StethoscopeMost people are not technically inclined, at least not to the extent that they know how to repair their own computers. When something goes wrong, the average Joe or Josephine must rely on “techies” to fix things up.

Some people simply call the company from which they purchased their computer. That’s easy enough, although I could tell you horror stories about the outsourced tech support many companies provide. Another option is to visit one’s local “computer shop”. Usually it’s the kind of place that’s family owned and operated. They usually sell components, build their own machines to sell, and service anything that’s brought in to them. They’re everywhere.

The problem is – as if the Big Name Manufacturer tech support wasn’t bad enough – many of these Mom and Pop places really have no idea what they’re doing. Or, they just want to rip you off.

Here’s a little story to illustrate my point.

A few months ago, a friend of mine brought me a “dead laptop” made by HP that she bought way back in 2003. She said she had taken it in to a local techie shop to be fixed a few years earlier when it just died one day. The guy there told her that the machine wouldn’t boot from the harddrive, it wouldn’t boot from the DVD-ROM drive, it wouldn’t boot from the network, the battery wouldn’t hold a charge, and that the motherboard was obviously damaged. She was told she’d need to just buy a new laptop. And that’s exactly what she did. Fortunately, she decided to hang on to the old “dead” laptop. She then gave it to me to see if I could make it live again…

Well, reading over the list of problems from this other techie, the situation sounded pretty dire. At the same time, it didn’t make any sense. I mean, let’s face it, if the laptop had been struck by lightning, then sure, I could see how so many things could be wrong with it. But nothing like that had happened to it. It just wouldn’t boot one morning.

That’s the first thing I did: I thought about the situation logically. And that’s the first thing you need to do when your computer goes belly up on you. If you freak out because all your data’s lost and it’s the end of the world, someone will take advantage of you. So, don’t freak out! Or, go ahead and freak out, but then relax a bit before taking your computer in somewhere. Better yet, do a little sleuthing yourself if you can.

Getting back to our story, the first thing I did was to think about the situation and realize that something didn’t add up. Step #2 was to power the sucker up and see what happened.

Not surprisingly, nothing happened. But then I realized something: the harddrive was not making normal harddrive noises. This was a clue. Normally, when you power on a computer, the harddrive motor that spins the platter will “wind up”. When it reaches full speed (4200 RPM in this case), I should have heard little clicking noises. Those clicking noises are the head in the harddrive moving back and forth across the platter – much like the arm of a record player. Well, I didn’t hear those clicking noises. So I powered off, and back on again, this time with my ear pressed to the laptop where the harddrive was located.

Sure enough, the harddrive didn’t sound right. But was the harddrive really the problem? There was a very simple and logical way to find out: disconnect the harddrive from the laptop! In this particular laptop, it was quite simple. I found the little picture of the harddrive on the bottom of the machine, removed 1 screw holding its cover in place, and yanked the cover+drive right out of the machine. That was easy. Then I turned on the machine again, sans harddrive, to see what would happen.

Now, it might help to understand what happens when a computer boots. The motherboard of the computer has a BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System. It’s just some software stored in a chip on the motherboard that runs when the computer is turned on. The BIOS prepares the computer for the operating system to take over. It scans the PCI and/or PCI-Express bus for various devices, allocates address space to each, and generally makes sure everything is awake and functioning. Then it looks for Windows, Linux, etc. and lets the OS take control and start running things from there on out.

Great. So, why did I take out the harddrive? The answer is that the BIOS will look for a harddrive. If it finds one, but the harddrive is damaged, the machine will either display an error message, or not do anything further at all. It will simply lock up, exactly as my friend’s machine was doing. If I then remove the harddrive, and the BIOS carries on and tells me “No boot device found” or something like that, then I have just figured out that the problem is a dead harddrive. That’s exactly what happened with this HP computer. There was nothing wrong with the motherboard – it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

One thing I should probably mention here is that laptop harddrives generally fail more than those in desktop machines. The usual reason is heat. Heat is a computer’s worst enemy. You don’t want a “super-silent” laptop that gets too hot to rest on your lap. Why not? Because internal components are rated to run at a particular temperature range. If the outside of the case is too hot to touch, the components inside are a heckuva lot hotter! Yes, the components are probably still within their rated operating temperature range, but the simple fact of the matter is that the hotter they run, the more probable it is that you’ll have a device failure sooner rather than later.

But what about the DVD reader? Why couldn’t I boot from that? Well, that’s quite simple: the harddrive and optical drive were connected to the same Parallel ATA data bus. When the harddrive died and malfunctioned, the optical drive didn’t want to work, either. I would also later discover that this particular Hitachi GCC-4241N DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive had big problems reading burned disks. In fact, it had a big problem doing anything at all, and Google is littered with complaints about it. I found this out in about 10 minutes of searching. Easy enough, right?

At this point, I realized my friend had been taken for a ride. Fortunately, she didn’t buy a new machine from this bozo, but she did pay him for some really, really shoddy work.

Next step was to order a new harddrive. I found an inexpensive Seagate 5400 RPM 80GB laptop harddrive, read a bunch of reviews on it to make sure it was reliable enough, ordered it, and installed it.

Then I just re-installed the OS from the HP recovery disks, and installed all the latest service packs and patches. Voila, the laptop was chugging along nicely again.

At that point, I remembered the other problems listed by Mr. Bonehead Techie:

  • The battery wouldn’t hold a charge
  • Can’t boot from network

My friend didn’t care about booting from the ethernet adapter, so I didn’t check that out. But the battery not holding a charge was a problem. Fortunately, it was easy enough to repair: I visited HP’s web site, and discovered a much newer BIOS revision that had improved battery management. I downloaded the BIOS flash package, ran it on the laptop, and then left the laptop plugged in overnight. Sure enough, by the next morning, the updated BIOS had automatically fully discharged and recharged the “dead” battery. It now works like a charm.

The last thing I did was to upgrade the WiFi card, and I also upped the RAM to the max of 1GB.

The end result is that this “dead” HP laptop is working just fine.

It just goes to show you that you should ALWAYS, ALWAYS get a second opinion on computer repair – especially if the first opinion is a rather gloomy one!

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