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Upgrading and Repairing Laptops

From a technical standpoint, many of the components used in portable systems are similar to those in desktop computers. However, in many ways they are also different. Portable or laptop systems are in many ways less upgradeable or repairable than desktop systems, mainly because of the lack of standard form factors for cases/chassis, motherboards, keyboards, displays, and even batteries. They are also highly integrated, meaning functions that might be replaceable adapter cards in a desktop system (such as video, for example) are built in to the motherboard of a laptop system. However, despite these challenges, in some ways a laptop system can actually be easier to upgrade than a desktop because laptops often use modular bay storage devices that eliminate the need for ribbon cables, mounting rails, and separate electrical connections. Memory, hard disks, and Mini PCI slots are often accessible through easy-to-open access panels, making upgrades of these devices easy without disassembling the system. Therefore, common tasks such as adding memory, upgrading a hard drive, and upgrading an optical drive (on models with modular drive bays) can often be accomplished in seconds. Adding other interfaces, such as Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi wireless, USB 2.0, and IEEE 1394 (FireWire/i.LINK), can be easily accomplished via plug-in PC Cards.

The problem with replacing other components in portables is that the hardware tends to be much less generic than it is in desktops. The exceptions are for PC Cards (which are interchangeable by definition), memory (on newer systems), and in some cases, hard drives. Purchasing a component that is not specifically intended for use in your exact system model can often be risky.

In some cases, these compatibility problems are a matter of simple logistics. Portable system manufacturers jam a great deal of machinery into a very small case, and sometimes a new device just will not fit in the space left by the old one. This is particularly true of devices that must be accessible from the outside of the case, such as CD-ROM and floppy drives. Keyboards and monitors, the most easily replaceable of desktop components, are so completely integrated into the case of a laptop system that they can normally be replaced only with specific parts from the original manufacturer.

In other cases, your upgrade path might be deliberately limited by the options available in the system BIOS. For example, depending on the BIOS date or revision, you might be limited in drive capacity, the same as desktop systems. Fortunately, most use a flash ROM BIOS that can easily be updated—that is, if the system manufacturer makes such updates available. When shopping for a portable system, you should check with the manufacturer to see whether it has a support website with BIOS updates, drivers, and any accessory or utility programs necessary to support and maintain the system. A lack of BIOS or driver updates can prevent you from moving to a newer operating system in the future, or at least make such a move difficult.

Most of the time, components for portable systems are sold by referencing the system model number, even when third parties are involved. If you look through a catalog for desktop memory, for example, you see parts listed generically by attributes such as chip speed, form factor, and parity/nonparity. The memory listings for portable systems, on the other hand, most likely consist of a series of systems manufacturers’ names and model numbers, plus the amount of memory in the module. This has improved somewhat, with most modern laptops using industry-standard SODIMMs (small outline dual inline memory modules) instead of proprietary modules.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. However, purchasing compatible components that fit together properly is certainly more of a challenge for a portable system than it is for a desktop system. Table 3.3 explains which laptop system components can be upgraded.

Table 3.3 Upgradeable Laptop System Components

Component

Upgradeable

Notes

Motherboard

No

Nonstandard form factors prevent internal upgrades.

CPU

Yes

Installing a faster CPU of the same type and model is usually possible; however, there can be limitations due to voltage, thermal, and/or BIOS support issues, and clock speed increases will normally be small.

Memory

Yes

Normally, only one or two SIMM/DIMM sockets are available. You may need to remove lower-capacity existing modules to upgrade.

Video adapter/chipset

No

Video is integrated into a nonupgradeable motherboard.

Video display

No1

Nonstandard form factors and connections prevent internal upgrades.

Keyboard/pointing device

No2

Nonstandard form factors and connections prevent internal upgrades.

Hard disk

Yes

Older systems might not have BIOS support for drives larger than 8.4GB. Many systems are limited to 9.5mm- or 12.5mm-thick drives. Drive trays or caddies are often required for installation.

Removable-media drives (floppy, CD/DVD, CD-RW/DVD+-RW)

Yes

Install these internally via modular bays or use externall USB or IEEE 1394 (FireWire/i.LINK) drives.

USB, IEEE 1394 (FireWire/i.LINK), serial (RS-232), parallel (IEEE 1284), SCSI, and so on

Yes

Install these via PC Card/CardBus or ExpressCard adapters.

10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet LAN

Yes

Install this via a PC Card or CardBus adapters.

Wireless 802.11a/b/g (Wi-Fi), Bluetooth

Yes

Install these via PC Card, CardBus, Mini PCI (internal) cards, or mobile daughter cards (MDCs). Internal cards may require preinstalled antennas.

1. It is normally possible to connect an external display and use it in lieu of or in addition to the existing internal display.

2. It is normally possible to connect an external keyboard and/or pointing device to use in lieu of or in addition to the existing internal devices.

System Disassembly

Most laptop systems are more difficult to disassemble than desktop systems. Laptop systems typically have many more screws than desktops, and the screws come in a number of different sizes and styles, and they are often hidden under stickers or covers. The chassis covers often feature thin plastic parts that interlock and can be tricky to separate without damage. Unlike desktop systems, which are substantially similar internally, laptop systems can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from model to model. For this reason, it really helps to have specific documentation on disassembly/reassembly from the system manufacturer.

System Components

Figure 3.11 shows the components that make up a typical modern laptop system. Note that most modern manufacturers refer to all their laptop models as notebooks. The terms laptop and notebook mean the same thing with respect to portable computers, and these terms can be used interchangeably.

Figure 3.11

Figure 3.11 The components found in a typical laptop system; the ThinkPad R40 is used in this example.

LCD:

1

LCD bezel/rear cover

2

LCD hinge/bracket with antenna

3

LCD cable

4

Wi-Fi antenna

5

LCD inverter/LED card

6

LCD panel

System:

1

Keyboard bezel middle cover

2

Keyboard bezel upper case

3

Optical drive (UltraBay Plus CD/DVD)

4

UltraBay Plus guide rail

5

Microphone cable

6

Communications daughter card (CDC) Bluetooth/modem

7

I/O bracket

8

Mini PCI access door

9

Main battery (Li-ion)

10

Backup (CMOS) battery

11

DIMM access door

12

Speakers

13

Lower case

14

Bluetooth antenna

15

DDR SODIMM (double data rate small outline dual inline memory module)

16

802.11a/b Wi-Fi wireless card

17

Motherboard

18

CPU (Pentium M processor)

19

Hard disk guide rails

20

PC Card/CardBus slot

21

CPU heatsink/fan

22

Hard disk drive with tray

23

Hard disk drive access cover

24

Keyboard

25

TrackPoint cap

26

Hinge cap

a

Communications daughter card (CDC) plate

b

Modem cable

c

Motherboard chipset heatsink

d

Video chipset heatsink

Documentation is extremely important for laptop systems, due to their inherently proprietary nature. One reason I like the ThinkPad systems is that the hardware maintenance manuals, service and troubleshooting guides, and technical reference and user manuals for all ThinkPad systems are available on the ThinkPad website. These documents include complete disassembly and reassembly instructions and a complete parts list, including detailed exploded diagrams and part numbers. Lenovo (formerly IBM) offers unparalleled documentation for its systems, which makes working on them a relative pleasure. The detailed service manuals also provide the information needed to accomplish component replacements and upgrades, which would be daunting on other systems lacking this information.

Dell is another standout, providing detailed service manuals available for download from its website for all its laptop systems. In fact, the unfortunate reality is that currently the only laptop system manufacturers that do make service manuals available to end users are Lenovo (IBM) and Dell! That is perhaps one of the biggest reasons that those two manufacturers are among my favorites when it comes to laptops.

Toshiba used to make its service manuals available for purchase in printed form, but in the past few years Toshiba has changed its policy and its service manuals are now available to Toshiba-authorized dealers only. The good thing is that in most cases, if you purchase a repair or replacement part from one of the premier Toshiba Authorized Service Providers (ASPs), the ASP will include copies of the relevant pages from the service manual describing in detail the procedure for removing the old part and installing the new one in the system.

Most if not all other laptop system manufacturers do not provide service manuals for their systems, which I consider to be a major drawback. Virtually all of them do provide user manuals, which sometimes include simple troubleshooting or maintenance procedures, but these are not at the same level of a true service manual. Before you purchase a laptop system, I highly recommend you check to see what type of documentation is available. I normally make a point to avoid any systems for which I can’t get detailed service or technical information from the manufacturer, because those manuals make future repairs and upgrades much easier.

In searching for documentation and spare parts for a system, I usually try to go direct to the manufacturer. This has led me to discover an interesting "secret" of the laptop business that isn’t often discussed—the fact that most of the well-known laptop brands you may be familiar with are actually built by a handful of manufacturers located in Taiwan, including companies such as Quanta (http://www.quantatw.com), Compal (http://www.compal.com), Acer (global.acer.com), and others. These companies don’t sell systems under their own names; instead, they design and manufacture them for other companies under contract. In fact, according to the Market Intelligence Center (MIC), Quanta and Compal were the number-one and number-two (respectively) laptop manufacturers in the world in 2002, followed by Toshiba and IBM. For me, that was a bit of a shock because Toshiba had been the largest laptop manufacturer every year since laptops were invented, until both Quanta and Compal out-sold Toshiba in 2001. Quanta makes laptops for Dell, HP, Compaq, eMachines, Best Buy, and Apple, among many other companies. Dell also purchases laptops from Compal and Acer (it isn’t tied to one supplier). Now you know why Dell’s different model lines look so different; they were designed and made by different companies. The contract manufacturing by companies such as Quanta and Compal is the main reason you see so many different brands of laptop systems that seem to look identical to each other. This stands to reason because they were actually made by the same company, one whose name can’t be found on any of its systems. One potential drawback of this is that it is difficult for some companies to support the systems they sell, because in reality they didn’t make them and may not have direct access to the parts and manufacturing.

Recording Physical Configuration

While you are disassembling a laptop system, you should record the settings and configurations of each component, including any jumper and switch settings, ribbon or flex-cable orientations and placement, ground-wire locations, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth antenna locations, and even adapter board placement. Keep a notepad handy for recording these items. When it comes time to reassemble the system, these notes will prove valuable in helping you get everything back together correctly. It is also a good idea to use a digital camera to take close-up pictures of various parts of the system before you remove them. These pictures will be very helpful as a reference during reassembly.

You should mark or record what each cable was plugged into and its proper orientation. Ribbon and flex-cables usually have an odd-colored (red, green, blue, or black) wire at one end that indicates pin 1. There might also be a mark on the connector, such as a triangle or even the number 1. The devices the cables are plugged into are also marked in some way to indicate the orientation of pin 1. Often, a dot appears next to the pin-1 side of the connector, or a 1 or other mark might appear.

Although cable orientation and placement seem to be very simple, we rarely get through one of my computer troubleshooting seminars without at least some people having cable-connection problems. Fortunately, in most cases (except for power cables), plugging any of the ribbon or flex-cables inside the system backward rarely causes any permanent damage.

However, plugging in or installing the CMOS battery backward can damage the CMOS chip, which usually is soldered onto the motherboard; in such a case, the motherboard must be replaced.

System Disassembly

Although laptop systems aren’t as standardized as most desktop systems with respect to motherboard form factors and such, there is still a lot of commonality among modern laptop systems. They are a bit trickier to disassemble, upgrade or repair, and then reassemble, but it’s nothing you can’t handle if you use some common sense, experience, and a little care. Of course, it helps to have a service or maintenance manual with detailed step-by-step procedures, but unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, that type of documentation is normally available for IBM and Dell systems, but not from most other manufacturers.

As an example of a typically constructed laptop system, I’m going to go through the steps required to disassemble a ThinkPad R40. This is a Pentium M processor system that optionally uses Intel’s Centrino mobile technology. You’ve already seen an exploded diagram of the system showing all the components (refer to Figure 3.11); now you’ll see how a system like this is assembled. We’ll start with the removable devices first and then break out the tools for the harder-to-reach internal components.

Main Battery

Let’s start with the main battery. To remove the battery, flip the system over, pull the battery latch away from the battery with your index finger, and lift the battery out (see Figure 3.12).

Figure 3.12

Figure 3.12 Removing the main battery.

1 Slide the battery latch to the side.2 Remove the main battery.

UltraBay Plus Devices

Modular bays are used in many modern laptop systems. This system has what is called an UltraBay Plus bay on the right side. It allows for easy swapping in and out of many modular bay devices, including the following:

  • CD-ROM
  • DVD-ROM
  • CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo
  • DVD+-R/RW
  • 1.44MB floppy
  • Second HDD adapter
  • Second battery
  • Numeric keypad

All these devices are removed and installed in the same manner. To remove a modular bay device, slide the latch to the side, causing a lever to pop out. Grasp the lever and slide the device out of the bay (see Figure 3.13).

Figure 3.13

Figure 3.13 Removing a modular bay device.

  1. Release the modular bay latch.
  2. Grasp the modular bay lever.
  3. Pull out the modular bay device.

Hard Disk

The hard disk in most modern laptop systems is a 2.5-inch form factor unit that is normally 9.5mm thick. To remove the drive, take out the drive cover retainer screw locking the drive cover, as shown in Figure 3.14.

Now grasp the cover and slide the drive and cover out of the system together. Then you can disengage the cover from the drive by bending the cover latches sideways and pulling the cover away from the drive (see Figure 3.15).

Figure 3.14

Figure 3.14 Removing the hard disk drive cover retainer.

1 Remove the drive cover retainer screw.

Figure 3.15

Figure 3.15 Removing the hard disk drive.

2 Slide out the drive.

Memory Modules (SODIMMs)

Most modern laptop systems use memory in 200-pin DDR SODIMM (double data rate small outline dual inline memory module) form. These are the equivalent of the larger 184-pin DDR DIMMs (dual inline memory modules) used in desktop systems. To remove the SODIMMs, merely take out the screws holding the memory-access door (on the bottom of the system) in place and then take off the door. Next, bend the latches holding the SODIMMs in place to the side and lift these modules up out of the system, as shown in Figure 3.16.

Figure 3.16

Figure 3.16 Removing the memory modules.

  1. Bend the SODIMM retainer latches to the side.
  2. Remove the SODIMMs.

Mini PCI Card

Laptop system manufacturers usually put wireless networking on Mini PCI cards so they can sell systems with and without this option. If you purchased a system that didn’t come with built-in wireless networking, you may be able to install a Mini PCI 802.11a/b Wi-Fi card to add that capability to your system. To remove a Mini PCI card, first remove the screws holding the access door in place and then take out the door (see Figure 3.17).

When the card is exposed, carefully disconnect any antennas or other wires that may be attached to the card. Mini PCI cards are installed in exactly the same way as SODIMMs. To remove the card, bend the retainer latches to the side and then lift and pull the card up out of the slot (see Figure 3.18).

Figure 3.17

Figure 3.17 Removing the Mini PCI access door.

1a Phillips screw.

1b Tamperproof Torx screw.

2 Remove the Mini PCI access door.

Figure 3.18

Figure 3.18 Removing the Mini PCI card.

3 Bend the retainer latches to the side.

4 Lift/pull the card out of the slot.

Keyboard

Keyboard removal and installation can be different from system to system. For this example, to remove the keyboard, you start by turning the system over and removing a couple screws, as shown in Figure 3.19.

Now turn the system over, reach under the front of the keyboard, lifting and pushing the keyboard toward the screen as you press the locking tab under the front to disengage it. Then lift the keyboard up and away from the system, disconnecting the cable that is underneath (see Figure 3.20).

Figure 3.19

Figure 3.19 Removing the keyboard retainer screws.

1 Remove the keyboard retainer screws.

Figure 3.20

Figure 3.20 Removing the keyboard.

2 Press the locking tab.

3 Push the keyboard toward the screen.

4 Lift the keyboard up and out.

CMOS Battery

The CMOS battery powers the CMOS RAM and clock in the system. To remove it, simply unplug the cable and lift the battery out of the system, as shown in Figure 3.21.

Figure 3.21

Figure 3.21 Removing the CMOS battery.

  1. Disconnect the CMOS battery cable.
  2. Remove the CMOS battery.

PC Card/CardBus Slot Assembly

The PC Card slots are removed as a complete assembly. Begin by turning the laptop over and removing the retainer screws from the bottom of the system. Note that some of them may be covered with small plastic stickers; if so, peel off the stickers to get to the necessary screws (see Figure 3.22).

Turn the system back right side up and then remove the PC Card slot assembly from the top (see Figure 3.23).

Communications Daughter Card (CDC)

Communications daughter cards (CDCs) are similar to Mini PCI cards in that they provide a way for modern laptop systems to offer expansion. CDCs are normally V.92 modem cards, but they are also available with Bluetooth wireless personal area networking as well. To remove the CDC, turn the system upside down and remove the retainer screws (see Figure 3.24).

Figure 3.22

Figure 3.22 Removing PC Card/CardBus slot retainer screws.

1 Remove the PC Card/CardBus slot retainer screws.

Figure 3.23

Figure 3.23 Removing the PC Card/CardBus slot assembly.

2 Remove the PC Card/CardBus slot assembly.

Now turn the system upright, locate the CDC, and then disconnect it and lift it out of the system. Note that there may be both modem and Bluetooth antenna connections, which will have to be unplugged (see Figure 3.25).

Figure 3.24

Figure 3.24 Removing communications daughter card (CDC) retainer screws.

1 Remove the CDC retainer screws.

Figure 3.25

Figure 3.25 Removing the communications daughter card (CDC).

2 Unplug the CDC and Bluetooth antenna connections.

3 Unplug the modem connection.

CPU Heatsink/Fan

The CPU heatsink/fan assembly usually consists of a heat pipe assembly, with a fan at one end and a heavy metal plate that attaches to the CPU at the other. This device cools the processor and possibly the rest of the system as well. To remove it, take out the retainer screws and then lift the assembly up and out of the system, as shown in Figure 3.26.

Figure 3.26

Figure 3.26 Removing CPU heatsink/fan assembly.

1 Remove the CPU heatsink/fan retainer screws.

2 Disconnect the fan cable from the motherboard.

3, 4, 5 Lift the heatsink/fan assembly up and out.

CPU (Pentium M Processor)

Most modern laptops utilize socketed desktop or mobile processors. They are normally installed in a zero insertion force (ZIF) socket that uses a locking mechanism to hold or release the chip. Instead of using a lever to actuate the socket, as on desktop systems, most laptops use a small screw. To unlock the ZIF socket, turn the screw counterclockwise. Then you can carefully lift the processor out of the socket (see Figure 3.27).

Figure 3.27

Figure 3.27 Removing the CPU.

1 Turn the screw on the ZIF socket counterclockwise to unlock the CPU. Then lift the CPU out of the socket.

LCD Panel

To remove the LCD panel, first invert the system and remove the retaining screw from the bottom (see Figure 3.28).

Figure 3.28

Figure 3.28 Removing the LCD base retaining screw.

1 Remove the LCD retaining screw from the bottom of the unit.

Now turn the system upright, remove the remaining screws holding the display hinges and the cable, and unplug the cable connections (see Figure 3.29).

Figure 3.29 Removing the LCD hinge and cable retaining screws.

2 Remove the LCD cable retaining screws.

3 Unplug the LCD cable.

4 Remove the LCD hinge screws.

Next, you can lift the display hinges off the pegs or studs they are sitting on and then separate the display from the system, as shown in Figure 3.30.

Keyboard Bezel

To remove the keyboard bezel, turn the system upside down and remove the retaining screws. Note that many of these screws may be under cosmetic stickers, which you must remove in order to take out the screws (see Figure 3.31).

Figure 3.30

Figure 3.30 Removing the LCD.

5 Lift the display off the hinges.

Figure 3.31

Figure 3.31 Removing the keyboard bezel retaining screws.

1, 2 Remove the keyboard bezel retainer screws.

Now turn the system upright and then lift the keyboard bezel up and off the chassis, as shown in Figure 3.32.

Figure 3.32

Figure 3.32 Removing the keyboard bezel.

3 Remove the keyboard bezel.

Motherboard

To remove the motherboard, begin by taking out the retaining screws, as shown in Figure 3.33.

Figure 3.33

Figure 3.33 Removing the motherboard retaining screws.

1 Remove the motherboard retaining screws.

2 Pull out the release lever.

Now remove the board by pulling out the lever while lifting the board up and out of the system, as shown in Figure 3.34.

Figure 3.34

Figure 3.34 Removing the motherboard.

2 Pull out the release lever.

3, 4 Lift the motherboard up and out.

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