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Easy fixes for six common laptop problems

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Problem: Stuck key on laptop keyboard

Cost: $10 to $100
Time: 10 minutes to 1 hour
Materials: Screwdriver, replacement keyboard for your system

One of the most common and frustrating ways good notebooks go bad is with a stuck or broken key. In my case, the laptop had an “R” key that stuck—when I hit it, I got a line or two of Rs.

In some cases (most notably MacBooks) you can get individual replacement keys, but they are quite expensive—often $8 or $9 per key. In most cases, a full keyboard costs only a little more and might be the better deal if you are missing more than one key or have other issues.

Start by locating a replacement keyboard for your system. All you need to do search online for the notebook model and the word “keyboard.” Again, Amazon, eBay, and Newegg are your friends, though there are specialized vendors as well.

I opted for a refurbished keyboard at $10, because the system I have is more than five years old—a new keyboard would likely outlive the rest of the machine.

Some laptops have a locking bar above or below the keyboard that holds it in place. Others make you remove screws from the bottom of the case before the keyboard can be removed, and still others require you to open the whole case to get at the keyboard. (If that describes your system, this is a good project to do while you’re replacing the fan.) Your best bet is to nose around and look for a way in or leaf through the system’s manual to find the answer.

My laptop has a locking bar above the keyboard that holds it in place, so the instructions that follow are for that type of device.

4quick keyboard 750 original edited Brian Nadel/IDG

Remove the locking bar and unscrew the screws that hold the keyboard in. Unplug the ribbon cable and lift out the keyboard.

After prying up the locking bar at the top of the keyboard, pull it off. Unscrew the keyboard.

Lift the keyboard slightly, but before you remove it completely, make sure you remove the ribbon cable that connects it to the motherboard so you don’t damage it or the connector on the motherboard. Generally, all you need to do is to flip up the connector. Be careful, it can be delicate. With the keyboard safely unplugged, lift it out.

It’s now time to install the new keyboard. After plugging the new keyboard in, slip it into place and screw the keyboard in. Finally, snap the lock bar back in.

That’s it, but I suggest trying all the keys out before celebrating a job well done. Even refurbished and new keyboards are known to have bad keys, so you might have traded one problem for another. Most come with at least a 30-day warranty—you might need it.

Problem: Scratched laptop display

Cost: $5
Time: 5 minutes
Materials: Toothpaste, cloth, window cleaner

Replacing a display and its inverter electronics can be a tough job that can cost several hundred dollars and take hours, though with the proper documentation it’s not impossible. For an old system, it’s likely not worth it. But if the display is only slightly scratched, it’s a no-brainer to fix it.

After a trip to the beach on a windy day last summer, I noticed a bunch of small scratches and one big one on my laptop's display. The scratches annoyingly obstructed the screen’s image.

These types of scratches can be smoothed out with a dab of toothpaste (and I do mean toothpaste—the gel varieties usually don’t have the necessary abrasives) and a little elbow grease. Novus Plastic Polish #2 is also good for this purpose.

5quick scratch 715 original edited Brian Nadel/IDG

Gently rubbing toothpaste (yes, toothpaste) over a display scratch can smooth out the damage. 

Rub the toothpaste between your thumb and forefinger and it should feel slightly sandy and gritty. It’s these mild abrasives that will fix the screen’s problem.

Gently rub the toothpaste in a circular motion over the scratches for a few seconds (not too hard—you could rub off the screen’s surface coating).

Then wipe the screen clean with a soft cloth.

Finish up by cleaning the screen with a non-ammonia-based window cleaner. My favorite is Sprayway, but there are grocery store shelves filled with these products. Look it over and if the scratches aren’t gone, repeat the process.

This strategy isn’t perfect. With my scratched laptop, the toothpaste only partially removed the big scratch, but it did get rid of all the minor scratches. Plus my machine now has a minty-fresh aroma.

Problem: Spills on your laptop

Cost: $4
Time: About 2 hours (followed by sufficient drying time)
Materials: Towel, screwdriver, compressed air—and hope

Why is it that when there’s a glass of water or coffee to be spilled, a notebook is generally there? Call it Murphy’s Law of Mobility, but we’ve seen several notebooks die because of spills.

If you spill a soda, water, or another liquid on your laptop while it’s running—immediately kill power to it. If you know how to remove the power cord and battery quickly—do that. If you managed to pull the plug before your laptop shut off on its own, you can probably save it. Liquids and electronic components are fine—liquids and electricity are not. If the computer shut off on its down, you’re probably out of luck. But try this anyway.

Caveat: Just to be clear—remove the battery and the power cord before attempting to clean or dry your laptop.

How you take care of a doused laptop depends on what was spilled. If it was sticky or had anything acidic in it (e.g., Coca Cola) then you need to clean it off as soon as possible. This is best done by completely disassembling the laptop and cleaning each component separately—after having waited ten minutes to make sure the stored electricity in capacitors, etc. has bled off. If you have a can of electronics parts cleaner handy, use that. If not, though it may seem counterintuitive, you can use soap and hot water. Use as little as necessary, but to be honest, we’ve washed PC cards under the tap. After cleaning, dry as described below.

6quick drain 550 original edited Brian Nadel/IDG

Carefully tilt the laptop on its side to help the water drain out. Use compressed air to help dry the insides.

If you’re not up for the drudgery of disassembly, don’t know how, or don’t think you can manage, you can leave the laptop intact. Indeed, if all you spilled was water, only drying is required. If the spill did involve a liquid the leaves residue, you can try flushing the main body of the laptop with water. Yes, you heard correctly. Do not do this with the display, as you’ll never get the water out if it leaks.

The hotter the water, the more effectively it will remove gunk and the quicker it will dry. However, don’t make it hot enough to be dangerous. Around the temperature that you can stand from the tap is about right.

You can dry your laptop using compressed air, a blow dryer on low, setting it in front of a fan, or better yet, a combination of those. But whichever methods you use—be patient. If any liquid remains when you start up the laptop, it will quite likely kill it. We recommend at least 24 hours, but 48 or even 72 is better. Hopefully, you have computing alternatives. Even if you don’t, don’t rush it.

Tilt the system on its side to help drain the water out. Do yourself a favor and put a towel underneath. Try to keep the liquid away from the display as you’re removing parts and draining the system.

Gently shake the system to get liquid out of the many nooks and crannies inside. The air vents generally act as water canals. Next, use a can of compressed air, a reversed vacuum, or blow dryer on low to blow the inside of the case as dry as possible.

It’s a good idea to let the machine sit near a fan, heating or cooling air vent overnight—or longer if you can stand the suspense—to fully dry it out.

When you’re sure the system has dried out, put it back together (if you disassembled it), start it up and hope for the best. If it starts, it’s okay to let out a sigh of relief. If it doesn’t start up, just say to yourself “Well, it was time to upgrade anyway.” Hopefully, the laptop wasn’t brand-new. Sigh.

This article originally posted September 10, 2009, and was updated September 22, 2017.

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