It’s Alive! Tales of Computer Resuscitation and Such

There are few things that give greater satisfaction than seeing something you’ve designed or planned come to fruition. Even more so if those plans are executed with hardly any glitches. Over the past few months, I’ve been able to complete a few tech projects that I had been planning for a while now.

Building a New Computer

The first of these undertakings was building a new computer for my parents. I know, I know. People do that all the time, but what made this exciting for me was that it was my first, full-custom build. I had never been able to afford all the parts necessary to make a computer. A nice, little tax refund (and a few parts I recycled from their old machine) made it possible to put together a decent computer for almost exactly $500.

After a few hours of research on NewEgg, I came up with these specifications:

To finish it off the item list, I used an Antec power supply I had installed in their old computer, and I bought a 3.5" floppy drive from Fry’s.

To my astonishment, all the parts fit together extremely well. Everything just seemed to fall into place. I guess those hours of research really paid off! The only glitch I had was with the DVD drive; I accidentally set it to “slave” instead of “master” so that it was opening every time the computer turned on. A quick change of the jumper switch on the back of the drive remedied that. All that was left to do was format the hard drive and install Windows and all the other software my parents used.

In one afternoon, I was able to give my parents a better computer and become a computer-builder extraordinaire! I now sometimes use their computer to play games that I’ve been wanting to play forever but never had a good enough PC to be able to.

Installing a New Hard Drive in a PowerBook

Another small project I took on was replacing the hard drive on my now four-and-a-half-year-old 12″ PowerBook G4. The hard drive it originally came with had a capacity of 60 GB and was quickly becoming overcrowded. For some reason, I didn’t feel like ordering the drive online; I wanted to be able to have it same day, so I opted for the Western Digital Scorpio Blue 160 GB PATA (WD1600BEVE) hard drive available at Best Buy. I had read that it was a good drive, and it was only around $70, so it was a good deal.

After installing it, though, I had some doubts that I had made the right decision. Western Digital claims the drive is “quiet” and that it offers “cool operation,” but I found both of those claims to be untrue…to an extent.

I found out that the reason the hard drive was so noisy (it made audible clicking sounds very frequently) was that Mac OS X was parking the heads of the hard drive to protect it in case the laptop suddenly moved and to conserve power. I guess this movement wasn’t loud enough in the old hard drive for me to notice, but in this Western Digital drive, it was more than annoying.

The solution I found to the clicking noise was to install a little command-line utility called hdapm that controls the power management (APM) level of ATA hard drives. Using this tool, I set the APM level to maximum so that Mac OS X doesn’t park the heads of the drive anymore, therefore eliminating the clicking sounds during regular use. (You can still hear the sound anytime the computer starts up.) Some people claim that doing this interferes with the automatic sleep function (because the disk is always spinning), but I haven’t had any problems so far, and I’m much less annoyed!

Another factor that contributes to the noisiness of the drive is the air rushing through it (if that makes any sense). This drive spins at 5400 RPM, while the old drive spun at 4200 RPM. A higher spin rate means more moving air, which means a bit more noise. This aspect of the drive not only produces more noise, but also more heat (which was the second problem I had with the drive). Again, faster spinning equals greater performance, but it also means having to deal with more heat. Now, stuff that heat into an already crowded interior of a small laptop, and you’ve got a reason for the laptop’s fan to be spinning all the time, which again contributes to the noise.

This may all seem like excessive nitpicking, but if Western Digital is going to make certain claims about their hard drives, they should make sure they are true. In the end, all that matters is that I now have much more disk space even if I do have to put up with a few minor annoyances.

Fixing an iBook

A more woeful tale of hard drive replacing hails from an innocent-looking 12″ iBook G4. It all began when I wanted to replace the hard drive with one of greater capacity. The disassembly was going well up until the removal of the top case.

The power button that is located on the top case of the iBook is connected to a tiny, almost-unreachable socket on the motherboard by a tightly-attached plug. In order to remove the top case, you have to disconnect the plug from the socket. The disassembly instructions warned me that this would be difficult, because the plug is tightly attached to the socket and the socket is not so tightly attached to the motherboard, which means that it is very easy to accidentally rip the socket off the motherboard (and that is something that is not easily repaired). This also means you could have a laptop that didn’t turn on anymore. I tried as hard as I could to carefully pry the plug and socket apart, but all I ended up doing was exactly what the instructions said could happen—I pulled the socket off the motherboard.

I continued with the hard drive replacement, but I was worried that I would not be able to reattach the socket, and I would end up with a brick instead of a laptop. I spent the better part of one week trying to glue it back on with different types of adhesives (I would have soldered it back on, but I didn’t have the tools or the skills to do so). After coming close to giving up many times, I was finally able to position it correctly (it was very picky about that) and glue it down with epoxy so that it worked most of the time. For a few months, this seemed to be a good solution, but a few weeks back, the power button stopped working again.

I opened it up and found that the epoxy had become soft and pliable (most likely because of the heat inside the laptop) so that the socket was still somewhat attached to the motherboard, but it was no longer making contact with the, um, contacts on the motherboard; it was basically floating on top of them. I decided the only way to fix this once and for all was to learn how to solder and solder the socket back on. So, I purchased a soldering pencil at Fry’s and got to work.

At first, the task seemed like a daunting one; I was afraid I would bridge the contacts on the motherboard and cause a short-circuit. Bad, bad, thoughts! After practicing on some scrap pieces and trying out a few ideas, I found it easier to first “melt” a tiny glob of solder onto each contact on the socket itself and then position it correctly over the contacts on the motherboard and melt each glob onto the motherboard. That way, I didn’t have to worry about putting too much solder on the motherboard and worry about bridging the contacts.

This solution proved to be much better, and much more reliable. Now I know that if I ever want to open another iBook G4, I have to be very, very cautious about that pesky little power socket.

Leave a reply