Utility software

Laptop ER

A carafe of water is accidentally dumped onto your PowerBook by a flight attendant, zapping it instantly. Or the airplane seat in front of you abruptly reclines, crushing your laptop’s screen.

Those are just two of the indignities that can befall your laptop when you travel. (The first actually happened to mine; the second, to that of my wife’s seatmate on a recent flight.) No matter how well you care for your PowerBook or iBook, laptops are all too vulnerable to slipping, dropping, skidding, and otherwise impacting terra firma in all sorts of undesirable ways.

So if something bad happens to your portable when you’re on the road (or even at home), what’s the next step? Can you fix it yourself? Or will you need to send the machine back to Apple for repair? And is the damage covered by AppleCare? While I’d certainly never wish any of these disasters on anyone, here’s what to do if one of them strikes.

Drinks Are on You

According to laptop-repair specialists, spilled liquid is one of the most common calamities to befall laptops.

If water is the culprit, shut down the machine as soon as possible and let it dry out thoroughly, preferably for 24 hours or more. Sugary or alcoholic beverages are worse: the sugar crystallizes as the liquid dries, forming electrical pathways where none should exist and increasing the risk that running the laptop will fry some components. If your laptop has an unpleasant encounter with an appletini, shut the machine down immediately and take it to the nearest repair shop.

Sudden Impact

Another common laptop mishap is the gravity-accelerated impact event—that is, dropping the thing. Whether it slipped from your hands, slid out of an open bag, or was yanked off of its work surface when someone tripped over a cable, the results can range from cosmetic scuffs to a destroyed hard disk. The big, beautiful screens on today’s laptops are particularly vulnerable; the impact from even relatively short falls can crack the screen or damage the cabling connecting it to the main body.

If your laptop should fall, take a deep breath and wait for the initial panicked rush of adrenaline to pass. Then pick up your laptop (and any pieces), turn it on (if it wasn’t on to start with), and assess the damage.

First, find out whether the machine works at all. Does it turn on? Does it start but stop sometime during the boot sequence?

Second, if it does rev up, listen to the hard drive. Is it making any unexpected clicks or grinding noises? If so, shut down immediately and don’t reboot. The shock from the drop may have damaged a component in the drive, such as the read-write mechanism, in which case restarting the computer could irrevocably destroy your data. Fortunately, PowerBooks introduced last January include a Sudden Motion Sensor, which locks the drive heads when it detects rapid movement, thus making this type of damage less likely to occur.

Lastly, look at the screen. Is it cracked or broken? Assuming you can get some kind of on-screen image, is it disrupted by horizontal or vertical lines? Are any of the pixels dark?

While diagnosing the damage yourself is doable—a cracked screen is pretty obvious—misdiagnosis is easy, too. For example, what may appear to be a bad screen could turn out to be a faulty connecting cable. That’s why it may be better just to go directly to a repair center, if only to have a technician tell you what’s wrong.

Fix It Yourself

Some repairs—replacing RAM, an AirPort card, or the hard drive on some models—you can make yourself. That said, while replacing a hard drive is relatively straightforward with most PowerBooks, it’s almost absurdly difficult in iBooks, requiring the disassembly of large sections of the machine. It’s also possible to replace a screen yourself—but I, for one, wouldn’t feel comfortable trying.

Deciding whether to fix your laptop yourself depends on whether you’re OK with waving a screwdriver around miniaturized electronics. Apple’s party line is that users can install only RAM and AirPort cards in laptops, and that messing with anything else will void your warranty.

If you’re enterprising enough to try other fixes, you can buy many components—including screens and logic boards—from vendors such as PBParts.com and PowerBook Medic.com. The latter sells a line of $10 Take Apart Repair Manuals that will walk you through the process of disassembling and replacing everything from a modem to an LCD. Both vendors will also sell you most of the tools—such as Torx screwdrivers—you’ll need. Depending on the part, buying it yourself could save you a few hundred dollars compared with buying from a shop or from Apple.

Leave It to the Pros

If, on the other hand, you feel less than adventurous about doing Mac surgery, you’ll need to take your injured machine to an expert—either your nearest Apple Store or an independent, Apple-authorized service provider.

According to Kevin Trivett, the manager of The Mac Store in Seattle, replacing a broken screen costs about $1,400, while logic-board replacements and other internal repairs average $300 to $500. If the problem is covered under AppleCare, the laptop will probably be sent off to Apple to be fixed. Because AppleCare’s terms are pretty specific about the kinds of accident-caused damage the extended warranty will cover, you could still be looking at a bill for whatever fixes are required.

One way to potentially save some money is to purchase the necessary parts elsewhere and bring them to a repair specialist for installation. But be warned: while some stores will do such work for you, they won’t guarantee the part. The Mac Store, by contrast, covers any parts that it supplies and installs on out-of-warranty machines for 90 days.

Recovery

It’s important to remember that if the unspeakable happens to your beloved portable, you have some options. I hope you’ll never have to put this advice to the test. But at least now you know where to turn if your PowerBook or iBook decides that it wants to try to fly.

[ Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of TidBits and the author of iMovie HD and iDVD 5 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2005). ]

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