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Getting back to my roots

I had an opportunity to get back to my roots as an I.T. professional and restored a little geek-cred - at least in my mind. A woman my wife volunteers with at a local museum had a new(er) laptop that she's been having problems with. She mentioned that it wouldn't charge or power on sometimes when she pressed the power button. No lights, no noises, no beeps, no fans, nothing. Just dead. Then she'd move it, or take it somewhere else and plug it in and it would power up. She correctly diagnosed the problem as a broken power jack. She knew that I was a "computer guy" and asked my wife if I'd be willing to look at it.

Anyone who has ever worked on the support side of consumer-grade laptop computers knows that this is a VERY common problem. A user will kick the power cord while it's plugged in and break the connector, or if the power connection is on the back of the laptop, they will push it up against a wall or something, or any of the endless ways this can happen. Any I.T. guy on this side of the business also will tell you that more often than not, fixing a broken power jack is a gigantic pain in the butt, extremely time consuming, and after pulling the entire laptop apart, you might find that the circuit board that the jack is soldered to is cracked rendering the problem too costly to repair. Just getting the laptop taken apart far enough to get at the jack can take a few hours, and depending how old the laptop is and the environment it was in, might make the tiny little connectors and clips inside brittle and ready to break with little or know effort at all.

Starting out in I.T. I was a bench tech for a systems integrator/consulting firm in the Chicago area. We mostly serviced the equipment we sold to our customers so the products were generally business-grade and we dealt with the same models over and over again. Over time you'd get pretty good at working on certain models of laptop and typically when the connectors would break, they would break the same way internally and you knew you could fix it. However, we also took some walk-in customers as part of a contract for - wait for it- Packard Bell, Zenith, NEC and Compaq. Yeah, this was a while ago. Pre-Internet, Windows 3.1/95 etc. Anyway, some of those would come in and you never knew what you'd find.

My first job after moving from the Chicago area to Las Vegas was as a bench tech for a Tandy repair center (it just keeps getting better doesn't it?). This was a small office that received broken computers, mostly laptops, from the Radio Shack retail stores in that area. We also took walk-ins, but primarily we would be dealing with laptops shipped in from Radio Shack stores. It seemed like 50% of the units coming in the door had broken power jacks and they were all consumer-grade garbage. Every last one of them. You'd spend an hour or so, breaking clips, stripping screw heads and snapping ribbon connectors getting to the power jack to find that when the jack broke, it snapped off the corner of the system board too. Even if you could patch the surface traces up, there was no telling what the other 4 layers of that board looked like. Power jack repairs were time killers, and after 2+ hours of labor, most customers would decline the repair. Unless we were 100% sure we could fix that jack within an hour or less, we'd turn the customer away. WAY Too much liability/risk.

When my wife asked me if I would work on this laptop, I was apprehensive. I've put my physical computer repair days over a decade into my past. These days, I'm primarily working with servers, storage arrays, switches, and fulfilling my role as a manager. If, I do have to deal with desktops or PCs, they are business class machines and are more than likely under warranty or service contract. Board-level repairs on low-end stuff isn't happening much these days either because the cost has come down so much or there aren't any serviceable parts on a system board anymore. My past experience with laptop power jack repair flashed into my mind and my immediate reaction was to say no. However, I had met this woman a few times, and she's really nice, and she seems pretty reasonable, and seemed like she was prepared to replace the laptop anyway, so I figured, what the heck.

I get home from work one day and the laptop is sitting there waiting for me. I open the case and it's a Toshiba. I know people swear by Toshiba, but every Toshiba I'VE run into has been a HUGE piece of garbage. Slapped together nonsense right on par with every other consumer-grade brand or line. I sighed... "I have it here. I may as well get started on it." Pulling this thing out of the case was like going through the stages of grief or dealing with trauma. Denial: Maybe it's NOT the power jack, maybe the AC adapter is bad, maybe it's the whole system board and there is nothing I can do? Anger: Ya know what? She bought a piece of crap, and THIS is what you get. Live and learn sister! How can anyone sleep at night making products and selling them?! Bargaining: I give it a quick look, and if it's not SUPER DUPER simple, I'm not getting involved. If even one of the screws strip when I'm turning them, I'm done. Depression: I can see it now. I'm going to break a clip, or tare a ribbon cable, or something and I'm going to have to give it back all messed up. This sucks.. Acceptance: It's still sitting here. Maybe it won't be so bad.

One screw at a time, I started dissembling the laptop sorting the screws as I went just like I used to do. Pull access panels for the hard drive, then the memory, then take the keyboard off. Can I get to the jack now? Nope. Pop out the DVD drive, take out the hard drive, how 'bout now? Nope. 15 more screws and I have the top of the case off, carefully releasing the ribbon cable clips. Can I get to the power jack now without taking off the screen or pulling out the system board? Wait.. it looks like I can! I look at the power jack and I'm actually impressed. Toshiba didn't mount the jack to any PCB in there, it just sits in a little notch, it's not glued, or snapped in, or anything. It's more or less just free floating in this little notch. The leads are soldered to it and run a few inches, then plug into the system board with a really nice little plug. I pop the jack out of the little notch and the positive lead came off in my hand. I think I found the problem. Being that this power jack was entirely removable, I was able to take just the plug over to my solder station. I removed the existing heat shrink tubing and stripped back the wire, soldered it to jack, put my own heat shrink tubing on it and I was done. I plugged the keyboard back in, plugged in the AC adapter, hit the power button and it fired right up. I re-assembled everything and it booted right up. I left it on the bench to charge for a few hours, and it was good. I wiggled the power adapter in the jack just to make sure it wasn't going to break again, and it was solid.

Looks like the old dog still has it! I don't see myself offering to repair one of our laptops at work, but it's nice to know still can if I had to. I'll certainly make sure the help desk people hear this story at least a few times so they understand that I actually came from somewhere, I'm not just some network/server guy with no geek-cred.

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