Background and Identification
A laptop is a type of computer that is portable enough to be used while traveling. Most laptops share a similar clamshell form factor with the top lid of the laptop housing a display and the bottom section containing a keyboard and trackpad. The two sections are connected by a hinge and when you travel, you can fold the two halves together to protect the screen and keyboard.
Manufacturers have also developed several other form factors for laptops which offer different features from the “traditional laptop” described above. Generic laptops usually have a screen size of about 11 inches (28 cm) to 17 inches (43 cm). Smaller, lighter laptops are available, however, and are often referred to as ''subnotebooks'' or ultraportables. While the hinges on most traditional laptops can only bend so far, some laptops—called convertibles, hybrids, or 2-in-1s—can fold all the way around. These laptops usually have a touchscreen so you can use your fingers to control the device when the keyboard is flipped onto the back. Here’s an informative hybrid laptop comparison video from The Verge. Detachable laptops take this concept further by allowing a user to remove the keyboard entirely. Some notable early examples include the Surface Pro and Surface Book which you can see in this demo from Fstoppers.
Laptops are distinct from desktop computers which generally stay in one place in a house or office. Compared to these larger machines, laptops generally use less power but provide less overall performance because they cannot deal with heat as well. While some laptops are upgradeable and repairable, desktop computers provide a simpler experience because parts are widely available and interchangeable.
You can usually identify the manufacturer of a laptop by looking for their logo on the outside of the laptop, either on the back of the display, below the display, or on the bottom of the device. The name of the specific model is usually printed on the bottom of the laptop directly on the case or on an attached sticker. Failing this, you can often find the serial number/service tag nearby. Search online for a “support” or “check warranty” page for your specific manufacturer and enter the serial number for more information on your device.
For an explanation on what each part of the computer does, you can see the section below titled "How a Laptop Works.”
The Laptop Will Not Turn On
Sometimes the laptop is totally dead. Sometimes it’s just a simple issue. Follow the steps below for some troubleshooting ideas. This page from Laptop Repair 101 has more tips.
- The first issue to check for is the . Does the laptop work like normal if it is plugged into the wall with a reliable charger? If so, your laptop likely has a bad battery. You can find battery replacement guides here on iFixit or elsewhere if nobody has made one yet (perhaps you can make your own guide). Make sure the power adapter you’re using works with your computer and puts out enough watts to power your specific model. You don’t want to be the person who goes into a store for a repair just to learn that you were using the wrong charger (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Tip: give the laptop a bit of time after it is plugged in before you try turning it on.
- Does the laptop have any ? These include spinning fans, blinking lights, or beeps. These beeps or flashing lights often correspond to a specific issue which you can fix. For example, two beeps when a Dell laptop starts up generally indicates an issue with the RAM.
- Check for issues with the . It’s pretty easy to think your laptop isn’t working even if the issue is completely due to the screen. If the screen doesn’t turn on, try shining a flashlight into the screen and look for any images. If you can see dim images, the backlight in your screen is dead and you will need to replace the display. This video from Adrian Black shows this same troubleshooting step for a TV screen. Also make sure you haven’t just turned the brightness all the way down. Woops!
- Can you get into the ? The BIOS is the basic firmware that runs when you first start your computer. You can sometimes enter the BIOS setup when the laptop starts by holding F2, F10, or the delete key on your keyboard when you press the power button. See this article from Tom’s Hardware for a more comprehensive list of the keys used to enter the BIOS for each brand of laptop. If you can access the BIOS but can’t get any further with a regular boot (a.k.a. an attempt to turn on the computer where you don’t hold the BIOS key) your laptop probably works fine, but you have an issue with the operating system. Check these extra troubleshooting guides for what to do when Windows doesn’t start (or Linux if you have that installed).
If none of these steps work, you might need to replace the motherboard or take it to a repair shop that can work on the issue with the motherboard. If the laptop has a separate power input board that is attached to the motherboard with a cable, you could try replacing that part first. Sometimes the motherboard works fine but isn’t receiving any power because of a bad power port.
The general rule of thumb for troubleshooting is that you want to rule out all other issues before deciding to replace/fix the motherboard because it is one of the more expensive components.
The Screen Has Dead Pixels
Dead pixels on a laptop screen look like dots that don’t change color no matter what they “should” display. Usually they are stuck fully white, black, red, green, or blue. You can sometimes ignore these screen pimples (I’ve got three on my display right now), but a large group can be super distracting. Use this dead-pixel checker webpage to find a stuck pixel.
This WikiHow guide provides some useful strategies for fixing a dead pixel, including flashing static on the screen via the JScreenFix website or applying slight pressure or heat to the stuck pixel area. If none of these fixes work, you can replace your display with some guides here on iFixit.
The Laptop Overheats
As explained in the “How a Laptop Works” section below, a computer produces heat which it MUST vent out. If your computer is hot, it’s not necessarily bad; the important statistic is the CPU temperature. If this reaches about 100 degrees Celsius, the computer will automatically shut off to protect itself. You can monitor the CPU temperature in Windows with a tool like RealTemp or on linux with the terminal command “sensors.”
The processor might be very hot if the heatsink or fan attached to it are clogged with dust. The best fix is to open up the computer and blow some compressed air into the fan to kick up the dust that builds up over years of use. You could also use a lint-free cloth or static-safe brush if you don’t want to hurt the environment. This iFixit news article explains some alternatives to compressed air (the “air” from a can of compressed air is really gaseous refrigerant chemicals which are pretty bad for the environment).
The Battery Dies Quickly
You might need a new battery. See the replacement guides here on iFixit or elsewhere on the web for instructions on removing the battery in your laptop.
Alternately, you might just be running intensive software on your laptop like a game, video editing suite, or a simulation program. These apps will eat through your battery like a teenager after a fast. You can check the current maximum capacity of your battery vs. it’s original maximum capacity using the “powercfg” command on Windows (guide here) or the “acpi” command on Linux (guide here).
How a Laptop Works
Computers aren’t magic, though the power they provide is pretty magical. If you already know the ins-and-outs of computer tech, you can skip this section, but for the rest of the people out there this information might be helpful for the troubleshooting and repair tips shown in the section above. Much of this information is explained further on HowStuffWorks.
Let’s start on the outside of the laptop. The screen consists of an array of pixels which can each change their color individually. The resolution of the screen is measured as the number of pixels across the width and height of the display (e.g. 1920x1080 pixels). With some exceptions, the pixels in a display do not emit any light; instead, they change the color of light emitted by a backlight that sits behind the pixels. If either of these parts fails, they need to be exchanged in full.
On the inside of the laptop, the CPU (sometimes just called the “processor”) works as the brain of the machine. It executes all the code that comprises the programs you use everyday. The CPU generates heat which needs to be dissipated somehow—otherwise the computer overheats and shuts down. Lots of laptops have a heatsink to absorb heat from the CPU and a fan which blows cool air over this heatsink and moves warm air out the back/side of the device. If you remove the heatsink, you MUST apply new thermal paste to the CPU to allow for adequate heat transfer.
While the CPU works as the brain of the laptop, the motherboard is the nervous system. The motherboard is the thin board that takes up most of the space in the computer and is generally the largest component. It is made from fiberglass with tiny copper lines embedded in it that criss-cross the surface. These lines, usually called “traces,” allow the CPU to communicate directly with other pieces of the computer like the RAM and storage (see below). While some thick, older laptops have a socket for the CPU which allows it to be replaced, the two parts are often soldered together and cannot be replaced individually.
Before it is executed, the code used by the CPU is located in a temporary storage location called RAM. RAM components are either soldered directly to the motherboard (this makes repairers sad) or inserted into a slot on the motherboard (this makes repairers happy). In the second scenario, you can replace RAM that has gone bad or add more RAM to your computer; RAM soldered to the motherboard cannot be easily repaired except by a professional. This question on Quora explains why adding extra RAM isn’t always correlated to increased computer speed.
Your programs and documents are stored on a hard drive or SSD inside the laptop. Since hard drives literally consist of platters spinning at high-speed inside your laptop, they can eventually die or break with a sharp impact (shoutout to my resilient hard drive which survived being dropped down a flight of stairs). SSDs don’t share the same issues and are faster than hard drives, so performing a swap can make a big difference for your machine. Some SSDs, however, are soldered directly to the motherboard (not again!?) which makes it more difficult to repair without an expert technician.
The final component I’ll mention here is the battery. The battery provides power to the laptop when it is not plugged into the wall. The battery supplies this extra energy as the product of a chemical reaction that happens inside. Over time, this reaction produces unintended by-products and the battery wears out. Thus, the battery is fundamentally a consumable part and will need to be replaced after a certain amount of time. Some manufacturers glue down their batteries which (do you see a trend?) makes them harder to replace. If you’re feeling up for it, you can use some adhesive remover to remove this sticky manufacturing trick.