I have been given a long forgotten laptop that was in a cupboard that was owned by a volunteer who has been here for a few years that had moved up to a newer system.
This computer was way to slow to be of any practical use, and I wanted to have a go at practicing my skills in laptop maintenance and see if I could make it into a proper functioning portable computer again.
Here I am going to show some of my techniques as an IT professional on making old computers workable again. This may sound strange to many people who always have latest and newest technology, but like most mechanics who drive old cars, I like fixing old laptops, I am weird like that. Most of the techniques are things most people with little IT experience can do themselves.
The laptop is a Gateway 450X4 its about 2002 vintage so 7 years old, that seem like a huge age in terms of computer era, but it does have a Pentium 4 processor, 1.4 gigahertz, Windows XP licence sticker underneath, its free from any physical damage as far as I can see and turns on, so some tests were done to see if at least all the physical parts of the hardware and if its worth rebuilding.
One downside of this computer was that the battery pack as defective, it would not hold a charge at all. This is not surprising as most laptop batteries last 2-4 years at the most. So I will concentrate making this computer usable for a comfy chair at home or a coffee shop where an electrical socket is just a metre or two away.
Often malware or software problems make a reasonable spec computer run horrifically slow, so a fresh install should be interesting to see how it runs again.
(The brackets show how difficult each process is.)
Blank everything (easy, download and burn an ISO file to CD, boot from this disc and follow on screen instructions)
First of all to erase all the data that was on it, a reinstall of windows could of done this but not 100% securely and I wanted to put my friend at ease with knowing everything on it would be good forever. To do this I use a free tool called Darik’s boot and nuke. Its a free piece of software which can be downloaded as an ISO file and boot straight off a CD and it erases everything thoroughly, better than physically destroying the hard disk which would wasteful and cost money to replace.
Once I had run the Boot and Nuke CD, after leaving it for a few hours to completely erase it was ready to have Windows reinstalled.
Installing Windows (easy but long and tedious)
I always Windows XP with latest service pack 3, mainly because leaving the computer with a live connection to the internet without the essential patches and updates could compromise the security and let malware and viruses in. The XP professional CD I use has the service pack 3 merged in, using a process ‘slipsteaming’ cutting down the time to install everything. Otherwise the service pack 3 update takes a good 45 minutes to install, on top of 45 minutes to install XP on its own, so this cuts out a lot of time.
After this was down I have familiar XP desktop with the green hil background. For this part of the world, I have switched on the right to left language support so the laptop can be used by a Hebrew or Arab speaking user as these languages work right to left. This needs the XP CD handy to load on system files. Once this is done I installed Hebrew, Arabic and Russian keyboard layouts so the next owner of this computer has a choice, as all of these are well used here in Jerusalem. This of course means stickers would need to put on but I will leave this for now. You can press alt + caps lock to switch languages or click on the blue square on the Windows taskbar.
Some of the redundant features of XP I have removed. From Add/remove programs in the control panel, I got rid of Windows Messenger, Outlook express and MSN explorer as these are never used by anyone. I have the latet MSN messenger for instant messaging which is a more secure version for instant messaging.
Installing drivers (requires basic IT servicing knowledge)
Next was to install all the drivers. These are the files that are needed to make the individual features of the computer work. Without them, the sound, network port, wireless network will not work, and screen will not show the display in its proper quality.
Getting the files off Gateway’s web site and putting them onto a USB stick was not too difficult but the site is not as easy to navigate as from say, HP or Dell. Note at this point this computer has not been connected to the internet and wont be until later.
Once this was done I installed a few essential apps, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Internet Explorer 8, Firefox, Open Office, MSN messenger, Google Earth and VLC player.
All the software here is legal, I am using my own back up of Windows XP with the correct and legal licence code underneath the computer, the rest of the software is free. I have chose Open Office as its free and closely follows the way Microsoft Office to most part. Internet Explorer 8 was installed purely to keep the computer upto date for security reasons over the long outdated and not safe version 6 that is supplied with XP, Firefox was chosen the main web browser for its security and ease of use. The rest of the apps are free, VLC being my preferred choice for playing back music and video as it does about a zillion different formats, has non-complicated controls and plays DVDs circumventing regions locks, so watching films from any country.
Update the update program to make updates update. (requires basic IT servicing knowledge)
Once XP with service pack 3, has all the preferred apps and drivers working, I put on AVG antivirus version 9, this needed the network attaching for the first time, as this app needs files fetched online to make it install. After this I put on all the Windows updates on, theres 3 files to make the updater program update properly (I am not joking this get improved and changed each year) then install the 60 other updates. Of course, every 2nd tuesday Microsoft always release updates each month as well.
Adapters? Shmdapters! (quite simple, requires cutting of electrical plug and rewiring, flat/philips screwdriver and cutters needed)
This computer was bought in the US so had an American plug and a US>EU adapter which works fine but is a bit wobbly. The power supply on all laptops are designed to safely work on any voltage (110-240 volts) anywhere in the world, so it only needs an adapter to change the shape of the prongs that fit into the wall, and not change the voltage.
However I don’t like using foreign adapters and as this computer will be passed onto someone else in this (Israel) country, so it might as well be permanently set up for this country and saves needing extra clutter which could get forgotten or lost when traveling with this computer. I spent 5 Shekels at a hardware store and cut off the American connector off the power cord with wire cutters and wired it to a regular European electrical plug (used on all European countries and Israel, apart from UK, Ireland, Switzerland and Denmark)
CPU heat problems (very hard, requires complete dismantling of whole computer)
This was more difficult. Laptops can suffer from overheating problems, most modern laptops use the Centrino processor, Intel’s own low voltage CPU (another name for the processor chip) designed for portable computers to avoid making to much heat. The Pentium 4 chip was designed for desktop use and this computer does get awfully warm.
In any computer, the main processor chip has a heat sink and fan, a block of aluminum or copper clamped on top of the chip with thermal grease sandwiched between the chip and heat sink enabling heat to be drawn out of the chip into the metal and drawn out by air with the fan. With age this thermal grease can dry out, or the fan can cease working or getting bunged up with dust and dirt cause the computer to run hot and inexplicably shut down suddenly. I had these issues with my Compaq Evo laptop.
To fix this, this was the most difficult job of all. I had dismantle the whole computer removing the screen hinges and separating both halves of the bottom section of the laptop to get access to the CPU assembly. Once I got to the point I cleaned the fan and heat sink with a can of compressed air, before cleaning all the old thermal paste off the surface of the chip using alcohol and cotton buds and putting some fresh stuff on. I may blog another article on doing this in more depth.
The laptop still does run quite warm, but should be fine. I don’t recommend running any laptop on a bed, carpet or sofa for this reason.
CMOS battery error (quite simple, light disassemble of computer)
One thing this computer always gives an error about CMOS or time or date wrong. As well as battery pack to run the computer when on the move, all laptops, and desktop computers have something called a CMOS battery. These keeps the computer’s time, date and other settings when its switched off, when this fails the computer will still work but think its in 1988 or something like that. This was something that could be lived with as I set up the rest of the computer first.
This is a normally a small coin type cell, the type used in watches and car remote locking key fobs. The particular battery cell called a 2016 was not available in some of the local stores I visited here in Jerusalem so I got some off ebay, these came from China, I actually got 10 for $2 including postage, although I only needed one
To replace this battery on this Gateway is the same as what I have done on Dell’s popular Inspiron and Latitude laptops and is quite easy. To do this you need a thin bladed screwdriver to prise up the panel above rear row of keys (Esc, F1-F10, print screen etc) this panel should come up with gentle force. once in, the keyboard is removed with two small philips screws. You can fold the keyboard back and see the original CMOS battery which is starting to leak acid very slightly, none of this had got into the computer’s circuit board, so I replaced this and put the machine back together again. Upon powering up I go into the laptop’s BIOS (hidden program for changing some system and start up settings) screen by pressing F2 quickly and I changed the time and date settings. Now these get remembered and I no longer get the error upon start up. Yay! Its start to run properly now!!
Upgrade the RAM (easy, requires opening one small panel under computer)
This computer has 256Mb of memory which is the minimum to make Windows XP run, it can run on 128Mb but I would not recommend this. However 256Mb wasn’t comfortable to use, so an extra 256Mb (this computer uses DDR266 SODIMMs) I got from Netcity computer store near Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem for 80 shekels, this was a used part pulled from another broken computer that had been scrapped. However Yossi the man who owns the store is a nice chap and will give a warranty for his used parts, and he always has dozens of piles of laptops on his counter he is repairing himself. With 512mb of RAM, where as its not like a modern laptop which has a least 1Gb of memory, its one heck of a lot faster and combined with some careful tuning of software this little computer has really been given a new life and is starting to be something that is pleasant for working again. Lots of computer shops wont touch laptop hardware problems, but Yossi will replace broken LCDs and other parts but often has to get parts imported from US or Europe for this.
Yossi also sold me a used Intel 2200 mini PCI wireless card for 150 shekels. Could of got this part cheaper at home from ebay in the UK I expect, but I need to get this thing working soon.
Wireless problems (easy, requires opening one small panel under computer, replacing card, disconnecting/reattaching wires, install software driver)
This computer has a Agere Orinocco (nope I have not heard of this before either) wireless card which dates from 2001, its internally fitted in a little trapdoor in the bottom of the laptop, it seems to be one of first generation wireless cards which the newer ones are far more faster and reliable. After Gateway’s web site didnt have any drivers newer than the 2001 ones, I had to use google to find something newer for this card. The manufacturer were bought out by another company who were not interested in supporting this card any more. After hours of searching I found some newer drivers and firmware. This firmware update is a special update that erases and rewrites the code embedded in the wireless card. After this was done successfully in my house my wireless router in my bedroom only shows as one bar of signal, pretty poor I thought. I made the decision to replace the card, this is easy, remove one screw from a panel under the laptop and the card unseats from its socket and two wires for the antennae are detached and the used Intel one is put in its place. Once the correct driver was installed for the new Intel card it worked beautifully and connects to my network and shows 6 other networks in my neighborhood, and by heck the Intel card performs extremely good too and hasn’t dropped the connection once.
The laptop is still not perfect the battery is still broken, but a new one can be got for $35 from ebay from China, and screen hinges are a little loose so the screen flops back if you tilt it back too much. But its still pleasant to work on or use the internet in a comfy chair and convenient to take to another country.
I am using Norton Ghost to make a copy of this computer onto a bootable DVD, if the new owner gets a problem I will supply a bootable DVD they can run to put it back to the condition I have set it.
This nice computer is now FOR SALE! Its yours for 500 shekels, I am happy to demonstrate to any possible interested person wishing to test drive.
Euro electrical plug NIS5
2016 type button coin cell battery $2 for 10
256mb memory (used) NIS60
Intel wireless card (used) NIS150
Large tube of CPU thermal grease (used for several computers I have fixed here) NIS50
total NIS293 = US$58.60 = GBP48.83
There you have it, don’t throw away an old laptop, often a new install of Windows and maybe with some parts upgraded or replaced it could become useful again.