Summary: Get the best out of your broken laptop.
When my four-year-old Dell Inspiron 8500 died, I wondered if it would make sense to get it repaired. After ruling out easy fixes (replacing battery, A/C adapter, power cord, RAM, hard drive), my only option was to turn to a laptop repair service. Because I did not want to waste $70 on a repair estimate to learn that I needed to spend $400 more to replace the motherboard (I suspected the motherboard to have failed), I ended up selling the laptop to the nice folks at LaptopService for $175 (minus the $15 cost of shipping). Now, $160 may not sound much, but it was more than what I would've gotten from the broken laptop sitting in a closet.
If your laptop breaks and you're not sure what to do with it, this is what I would recommend (the following recommendations are based on the assumptions that your laptop is not covered by a warranty and you do not have a technically savvy friend, who can help you fix it):
- Understand the problem
Before attempting corrective actions, try to figure out what is wrong with your system. Search Google for the symptoms you're seeing (tweak your search query to get the most comprehensive results). Visit newsgroups (forums) which discuss the same (or similar) model, as well as laptop repair sites, such as Laptop Repair Help (I found this site particularly useful). Most, if not all, laptop manufacturers provide forums where users exchange information and help each other troubleshoot problems. You can also find helpful links at the Satisfaction web site. If nothing helps, try your luck with the manufacturer's customer service; although you will not get a free repair (unless it falls under a recall), you may get free troubleshooting tips (I once got accurate diagnosis from a Dell customer service representative for an out-of-warranty system).
- Fix simple problems yourself
If you determine that the problem is caused by a bad power supply, hard drive, memory module (RAM), or some other easily replaceable part, you should be able to buy a replacement unit for little money and change it yourself. If you have never changed any parts inside of a laptop (hard drive, RAM), you will find that it is not as complicated as it may seem. To make sure you do it right, find the manufacturer's instructions for your laptop model (if the instructions are not in the manual, you should be able to find them on the manufacturer's Web site). To get a general idea what a particular operation involves, search the Internet for videos or step-by-step instructions. For example, this C|NET video will give you a general idea of what it takes to replace a hard drive. Good sites to include in your search include Instructables, eHow, and Wonder How To.
- Contact a laptop repair professional
If you cannot determine the root cause of the problem or repair the laptop yourself, consider sending it to a repair shop, but first figure out whether the laptop is worth repairing. If you bought the laptop for $600 four years ago, it would not make sense spending more than $150 on fixing it, because you can get a brand new and better system for less than $400. If you do not have a local laptop repair shop, check the ones available online. Some online shops offer free shipping and/or estimates, but I'm not sure what happens if you send your laptop for an estimate and find out that the repair is too costly; I doubt that the shop send you the unit back for no charge, but I may be wrong (ask before shipping the laptop).
IMPORTANT Before sending your laptop to a local or online repair shop, remove all personal files from the hard drive. If your laptop does not work at all, but you have another one, you may be able to temporarily switch the hard drive in a good laptop with the drive from the broken one and once you boot the system up, use tools that permanently erase files, such as a free Eraser or CyberShredder (the regular Windows Delete command does not actually erase files). Alternatively, you can reformat the hard drive, but doing so will erase all data. If you do not have another laptop, you may be able to buy a cheap hard drive enclosure for around $10 [make sure you get it for the right size; most laptops use 2.5" hard drives]. Don't forget to put the hard drive back.
- Sell broken laptop
You can try selling the broken laptop on Craigslist, eBay, or another online auction; just make sure you clearly explain what is wrong with it (be honest, don't repeat the story of Amir Tofangsazan). Another option would be to sell it to a local or online repair shop, such as:
After getting an offer, I shipped my laptop to LaptopService with a copy of the estimate. A few weeks later, I started getting worried, because I did not get a confirmation e-mail or any indication of delivery. To make matters worse, I managed to lose the estimate, the quote number, and the shipping receipt. Fortunately, after a few more weeks, I finally got the check. While I would recommend LaptopService, I cannot vouch for other shops. If you get an acceptable offer, check if the shop has any unresolved complaints at Better Business Bureau. Keep all communication and other relevant records in place and use registered mail (or proof of delivery) in case something goes wrong. Again, do remember to erase sensitive files from the hard drive before shipping.
- Sell laptop parts
If you cannot sell the laptop as a whole, try selling it by parts (RAM modules, hard drive, accessories, etc.) on Craigslist or eBay. When selling laptop parts, make sure that they work (to verify that the parts work, you may need to plug them into a working compatible laptop). Before selling the hard drive, reformat it.
- Use the right credit card
When buying a laptop (or some other expensive item), use a credit card which extends product warranty. Keep in mind, that credit cards only extend the regular warranty. For example, Visa and MasterCard can extend a typical one-year laptop warranty to two years, but if you buy an extended three-year protection plan from the store (or elsewhere), credit cards will not double it. Find out the details of the credit card's extended warranty benefit to avoid unpleasant surprises. And save the documentation that may be requested by the credit card, such as purchase receipt, manufacturer's product warranty card, etc. Do not cancel the credit card, until the extended warranty coverage expires.
- Don't throw away stuff; keep it clean
Don't throw away the laptop package (box), accompanying documentation (user guide, warranty card), media (software CDs or DVDs), and accessories. If the laptop breaks and you decide to sell it, you may get a better offer if it's in good cosmetic condition and comes with all items in the original package.
- Use a laptop cooler
Overheating causes many laptop problems. To avoid overheating, use a laptop cooling pad, which you should be able to find one on sale for around $10 (read this tip).
The DIY guide to PC troubleshooting and repair