Sunday, November 14, 2010

Electronics, Part 1

This is going to be a series of posts on electronics as I use them in practice.
First, a sad report on the netbook I blogged about last year. It looked promising, and at least for a time its promise seemed fulfilled. It did all the things I needed to get done, making EMG reports, tracking my patient charges, keeping up on messages and emails, and because of its light weight, was very easy to carry around everywhere.

Durability has always been the main long term problem with laptops I have owned. Usually, it's the screen - flaky connection, or in one way or another the LCD display just failing. One laptop still at home collecting dust has a failed CD-ROM drive, a killer when combined with the absence of any other way of upgrading the OS, since it was made before one could ask the computer to boot from a USB drive. I tried switching out the drive, but this didn't help, so it must be the drive controller.

So what happened to this Dell Latitude 2100? Not quite sure, but it seems to be a motherboard issue. Most often, I try to start it up, lights flash, and then the Caps lock key is blinking and blinking and blinking. After various shaking maneuvers were tried, it seemed for a while that lightly tapping the case on the counter would allow it to boot. But then, putting it into sleep mode, carrying it somewhere, and it would be frozen. Sometimes freeze up while I'm using it (grrrrr!).

With time, it took more "aggressive" tapping (aided by frustration), but somewhere along the way, I noticed that twisting the case could be enough to work sometimes, but anything that worked only worked sometimes. Obviously, surgery, or at least internal investigation was in order.

Comment: Sending one of these things back to Dell is of course an option. However, I was now in post-warranty land, and past experience tells me that a trip to Dell costs $150 (probably more now) just to have them take a look at your computer. So for a computer that brand-new cost me $400+, spending half of its brand-new cost is stupidity in action.

Next stop, Dell's website. I've bought a number of Dell products over the years, and while I am always game to trying to get useful info once again, they did not fail to change my bias that there is little if any useful support on the Dell website. What I was looking for was some help with understanding how to dismantle the 2100. I did find a site from a Dell employee about changing the SDD drive, but he gave no clue as to how to open up the case.

No help? No problem. After all, what I had in my hands was an electric-power-consuming paperweight. What good is a laptop that you might be able to get working by hammering on the counter, might quit in the middle of what you're doing, and will almost certainly not maintain its usefulness when you suspend and carry to some other place?

So I fumbled my way through opening the case by removing all identifiable screws, still found it impenetrable, and managed to eventually snap off some internal posts. VoilĂ ! Case opened!

It would have been great to say that I found some loose part, some errant piece of metal debris shorting out some circuit, some obviously sick connection somewhere to instantly fix and resurrect this failed netbook. Alas and alack! No such luck. I mashed down on all he ICs I could see, brushed the motherboard from any unseen debris, no effect. And yet, twisting the motherboard could manage to allow this thing to fire up. [Disclaimer: you will see numerous warnings about disarming things you are taking apart, dire consequences of electrical shock, transmitting currents to various electronic components without adequate grounding. I'm careful, but I ignore such warnings. After all, to me this is a dead piece of electronics. Zapping the processor to some state of complete inoperability would actually do me a favor, allowing me to comfortably toss this amalgam of silicon and solder in the trash.]

Yesterday, I managed through googling to find some Dell information on disassembling the 2100. Still lacking in some important details, I was able to figure out that, as I had actually suspected, that the "key" to getting this sucker apart somehow rested in getting the keyboard dislodged. However, even after this revelation, I have learned nothing further. I can say that the motherboard problem lies somewhere in the region of the WLAN device, which seemed to be suspiciously loose, yet various maneuvers attempting to improve the WLAN card connection made no difference, even though some localized mashing down in that area could affect the ability to boot.

So, all of this internal investigation, and I remain in the same place. So it's now kind of an extra computer, has a way of being useful, but this laptop bought for its great portability only is useful by smacking it around to get it to boot, then must be treated ever-so-gingerly to not upset the delicate connections you have resurrected for a time.

OMG! What am I doing in the meantime? While I keep getting a steady stream of emails from Dell about "deals" on laptops or whatever, the deals seem to all be in $500-600 dollar land, at least, and most are more. Oh yes, I'd love to send you $600 for a laptop that I might need to replace in 18 months, conveniently after the warranty expires. What I found was a demo Lenovo laptop at Office Depot, for which I paid $360, having a dual-core processor and a 250MB hard drive, 4GB RAM. Its main issue was that some kid had shoved something across the keyboard so that the F10 key no longer would stay in place. (I can't recall any software that really needs or uses the F10 key, and besides the mechanism works, it's just that there is no key on top of it)

So, it's heavier to be sure. But now I have a faster computer. I can set up a virtual machine running Windows so I can interact with the hospital's software. Not such a bad trade. But it's still a laptop, subject to all the physical breakdown problems I've seen before.

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