Thursday, September 15, 2016

That one time I fixed my computer instead of throwing it away

Back in the day I was quite adept at modifying our various home computer configurations. Technology was advancing rapidly. And while hardware prices were declining, a new computer was still a major purchase. So it made sense to upgrade components to keep the hardware functional for as long as possible.

Before 1993 our family had a couple of hand-me-down computers. We bought our first whole new system in 1993 for about $3,300. Per this inflation calculator, that amounts to about $5,460 in 2015 dollars. That's kind of mind boggling. Hardly anyone would consider paying even $1,500 nowadays ($906 in 1993 dollars) for a general use home computer. Earlier this year we paid $430 for a refurbished tower (we already had monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.) that is a great machine.

As we slid from large clunky 1993 home computers to today's sleek models, at some point we hit a break point where chunking money into upgrades quit making much sense for most models. Our family obtained more computers and I found myself opening up the hardware less and less.

This same process has occurred with most major appliances. People complain that we are a throwaway society nowadays. Previous generations fixed stuff. But nowadays we throw it away and get something new. You can't even find people to repair most of this stuff. Why? Because technology is advancing so rapidly and the cost of new items is such that it often makes little economic sense to repair old models.

According to H&R Block, you can expect your washing machine and dryer to last for about 10-13 years.  My parents had the same washer and dryer for well over 20 years. But Dad was forever fixing those things. I'm not a handy guy. When our last dryer died I did some quick research on the cost of repairing the bad parts. The parts were expensive and would take time to acquire. Instead, we had a new dryer in our laundry room that same evening for not much more than the repair would have cost.

About four years ago I was in the market for a new computer. I wanted a decent machine because I sometimes worked from home and I also did some video editing for fun. Windows 8 was about to be released and it already had fairly unfavorable reviews. Many computer manufacturers were offering reduced prices on computer models that had Windows 7 installed.

The setup of my office desk doesn't lend itself well to tower systems. Nor do I like having a bunch of exposed cords. I had previously had a large laptop and an all-in-one machine in that spot. I liked many things about the all-in-one, despite the fact that the Dell model I had owned had many problems from day one. Dell even replaced it twice. Although it was less than two years old, I celebrated the day it died for real.

While searching for a new computer I found a Lenovo IdeaCentre B540P all-in-one. The specs on the i7 model with Windows 7 were great and the price was fantastic. Although I would have preferred a machine that could do higher resolution, this machine seemed like the best value at the time. I didn't (and still don't) care about the touch screen. It seems kind of silly for a desktop computer.

I loved my new Lenovo all-in-one. Unlike my Dell all-in-one, the Lenovo actually worked. It was quiet and it did everything I wanted it to do without a fuss. It continued to work just fine until one day about a year ago when the normally very quiet fan suddenly wasn't so quiet. A slight whining sound appeared and it gradually got worse over time.

I used compressed air to blow dust out of the fan, but I was reluctant to actually dig into the computer. Opening up an all-in-one is more like getting into the guts of a laptop than opening up a roomy tower case. So I let it go. In fact, the sound got better for a few weeks. Right before it got worse.

One day my wife told me to go listen to my computer, which had sounded reasonable an hour earlier. The fan was making a horrible racket. I shut the computer down. Unable to put it off any longer, I opened the thing up and dug into it. Fortunately, Lenovo has excellent online maintenance manuals that guided my activity.

I knew that the back cover came off with no tools. The next cover required removing only five screws, but the slide-then-hinge motion took a bit of work. Then the next cover had 16 screws. Finally, the dual fan had four screws and two electrical connectors.

I quickly figured out which half of the dual fan was faulty. There was no way to fix it. No problem, I figured I'd just buy a new one. But it cost $122 from Lenovo. Too much. After searching the internet, I discovered that there were various sub-models of the same fan.

It turns out that the particular sub-model I needed was scarce. I could get a used one from England on eBay. Nah, I already had a used one. I found a few on sketchy sites that listed the fan for around $50, but it was impossible to tell whether they had any in stock. I finally found a new one in China for $25 from But shipping was expensive, ranging from $20 for up to 40 days to $36 for 3-7 days.

Seeing as my computer was nonfunctional without a good fan, I opted for the rapid shipping. I soon had an email back from PCHub with a tracking number for EMS Shipping. I was pleased that the product had shipped within 24 hours of purchase. Eventually the package was scanned at what I figured was an air terminal. And then ... nothing.

After a few days I got an email from PCHub asking me to complete a survey on my product. But I had no product. For all I knew it was lost in transit. I sent their customer service department an email. A response came back a day or so later with a link to a US Postal Service tracking site, where I was directed to enter the original EMS tracking number. Suddenly I could see the progress of my package in the US.

Over the next few days I kept watching my package via USPS tracking. It looked to me like nobody ever told the USPS folks that this was expedited shipping, because the package kept experiencing long layovers at various locations. How was it possible to get my package from China to California in two days, only to have it take two weeks to get from California to my house in Utah? I guess that's the nature of our quasi-government owned postal service.

When the package finally arrived, I worked to install the new fan in my computer to get it up and running again. (Actually, the old fan had started sort of working, so I had felt comfortable running the machine for short periods while I was waiting.) But something wasn't right after I got everything put back together. It seemed to work OK at first, but then I got a case fan error, followed by the computer abruptly shutting down in an ominous fashion.

After once again tearing into the computer (Thank you, Lenovo for well written and illustrated online maintenance manuals), I discovered that both of the dual fan's electrical connectors were four-pin plugs, but that one of the receptacles on the motherboard had five pins.

Fortunately, I had not discarded the old fan. I'm somewhat of a hoarder of old computer parts. Upon inspection I discovered that one of the plugs on the old fan had a five-pin configuration, but only four pins were used. Using my limited ingenuity, I figured out how to delicately remove the five-pin plug from the old fan and exchange it with the four-pin plug on the new fan. I put everything back together and the computer worked as good as new.

Well, better than new in many ways, because I upgraded to Windows 10 a year ago. Some folks gripe about Windows 10, but (after turning off all of the privacy violating settings I could find) it has worked great for me, with a couple of exceptions.

One of those exceptions is that after upgrading to Windows 10, my computer screen would sometimes stay black when I tried to reactivate the screen. I had the screen set to turn off after 10 minutes of inactivity. It had never been a problem before. So for many months I set my screen to never turn off and to use the blank screen saver. The blank screen saver still bleeds a fair amount of light. I am told that this is due to some compromises made on older touch screen computers. This problem went away for a while. But after a recent Windows update the problem returned. Oh well, it's not that bad.

Oddly, about the time I replaced my computer fan, Google Chrome stopped working for me on any https site. Most of the proposed solutions focused on the network, which wasn't a problem because these same sites worked on any other computer in the house. Some focused on the computer, but that wasn't a problem, since all of these sites also worked from my computer using any other browser. Some focused on one's Chrome account, but that wasn't a problem because Chrome worked fine for me on every other computer I tried.

After much frustration and attempting many solutions, I finally came across a suggestion to download and install Chrome Canary. As I understand it, Chrome Canary is the version that beta tests the latest Chrome developments. It installed quickly and pulled in my old Chrome settings. All I can tell you is that Chrome Canary works superbly on my machine, while Chrome does not. Or at least it didn't before I uninstalled it.

Where was I going with all of this? The bad fan episode made me realize that I'm no longer much for getting into the guts of a computer. I can do it but it'd rather not. I'd probably have gone out and bought a new machine, except that some medical expenses have left us a little tight on funds right now. That's not the only reason I didn't buy a new computer. I really like my Lenovo IdeaCentre B540P. I would prefer to keep using it over shopping for and then setting up a new machine. Although it's four years old, it still works great for the way I use it.

For now. Four years is a long time in computer years. Who knows when the next thing will go bad? Hopefully well after we have recovered from our current budgetary tightness. I also learned that it can be expensive and difficult to get parts for older computers, just as it is difficult to get part for older cars and appliances.

It would be great if I didn't have to replace any more parts on my Lenovo all-in-one. I'd like it if the machine continued to perform well for at least a couple more years. But sometimes real life works differently than one would like. I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

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