Thursday, February 28, 2013

Life without a laptop is hardly worth living: Tips for keeping yours running


Several weeks ago, odd things began to happen with my laptop. Freaky horizontal lines would take over the screen. Sometimes, half the screen would flash to black. USB ports failed. And if I was trying to watch a video of a news story or listen to a song on YouTube, the sound would fluctuate like a warped LP on a bad turntable, or slow to a menacing growl.

I started troubleshooting.

I updated drivers. Double-checked the BIOS and other settings. Made sure my antivirus was up to date. Defragged the hard disk. Changed out the RAM. Put in a new hard disk with a clean OS install. And so forth.

Everything I did had some positive effect and left me momentarily hopeful, but the problems still did not totally abate. Grrr…

Overheating blues

I finally opened it up and discovered a clump of lint in the fan. I generally blow the fan out with compressed air regularly, but it had been awhile. Doing this should have been at the top of my troubleshooting steps.

My best guess as to what happened is that my laptop overheated and it has had a bad impact on either the CPU or the motherboard or both. I’m debating doing further repairs.

In the meantime, I found a nearly identical model available, used and very cheap, on eBay and simply swapped out the hard drive. I’m up and running but, alas, the “new” used laptop has its own issues. So, I’m doing research toward buying a brand new one.

Keep the joy alive

When I do get a new machine, I’ll be taking steps to keep it running longer. Here are a few tips to help you do the same:

1. Laptops get hot; take steps to keep yours cool. There’s a lot of stuff packed tightly inside that little case. When the machine’s on, it gets hot. And even though they’re called “laptops” they’re not the most comfortable on your lap. People have been burned by them, and they’ve even started fires. To keep yours running cool:
a. Keep it on a hard surface when in use. I use an old slim book under mine. If you want to be fancier, get a lap desk or a cooling pad made for laptops. Whatever you do, don’t leave your laptop running while it’s on fabric (couch, chair, bed, clothing). Soft surfaces that allow the laptop to sink in will also block the ventilation slots on the bottom and sides of the machine; these need to be clear at all times.
b. Keep the air vents cleaned out. Use a can of compressed air and blow the dust out every couple of weeks, especially where the fan is located. You’d be surprised how dirty these can get in a short time!
c. Turn it off when not in use. I probably left mine on more than I should have. Once upon a time it was believed the best thing was to leave your PC on all the time. Basically, this was directed at desktops and really isn’t true. Shutting down doesn’t do damage, especially to your laptop. Heat buildup is a far greater concern. If you don’t like the idea of waiting for a full start up, consider putting it into hibernate mode.
d. Put it where the sun don't shine. Whether the laptop is on or off, you shouldn’t leave it sitting where the sun is going to shine on it for an extended period of time. If it’s on, sunlight will really ramp up the heat.
2. Laptops get dirty; keep them clean. Dust, skin, food, and more can impact the performance of your laptop. Adding and deleting files can fudge up the hard drive. A little care can go a long way:
a. Clean gently but thoroughly. The screen and surface of the laptop attract dust like a magnet. Wipe your laptop off regularly. Consult your owner’s manual for the proper way to clean the screen, but definitely don’t use harsh cleaners or rough cloths. Wipe your keyboard down and clean the screen when the laptop is turned off. If you’re careful, you can even use a vacuum cleaner to suck the lint and dust out of the keyboard, ventilation slots, and various ports.*
b. Keep the hard drive clean and neat. Do a defrag every couple of months and make sure you’re antivirus is up to date. Don’t know how to do this? Ask someone near you who does and then do it (don't call me). If your hard drive crashes due to a virus, Trojan, or clutter, you’ll lose all your data and digital photos. This makes it more than worth the time to learn how to do a defrag and manage your antivirus.
3. Backup! Oh, the things that can zap your files! Prepare for the worst:
a. Get an external drive and use it. Storage media is cheap. You can get a 1TB external drive for less than $100. Most come with software that will help you manage backups. Or, you can just plug the drive in and then drag and drop your files over from time to time. Backing everything up doesn’t prolong the life of your laptop, but it ensures that if and when your laptop dies, you’ll still have your critical files safe and sound.
An ounce of prevention is worth a motherboard of cure

A good laptop should give you many years of service. As long as any problems aren’t tied to the motherboard, it’s not all that hard to do simple repairs. Usually, all I’ve ever had to do was replace a hard drive – which was no big deal since I keep my files backed up.

But doing simple ongoing maintenance is a lot easier than dealing with repairs or replacement. Had I been more diligent in keeping my recent laptop’s vents cleaned out, it might still be humming along.

It’s no fun when the computer dies. It’s hard going through Facebook and Angry Birds withdrawal. Follow the tips above and hopefully you’ll never have to endure such a dreadful experience!

*Bonus Tip:

Put netting of some sort over the end of the vacuum cleaner attachment to avoid sucking parts into the vac.
Links to even more tips:

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Do you have additional tips to offer? Your own laptop meltdown horror story? Feel free to share in the comments section!

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