Hardware Tips: USB-to-IDE/SATA Adapter, USB Drives, Laptop Parts on eBay

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The battery on my Asus U6S laptop is just over three years old. Unsurprisingly, it can barely hold a charge anymore, in part because the person who used it most (I'm looking at you, Mrs. Hassle-Free PC) kept it plugged in all the time. As I've mentioned in the past, that's a surefire way to reduce a battery's longevity and capacity.

Needless to say, a replacement is long overdue. Just one problem: Asus wants $90 for a new battery. And that's not at all unusual: I've seen laptop batteries selling for as much as $150. Crazy!

Fortunately, I know where to go to find cheap laptop parts: eBay. And, sure enough, with a little searching I found a U6S-compatible battery for just $37 shipped. The seller has an excellent rating, and the battery comes with a three-year warranty. Score!

Your mileage may vary, of course--there won't always be such killer deals for every laptop make and model. Also, I should note that there's a bit of a safety risk involved in purchasing cheap, third-party batteries. On the other hand, even manufacturers' own batteries have been known to have problems, so you might as well save a few bucks.

Batteries aren't the only laptop part you can find cheap on eBay. As I wrote back in 2009, a worn-out keyboard is often very cheap and easy to replace. I did a five-minute surgery on a Dell laptop, which had sticky keys and rubbed-off letters, and spent a grand total of $12. The result: a laptop that looked and acted like new--keyboard-wise, anyway. Again, your mileage may vary.

Finally, if your laptop screen is cracked, burned out, or otherwise not working, look to eBay for an affordable replacement. Prices and availability definitely vary widely here, and replacing a screen isn't nearly as quick and easy as replacing a battery. The seller may offer instructions, or you may have to do a little online reconnaissance to find help. But even if you hire someone local to do the labor, it'll probably end up costing you a lot less than the manufacturer would charge.

The Most Indispendable Tool in My PC Repair Kit

If you have intermediate or advanced skills (meaning that you're comfortable poking around a PC's innards), I'd like to recommend a special tool for your PC repair/upgrade/troubleshooting toolkit. It's a USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter, one that allows you to plug any "naked" hard drive into a USB port. I've owned one of these for a few years, and while I don't use it often, it has saved the day on numerous occasions.

A recent example: My beloved media-center PC was exhibiting the symptoms of hard-drive failure. I knew I had a short window of time in which to rescue some recorded TV shows before the drive was no longer accessible. The PC itself was no longer bootable, but I was able to connect the adapter to the drive, and the drive to my main desktop. Never mind that the failing drive was still screwed inside the media center at the time! (Getting it out would have required major surgery.)

In another instance, I'd replaced the hard drive in a laptop and needed to retrieve some data from the old one--which was now "naked" (i.e. outside the PC, without any kind of enclosure). The adapter effectively turned it into an external USB hard drive, one I could access with like speed and ease.

I'm not saying you should rush out and buy one of these this minute, just that you never know when one will come in handy--especially if you're the tech-support person for friends and family. These adapters usually sell for $20 to 30.

Learn How to Run Programs From Your Flash Drive

Reader Patricia has a question: "Why can't application software be put on USB drives instead of [hard] disks?"

Actually, some software can indeed run from a USB drive (aka flash drive). And that's mighty handy, as it allows you to carry your favorite programs in your pocket and use them just by plugging the drive into any PC. But this doesn't work for everything; many programs need to reside on the same physical drive as Windows. Heavy-duty apps like Office and Photoshop, for instance, are inextricably tied to the operating system; you could theoretically install them on your flash drive, but they wouldn't run on any other PC. And you'd run the risk of corrupting both the program and Windows.

That said, there are hundreds of apps that qualify as "portable," meaning they're designed expressly to run from flash drives. That's because they require no installation, no "hooks" into the OS; they're self-contained programs that run regardless of where they're stored.

For example, there are portable versions of OpenOffice, Foxit Reader, Firefox, KeePass Password Safe, and Skype, to name just a few. Head to PortableApps for a full list and download links.

One of my favorite uses for a flash drive is to rid a PC of malware infections. That's possible thanks to various portable security programs (most notably SUPERAntiSpyware).

If you're really ambitious, you can use a flash drive to temporarily boot an entire Linux operating system. (Lincoln Spector explains how in "Boot LInux From a Portable USB Drive With Universal USB Installer.") There's even a utility--WinToFlash--that copies Windows installation files to flash drives, which makes for faster, easier, and more portable Windows installations.

So, Patricia, while you can't install every program on your flash drive, you can use your drive to run lots of great programs.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog . My 411: hasslefree@pcworld.com . You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week .

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