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Got a new laptop? Get out your screwdriver

A stuck screw qualifies as a manufacturing defect, especially if it prevents upgrading the RAM or the hard disk, says CNET Blog Network contributor Michael Horowitz.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
3 min read

There's a lesson to be learned from my recent attempt at replacing the hard disk on an old laptop computer.

The computer in question had originally shipped in 2001 with Windows ME, but was now running Windows XP. I suspect the RAM had also been upgraded over time, it now had 512MB. Obviously the owner wanted the machine to last as long as possible. They weren't even deterred by the fact that the lettering had worn off some of the keys on the keyboard.

In line with this, I suggested that the hard disk be replaced, not because there was a problem with the original 10GB disk, but just to prolong the overall life span of the computer. Shortly thereafter I was given the laptop and a new $70 2.5 inch hard drive.

Hard disks keep track of diagnostic information about themselves using an internal system called Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, or SMART for short.

Windows does not display this SMART data, but assorted diagnostic programs can. The first thing I did, just out of curiosity, was display the SMART data for the existing hard disk. Although the computer owner had no complaints, the SMART data showed multiple problems. I'm no expert at interpreting SMART data, but with multiple numbers rated as failures by the diagnostic program, replacing the disk was all the more important--I feared the old disk might fail outright.


The printed user guide for this old Dell Inspiron has instructions for replacing the hard disk that boil down to unscrew one screw, pull it out, replace the disk, put it back and tighten the screw.

The instructions fail to mention that the hard disk is attached to an aluminum enclosure with 4 screws. Four very tiny Phillips head screws. And one refused to budge. Forcing the screw where it didn't want to go simply converted the X on the head of the screw to a circle. Now the hard disk was bolted to the aluminum enclosure, and there it will stay.

Thanks to a single screw the owner of this laptop computer now has to buy a new machine.

This wasn't the first time I've been screwed by a tiny screw. Last year another hard drive replacement was thwarted on an old Toshiba laptop.


Upgrading the RAM on a laptop is usually a very simple procedure. But, I once worked on a ThinkPad that had two screws on the RAM slot cover. One screw refused to budge and I was forced to bend the cover just enough to slide in the new DIMM.

For a new laptop computer, the conclusion is obvious--get out your screwdrivers and make sure that you can remove all the covers on the bottom of the machine and that none of the screws attached to the hard disk is stuck. I say this for a new laptop because you haven't yet started to depend on the computer in a serious way and it can, hopefully, be returned. To me at least, a stuck screw qualifies as a manufacturing defect, especially if it prevents upgrading the RAM or the hard disk.

For an existing laptop computer, the choice is not so clear-cut, especially regarding the hard disk. Hard drives are fragile and attempting to remove them or testing the screws entails some degree of risk. At the least, I suggest having a disk image backup of the entire machine before doing anything physical involving the hard drive.

Defensive Computing is built on Murphy's law, if something can go wrong, it will.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.