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 http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf/wc/document?lc=en&dlc=en&cc=us&docname=c01087277 . 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?