Notes on Fixing Computers

About a month ago I was hosting a party at my apartment and I could only assume that a friend of mine drunkenly decided to spill their cocktail over my laptop’s keyboard and promptly leave the scene of the crime. It’s not so much the fact that I have a broken computer that annoys me, but more so that a friend would do that without having the decency to tell me. Alas, that’s a rant for a different blog. This post will be about how I went about fixing my $1400 computer without being extorted by the Acer repair center and the mistakes I learned from. Mostly, these lessons revolve around a piece of advice I received from one of my professors “There will be many times in your engineering career where if you just had the right tool a job would be incredibly easy, but you won’t have it so you’ll end up pulling hairs trying to make it work with what you have.” First off, everything about my computer worked fine other than the keyboard which had so many broken keys that it was completely unusable. All I needed to do was replace the keyboard, simple yes?

My first order of business of course was to make a few hopeless calls to the businesses involved. Microsoft wanted nothing to do with it because it was barely past 30 days and it was an accident. I then called Acer and of course the spill is not covered under warranty. They quoted me $250 for the repair which I felt was a bit exorbitant to just do a quick replacement job so I refused. On a whim I asked the customer support representative if he could get me a part number for the keyboard. To my astonishment, he actually managed to dig it up as well as the number for a supplier. Finally, a company that doesn’t assume their entire customer base is clueless when it comes to these things. I then called the supplier who quoted me $75 for the keyboard, which I admit is still a bit steep considering I’ve paid $12 for a replacement keyboard in the past. However, this is a much nicer keyboard with a built-in light and extremely well-built and it does seem reasonable given supply/demand.

I order the keyboard and of course my first mistake was to not attempt to take apart the computer prior to its arrival. It would have saved me a lot of time and hassle simply by not waiting to be surprised. On the underside the case is held together by torx screws, no biggie as I have a set for those. It was on the inside that gave me problems. These screws were tough and I got most of them out, but of course it’s the last few screws that essentially stopped my progress for weeks. What I didn’t know about until that moment is the wonderful substance known as thread locker. This nasty stuff is poured into screw holes to make sure to make the screws next to impossible to remove. Combine that with stripped screws and you had me stuck with a $1400 paperweight. Now here’s a tip I wish somebody told me before hand. If the screw isn’t turning you probably need a different sized screw driver. DO NOT try to make it work with what you have, you will strip the screw and it will be ten times worse. Now with stripped screws you have a number of popular options: Special screw extractor drill bits, dremel the screw head so you can use a flat head, use the perfect sized driver, or drill a hole into the head and jam a torx driver in. All these are great, but I just did not have the tools. I had to get my roommate to find the screw driver in her lab and take out a few which thankfully worked. The last one I got out by forcing a torx bit into the screw as a hail mary. I figured the stripping was so bad I might as well have drilled it.

I was finally in and I thought the rest would be easy, but of course as a final slap to my face Acer’s engineers needed to attach the keyboard to the case with what I can only guess was about a hundred screws which you can see in the gallery. It makes sense though. They didn’t have the space for a proper backing. For a luxury item like this the only way to get that solid typing surface would be to secure the keyboard like this. I finally replace the keyboard and I’m on my way putting the computer back together. There was a piece of plastic I couldn’t figure out where it went so hopefully it’s not too important. When I finally turned it back on the keyboard was working fine. However, I soon learned that the trackpad was not working at all. From a software perspective it’s as if it weren’t there. I go back in and see what I could’ve broken and notice that the terminal pads on the ribbon cable were folded onto themselves (copper tape). Apparently, the connector had a latching bit to it that I completely ignored -_-. I managed to fix the traces with my ultra fine tweezers and ease them carefully into the connector. Not ideal, but it worked even though it very easily could’ve required me to hunt down an awkward shaped ribbon cable. Hopefully I never have to take that out ever again… Lesson learned though, pay close attention to connectors. If you break them or the ribbon cable you’re pretty much screwed in the worst way possible. After that last fix though all was well, and my computer worked perfectly again. Below I’ve posted some pictures I took of my tear down. The pictures truly speak for themselves, this computer is beautifully designed.

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