I managed to kill my computer keyboard about a week ago. I have a laptop -- I just made all you notebook owners out there curl up protectively around your babies, picture dollar signs, and wince, didn't I? Most of the time laptop repair is such a horrendous, needlessly complicated affair that it's easier, and sometimes no more expensive, just to buy a new computer. I know a lot of HPs and some Dells are nearly impossible to repair, and sometimes even to clean; Macintosh uses a lot of concealed snaps and clever Torx screws to make sure you never see the interior of their machines.

I, on the other hand, have a Toshiba Satellite. A busted keyboard, on a Toshiba Satellite, is a problem that can be solved with $17 + S&H and a screwdriver, or a small paring knife if you're obdurate and lacking in either patience or a sense of propriety.

I mentioned before, talking about the MP3 player, that I do appalling things to portable electronics, and the computer is no exception; she doesn't really get dragged around much these days, but getting left on the desk just means that she gets run like a desktop. I have not actually turned her off in months. I rarely remember to close the lid. The last time she rebooted was because Windows Update ran while I was asleep and couldn't tell the restart notification to bugger off for another four hours. This will actually be her third keyboard.

This is not a bad record for a computer manufactured in early 2008. The reason Toshiba Satellites are so ridiculously easy to fix, as far as I can tell, is that even the ones you find pre-configured on the shelf at Best Buy are kit-built. If you go looking for replacement parts for a particular model -- say, an A205 -- you'll notice that whatever you find fits not only the A205, but also the rest of the A series, and sometimes also the Ms. Toshiba just makes the various different models from different combinations of compatible parts. These things are easy to pop apart because they're almost completely modular.

Satellites are also unusual for laptops in that they're easily upgraded. Toshiba only ever used a couple of motherboards each for the Intel and AMD variants, which means that if you're brave enough to play with thermal paste, you can even pop the CPU and replace it with a new one. The Intel line uses Core Duos (Socket M, I think) and the board will go up to something like 2.0 or 2.8GHz; Toshiba is also nice enough to let you re-flash the BIOS to raise the RAM ceiling from 2GB to 8GB. I can get a BD-R Lightscribe drive if I really want one, although the DVD±RW drive will already write on (nearly) anything short of a beer coaster.

You'll void the warranty by doing any of this, of course. Somehow I don't think Best Buy would be very happy with me if I insisted they repair it for free anyway, even if I weren't 2500 miles away from where I bought it.

As far as I can tell, the only thing you cannot yank apart and tinker with is the onboard video, which is not recommended for serious gaming, but works perfectly fine for anything else. DVD framerate isn't any faster than 1080p TV framerates, and it's more than adequate for that. Sound quality is also not exactly professional, but this is an issue with the case speaker and not with the Realtek chip/drivers; output via the headphone jack in the front is perfectly fine.

My very basic model has VGA out; the newer ones I'm sure have HDMI instead, and there's a PCMCIA slot if you're desperate for some other kind of converter. Replacement batteries are $19.95, and power bricks are about the same.

I actually managed to convince David to buy one of these things when he realized that the Guild Wars 2 beta weekend was fast approaching and he had no idea how to convert his real computer from Ubuntu back to Windows without breaking the hell out of it. It was under $500 and he could pick it up the next morning, which was all he really wanted. Mine has so far survived everything I've done to her, including a lot of things I probably shouldn't confess to where the other electronics can hear me, like dropping her (more than once) and turning off hibernation entirely for like a week so the torrent would fucking finish.

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  1. Not knowing the exact layout, it may be possible to replace the GPU as well. I redid all the thermal paste on my wife's old laptop (Lenovo, overpriced piece of crap the school made her buy) CPU and GPU and as part of the process I essentially took apart the entire thing. You'd have to check around for better GPUs that actually fit in the spot, but if everything else is modular then that one probably is, too. The GPU itself is just the chip, the biggest part of it is really the heatsink (and you may be able to keep that).

    Speaking of, redoing thermal paste on old laptops is really one of the best "upgrades" you can do for it. It took the running temps down by 5-10 degrees C on hers; it used to have huge problems getting overheated but not really any longer. Also, I am a huge fan of SSDs for laptops now that I have tried them; especially if you never turn it off it makes it lightyears faster. Much bigger difference than anything else you can do for it, and it's a super easy replacement. And sometimes you can get the 120GB ones for like 70 dollars, which is really quite good considering the MTTF (mean time to failure) on those things is like 1.5 million hours. Just make sure you get one with a stable controller if you do, some of the Sandforce controllers have a lot of stability issues. /rambles

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    1. The various upgrade fora suggest that either the GPU can't be pried out, or that it's already the max the motherboard will handle. Ditto the audio. I don't particularly mind, since I'm not a big PC gamer, and David finds his newer model adequate for Guild Wars 2, so I'm really not that fussed.

      120GB seems kind of... dinky for a system drive. Plus if I replaced the boot drive I'd have to convert entirely to Linux, as I don't have the faintest fucking clue where my Vista disc is. Probably somewhere in my parents' house in Phoenix, which for me is the same as lost forever. Actual ops wise I had no problems with Ubuntu 11/12, but I have a lot of truly weird niche software that seems to only ever have been written up for Windows that I don't want to lose.

      The next thing I upgrade on her is going to be RAM. SysMon says her processor (1.6GHz Core Duo -- I use this thing for writing, internet, and watching DVDs, not really any heavy lifting) actually rarely ticks over 15-20% capacity, but she still has the original 1GB RAM, and with my customary zillion tabs open in Chrome I very quickly slop over into the swap file. The upgrade kits run $40-80 depending on capacity, which I gather is still pretty cheap for laptop parts. Or possibly free if Moggie decides to piece out the laptop she just replaced.

      The rest of the world probably thinks I'm insane for upgrading an inexpensive laptop rather than replacing it. I grew up tinkering with a Frankenputer 486, though. My first microATX desktop annoyed me, strictly for the number of things I couldn't fit in the case. (There was a warranty sticker on it, of course. I think I made it all the way from August until Christmas before I opened it to install a new drive.) I much prefer having a machine whose innards are accessible and swappable in case of emergency. And cheap. Cheap is also very important.

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