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.
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.
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
and the author of
iMovie HD and iDVD 5 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide
(Peachpit Press, 2005).
Care for AppleCare?
Although I’m not a fan of extended warranties, I think all laptop buyers should invest in an
($249 for an iBook, $349 for a PowerBook).
Laptops include smaller, more-delicate parts—nearly every Apple laptop I’ve owned has gone into the shop at some point for warranty-covered repairs. Unlike desktop machines, which usually stay in one place, a laptop travels with you, so it has innumerable opportunities to be damaged by accident or by simple wear and tear.
But AppleCare primarily covers defects in manufacturing or workmanship, such as hard drives that fail (under normal use) or dead FireWire ports. It specifically excludes accidental damage—or, to be exact, “damage to the Covered Equipment caused by accident, abuse, neglect, misuse (including faulty installation, repair, or maintenance by anyone other than Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider), unauthorized modification, extreme environment (including extreme temperature or humidity), extreme physical or electrical stress or interference, fluctuation or surges of electrical power, lightning, static electricity, fire, acts of God, or other external causes.”
AppleCare is also limited to hardware: your data is your own responsibility, which is why you should maintain a functioning backup system, especially if you travel often. (Note that if your laptop gets toasted, Apple Geniuses and authorized service providers offer data-recovery services.)
Not sure whether your Mac (or other Apple hardware) is still covered by an AppleCare plan? Go to Apple’s
support Web site
and enter your machine’s serial number to see when it was purchased, whether it’s still covered by AppleCare, and how many days of coverage are left if it is.
When Steve Jobs introduced the Mac mini at last January’s Macworld Conference &Expo, most people thought, “Gee, that’d be easy to fit in the office.” But a few thought, “Gee, that’d go great in my car.” Because the Mac mini fits into a standard car stereo’s head unit, it has inspired a cult of car-computer modders. We highlighted some of the first mini-fied rides in our
May issue. But clever DIYers have kept at it. Mike Fielder, of Houston, Texas, for example, did the logical thing and fit a Mac mini into his
(top screenshot). Fielder’s Mini Cooper sports a 7-inch screen attached to a hinge so he can still access the standard stereo and radio. But the ultimate mini mod comes from
Mark Turner, of Atlanta (middle screenshot). He not only added auxiliary ports and a universal media-card reader to the panel between the front seats, but also managed to put a brushed-metal power button in the dashboard of the car, just above the glove box (bottom screenshot). For more mini mods, check out