fixing the Dell Precision M65

Last Wednesday my (almost) four year old laptop (Dell Precision M65) broke.

I was in the middle of typing an email when the scree just turned black, and it wouldn’t react to anything. I figured it had crashed and just powered it off, and then on again. But it didn’t come back on. The Power and WiFi light came up, and the NumLock light as well, but that was it. No fan (although it rarely comes on right at boot), and more worrying: no hard disk spin-up.

I got worried and turned it off again. Unplugged AC power, took out the battery and hard drives, and tried again. Nothing.

I googled (from the other computer) and found that some people had this issue with the Latitudes, and there was some key combination you could press to get a blink code on the keyboard. So I called Dell to find out what the combination was.

After half an hour on the phone with Dell, we came to the conclusion that either the graphics card or the memory controller were broken, and so the mainboard would have to be replaced. They would send me a quote, as I wasn’t covered by warranty any more.

And a quote they sent: roughly AU$ 550 for a new mainboard and 250 for the technician. Luckily Dell seem to be happy to let you fiddle by yourself, I have in the past replaced bits myself with their approval. Still, for 550$ I could buy a new Netbook! But a new Netbook would not have a Core Duo 2.16GHz, 2.5GB Ram and 512 MB video memory.

I kept calm. I think. After all, I had backups that were just over a week old, and I could always pull out the drives and stick them in the desktop to get my latest progress on my assignment off.

But I was wrong.

Considering how wise I am and that I know perfectly what I am doing at all times, I had set system and HDD passwords. After all, I wanted my data to be safe if I ever lost the laptop.

This came to bite me now, as the HDD password seems to be bound to the system. I was not able to enter it at all when connecting it to the desktop, and when I plugged the drive in to a Latitude at work (thanks ICTS) it didn’t accept them. So no data until I got to another M65.

After some searching and nail-biting I ended up buying an ex-public service M65 from AllBids, for a lot less than what a new (refurbished) motherboard from Dell would have cost me. On the other hand, I would not get my 90 days of warranty on replacement parts…

All I had to do, was combine the best bits of the two laptops to make one working one. The one I had just bought was actually working just fine, but it was quite scratched. It also only had 2GB of RAM, and a slower CPU. It also didn’t have Bluetooth.

I ended up taking both apart completely, carefully removing the dust, and combining the old bottom case with the new mainboard, on which I placed the old CPU with the new fan and heatsink. I kept the old card reader, modem, Bluetooth module WLAN card and palm rest. I also kept the old keyboard but put in the new nipple, and took 1GB from the new one to replace the 512MB chip, to result in 3GB of RAM.

All in all I think it was quite a success. If I have trouble in the future I may do this again, if the resulting laptop is worth it. This one is.

But I learnt a lesson: don’t use HDD passwords unless you have another system that can unlock the drive. Otherwise just secure your bits with software. (Kind-of an obvious lesson…)

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