Refurbishing unwanted laptops

Well, just today, a good friend of mine gave me an “unwanted” laptop that had served its time. In fact, it was this one – a Dell Inspiron 640m, based on the initial Centrino Duo platform (Intel T2300E 1.66Ghz dual core, 32-bit only, 1Gb RAM, Intel GMA950 graphics, Intel 3945ABG Wireless, Bluetooth, SD/MS/XD Card Reader, Expresscard/54, USB2.0, Firewire 4-pin, TV-out).

In fact, I own a very similar BenQ R55UV10 laptop which has almost identical specs, and this is indeed still capable of running Windows 7. It’s definitely still useful, but not as fast as a modern laptop, and will be useful for my mum who owns a Mac (because of her boyfriend), but needs to use a PC for work purposes (and the Mac is a bit short of hard disk and RAM for virtualization, and or bootcamping).

So, I thought it was probably a good opportunity to go through the steps which I take to refurbish a laptop, for another life full of hard work. Many of the laptops you may come across, or may be given, may have ailments, instabilities, defects and may have been unwanted due to several common causes – so a good refurbishment goes a long way to rejuvenating such a device.

Step 0 – Unpack and Assess Visually. Gather information.

The first step is, of course, to unpack everything you’ve been given and assess the condition and what accessories are included.

If you’re lucky, you will have at least the power adaptor (I got two!) and the main unit in decent condition. Of course, after a lifetime of work, it’s common to find scratches and dirt all over, so it’s probably good to get out the bottle of methylated spirits and give it a good wipe-down. You know just how much germs live in a keyboard – so it’s best to disinfect.

Open it up, close it a few times, check where all the ports are, what era machine it is, what spec. On assessing this one – it looked in pretty good nick – it was a Dell Inspiron 640m with the 14.1″ 1440×900 resolution screen (better than the average 1280×800 of the day). The rest of the specs are as above.

Once you know about it – if you’re missing accessories, then you can start to go looking/adapting. Look for service manuals online, specs and most importantly, a dis-assembly guide. Once you have that, you can probably see if you have any spare power adapters (if you’re missing one), or whether you can adapt your unwanted power adapters (in the case that you have a defective power brick – this is one common cause for people to throw out laptops!). Or you can use a benchtop supply, if you have one.

If you got a battery with it, then you may or may not be lucky. Chances are, the battery will be knackered, and won’t be useful as they have limited lifetimes. Don’t throw it away just yet – give it a go, and record the model numbers. It’s quite cheap ($25-50) to buy a replacement battery from eBay (of questionable quality), which should get you through a few years.

Step 1 – Open it up, clean it out.

It’s not a refurbishment until you’ve opened the thing up, and sometimes, from both sides. While doing so, you can attend to the few issues and find out more about the machine – had it had any upgrades, and do you have any spare parts you can use to upgrade it. You can also find out if it’s missing any parts.

In my case, the previous owner prudently took his hard disk (along with the mounting carrier) – so that was solved easily with a spare SATA 2.5″ HDD of mine, with a few pieces of folded paper to wedge it in place. If you are supplied with a hard drive – don’t take it for granted. Many laptops are thrown out because they freeze/stutter – a bad hard drive with pending reallocations (i.e. bad sectors) would cause this. You can easily diagnose this by looking at the SMART data once you start testing the hardware. Don’t also take for granted any working optical drive either – laser failure is not uncommon, so laptops with optical drives that cannot read CD’s or DVDs or both can and do occur. Spare drives set to Cable Select could be helpful – if not, a common USB CD/DVD drive would suffice for installs. This laptop had one spare RAM slot for a DDR2 SODIMM, with one slot occupied with 1Gb. Unfortunately, I’m fresh-out of DDR2 SODIMMs, so no upgrading here. Wireless card and modem were still installed, which was good.

[As an aside, I really liked the Intel Wireless 3945ABG cards – they were the first mPCI-e wireless card from Intel themselves which had the Proset Wireless utilities for XP – this provided a wealth of diagnostic data about the connection quality not otherwise available. Also, this card was the second in the Intel range (after the 2915ABG) offering Wireless A (5Ghz) band and B/G (2.4Ghz) band in the same card – back then, dual band cards were exquisite rarities which used to cost a premium – most A band cards had no way of talking on 2.4Ghz and vice versa!]

Now here’s an important step – remove the CPU cooler.

It sometimes takes a bit of delicate work, and you will need tissues, methylated spirits and thermal paste for this. Most of the time, it’s a case of undoing the screws around the CPU alternately, until you free the cooler. Sometimes, you will have to remove the whole back casing, and or chipset heatsink block too as they may be connected by a heatpipe. This is important as many laptops will have been thrown out because they were slow due to overheating and or thermal throttling (where CPUs are limited in speed by the thermal monitor to prevent CPU damage). Heatsinks are often made with small fins and a blower which pushes air across the fins – the leading edge of the fins is a great place for dust to collect –

I’ve seen this so often that it’s a must to clean it out before putting it back in service. Think of it this way – you’ll get a cooler, quieter laptop that will last longer by doing this. Also, you’ll save the CPU fan bearings too because they won’t have to spin as quickly and as often! Remove all dust, clean off any old thermal compound/remove thermal tape (but not pads) using methylated spirits. Apply half-a-rice-grain of thermal paste to the die and remount.

While we’re at it, do a bit of tightening around the screen hinges – screens usually go floppy as they work their mounting screws loose over time. Reassemble, and there she is, pretty much good as new!

Step 2 – Plug it in, turn it on, and see what happens.

Now it’s time to see what happens. Plug it in, turn it on and hopefully something happens. If the light on the power brick comes on, that’s a start. Plugged into the laptop, if the battery charge light comes on, that’s even better.

If you get chirping noises, screeching noises, or a battery charge light flashing erratically, it’s a sign that the power adapter is failing under load. This was the case with my last donated laptop – a quick check with a spare universal supply cleared that one up.

If the charge light doesn’t come on, reseat the battery and see if that changes anything. In the case of this Inspiron, it didn’t do anything, so chances are that the battery has been deeply discharged to the point that it is unable to recharge (for safety reasons).

Press the power button and see what happens. The fans should spin, the hard disk should spool up, and the screen should come on. If it does, great! You probably have a machine that works to some degree. Enter the BIOS, set up the settings and check everything out. If not, you might have to do a CMOS clear by removing the battery on the motherboard or shorting out a set of pins/pads on the motherboard – time to consult the service manual. Or you might have a laptop with a defective nVidia based graphics card (another common reason for laptops being thrown out).

So, this Inspiron came right up, didn’t complain about CMOS checksum error (so the CMOS battery is still alive), and walking through the BIOS, is sensibly configured and has detected all the hardware. Great. Just one thing – the battery isn’t showing up – so it’s pretty much curtains for that one. Have a new 9-cell on order from eBay for about $35 – so that would work a treat!

Step 3 – Hardware Check.

Before commissioning a new machine, it’s good to just make sure everything is working correctly, before you have to troubleshoot mysterious BSODs, kernel panics and the like. So first step for me is to memtest the machine, just to make sure the memory is all good. Then I like to boot Knoppix and run Prime95 under WINE to make sure the CPU is all good. It also gives a chance to heat up the CPU, check the cooling is working, and set the thermal paste. If it all passes, then we’re good to go! It’s also a good chance to quickly check the keyboard is all working, touchpad is responding (some older laptops start getting erratic as they age – nothing we can do about that but replace/disable it), locate the bad pixels on the screen, etc. Also is a good idea to check the health of any hard disks you might have been given by reading the SMART data – by not booting from the drive itself, it also allows you to wipe it clean, especially if it has boot sector viruses and rootkits on it – DBAN is a good move.

Step 4 – Install OS, Apps.

The last step, install a fresh copy of the OS of your choosing, and configure it to your needs. Congratulations, you’ve got a fully refurbished laptop that should work for a while longer!

Conclusion

So there we are, my recipe for refurbishing laptops – by doing this, it’s quite easy to prolong the life of the laptops which you may be given, and also to weed out those which are bad and determine whether it’s worthwhile to replace or repair. If it’s something simple/cheap like a battery or a power brick, it could be extremely worthwhile to order a copy-cat replacement so you can use it for a few years, however, if it’s a defective graphic processor, it’s probably not worth getting a new card. However, if the graphic card is screwy – one way to revive it is to try baking it in an oven to reflow the board, much like how I did with my Raspberry Pi.

Luckily this laptop I got was no trouble at all – bar a battery which needs to be replaced, a hard disk which needed to be supplied, and a bit of cleaning. Who woulda thought?

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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