Given the vast amount of time I spend with computers, I’ve been forced to learn a great deal about computer maintenance. Most of what I’ve learned has been accumulated through experience, and sometimes that experience has not been pleasant. I’ve destroyed a couple of keyboards after I took them apart and couldn’t get them back together. But I struggle on. Some jobs I’ve been afraid to touch, worried that I’ll damage something beyond repair. But I’m becoming braver, and last weekend I actually took my laptop apart!
My bravery comes from several sources. First, years ago my father taught me that to find out how things work you sometimes need to dismantle them — learn through trial and error and never be afraid to try. He’s the kind of person who can fix pretty much anything, and I would like to emulate that. Second, I’m so tired of trying to hire someone else to do the job. It costs money I don’t have, and all too often I’m not satisfied with the results. Third, I’m tired of feeling helpless and disadvantaged when it comes to technology. I want to know how things work and to take control.
Even so, my decision to dismantle the laptop was risky, given the most recent computer experience I had. The hard drive in my older desktop had blown up some months previous, and because I had been lax about doing backups, I lost a lot of important data (thus reinforcing the importance of having a CD burner and ensuring important files are backed up on CD at least once a month). I took the ruined drive to a computer repair guy for replacement, but once again, it became non-functional after I attempted to install my cable provider’s free virus protection program. I phoned the cable company’s *help-less* desk, but they informed me that they did not provide support for the software. Thanks for telling me this NOW, guys! Another lesson learned — if you have a functional virus protection program, don’t abandon it for a freebie. So, I uninstalled the program and tried to repair the damage, but to no avail. In desperation, after fighting with the computer for hours, I gave up. Knowing I had nothing to lose (since I’d already lost all my data!), I decided to take the plunge and format my hard drive. I’ve always known how to do this, but never had the courage to wipe out everything on the drive and start over from scratch.
The computer cooperated nicely, and was quite happy to delete everything on its hard drive. Too happy. After the drive was clean, feeling quite pleased with myself, I re-loaded Windows. So far so good. The system was actually stable again. I felt a surge of elation when my desktop icons actually appeared on the screen. Yes! I had done it right! My elation came too soon. When I plugged in my Internet cable, I received my first error message — no modem could be found. I figured it was probably just something I needed to set up correctly, and was not worried initially. But no matter what I tried, the modem remained invisible. Finally, having spent far more hours on the project than I could spare, I gave up for the time being. The next time I booted up, however, I discovered yet another problem — the computer was not recognizing the correct size of hard drive. So much for my feelings of pride. I had apparently deleted a little more memory than intended. Completely frustrated, I abandoned the computer. I’ve since had a conversation with my father, and he has suggested that physically disassembling the computer and re-installing the modem & hard drive might do the trick. So that is next on my project list.
In the meantime, however, I decided that my laptop needed some attention. I’ve not been able to use it much for some time now, as it has been running so poorly. So on Sunday I sat down and did some serious research to try to discover the problem.
It does help that the Internet has such a wealth of informative guidelines. Google has become my best friend when it comes to computer maintenance & repair. I can type in a phrase like, “how to format drive”, “computer (insert brand) runs slow” or “what is (insert name of file)”, and I’ll find all kinds of suggested possibilities. Through creative linking I often find excellent reference sites, and I’m careful to ensure that any information I follow is verified by several sources. The tech forums are often the best, and it was through one of these that I found detailed instructions, including step by step pictures, on how to dismantle and re-assemble my laptop.
According to many of the forums, the slow speed and tendency to suddenly black out is a problem endemic to my particular brand of laptop. Chalk up another lesson — I should have researched laptops more thoroughly before buying. There does not seem to be a remedy for this, but several forum posters suggested that cleaning the fan might help improve performance.
Having learned my lesson, I made sure I burned a copy of all my important files before I started. Then, armed with forum advice and the pictures, I found a tiny screwdriver and set to work. Yet another important lesson — it’s not a good idea to attempt to open computers unless you have the right tools. Fortunately my screwdriver did fit, but it could have been a problem getting things back together.
I carefully followed the order of the pictures and eventually had my laptop in pieces all over the floor. Something I learned long ago is to handle the tiny little screws very carefully (with a magnetized screwdriver) [ed: It’s not recommended to use anything magnetic near your computer as any magnetic force can damage your circuits and hard drive. Use this convenient device with great care. It’s also a good idea to be electrically grounded by touching a metal table leg or something similar and wearing clothes that don’t hold static], and place them in separate spots so you know which ones came from where. I lay down a large piece of newspaper underneath and used a damp paper towel so things would not roll off and get lost. Cleaning the fan was a little more complicated than I had expected, mostly because I chickened out and decided not to completely dismantle the unit. But it was pretty grimy, and eventually I felt I had done as much cleaning as possible. Working backwards, I re-assembled the pieces. With fearful glances at the now-defunct desktop computer still sitting idle in the corner, I replaced the final screw.
Fingers trembling, I pressed the “on” button. The familiar start-up sounds began. So far so good. The whine of the fan as it began seemed completely normal. Within a few minutes my desktop appeared, exactly as I had left it. Thank goodness! It was at least functional, I hadn’t destroyed it. But had I fixed the problem? I’m not sure. It seems to be running marginally better, but maybe its just wishful thinking on my part. Since Sunday I’ve asked a few more questions and done some more research. It looks like I may have to take it apart yet again. But at least I now know it can be done without serious harm.
Basic computer maintenance is something everyone should know how to do. It’s no different than vehicle upkeep — checking oil, fluids, regular washes. Given our reliance on computers, upkeep should be a priority. It’s not difficult to take the computer apart, and even if you aren’t brave enough to do a complete dismantle, its a good idea to periodically open it up and at least clean out the dust (very carefully, of course). My computer is an essential part of my life, so I need to know how to take care of it.
There are some great websites that detail how to do all the basics — hard drive cleanup, disc defrag, program installation/removal, error checking, back-up. There are also some excellent Internet resources to help you clean your computer of potential viruses, worms, adware and spyware. Something I’ve found helpful is to Google every item listed on my Windows Task manager (the window that comes up when you Ctrl Alt Del), to understand what each of these programs are and whether they are necessary to computer operations. That way I know what my computer is doing at all times and can monitor any new or unexplained activity that might indicate a virus. Don’t underestimate the power of a search engine, it can really guide you through the process and help explain things. I’ve started “Googleing” everything and anything I don’t understand, trying different variations of phrases, and doing searches within searches. With just a little research, you can go from a helpless technophobe to someone who actually knows what you are doing! And you will be amazed at the interesting facts you pick up along the way. Forums are also excellent tools, and if you post your tech questions, I’ve found that people are very willing to help — there is a wonderful tech community out there, and no question is too small or too dumb.
Of course, it’s also important to recognize limitations, and I know there are certain computer jobs that I’m better off leaving to a professional with more experience – at least for the moment anyway. But I feel proud that I’m now able to accomplish computer maintenance tasks that a few years ago I would have found completely daunting. With my new-found confidence, I plan to take another stab at my desktop repair next week, and who knows? Perhaps one day soon I’ll be building my own computer from scratch!