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Serviceman's Log

Unlike desktop PCs, laptops suffer from all sorts of accidental damage, sometimes fixable and sometimes not. Where possible though, we do like to repair them and keep them going.

by the Serviceman

Items Covered This Month

• Fixing a laptop power socket

• The Breville stab mixer

• A shonky antenna modification

*Dave Thompson, runs PC Anytime in Christchurch, NZ.

It’s a fact of life that lower-end laptops and desktops are now often treated as consumable items; something to be chucked away if they fail as repairs are deemed too expensive.

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However, I don’t consider this to be the best approach. Apart from the adverse ecological impact, it also wastes tonnes of valuable (and sometimes dwindling) resources. Our rubbish bins are too often fed computers and components that could easily be salvaged, recycled and re-used.

In light of this and other excesses in the industry, we try to offer as many options as we can, especially for laptop repair. Provided the economics stack up, the aim is to keep a machine going for at least its expected average life.

When they bring in a faulty computer, many clients ask whether they should “just buy a new one” and throw the old one away. Less scrupulous retailers would probably jump at the chance for an easy sale but we like to check if the machine can be economically repaired first. Of course, if the machine is badly damaged or the repair is obviously not economically viable, we quickly advise the client to discard it. We may be green-aware but we are sensible about it.

Laptops are a special case in point, as they are so prone to accidental damage. We often see machines that have been dropped, sat-on, had coffee spilled over them or damaged in 101 other ways. 

A classic recent example was a 14-month old laptop with a broken power socket. Laptop power sockets come in all shapes and sizes, some proprietary and some stock-standard, yet the majority share the same inherent fault – physical weakness. When a power supply is plugged in, enormous stresses can sometimes be placed on the socket. A common scenario is where a user forgets that the supply is plugged in and picks the machine up and waks off, only to be jerked to a stop as the power cable reaches its limit.

In such cases, it is just luck if the socket doesn’t break under the strain. However, even if it doesn’t break, it can be deformed to such an extent that the plug no longer makes decent contact, so the result is almost the same. In either case, a replacement is required.

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Manufacturers go down either of two roads when attaching power sockets to motherboards. The first is where the socket is soldered directly onto the board while the other is where the socket is self-contained in a small moulded enclosure (often part of the case) and connected to the motherboard via a small loom and plug.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to repairs. The stand-alone version is obviously the easiest to replace, provided a spare part is available. If it isn’t, then there are problems, especially if the socket is an oddball one.

The same goes for the hard-soldered socket. In addition, these can be quite difficult to remove from the motherboard without damaging anything. It’s a big ask, considering the amount of heat usually required to melt large soldered joints through double-sided boards.

While a standard 40-watt soldering iron could be used, a specialist de-soldering tool such as a hot-air or suction-based station is worth its weight in gold for this type of work. The ability to replace items on motherboards in-house is a big plus for any company, saving everyone’s time and increasing profitability as opposed to farming the work out to a third-party contractor.

But what can we do if we can’t get a similar socket? Even with dozens of old laptop chassis and dead motherboards, the chances of finding a socket that fits perfectly in the old solder holes on the motherboard, or fits in the case moulding like the original, are very slim.

I have been lucky with many of the socket repairs I have carried out over the years, with spares being available either from the manufacturer or from one of the electronics suppliers around town. Lately, however, my luck appears to have run out and I’ve had several cases where I was unable to find a replacement that was similar enough to do the job.

For a machine in otherwise good shape, this is a real shame and not just because replacing laptop motherboards is typically expensive. In many cases, the boards are not even available in New Zealand as a spare part and buying and freighting one in from overseas is not economically viable either.

In the past, we used to advise claiming insurance for such faults, though this relied on the client having the necessary insurance and the company paying out on such claims. As a result, for some time now, we have been offering a compromise solution and while it won’t suit everyone, many people go for it as an affordable option.

Our solution is to hard-wire a small “dongle” where the power socket once sat, with a standard socket on the end for their original power supply to plug into (though this is usually modified with a new matching plug). In most cases, the dongle (which I create from similar-gauge laptop power supply cable) sits beside the machine in normal use and folds alongside when in the carry-bag, making it just as portable as before. And because we include decent stress-relief, if someone walks off with it plugged in, the plug will simply pull out without breaking anything.

It is an ideal repair to keep otherwise perfectly-good laptops going that little bit longer when they might otherwise be thrown out.

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