February 17, 2008

Dead Laptop
Lima, Peru

I think Tatiana's laptop is dead. The system froze on the reboot to complete a Windows update, and never recovered.

I use to build and troubleshoot desktop computers as a profession about a decade ago—I've always been quite skilled with such things—and my gut tells me we're looking at a motherboard problem. The motherboard is essentially the main circuit board that everything plugs into, and when it craps out, everything goes down with it.

Tatiana's massive, 15" Acer Aspire 3630 is a heavy beast. Acer is certainly not my brand preference of choice, but she was given the laptop as a gift, and didn't have a requirement other than for it to have a large screen to watch movies on.

I've tried starting up the laptop with a charged battery and without the battery (powered from the wall outlet), but it gives the same (dead) result. Coupled with the fact that the LED power indicators illuminate normally, and that an internal fan begins to spin for a second or two on start up, I've decided that the power supply isn't the issue.

The LCD display doesn't even flicker when turned on, so I plugged in an external monitor to test if a problem with the internal display was causing the system to halt—no dice. Since the video card is integrated into the motherboard, a failure of this component would also require a replacement of the board.

The keyboard is unresponsive—I can't even get the internal speaker to beep. No BIOS prompt, and nothing to indicate that it's even running a pre-hard drive boot.

Short of opening up the case and making sure the RAM sticks haven't become unseated, or a ribbon cable come loose, I'm pretty much out of troubleshooting ideas.

The laptop is over a year old, and out of warranty. I know from experience that a replacement motherboard itself will run at least US$300-400, plus shipping and tech support labor (another US$300+). The entire endeavor would certainly cost more than a new laptop itself.

This is where the real danger of laptops comes into play, and why I've never owned one until a few months ago. Owners, even technically experienced ones, are at the mercy of expensive, proprietary components if something goes wrong. When something breaks on a desktop, it's generally easy to fix—pull out the offending part and replace it—requiring more knowledge and patience than cash. When something breaks on a laptop, everyone pays through the nose, or just throws the thing in the dumpster. The likelihood that I could find a junked Acer 3630 on eBay with a working motherboard to cannibalize is remote.

Traveling long-term with a laptop scares me. The accumulation of irreplaceable documents, development materials, and photos that I carry around with me now is growing at an alarming rate.

I don't have much space on this laptop that I've got, and I fret about what I'll do when the free space starts to grow dangerously thin.

I don't trust CDs and DVDs with my work or memories (and carrying around such fragile things is pretty much useless). I don't trust portable, pocket hard drives to archive or backup my photos—if the drive fails or my backpack vanishes, so does all my data. Keeping things backed up on the same server that I use to run Travelvice is about the only option that makes me happy, but can really only be done in places where I've got access to a high-speed connection, for many, many hours.

A long-term traveler needs information depots around the globe—places where he or she can store or transmit digital valuables with confidence. Short-term travelers need only a handful of memory cards, thumb drives, or to burn a DVD and mail it home (while keeping another copy in their pack) to feel comfortable their memories are secure.

I'm now faced with the idea of "What will I lose if my laptop doesn't turn on one day?", as well as "What will I lose if the information on my Web site is deleted/corrupted/vanishes?"

Perhaps the only way I'll be able to feel comfortable is to use several methods: Mail a DVD home where the contents gets dumped onto a hard drive that normally sits in a closet; backup to a portable hard drive I keep with me; and backup to the Travelvice server when I get a usable connection.

As for Tatiana's ill-fated laptop, she's got a bunch of information that needs to be recovered off the hard drive (such as every photo she's taken while traveling in the Middle East and SE Asia last year). I should be able to buy a little adapter and plug it into the innards of a desktop computer to retrieve the contents, but that will have to wait until I have access to such things, back in the U.S.

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