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Repairing Canadian Laptops

A few weeks ago I pulled a fairly battered and abused Acer Aspire 1810T out of the recycle pile at work. It's no Dell XPS 13, but it was cute in a homely sort of way and against my better judgement I took it home for something to tinker with. I wasn't even sure if it would turn on since there was no power adapter to try it out.

Here it is in all it's glory. The Acer Aspire 1810t. A fine specimine indeed. No, that's not a new desk.

AcerAspire1810t

I went on amazon and ordered one of the various 'acer 1810t' power adapters they had available. These come out of China, and don't appear to be CSA approved or well built or anything of the sort. If you get one and it burns your house down.. I wouldn't be surprised and I don't want to hear about it.

My power adapter arrives a few days earlier than I expect however with the wrong AC power cord. I can't even plug it in without going to the basement to find a suitable AC power cord.

PowerAdapter

The power brick has a warning on it saying not to use on ungrounded outlets. Hillarious.

PowerAdapter

When I do finally get around to the arduous trip to the basement, I plug in the laptop and boot it up. Everything seems to work perfectly fine. We're a little light on ram here... 4gig of DDR2 and I don't have any spare laying around. 8 Gig of ram would be nice.

It had been a long time since I had linux on a desktop, so I decided to install ubuntu 14.04 TLS .... TLS means 'The Lazy Sysadmin' ... ok, fine it's really supposed to be LTS. Still means I won't have to re-install for hopefully until this this finally quits or I give it away.

Much to my surpise and delight, it was up and running with working wifi and no real issues. My logitech mouse became unpaired somewhere along the way so I had to go on a bit of a walkabout... I found this WONDERFUL unpairing tool from Peter Wu that allowed me to easily re-pair the mouse to the transceiver. Thank you Peter, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

I'm guessing the previous owner just lost the power adapter or got a new computer because even the battery seems to hold a decent charge. The only thing really wrong with this thing is that it has the dreaded bilingual keyboard.

If you happen to live in Canada and have purchased a consumer market laptop at anytime in the last decade, you might have ended up with one of these bilingual or 'fench Canadian' keyboards. I suppose the manufacturers have deemed our market too small to offer the option of two keyboards for every sku. Perhaps they have simply assumed we're all pretty much ok with the bilingual layout. If you've been typing as long as I have, you will probably consider this keyboard unworkable. For me, the enter key is now a \ and the left shift key is a <. Even logging in to the computer with this keyboard results in frustration.

Now to set about fixing that keyboard. The first thing you have to do, is find a suitable replacement. I just instinctivly go to Amazon for everything since it's generally the path of least resistance.. (watch out for ass-hat re-sellers with insane markup on semi-rare goods.)

Amazon This will do nicely. Ships by Tuesday. Ok. Wow it arrived Friday! Amazon rocks.

LotFancy

Apparently this one's 'lot fancy' than the keyboard that came with the computer. Nicely packed this time around. The last one I got for an HP G60 arrived kind of wavey and bent. So thumbs up to this Amazon seller, and thank you for not swapping in the 'Canadian' keyboard since I was ordering from Canada. (Hopefully that never really happens.)

Here is a closer look at it out of the box.

New Keyboard

There are usually a couple of screws on the bottom to release the keyboards on these things, but on this particular one you just pry the old one out and pop the new one in. In my case, I don't really care about damaging anything other than the flat system board connector where it plugs in. This little guy actually 'flips up' to release the cable. I almost broke it trying to get it to scoot south and release.

KeyboardConnector

Without much fuss, the new keyboard was installed and the old one was in the trash! I have to say, Acer did a good job on this guy. Very solid construction. Quite easy to get at the hard disk and ram for replacement.

Here is it in all it's majesty. No, that is not a new desk... that's a table... that I'm using as a desk, fine. More on that later.

Acer-AllDone

Later

Frances needs a computer.

My wife is currently without a computer to call her own. While she was working, her employer provided computer(s) were enough to meet her needs... but since going on the sick list, she has had to return those and make do with whatever was laying around here. So she's been switching between my old Windows 7 "gaming" desktop, and my old 13" MacBook Air... wanting the freedom of a laptop, but being more comfortable on windows has really made using either of my old computers kind of a hassle for her.

With her birthday coming up, I thought it would be nice to get her a laptop. She wanted something like the macbook air but with Windows. So we're checking out the typical review sites, and the general consensus is that the Dell XPS 13 is the cats ass of 'ultrabooks'. BestBuy had it in stock, so I put it on reserve and went and got it. Opening the box was a delight. Dell has done a nice job with the packaging, however when we lift the lid.. the keyboard was blingual.

XPS13

I'm not sure when this happened, but it seems you can't buy the US keyboard layout model in Canada. The product images on the BestBuy website clearly showed the US layout... but they buried the dreaded B word (Bilingual) in the fine print. I felt cheated, Frances wasn't worried about it so we gave it a chance.

If you're ever saddled with one of these, you can try to remap the troublesome keys with KeyTweak . I think \ to enter, and < to left shift got us 90% there... Sometimes you can order the US version and swap it out, but due to the way they molded the case/keyboard mask that didn't look like an option on this XPS.

Overall the XPS 13 was a nice computer. It was fast, seemed to be well built. Good battery life. Not too heavy. The screen was beautiful. Sadly, we (along with a long list of unhappy people on the internet) had problems with the track pad. There were delays before cursor would move. When you lift your finger off it, the mouse goes flying. When you're not even touching it, it just selects a bunch of crap on you and moves it on you. There was a driver update that helped, but there were still issues. To continue using the computer meant disabling the track pad and exclusively using a mouse... so back it went, bilingual keyboard and all.

So instead of just looking for another laptop, I decide to get her the Surface Pro 4 and the new Type Cover instead. We're both very happy with it out of the box. It's really quite nice to use... I find myself unable to put it down in the first few hours... taking especially long to set it up for her...yeah. The display driver seemed to crash or stop working twice on us, but it seemed to recover so we didn't think much of it.

After a day or two we start having problems with the type cover. Randomly, the track pad stops working and we have to physically disconnect and reconnect to get it working again. The display driver has stopped working messages start to get much worse. By the next day, the device isn't turning on when you pick it up. It's got a black screen and refuses to wake up. We do some 'dance' that I can't really recall to revive it.. which will have to be repeated every time the device sleeps.

The forums are alive, with the sound of anger and discontent. There are some work arounds posted, and I try some of them... nothing seems to make the device anywhere near stable. From what I could tell, all of the issues we were encountering with our Surface Pro 4 were wide spread and had remained unsolved since launch with no official acknowledgment from Microsoft that anything was wrong. One of my pro-Microsoft friends suggested bringing the device to the Microsoft store and they would swap it out for a new one... an idea I quickly dismissed as in my mind all that would do is eliminate the possibility of returning it for a refund.

Looks like we made the right choice. It's really too bad... I really liked the Surface, but it's just unlivable in it's current state. We returned it and just got an iPad Mini 4. Which, had been absolutely flawless with the obvious exception that it isn't a Windows computer.

Mac SSD? Yosemite?

I returned the 840EVO to BestBuy and ordered an 850PRO instead. The general consensus on the web seems to be that the 850 PRO isn’t affected by the TLC NAND issues the 840EVO’s are experienceing since it uses MLC V-NAND. I’ve added the drive to my Mac Mini 2012 using the OWC DataDoubler kit.

OWC provided pretty decent instructions with the kit. The only issue I had during the physical install process was the system board extraction tool had to be bent outward to fit into the holes. If you have to do this, make sure that the prongs remain straight and not angled outwards at all. Use some pliers.

I thought about sticking with Mavericks, but maybe now is a good time to upgrade to Yosemite since I want to be booting off the SSD drive now. If I do upgrade OS X , I intend to disable k-ext signing to enable TRIM using Trim Enabler

Adding the SSD disk to the mac took me about an hour. If you’ve never worked on any notebooks or such, allow for two hours. Take your time and be very careful.

Here are the instructions for creating a USB bootable installer from a memory stick or external hard disk. I’ve made one for Mavericks and another one for Yosemite.

Gonna sleep on it.

Mac Mini SSD Upgrade

I’ve been using PC’s with SSD drives in them for the past few years, and it’s amazing just how slow a traditional hard disk feels to me now. I bought a mac mini recently that shipped with the 1tb 5400rpm spinner… and it’s quite simply excruciating. An upgrade is in order.

Bestbuy had what seemed to be a great deal on a Samsung 840 EVO SSD drive. They had 2 units left in stock, so I ordered it very quickly without doing any research. Seconds after hitting submit, I had a sinking feeling that I should probably check out some reviews. These drives use a newer triple-level cell technology that increases storage density while making the products more affordable. Turns out this particular model seems to be having performance issues related to this technology. I guess that explains clearance pricing. Seems I can’t cancel my order either. Samsung released a fix involving running some windows software, but that isn’t going to work for me. Sounds like it’s not working for anyone else either as they are working on another fix. When it shows up I’ll return it in person to the store and get something else I guess.

In case you’re wondering, I sold the glass desk for exactly $50.

The Jerker

I was kind of trying not to buy another desk. I have probably gone through more desks than shoes in my lifetime, but the desk I've been using for the past three years or so just wasn't working for me.

Here is the old desk in all it's ... hoard-esque.

Glasholm

I really liked using the smooth glass surface as my never ending mousepad, with my Logitech Darkfield 'anywhere mx' and 'professional' mice... while they worked.

The legs or supports that I had chosen (now discontinued) for the glasholm allow the table to wobble back and forth quite a bit, and they hurt when you slam your leg or toes into them. Glass tends to be very cold in the winter months as well. All of this leads to discomfort. I had the cables very neat and tidy underneath, but I could never really keep the horizontal dumping ground clear enough. I often found myself working on one small corner of the desk. Hardly ideal.

Thinking back of all the desks that have come and gone over the years, the one I recall most fondly has to be the original Jerker from IKEA. All revisions of this desk are fairly popular with IKEA Hackers, so when they do show up on Kijiji they tend to disappear quickly. Never the less, I did find a birch and silver one for only $50.

The one I used to have had darker metal parts and darker wood, but for $50 who cares. The desk was assembled and I would have to take it apart. I found some old bolts I had left over to get the correct hex bit for my drill thinking that would help get the desk apart in record time.

This led to an interesting (to me at least) discovery... When I did get there, the hex bit ended up being the wrong size. This means the Jerker I was buying was actually a second release or revised Jerker.. and what I (and many others) believe to be the second generation Jerker is actually the third generation. There is a fourth generation of Jerker desks that mostly snap together. I had one of these too when I needed something smaller. I had it about 3 months before I dumped it on Craigslist.

This desk has the tell-tale gouges in the silver paint from attempting to install the heavy desk with the next to impossible to get-in-the-hole flat ended bolt design. They fixed this problem by adding a tapered point to the bolts for the third generation, but I have always preferred the original desk shape with the two pull out tables on either side. Otherwise the desk was in great condition, and very clean.

I'm not done yet, but here is my new desk!

Jerker2

I've put the Glasholm up on Kijiji... Maybe I can get my $50 back.