Old warrior
An old warrior – that didn’t let me down

Disaster’s never more than a step away. Or in my case, 6 inches, the distance between my coffee cup and the computer.

Up till then, it had been a good day. I’d scooted through most of my To-Dos, and swung round on my swivel chair to flick on the switch to my printer … catching the cup with my elbow as I did so, and introducing my laptop to coffee. It didn’t like it. A few angry beeps … and then before I had the presence of mind to hit the off switch, it died before my eyes.

The computer was soaked but I was sunk. That was where I’d stored all the art-work for my Coloring The Wind project … and like a fool, I hadn’t kept back-ups – not in the last 6 or 7 weeks. I could probably recreate most of it, but it would take ages. And without a computer my business came to a halt. Would I have to go out and get a new one? Coffee suddenly seemed expensive.

But wait, what about the old laptop I’d retired a year ago? It had been a good workhorse for six or seven years, but after 8 hours a day of key-thumping, it was showing its age. A missing key, several of the letters on the keyboard faded beyond recognition, the touch-pad so worn that the green PCB below was showing through. Worst of all, age had slowed its reactions: after switch-on, it took around 10 minutes to get itself ready for the internet.

Nevertheless … Send the call!

I dried the stricken computer as best I could, taking out the dripping battery and the hard drive, mercifully clean and dry. Perhaps at least I’d be able to hook it up to the old computer as an external drive. How do you do that?

And then I turned to the old computer. The internet – if I could just get onto it – was going to be my friend. This must have happened to other people before. What advice could they give me?

In the next 24 hours, I learnt a lot. Sometimes the advice conflicted. Use a hair-drier to dry out the componentsOn no account use a hair drier, just give the innards time to dry completely. Safer to give it time, I decided. Stand the laptop up on end so that any remaining liquid drains out the way it came in.

The next morning, nervously, I reinstalled the hard drive, and switched the computer on. It hadn’t forgiven me. Still as it started to boot, the angry, accusatory beeping. I quickly switched it off, guilty. But hadn’t I just proved something? It wasn’t entirely dead, just stricken. I’d give it a couple more hours.

Then another couple. And then another couple. Still the same results. But that’s when I had a stroke of luck. The last time, I thought I’d switched it off, closed the lid, and put it to one side, turning my attention back to the old computer. Then, a couple of minutes later, I heard the familiar Windows ‘loaded’ signature. Not from the machine I was working on, but the broken one. Excited, I opened the lid. And there it was. Windows! Was it really working?

Using the touch-pad, I summoned Firefox. It worked. Then Google. Good. Then entered a few letters. No good! Some of the keys weren’t working at all. As if to compensate, 7 gave me 7 and 8. The Enter key was useless. I turned the machine off. Maybe if I tried again. Back came the beeping. I gritted my teeth, let it run on … the beeping stopped and Windows loaded. There were still the same keyboard problems.

But I was making progress. If it could load Windows then surely not all was lost. I went back to the internet on the other machine for more help, Googling spillage boot continuous beep, and combinations thereof. The results weren’t encouraging. Beeps on boot indicated an internal error. (Figures!). It might be a keyboard problem, a stuck key, for example. (No, none of them were stuck). Try cleaning the keys – but be aware that spilled liquids are the biggest cause of laptop death.

Having come this far, I wasn’t about to give in to the doomsayers, so I found out how to remove individual keys safely. I quite often work outdoors, so I wasn’t surprised to find all sorts of detritus lurking beneath the keys .. bits of leaf, dust, hair. I worked on the faulty keys, cleaned them with a toothbrush and tweezers, reassembled, and confidently switched on. Same response!

So what if the problem was the entire keyboard? After all, that’s where most of the coffee had spilled in the first place. And apart from the keyboard problems, everything seemed to be OK. I Googled again, to find out how to remove the entire keyboard from my model number, and found a video that even I could understand. So I carefully followed the instructions, slid the keyboard out, and when I switched on – hey presto! – no more beeping. Now my only problem was that I couldn’t actually do anything with the computer, except move the cursor with the touchpad and click on programs to open and close them. Would a new keypad do the trick? I wasn’t certain it would work, but how much would it cost? Was it worth the risk?

The site that had given me so much help with removing keys and the entire keypad was LaptopKeyboard.com, and they sell the parts too. I’d like to have purchased from them … but they’re in the US, and I needed to get my hands on a replacement fast. So I tried eBay. Sure enough, I found a couple of UK dealers selling the keyboard I needed – brand new – and the price, including next day delivery, was £20. It might not work of course, but if it did, I’d save myself around £400. It was a risk worth taking.

While I was waiting I turned my attention back to the old computer. I’d already managed to get it working noticeably faster, using CCleaner, defragmenting the hard drive, removing redundant programs, and best of all, trimming the start-up programs to the bare essentials. I tried a free registry cleaner as well, but not only did it make no real difference to speed, it also seemed to stop some things working .. so I dropped the changes with a System Restore.

But then I found something interesting. I’d recorded an audio-blog for Coloring The Wind, and tried posting it. Normally I use Firefox, but this computer was set up for Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP. (I’ve stopped using Windows now, tired of their constant upgrades and putting money into Microsoft’s pockets for changes I don’t need – now I use Ubuntu.) When I looked at the post in IE8, the audio didn’t work, although it was fine in Firefox. So what was going on? I asked Google.

It turns out there are two versions of IE8, one for 32-bit computers and one for 64-bit. Although the older 32-bit machines (which I quickly discovered, this 7-year-old computer is) will run both versions, performance will suffer with the 64-bit IE8. Worse, Adobe Flash, now rapidly becoming redundant on newer machines but still required on older ones for audio and video support, can struggle with the 64-bit IE8. So, I reinstalled IE8, making sure it was the 32-bit version, then Flash … and my audio blog-file worked perfectly. My impression is that internet load-times are faster on the older machine now as well, although I haven’t measured it scientifically.

Yesterday morning, the new keyboard arrived. In a few minutes I had it installed … and the good news is that everything works normally again. It’s a full recovery.

So, what started as a disaster has turned out well after all. I’ve got my computer back, and it feels brand-new. But also I’ve learned an enormous amount in a few days. And if there’s ever another problem, my poor old computer has perked up, and is now ready for the call.

What’s my point? That if you refuse to let catastrophe beat you, there’s usually an upside too. Not always, I agree. And I was lucky, certainly. But it would have been easy just to give up and assume there was no hope. I don’t have unusual technical skills. Most of the actions I took were brand-new to me. A few days back I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea how to recover from the problem. But I do now, because I gave it a shot, and used all the public information I could get my hands on.

There’s still a couple of lessons I haven’t learned yet. I still haven’t backed up my key data. And looking up, the coffee cup’s still six inches away. If you’ll just excuse me for a moment …

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