Monday, August 8, 2011

26 Screws Later...

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine asked if I could take a look at his laptop, a Samsung M55. The machine had become infected with a virus and, after exhausting all other possibilities, he had backed up all his data and attempted to re-install Windows. The machine ships with Windows XP Media Centre Edition, one of the only instances of this particular build of XP I've ever seen!

Once had access to the machine, I discovered the Windows installation was partially complete. It appeared to have completed the initial stage of the install where the hard disk is formatted and the installer is copied over. The laptop booted into the second stage where the remaining OS files are copied over from the hard disk and the system is configured.

I decided to start the installation process from the beginning, so I inserted the restore disk supplied with the machine and rebooted. This is when I began to notice two things about the machine: first, the optical drive was extremely "clunky" and slow, secondly, the machine's fans appeared to be continually running at full speed. I pressed on with the installation, only to have the machine spontaneously power off part way through the first stage!

I guessed from the noisy fans that the system had overheated, so I made the decision to open up the chassis and clean inside using some compressed air. I soon regretted this decision, as I had to remove no less than 26 screws before I could prise the top of the chassis from the bottom! It was so convoluted that I had to remove the display in order to gain access to the last couple of screws.

Once inside, I could see the problem: the grill covering exhaust port on the left hand side of the machine was completely clogged with dust, as well as the fan responsible for venting hot air out through it:

A few sprays of compressed air later and the insides began to look far more healthy:

I painstakingly put the machine back together (no "spare" screws left over afterwards either, phew!) and powered it on to begin the installation process again. Unfortunately, this time the optical drive was slow at reading the restore disc it took an entire evening to complete the initial stage of the installation, which was followed by the installer being unable to read the disc after the machine rebooted. I tried various methods of getting it to recognise the disc in the drive, to no avail, so I resorted to using my own external DVD burner to finally get the OS installed!

After some really annoying issues, I had finally got my friend's laptop back in working order, albeit with a very unreliable optical drive. As you can imagine, I was very relieved!

While reflecting back on the task, I formulated these after thoughts:
  • 26 Screws!!! - I'm not sure what Samsung where thinking when they designed the laptop. To give you an idea of how complicated the damn thing was to take apart, take a look at the service manual I found online (PDF format). The cynic in me believes that they simply wanted to make it so difficult for an end user to maintain the system themselves, that they'd be forced to use one of their service centres to do so. Paying a premium to do so, of course. I'm a great believer in being able to repair and replace components in one's hardware, or at the very least be able to perform some basic maintenace (clearing out dust, for example). Sure, the vast majority of people will be inclined to take their machine's to a "qualified" technician to have repairs carried out, but for those of us that want to maintain their own kit (and even enjoy it), please don't make it near impossible to do so.

  • While on the topic of maintenance, there were some ribbon cables that were extremely difficult to work with. Instead of having the cables terminated with a plastic connector to facilitate connecting to and disconnecting from the motherboard, those present in the M55 looked like this:

    As you can see, they are terminated with some metal contacts and the cable needs to be held in place while the connector on the board is clipped into the locked position:

    As you can imagine, this was incredibly frustrating to work with! I hope I don't have to work with connectors like this again.

  • It is interesting how Samsung have designed the cooling system for the laptop; neither the CPU, nor GPU have their own fans, instead a heat-pipe connects both to a heat-sink which the single, small, fan cools by venting air across it and out through the exhaust port. I've not opened up too many laptops, so I'm unsure how common this practice is, but I was intrigued by it.

  • Optical drives are usually the first thing to die on a machine due to having many moving parts, which are regularly exposed to an dirty external environment. When will we do away with them? I rarely use mine on any of my machines and only when (re)installing an operating system or burning the odd CD/DVD if someone needs some files and there is no USB thumb drive available. The newer MacBook Air models are no longer supplied with an OS X installation DVD, instead they have a bootable USB thumb drive containing the OS.

Despite a rather stressful experience taking the machine apart, I was pleased with the end results, as was my friend. I also gained some valuable experience maintaining Samsung laptops, which I can use on my own Samsung X60 machine.