We live and work in a cold, cruel world where our laptops can take a lot of abuse. Regardless of how gentle we try to be, our notebooks will probably be dropped, spilled upon or worse—sooner, if not later.
But if you think that all notebook damage can be repaired only by the manufacturer or a computer shop, think again. Many problems can be inexpensively and easily fixed with common tools, spare parts, and a little effort. Some repairs are no harder than high school art projects. That said, there are modern laptops that are very difficult to open and repair. If you can’t see any screws, you’re in for a tough time.
Using a couple of old, beat-up mainstream notebooks, we’ll show you how to fix everything from a broken case and frayed charger cord to a bad fan and scratched screen. Each restoration project has time and cost estimates, as well as what materials you’ll need to do the trick. Just follow the basic directions we’ve outlined for each repair.
Fair warning: Your system might be a little different, require special parts, or need a slightly different approach. YouTube is your friend.
One additional note: While we generally applaud improvisation and recycling old parts (especially AC adapters), there’s nothing like having the precisely correct part to do the repair. In fact, while fans and notebook keyboards may look similar, they can be very different. Each repair features links to where you can get the right parts, but they are just a sample of what’s available. If all else fails, try eBay, Newegg, Amazon, or CDW to get what you need.
Problem: Frayed AC adapter cord
Cost: $5 to $15
Time: 1 to 2 hours
Materials: Silicone sealant, painter’s tape (which is less sticky than regular masking tape), protective gloves (optional)
Because a notebook that travels needs to be plugged in and unplugged several times a day, the cord and connector can take a beating, leading to a frayed or otherwise damaged power cord. If this happens, it’s important to get a new cord or fix it right away, because it not only can damage the system’s battery through intermittent charging, but it can also be a fire hazard.
Fortunately, many laptop power adapters have removable AC power cords, which cost a few dollars and are available online or at electronics stores. On the other hand, if the connector that plugs into the computer is the problem, it can cost $50 to $75 to replace if you opt for the exact AC adapter for your laptop from your notebook manufacturer, Amazon, or eBay (search for your make and model name followed by “AC adapter”).
Or you can just fix it yourself.
The quick-and-dirty repair for a frayed cord is to wrap electrical or duct tape over the damage. This prevents further damage, but over time will come loose—not to mention leaving that sticky gunk all over the cable when it does.
A better way is to make a more permanent repair with silicone sealant, available at any hardware store and many supermarkets, which will insulate and protect it. It’s best to use black to match the cord’s color, but clear sealant works just as well.
To protect the surface you’re working on, lay down a wide strip of painter’s tape, sticky side down, and place the frayed area of the cord on top of it. The sealant won’t stick to the back of the painter’s tape the way it might to other barriers made out of paper or plastic, and the painter’s tape should peel right off the table when you’re done. (Note, however, that you shouldn’t be doing any kind of computer repairs on your good furniture.)
Next, squeeze out a gob of sealant onto the area that needs fixing. Work the gooey sealant into place, covering the damage with a liberal coating. If you have sensitive skin, it’s a good idea to wear thin protective gloves for this part.
Let the sealant cure for an hour or two until it is firm. Gently remove the cord from the tape (and the tape from the table), and you have the equivalent of a new power cord that’s flexible and ready for years of road work.
Problem: Cracked laptop case
Time: 2 to 3 hours (20 minutes to set up the repair, 5 minutes to place and shape the putty, an hour or two to let it cure, 10 minutes to sand it, 30 minutes to paint it and let it dry)
Materials: Epoxy putty, sandpaper, razor blade, Sharpie marker or paint, gloves (optional)
When notebooks get dropped, more often than not they land on the corner, one of the weakest parts of the case. Unless you have a ruggedized notebook, there’s a good chance that after an encounter with gravity, the corner will be cracked or—as was the case with my laptop—broken through completely.
It happened in an airport holding pen some time ago, when I sneezed while typing an email. The system went flying and smacked into the floor. Before I got home, I put a bandage over the damaged area to keep the elements out. Now it’s time to fix it for real.
The secret is to use epoxy putty to fill in the broken part of the case. Epoxy putty is available online or at any hardware store for around $4 to $6 a tube, so you can even do this repair on the road. The brand of putty you choose doesn’t matter, but avoid the quick-setting variety because it might harden before you’re done.
First, make sure the damaged area is clean and free of dirt and loose pieces.
Then it’s time to prepare the putty. It comes as a cylinder with two components wrapped around each other. Just cut a section off and twist the parts together.
The key to a smooth case repair is to mix the two components together thoroughly in your hands. Because the putty hardens as the result of a chemical reaction between the two parts, it’s important that they are completely blended together. You might want to use gloves for this part, because some people are sensitive to the chemicals in the putty.
Try rolling the putty into a long cylinder and then folding it over itself several times. After a few minutes, the putty becomes a uniform white or gray, and you’re ready.
You’ll feel like a kid working with Play-Doh, and in fact, the putty should be the consistency of Play-Doh, which is perfect for working it into the damaged area. Press it firmly into the hole in the case and use your finger or a razor blade to shape it to follow the contour of the case. When it covers the area, take the flat side of a razor blade or back of a ruler and compress the outer surface to flatten it. Any excess putty can be wiped off the case with paper towel before it dries.
When you like the way it looks, go do something else for an hour or two until the epoxy is cured. When it has hardened, the epoxy patch is just as strong as the plastic case.
Many DIYers stop here, and use the obvious repair as a road warrior’s badge of honor or conversation starter on road trips. I prefer a little more finishing, so I smooth the epoxy with 150- and then 220-grit sandpaper. Then I give it a final sanding with 2,000-grit paper that is slightly wet to remove any surface scratches.
Naturally, the color doesn’t match. If it’s a small repair, try using a Sharpie marker to cover it up. For this repair, I used model airplane enamel paint, which costs about $5 for a small bottle (a full set of colors with brushes is $10). When it’s dry, the repair is done and visible only if you look closely.
Problem: Bad laptop fan
Cost: $15 to $25
Time: 1 hour
Materials: Screwdriver, compressed air, vacuum, replacement fan
A noisy or non-functional cooling fan is not only annoying but doesn’t bring enough cooling air into the case, potentially causing the notebook to overheat and damage the electronics inside. It’s not a hard repair to do, though, and if you’re lucky you may not need to replace the fan at all.
My laptop has a single cooling fan, although many systems, particularly larger gaming and entertainment systems, have two or more fans to circulate air over the processor, graphics hardware and hard drive. More often than not, the fans get clogged with dust, debris and dirt, which can make them noisy and lower their efficiency. If your system is making a whirring or grinding noise or is overheating, this repair is for you.
Before you do anything else, find the place(s) where fresh air comes in and hot air escapes—usually one or more slotted grilles on the side or bottom of the system. There could be two or three vents, so search thoroughly. Insert the plastic straw from a can of compressed air into each vent and blow out all the dust that you can. You might want to put on a dust mask or have a vacuum cleaner running, because there can be a disgusting amount of dust. Optionally, or additionally, you can try sucking things out with a canister vacuum cleaner.
If this doesn’t fix things, it’s time to dig deep and open the case. There are generally about a dozen screws on the bottom of the case that you’ll need to remove to open the case, but it varies widely depending on the notebook. For instance, some models require you to remove the keyboard to get inside. If it’s not immediately obvious, check your user’s guide or do some online research (again, YouTube is great for this stuff) to find out how your case opens.
After carefully opening the case, find the fan and blow away any additional dust or detritus.
While you’re there, take a good look for anything stuck in the fan’s blades that might be impeding it. Twirl the blade with your finger. If it makes noise or doesn’t spin freely—as was the case with my laptop—it needs to be replaced.
Before going further, write down the model number of the fan and go online to find a replacement fan. Use your favorite search engine and type in the model number and “cooling fan.” Chances are that even for a five- or six-year-old computer, there will be fans available from eBay or the odd vendor. The replacement should cost anywhere from $5 to $20.
Once you have the new fan in hand (and are sure it’s the right one), you can take out the old fan. First, unplug the fan’s power connector. Each system is different, but you’ll probably need to unscrew a frame that holds the fan in place, and then undo some screws holding the fan to the frame. Again, the user’s guide or online videos are a great help.
Now you can gently remove the fan. It might take a little finesse to work the fan loose, because it’s generally a tight fit in there. Many notebook fans are connected to the heat pipe, a thin silver- or copper-colored tube that draws heat off of the processor or graphics chip. The heat pipe usually snaps or screws into the fan assembly. Try not to bend the heat pipe when you’re removing the fan, because that will reduce its efficiency at cooling the processor.
If for some reason, you go too far and can see the bare top of the CPU, make sure there’s adequate thermal paste. This is required to transfer heat from the CPU to the heat sink, and the lack of paste can also cause overheating issues. A tube costs a couple of bucks.
With the new fan ready to go, slip it in and carefully screw everything back in place. Before you screw the bottom of the case back on, plug in the power connector and fire up the machine. Don’t worry if the fan doesn’t start right away, because it may turn on only after the system heats up. Once you’ve verified that it’s working, close up the machine and get to work.
Read on for solutions for stuck keys, scratched displays, and sticky spills.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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Jon Jacobi is a musician, former x86/6800 programmer, and long-time computer enthusiast. He writes reviews on TVs, SSDs, dash cams, remote access software, Bluetooth speakers, and sundry other consumer-tech hardware and software.