Friday, November 30, 2007

What to do with a broken laptop

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):
  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

    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.

  4. 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:

    Jay Brokers

    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.
  5. 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.
When you are ready to get a new laptop, remember that it can also break. To protect your investment and make it easier to recover losses, follow these advices:
  • 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).
Additional references:
The DIY guide to PC troubleshooting and repair

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Freeware Appreciation Day: KeePass Password Safe

Summary: Use KeePass Password Safe to store your passwords, account information, and other sensitive data.

In response to Jeff Atwood's call to support small software vendors, I decided to institute a personal Freeware Appreciation Day on which I will contribute to one of my favorite freeware makers. I will try to observe the Freeware Appreciation Day on a monthly basis until I run out of money or cover all of my favorite applications (I hope that neither of these will happen).

This month's contribution goes to KeePass Password Safe, an OSI-certified, free, open-source, light-weight, and easy-to-use password manager created by Dominik Reichl. Before picking KeePass, I checked a few similar utilities including commercial Password Plus, SecureSafe Pro, RoboForm2Go, IBM/Lenovo hardware-dependent Password Manager, as well as free, open source Password Minder and Password Safe, but I liked KeePass most.

KeePass is portable (i.e. you can run it from a USB drive) and very easy to use. It keeps your information in a data file (database) encrypted with a user-defined password. You must specify this password in order to open the data file when starting the application or if you want to open a different data file.

Once you open the data file, KeePass displays the information about your user accounts (or whatever you saved in it) grouped by categories.

When adding or updating an entry, you can specify the title of the entry, your user name, the URL of the site (I wish that the URL were displayed before the user name), password, notes, and other information. There is an option to attach a file to a password (account) record, but I haven't tried it, yet.

The grouping feature allows you to organize your records in a logical manner. You can add and delete groups, or move items from one group to another. If you forget in which group you stored an item, you can search for it using the Find dialog box.

The basic functionality of KeePass should satisfy most users, but it can also be extended via plug-ins. For example, you can use plug-ins to export passwords to a comma-separated text file, import passwords from Firefox, open Web sites and fill in the login data automatically, and do more.

If you decide to use KeePass, you may need to figure out how to keep your data file in sync between multiple computers. One option is to keep the file on a USB drive (you can either open it from a USB drive or use the USB drive to copy it between machines). Although the file is encrypted, you will feel safer if you use the drive's built-in encryption or tools such as TrueCrypt.

If you do not like an idea of carrying data files on a USB drive, consider using a Web-based service, which allows you to map your personal online storage as a local drive, such as Who.HasFiles or GmailFS. If you store your data file online, remember to keep a backup copy in case the service goes down.*

UPDATE: To synchronize your KeePass data file across multiple computers (and keep online backups), try the DropBox synchronization tool. Dropbox worked very well for me, but there are also other alternatives, such as Syncplicity and SpiderOak. Or instead of using KeePass, try the online-based LastPass; it offers most -- if not all -- features of KeePass, and even more (it also lets you import the data stored in the KeePass data file).

Additional references:
Wikipedia: Password Manager

*Although keeping data files on a USB drive or online are both viable options, it would be more convenient to use a Web-based password manager. In fact, several online password managers popped up recently. After trying a few of them, Clipperz and Passpack seemed most advanced to me. Unfortunately, they both have limitations. Passpack has a difficult-to-use two-password authentication scheme, and, what is worse, it limits the size of the password database to 128 KB (approximately 150-200 records in a free account), while Clipperz is yet to implement the importing feature; Clipperz v. Passpack, Round 2 offers a good comparative review of both services. I'm looking forward to using a Web-based password manager, but until these services mature, I'll stick to KeePass. NOTE: See the update note.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A tale of two laptops, or can I run Vista on a Celeron

Summary: Does it make sense to buy a low-end laptop for about $400 or should you look for a more advanced and more expensive system? Find out what you can expect if you get a cheap Celeron-based laptop and run Vista on it.

About two months ago I replaced two family laptops with the cheapest systems I found at the time: a $380 Compaq Presario (model C563NR with Celeron M 520, 512 MB RAM, 80 GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD-RW with dual layer support, 15.4" screen)

and a $350 Toshiba Satellite (model A135-S4656 with essentially the same parameters).

The major differences between the two systems (other than the price) include the screens (the Compaq is glossy, the Toshiba is matte), the Compaq's LightScribe support, and the Toshiba's built-in memory card readers. Because both laptops came with Windows Vista (the Home Basic edition), I knew that the supplied 512 MB of RAM would not be enough. I was also a bit worried about Celeron's ability to handle Vista, so I considered wiping it out and installing XP, but after upgrading RAM to 1.5 GB (I bought a couple of 1 GB modules for around $25 per each after rebates), I decided to give Vista a try. This is what I can say about these two systems after using them for a few weeks.

First of all, I have to mention that I'm not a primary user of these systems -- my wife and daughter are -- but I spent enough time with them to form an opinion. Second, we do not use these laptops for computer gaming, video editing, 3D modeling, and other types of resource-intensive applications, but for the most typical tasks -- web browsing (Firefox with a bunch of add-ins, IE with some extensions), photo editing (Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, Microsoft Digital Image Suite), instant messaging (ICQ, Skype), document editing (Microsoft Office 2007), listening music and watching videos (Windows Media Player) -- they work quite well.

I did not expect these cheap Celeron-powered laptops to be particularly fast, but it seems to me that for the types of applications we use them, they run on par with my brand new Core 2 Duo-based work desktop with 3 GB of RAM, which by the way is still running XP. [I think that my work PC underperforms because of all of the IT-installed crap; it is just a theory, though.] And despite my worst fears, Vista did not cause any major headaches. I downloaded Vista-supported drivers for all of my gadgets (printer, camera, routers, modems, etc), except for an older Logitech QuickCam Zoom webcam. For some reason, Logitech refused to support this webcam on Vista, but fortunately, I found a workaround. I have not used my Canon Pixma MP450 scanner, yet, so I can't say whether it works on Vista. [UPDATE: The scanner works fine.] And the software that accompanies Longman Dictionary of American English seems to have issues with video and audio, but I'm not sure if they are related to Vista or QuickTime (I've received a few suggestions from the vendor, but they did not help; not a big deal, though). Other than that, Vista works fine. I even started to like it.

I know, these days it is not cool to say anything good about Vista, but I really think it's not that bad. Notice that I use the Home Basic edition, so I do not see the fancy Aero interface (I would not dare to run Aero on a low-end laptop), but even without it, it seems slicker than XP. Of course, it's not perfect, certain things could've been done better, but it's not as bad, or problematic, as I expected it to be. So, I'm sticking with Vista for now. By the way, my wife and daughter did not seem too excited about using Vista, but when I recently asked them if they would like to switch back to XP, they both said no.

Getting back to laptops, I'm happy to say that they exceeded my modest expectations. Keep in mind that I increased memory by 1 GB and removed most of the pre-installed bloatware, including Norton anti-virus suite, which I replaced with Avast! (I'm a huge fan of the lesser known anti-virus products). I like the Compaq's glossy screen, but the Toshiba's overall design is more visually pleasing. I also like the Toshiba's built-in memory card readers, although I'm disappointed with the absence of a Compact Flash reader. The keyboard layout on the Compaq seems more logical and the Compaq's LightScribe support is a nice bonus (although I'm too cheap to buy LightScribe media).

Because the Toshiba was about $30 (or 8 percent) cheaper than the Compaq, it gave me the best bang for the buck, but I have no problem recommending either of these two models or their successors, although I would also recommend upgrading RAM to at least 1.5 GB if you're planning to use Vista (memory upgrade is a trivial operation, which does not require any technical skills). If you are not sure if a Celeron-based system will be sufficient for your needs, it probably will (people who know that they need a stronger processor can normally explain why). If you're still hesitating, do your research, but don't listen to those who just say that Celerons suck; the first generation of Celerons may have sucked a bit, but the latest models work just fine for an average user. Of course, you can add $100-$200 more and get a Pentium or Core-based system, but if you use this laptop for anything other than the most demanding tasks (such as games, 3D/video editing, etc), you will probably not notice the difference.

Additional references:
Tech Review: Intel® Celeron® M processor 520