or external hard drive, but that's another discussion).

This picture features the guts of an old 512MB USB Flash drive a customer brought me this morning. It has been used heavily and was always carried in a leather sheath. Today it stopped working for her. Typically when I open them and find physical damage, it is limited to the wires on the back of the USB plug. We fix those, and about 50% of the time, we can see data again. This time, I found this. The memory chip itself was detatched from one side. This whole part isn't much larger than my pinky's fingernail. I did not have the tools for a proper repair attempt, but I still managed to engineer it and get hundreds of patient files off of this drive. Even I was amazed. However, the lesson still stands. Backups of important files are necessary because you will not be as lucky as this customer was.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Class: Data Recovery with Open-Source Tools

This class is a one-day overview of various data recovery techniques and open-source data recovery tools. Attendees will learn:
  • How to identify a failing hard drive.
  • Tips for coaxing data from failing drives.
  • How to clone a drive, and why that is important.
  • How to recover from various kinds of partition and filesystem damage.
  • How to recover data from an unrecoverable filesystem.
The price for the class will be $500, a bargain compared to most commercial data recovery!

Contact for more information or to sign up for the class.

This class is currently scheduled for Wednesday, January 12, 2011 (8AM-5PM).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Become a Facebook Fan.. please?

We've given in and now have a Facebook page. Are you a member? If so, please become a fan here.

Feel free to stop by Saturday-Tuesdays and meet our newest bench geek, Scott. Scott's background focuses on desktop and small office network support. Welcome to the team!

Friday, June 19, 2009

We have STUFF!

It's still busy like crazy in here, and we're still short handed... but we do have some good news! We have STUFF on our shelves! Have you been missing browsing through the random stuff you didn't know you needed? Well, come on by... we have stuff again. At least we did as of 3:30am :-)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Starting a new Users Group?

Hi all, I need to get better at updating this thing more regularly, huh? Our bench is still full, but we only have laptops on a waiting list at the moment. We have introduced new service plans to help improve customer service. Our standard service rates have not changed, and even our priority and rush services are still a fraction of our competitor's basic rates. We still do not charge for diagnostics nor require appointments.

We got in our first AMD Quad Phenom II 955 this week. We're still having fun on a weekly basis converting Intel fans over to the performance and cost savings of these new Phenom II processors. You can build an entire machine with the Phenom II for just the CPU cost of the closest i7. Nice, huh? You really should put a nicer graphics card in it though, but you get the point :)

If I'm not working the bench or grabbing a quick nap (I've been working 24-30 hour shifts.. give a girl a break!) I've been taking a photo run or playing with my new camera (I love craigslist). I wonder if there's enough photo geeks like me who might be interested in having regular meetings. Perhaps we could host some newbie classes, or more advanced group photo runs. If you'd be interested in some type of group at the shop please let me know. The photo on this post is one I took of the Clark Bridge in Alton on Mother's Day.

If you haven't met our newest full time staff addition, you should come by on Wed-Sat and meet Peter. He's a veteran computer repair geek, having worked at small shops in Canada and in Europe for nearly 20 years. He's our laptop solder miracle worker and his biggest fault is not wanting to give up on the hard ones and trying to make everyone happy at the same time. We're lucky to have him, so stop by and say "Hi" if you haven't already.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Who says we're bored?

Greetings from 3:30 in the morning! As you've been sleeping, I've been working feverishly to catch up on all your computers! We have caught up on the backlog of desktops, and check-ins starting this week for desktops should return to a normal schedule. Laptops should have the same result by the end of the week.

Many customers think we have a back workroom, or simply don't realize the staff they are talking to are also responsible for getting all the repairs done. Here's a view of our bench from our side. I just counted over 50 computers in that frame! That's only the counter's side! Each of the monitors you see in our store, each technician, can access all of them and is working feverishly to get everyone taken care of (including you). If you see an extra employee focusing on a monitor instead of being able to immediately talk to you, please be patient, as they are taking care of this mess hidden behind the counter! Thank you for your patience and your business!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wow! We are CRAZY busy!

Hi All!

We've put up signs in our store, but I thought I'd better put up an announcement here too, for anyone checking us out for work. We are CRAZY busy! We currently have over 150 computers in the store that are currently being (or waiting to be) repaired. Non-priority services are running a 1-2 week delay, depending on condition of the system (older or sicker systems take longer). We're trying our best to get ahead of the system orders and general stock. Thank you for being patient while our shelves are being restocked too! And thank you SO MUCH for your business, loyalty, and referrals. We wouldn't be this successful if it wasn't for that support. Our move in '07 came at an awful economic time, but we're surviving, thanks to you!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Building Customer and Friend Networks

Hey all. I just created a Facebook Group called Computer Room. I'd like people to be able to post/answer questions, and share common interests about technology. Please join!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Our First Experiences with AMD's Phenom II

It's tough to keep all the guys here from drooling over each of the Phenom II 940's we've gotten in this week. Each of them have hinted about ways to get one and not let their wives find out. There's already been a price drop too, nearly $50!

I'm not positive, but given the Phenom 9950 has gotten nearly impossible to find in the distribution channels, I suspect the Phenom IIs are replacing them and we won't see much of the 99xx series anymore. Their 3GHz core and 8MB cache are truly a beautiful thing to all the CPU fanatics out there. Our first experiences with the processors are very positive. Our 3D Mark tests out performed the overclocked i7 that was posted! I hope to get some more in depth reports and tests posted with some of the new hardware as it comes out, especially once the AM3 products are available. For now, check out what Tom's had to say here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

HP Recall -- Free HP Support Staff

It is astounding the increasing numbers of HP Laptops we are seeing in our store each day. On Saturday we had six laptops that qualified for the HP laptop recall. We are checking the laptop problems, verifying it is included in the recall, and giving the customer print-outs of their recall information. We don't charge for system diagnostics, so it feels like we're becoming HP's free customer service department lately. :-)

So what is the recall you wonder? It primarily effects HP's dv9000, dv6000, dv2000 and the Compaq v3000 and v6000 series. It starts with intermittent wireless problems. It ends in laptop death. When it finally dies, you do not get any post, no lights, no power, no sign of life whatsoever.

Have you noticed how hot your laptop gets? The bug in these HP laptops is in the BIOS. It isn't turning on the fans fast enough to cool your laptop components. The first heat-death happens to the wifi controller, and the second is the laptop's motherboard. If you aren't having problems, get a BIOS update from HP before it dies.

If you qualify for the recall, HP will send you a pre-paid shipping box within a day or two of your claim. If you want help backing up your data before you send off your notebook, give us a call!

Oh, and if you aren't "lucky" enough to qualify for this recall and your laptop is still really too hot to handle, our favorite notebook cooler is made by Zalman. They make two sizes, for 15.4" (and smaller) and 17". See them here. You'll swear they have tiny AC units built in. We try to keep them in-stock, but they're popular. They run from $52-$72 depending on size.