Lessons from taking a computer apart

Failing to drive doesn't count sometimes

Failing to drive doesn't count sometimes

Last week I went up to my little loft office (I think I’m allowed to brag that I now have, that’s right, a little loft as an office in our new place) only to find that my trusty desktop was unable to start up. It was very bizarre. Power on, but no noises, no blue screen of death, no hard drive light, no nothing. It didn’t even try to start up. Don’t you see? It wasn’t even trying*. That’s what was so weird.

So, I grabbed the other computer and searched for what this might be. One article said hard drive failure was the likely culprit since the HD light wasn’t flickering at all. So I did what any normal male would do and took the thing apart (OK, I banged the case a few times first to see if that would get whatever was wrong working again. This of course did nothing.)

Now, I have no practical experience with the hardware side of computers. But I do really like to do things myself, particularly when they are new to me, so when I saw that the case was held together by normal Phillips style screws, it was like the computer was practically begging to be taken apart. I have to say, it’s kind of thrilling to be taking something as supposedly delicate as a computer apart. I guess it’s probably like exploring the world if you lived like at least three centuries ago. You kind of feel like you never know what might be around the next corner. Screw going to space, just take apart some stuff in your house for that little thrill of exploration.

The Thrill of Exploration

Just take stuff apart for that thrill of discovery

Just take stuff apart for that thrill of discovery

Anyway, once you take the cover off, all the computer’s guts are totally exposed. After a bit of orientation I was able to locate the hard drive but had no idea how to get to it. So I just started pulling cables off of whatever looked removable. A few more screws here and there and eventually I get the dvd drive, some part I couldn’t identify, and finally the hard drive totally separated from the motherboard and chassis. Next I did something which I could only justify as very lightly supported by evidence at the time, but which now seems downright crazy. I put the hard drive in a zip lock back and then into my freezer for the next three days. I had read somewhere that this can supposedly fix a bad hard drive, depending on the error, and in the meantime it was the weekend so that’s how it ended up staying there for three whole days.

This morning I located the external hard drive in the hopes of transferring data to it, and so I removed the frozen one and set about getting all the computer bits near the right cords to see if I could at least get the data off of my bad drive. Somehow, before I even began, I knew it wouldn’t work. Over the weekend I had been replaying the error in my mind and I just kept thinking there’s no way it’s the hard drive. The computer is not even sending any information to the screen! It’s probably something else, and now I have a broken computer and my perfectly good data is frozen solid. Great. Score one for acting without thinking.

surprisingly easy to find images like this

surprisingly easy to find images like this

Plugging in the computer while it is all over the floor in heaps is about as thrilling as it sounds. It feels like you’re watching surgery, but you’re not sure if you’ll be electrocuted or maybe burn the house down. Of course, nothing much happened, just like before, so I returned to the laptop to read more about how to fix my computer on my own with no skills and no training.

Finding another online forum, a seemingly respected author offered up this tidbit: try banging the hard drive while it loads.** If that doesn’t work, try reorienting it, and then bang it harder. Repeat as necessary. (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what it said). Now, like I said, I’m no hardware genius, but that didn’t sound like a great idea. However, frustration is a very motivating force sometimes, and so it wasn’t 10 minutes later I found myself taking this anonymous strangers advice. Still nothing, but a lot of weird noises from the obviously spinning hard drive.

If you fail, try harder

not my cooling fan, but pretty cool anyway

not my cooling fan, but pretty cool anyway

This of course motivated me further. Seeing as the hard drive is working, I reasoned, I might as well take apart something else. So I just unscrewed anything that was left, like this cooling fan for the processor, all the RAM, the CMOS battery, and some jumper pins and things. Turns out that this was all stuff I was supposed to do anyway (more or less) as I later learned from this checklist. (Also, this was another useful forum.)

The Turning Point

That checklist actually proved to be the turning point as I realized it kept mentioning the cooling fan as a potential error source and I realized it had never turned when I attempted to boot the computer. So I cleaned out the fan, losing a screw inside the guts of the computer in the process. I tried it again. It didn’t work. Enragedly Stupidly, I flipped the computer over hoping to find the screw. Stuff banged around and suddenly the fan started spinning. My heart jumped. Yes! It was the stupid fan! I threw some parts back together and finally the computer started beeping on start up. They were weird, very alarming beeps, but I was so happy to have anything different happen that I hurriedly googled ‘beep error codes HP’ to understand what the stupid beeps meant.

According to HP, one short beep followed by one long beep meant a memory problem. I had just reseated the RAM and had a feeling that something was off there. Turns out you have to really push hard on those things in order to get them back in place properly. Of course, after this, the computer started up normally. I put everything back together and found I had only three screws left over, a new record!

For some reason, the mouse no longer works, but everything else is fine. I suspect I created this problem when I noticed a transistor was kind of leaned over a bit and so I decided to straighten it up. I don’t think this was such a good idea anymore. All in all, I’m going to call it a win.

you don't want to mess with those little tower things

you don't want to mess with those little tower things

Things I learned:

1. Freezing your hard drive, and then whacking it with a screwdriver while it loads, is not as obviously damaging as you might think.

2. Holding a spinning hard drive is a very weird feeling. It really has a gyroscopic feel to it, like it doesn’t want to be oriented in certain directions.

3. In general, don’t jump to conclusions about what is causing your computer problems.

4. Computers are surprisingly tough (see 1).

5. If you’ve got a screwdriver, more guts than sense, and a thirst for adventure you can pretty much fix anything you want.

6. Unless of course you use that screwdriver to straighten out some bent transistors.

7. Some things inside computers are supposed to look weird (see 6).

8. 5, revisited: If you’ve got a screwdriver, more guts than sense, and a thirst for adventure you can pretty much fix or break anything you want. It’s that simple.

Note: images used are not my own. I was fixing charging the battery on my camera, so it was unavailable for duty. I stole these from the internet, but they are rough approximations of what I actually did.

*F. Scott Fitzgerald fans will probably get this reference from The Great Gatsby.

** That’s what she said.