How to repair your laptop
1st Oct 2011 | 09:00
Our laptop repair guide shows you the parts you can repair, replace and upgrade
How to repair your laptop
Wondering how to repair a broken laptop? We're going to crack open three common laptops; a netbook, an older gaming laptop and a modern Intel model.
In the process we're going to take a look at just how we got inside, how easy it is to remove cases and components and once inside just what you can do in there.
From replacing dodgy audio and data connections, to upgrading or replacing damaged parts. By the time you've read this guide no longer should you be afraid to open up your laptop.
Like any epic quest you'll need the help of some trusty companions. The most important is a good precision screwdriver set. We picked up a cheap 11-piece set from a large yellow DIY store for £8. To shift firm screws a set of pliers is useful for giving a little more purchase to your screwdriver.
For soldering duties a soldering kit including a stand and helper will also be required, these cost around £15 from eBay. A well-lit, clear work space is also advantageous.
Somewhere you can store all the parts you remove and containers for the many, many tiny, easily lost screws laptops seem to produce. With all of that to hand let's start our teardown.
How to repair your netbook
Starting small seems like a good idea to us and our first Dexter-style victim is a trusty netbook. This is an ideal place to start as the construction and internal components are at a minimum, reducing the internal clutter and confusion, plus it provides a perfect way of getting to know the basic insides of a laptop before we move on to more complex models.
The first thing to do is disconnect this thing from the mains and remove the battery. This makes sure the damn netbook isn't going to try and spring back into life as we're poking around inside it. The other reason is that many models hide securing screws within the battery bay, so we need to poke around in there anyway.
Before attempting any teardown it's worth stepping back and assessing how the land lies. For us this means checking to see what screws are clearly visible in the base, flexing obvious areas to see if they look like they will un-clip and trying to spot screws hidden behind rubber feet or stickers.
The first job is to remove all the visible screws.
We suggest having some sort of system for storing the screws. We tend to try and place them on the bench in a mirror of where they were unscrewed from. You could take a piece of A4 and draw an outline of the laptop and place the screws in the corresponding position on the paper.
We do that as there's such a varied mix of sizes it saves trying to remember and guess where they should go. Alternatively you could sling them all into various tupperware pots, we just hope you have the kind of mind that can remember where they all go!
If there are any access panels these will also need to be removed , but this is more of an issue with laptop models. Often on netbooks this simply isn't the case, they're not designed to be upgraded in this way, which is another good reason for performing a teardown. So you know just how to replace the hidden internals.
With all the visible screws out of the way it's time to start teasing off the bottom of the netbook's chassis. There are dedicated pry tools for this usually made from plastic, though small flat-head precision screwdrivers work as well. Be as gentle as possible at this stage, the main thing is to check for any hidden screws that can often be hiding in the case.
Once the main back has been removed as, you'll see for the other models, netbooks effectively come in two main pieces: the base and the display. Usually you won't want to detach the two unless you're performing a screen replacement but they will always come apart in two stages: the first being the electrical connections and the second being the physical hinge.
Delving further than this into a netbook is a case of continuing to remove visible screen and cable connections, the next main piece being the motherboard and with that out of the way you're done.
Dismantling an old friend
Armed with just a screwdriver and our cunning
01. Start with the screws
We'll start with removing all the screws. Switching to your finger tools see how amenable the bottom of the case is to being removed, in this case the bottom pretty much fell off.
Normally you'll need a small flat-head driver to carefully un-clip the loosest area of the case and take it from there. Keep an eye out for screws hidden behind stickers or rubber feet.
02. Look at what you've done
Often this is as far as you'll need to venture as you have access to all the main components including the hard drive, memory expansion, wireless mini-PCI-e module, cooling module and backup battery. For keyboard and touchpad repairs, screen replacements and motherboard repairs you have to venture further. First, taking a photo for reference.
03. Getting sticky
There will be a lot of tape holding various wires and components tidily in place. You'll need to remove all of these, which is why a reference photo will be handy when putting everything back.
Some removable components, such as the hard drive or wireless module will be screwed into place. It's likely these will need to be removed if you want to remove the mobo.
04. The screening process
The last major component to go is the screen. On most models this is firmly held in place by a screw beside each hinge.
On top of this you'll find a number of cables going into the screen that carry the power, the video data, any wireless antenna that are embedded in it, plus data cables for webcams or mics. Undo and unplug these and the screen should come away.
05. Get your mother out
The keyboard, touchpad, speakers, chassis, LEDs and other sensors, such as Bluetooth adaptors will trail cables to the top and bottom sides of the mobo.
The ribbon connectors usually flip up; older types have a pull up section. You'll often find the keyboard ribbon awkwardly connects to the underside, you may have to yank the mobo away from this.
06. Keyboard popping
Keyboards are usually stronger than they look as they are designed to be highly flexible. The main issue is trying to work out if they're designed to be removed from the outside or from inside. Often if you look along the top row of keys you can spy tabbed areas to insert a flat-head screwdriver and pop them out. With this model it had to be popped from the rear.
How to repair your gaming laptop
How to repair your gaming laptop
If you like to super-size your laptop then you've got yourself a big-ass machine to lug around. When it comes to 17-inch, larger-screened models construction tends to be somewhat different to everything smaller, due to the additional weight of the screen and the extra features that can be put in there.
The very size and weight of screens does mean they are more prone to damage from drops and also screen damage, never mind the extra kit high-end gaming models will be carrying around inside of them.
The good news is we've generally found these bad boys to be easier to get into and disassemble. If you follow the walk-through it's often the case that removing the top fascias and keyboard provides access to much of the insides. While the screen can be easily removed for replacement.
Cooling is a big issue with any gaming laptop we would typically expect at least two main fans, if not three, and there can be as many as four on crazy SLI models. Each of these will be wedged next to a heatpipe- connected heatsink that goes to the cooling block, which in turn is bolted to the GPU or CPU.
Typically both mobile GPUs and CPUs aim to keep the thermal design power or TDP - that's needed to dissipate the heat - to 35W or below, but for extreme versions the heat profile can got up to 55W for Intel Extreme CPUs and 75W on the GPU side of things. This is why it's necessary to keep the vents clear and check for dust build up in the small heatsink fins.
Hard to process
Overheating usually characterises itself as instant shutdowns in the middle of a heavy load coupled with - oddly enough, Sherlock - high chassis temperatures. The situation is usually exacerbated by environmental issues, such as blocking the vents with your duvet, using your laptop in direct sunlight on a hot day or being backed up to a radiator while on top of having blocked vents.
Externally air dusting vents doesn't really help, as it just pushes the dust back into the laptop, so removing the keyboard is usually a minimum requirement.
For new laptops, contemplating upgrading the processor makes no sense but for older models, especially mid- or low-end ones, a cheap bump in processor speed could be a welcome one. It's often the case that the processor is socketed, which makes for an easy upgrade path. Assuming, of course, the laptop supports a faster processor.
Current Intel Core i3/5/7 mobile processors use Socket 988/G1, the previous Socket 478/P was for the Core 2 mobile range, preceding that was Socket 478/M designed for the original Core mobile processor, but just to make things more confusing some older Core 2 chips also used this socket.
AMD laptops use the company's confusing Socket S1Gx. Stay safe and only consider processors designed for the same socket. Physically the sockets are identical but, for example, S1G4 is DDR3 while S1G3 is DDR2. As with Intel chips we'd suggest if you're interested in a processor upgrade, stick with a GHz bump within the range of the model.
Going in the top
For the big guys a top assault is the way to go
01. The spice of life
For larger 17-inch models, especially gaming-orientated ones often a top-down teardown approach is needed. For this older Dell XPS and for many other Dell models you can remove the top facia that covers the screen hinges, by folding the screen right back. Sometimes there are a couple of fixing screws along the back edge.
02. [Ctrl]-[x] the keyboard
Usually the keyboard is clipped into place but on larger models there can be a couple of screws to remove too. This is besides the inevitable ribbon that lurks underneath. With the keyboard removed, the top part of the chassis was only held in with a few screws. It's the same for the screen, once the hinge screws are removed, this can be lifted away.
03. Gaming power
Once the keyboard and screen are removed the base-unit usually stands alone as a self-contained unit. The two main parts we're interested in are the heatsinks; the smaller one you will find in all mid- to high-end models and is for the processor. The larger one is for cooling the GPU, once you've removed the screws for these the entire assembly should lift out.
04. Whip it out, boys
If the laptop processor is socketed then you have the option to replace it, if damaged, or even upgrade it. It's often possible to jump up a couple of notches on the GHz scale with mobile processors. If it is a socketed processor you should see the retaining screw poking out from the side of the cooling module, which you will need to loosen and remove.
05. Brain transplant
Just like the extra scene from Terminator 2 you now have access to the brain of the laptop, undo the retaining screw and it'll lift out like any normal processor from the ZIF socket. To ensure compatibility look up the original specification of the laptop and see what range of processors were offered for it. These will be supported by the BIOS in your model.
06. Tuck her into bed
Drop the processor carefully back into the ZIF socket and instead of a lever you just tighten the securing screw back up. Make sure you don't forget to apply a small amount of thermal paste to the processor before reinstalling the cooling module. Just as with a desktop processor it'll need this to efficiently transfer any heat off to the heatsink.
How to fix a larger laptop
Fixing larger laptop models
For the final laptop model we've taken on a complex business-class model. Your standard 15-inch Intel Core model tends to be very simple inside, if you ever open one up you'll be lucky to find much more to it than the mobo and cooling module. Everything else is directly soldered to the mobo, this helps to cut costs across the board from development and manufacturing to maintenance and support.
Effectively, they're not scary at all! Beyond regular upgrades the most common issues with laptops tend to be ports failing, primarily the power connector but this extends to headphone jacks and USB ports.
If you're lucky the laptop design has these as removable modules or plug-in connectors, but this is unusual. More likely they are soldered directly onto the mobo making them harder to replace but not impossible. We've shown you below how you can replace both a soldered-on component and a plug-in module.
This, in theory, will work for any component, however the easiest onboard components to replace are generally power sockets and audio jacks. We'd shy away from USB ports and they tend to have far more physical support due to their size.
Fix her up
As we mentioned with netbooks, replacing an entire mobo isn't out of the question. They're easy enough to remove and transferring the CPU is straightforward too. If yours has one, the GPU can be switch too. Your main problem will be locating the replacement motherboard in the first place.
eBay tends to be your best bet, but there's no harm checking to see if the original manufacturer will supply one direct, but it will remain costly.
So far we've taken things about as far as we can, having stripped the system right down to the last component. The chassis can be damaged with cracks or have chunks taken out of them and you don't need to live with that.
Most DIY stores sell epoxy putty, this is a solid form of epoxy that you can mould in your hand and sculpt to form a section of case or push into cracks and gaps. It sets rock hard so reinforcing and keeping a damaged chassis water proof. It's also possible to sand the set epoxy down and paint it for a professional finish.
Another common pain that laptop owners have to suffer are external power supply unit failures. Again eBay is the simple answer, with replacement PSUs available at a fraction of the cost.
Frayed power connectors are another annoyance with PSUs. Standard replacement DC power plugs are easily sourced on eBay or Maplin and are simple enough to fit.
Once you've confirmed it is a broken screen you'll need to track down a suitable replacement either on eBay or from specialists such as at www.accupart.co.uk and it could cost as little as £60.
If you're having other display problems such as a dim or flickering screen, the likely cause is the inverter that powers the screen. You should try and replace this first on its own, as it's a far cheaper part than the panel. If the problem turns out to be the panel's backlight then that will require a new panel.
To access the panel itself remove the rubber grommets and the screws hidden beneath. This will free the plastic facia and provide access to the panel itself. You'll need to disconnect any cables connected to the back of the original panel and unscrew it from the securing frame.
Installing the new panel is a case of reversing this process.
Replace a busted power connector to resurrect a dead laptop
01. Power issues
A commonly damaged component due to its heavy use is the power connector of a laptop. While some might like to put this down to some type of conspiracy theory it's actually more so corporate buyers know devices can be easily serviceable. So you'll find that many use drop-in replacements such as the pictured one available from eBay.
02. Drill down and down
The power connector is often located under many layers of your laptop. Ideally if it's an attached component, as in this case, you'll just need to order the correct part from the manufacturer or eBay. On cheaper models it's likely to be soldered directly to the mobo in which case follow the walk-through below.
03. Replace the damaged one
Lenovo has thoughtfully added millions of screws between us and the connector but also a bunch of removable add-in cards. Once there it's a case of attaching a single connector and a ground line, the rest is down to routing the cabling under the add-in network card.
A common issue are damaged on-board connectors
01. Survey the damage
Crackling and intermittent cut outs can be caused by a few things but one of the main culprits beyond damaged cables is the connection itself. Over time the physical twisting and yanking, plus expansion from heat, can eventually break a solder spot and start to cause audio problems or make the entire connection fail.
02. Out with the old
To remove a mobo-soldered connection you'll need a soldering iron, solder and 2mm de-soldering braid. Place the braid over the solder spot, hold the iron on this for a second, add a small amount of solder, reapply the iron for a second and lift. The braid will suck up all the solder, simply repeat until it's all gone.
03. In with the new
Make sure you select the correct replacement connection. Push it firmly against the PCB and melt solder into the solder points. Try not to hold the soldering iron on a spot for more than a couple of seconds, else you're likely to start damaging plastics and components. Test and you should be done.
First published in PC Format Issue 256
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