Helping laptop overcome its age

 I’m about to tell a tale of woe that I haven’t told anyone else, one that befits this ghoulish season. As new parents, my wife and I installed a system of locks on our cabinets and drawers. The locks contained magnets and could be unlocked using a larger, more powerful magnet, thus hermetically sealing the drawers — and keeping their contents safe from little hands.

One evening, after a day of diaper changes and running after toddlers, I picked up the heavy unlocking magnet. Then, in the same hand, I picked up my laptop. For those familiar with computers, the next part of the story will elicit a groan: the magnet came close to the hard drive inside the computer and I gasped. The magnet interfered with the hard drive’s internal machinery and it immediately stopped whirring. The screen froze and no number of reboots would bring it back. My laptop was dead. When a desktop computer loses its horsepower or, worse, crashes entirely, it seems a shame to throw it away, and often unnecessary: even the most timid computer user can add a USB hard drive or connect a new monitor. But when a laptop dies, it seems like it’s the end of the line. However, new online stores and easy upgrades mean that wounded laptops can, like mine, be healed.

Preventive medicines

Doing a good cleanup is usually a good idea when trying to give an older laptop a new lease on life. Compressed air is great for blowing out stray strands of hair or dust in the keyboard and DVD drive, and rubbing alcohol will clean up most surfaces.

Now that the outside is clean, you can look at the operating system. Most systems fail or slow down because of faulty software. Windows 7, the new operating system from Microsoft arriving on Thursday, will include virus and spyware removal software. But if you have an older system, you can download Avast antivirus software (at avast.com) and AdAware (at lavasoft.com), two free programs that work to clear up unruly computers.

Mac users, luckily, have little to fear from spyware and viruses. If things are still broken — or you’re not happy with the results — a fresh installation of the operating system may be in order. However, if the problem is deeper in the hardware — perhaps a balky hard drive or too little memory — there is hope.

First let’s talk about laptop architecture. Most laptops consist of a motherboard hidden underneath the keyboard, and thus inaccessible to mere mortals, and peripherals intended for easy access. The meaning of “easy access” varies according to manufacturer, but generally the memory and hard drive are accessible through panels on the bottom or side of the case.

A word of warning: many do-it-yourself upgrades can void warranties and, given the wide variety of laptops out there, there is no defined set of steps to follow in order to perform these improvements.

If you are dealing with a hard-drive problem, the symptoms will include start-up failure as well as slowness and “grinding” — essentially unnecessary reading and writing to the disk — as well as warnings that you’re running out of disk space. If you have a more severe problem, the system will fail to boot or start up completely, giving you an error about a missing operating system.

The first step is to find your laptop model online and divine what type of memory and hard drive it takes. For Apple laptops, check out sites like ifixit.com or macsales.com. IFixIt offers step-by-step instructions for adding memory and hard drives to almost any Macintosh model.

Windows users might face a bit more trouble trying to find tear-down manuals for their laptops. A quick online search, however, will bring up the size and models compatible with your particular laptops.

Hard drives are a bit trickier, but there are only two types to worry about: Parallel ATA (PATA) and Serial ATA (SATA). One rule of thumb: older computers run PATA; newer ones run the more compact SATA standard. If your computer has been around for over two years, chances are you have a PATA hard drive. .

Transfusion

 You will need to restore your files and applications from your old drive. So you will need a USB to IDE/SATA adapter, a device that plugs into your old hard drive and connects to the computer via USB.

The old drive then appears as an external USB drive, allowing you to drag off important files. If you have a backup drive, however, you can simply restore your data as the software instructs.

More complex repairs require a bit more planning and care. But keyboards, trackpads and screens are probably within the realm of possibility for consumers who want to do at-home repairs. Once I found my laptop under the sofa with a large, decidedly male footprint on it. I won’t say whose boot it was that stomped my laptop, but the resulting pressure cracked the laptop’s screen and drove me to eBay, where I found a new part for quick installation.

Not everyone has a knack for home laptop repair. But with a little research — along with a few fine screwdrivers and plenty of patience — even a misstep or powerful magnet doesn’t have to mean the end of your laptop’s long and fruitful life.


The New York Times

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