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Do It Yourself Laptop Repairs

October 1st, 2012

As much as I like fast, shiny, new computer hardware, my actual needs are such that I get along fine with gear that is best described as “trailing edge technology.” I’ve been perfectly happy with a couple of older laptops for years now, but recently suffered hardware failures on both machines — one an easy fix, the other much, much harder to resolve. Thankfully, I was able to repair both machines, and, in this post, I’ll walk you through what was involved.

First up is the easy fix.

removingdeadharddrive Removing the dead hard drive

The hard drive on my aging Compaq N610C finally died on me. Fortunately, I have a few spare HDs kicking around, and replacing a drive in this laptop takes less than 5 minutes to accomplish. I simply had to remove a screw, slide out the old drive, swap the replacement and dead drive in the mounting bracket, then pop the “new” drive back in. Fast and easy!

Unfortunately, reinstalling the OS and needed software took far, far longer than the actual replacement of the drive (an hour later, as I type this, it’s still downloading updates).

deaddrivebracket The dead drive and the mounting bracket

The second repair was the non-trivial one, since it involved a failed backlight on my Dell D430. Let’s take a look at how involved this operation turned out to be:

removebezelkeyboard Step one was to remove the bezel and keyboard

To get to the backlight inside the display panel, I didn’t have to completely disassemble the laptop, but it was darned close. The keyboard needed to be removed to give me adequate slack on the cables, then the hinges needed to be unscrewed to free the display panel.

d430disassembled Keyboard and cables freed up, hinges released

Next up, the display panel was disassembled:

bezellcdpanel Next, the bezel on the LCD panel was removed

lcdpanelrevealed The LCD panel revealed

Now, the specific problem with the backlight was that it would flash for about a second when the laptop powered up, but then the light would go dark. Presumably this meant that either the light itself or the inverter board that powered the light was defective and in need of replacement. The lighting element on this laptop is actually a very tiny fluorescent tube, much like the large ones in common use in industrial settings. The inverter board takes care of converting the low-voltage DC current from the laptop batteries into high-voltage AC current to drive the lighting element.

Given the behavior of the display, I suspected the inverter board to be a problem. If the fluorescent tube were a problem, the display would likely have failed over time, appearing reddish and dim when the machine was first powered up. Since the display flashed brightly and briefly, I was pretty sure it was not the tube at fault.

In preparation for this repair job, I’d actually purchased a replacement inverter board. To confirm that this was the problem, I swapped out the cables between the old and new inverter and powered-up the D430. Surprisingly, the backlight displayed the exact same behavior with the new inverter! Given that, I sadly concluded that the problem lay with the lighting element itself, and I was faced with a much more complicated repair.

thebacklight The backlight itself

Removal of the lighting element from the panel was the trickiest part of all. The tube is about 2mm in diameter and is incredibly fragile. I was lucky to get it loose without breaking.

During disassembly of the tube, one of the power cables dropped free. These are soldered onto the ends of the tube — or should I say that they are supposed to be soldered onto the ends of the tube. Assuming that I had not pulled the cable loose, it seemed that I had found the problem. Apparently the solder join had failed over time, leaving just enough of a connection for the start-up current to flicker the backlight, but not enough for the light to function under normal operating current.

backlight The backlight completely stripped down

I carefully cleaned and resoldered the power cable, then reassembled the system enough to test:

lettherebelight Let there be light!

Thankfully, the backlight worked!

Having solved that problem, it was time to reassemble the thing.

tubeback Tube back in display panel, electrical tape applied

Before I completely closed up the laptop, I tested the display again. It really sucks to have to backtrack in this sort of repair.

displaypanel Another test of the display panel

And finally….

success Success!

So, an hour or so later, I had the D430 back in action.

In retrospect, I’m not sure I would have undertaken the backlight repair if I’d known it was going to be this involved. I’m glad to have resurrected the laptop, rather than consigning it to some sketchy recycling program or paying someone else a hundred bucks or more to fix it; however, I honestly don’t enjoy this kind of thing as much as I used to.

So, no, I really will not fix your computer for you.

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