GodCares, the organization that invited me on this trip to rural Africa, has two volunteers/members in Rwanda, Prosper and Isaac. Between them they have had one notebok computer to use for typing reports and keeping track of things like our micro-financing program. That is until, in Prosper's (translated) words, the notebook was "possessed by the devil". Prosper joined us for a day in Cyangugu yesterday and I asked him to bring the possessed machine so I can work on it.
So last night he arrived at dinner and after dinner while the others met I went to work. It was somewhat urgent because there had been photos on the machine of our projects in Kaliba, and if they were sufficient then we wouldn't have had to try and sneak two of us (Wolfgang and myself) back into Congo today to get new ones.
The notebook itself is a 2004 HP with a Pentium M processor, and when I plugged it in and turned it on the power light and fans would run for about 20 seconds and then go off. No other lights, no video, no audio. This isn't good- I'm guessing it's a faulty mainboard at this point but with no replacement parts within a few hundred miles (at least). At this point I'm kicking myself for not packing my USB-to-harddrive universal converter (which I did seriously consider packing) so I could connect the HP's drive to my MacBook Pro (which Prosper also brought for me, courtesy of my friend Jean). But it's not here so to start I have an all-but-dead machine and no idea if the hard drive is still intact or if it has the photos we need.
I decide I may as well try some things. Reseat hard drive. No change. Reseat memory. No change. Remove memory. No change- and that tells me the mainboard isn't responding correctly because I should have had audio and/or visual error signals when booting with no memory. Not good. I figure there's maybe a 5% chance I can do anything with this here- especially considering I'm in a Catholic Guest House (hostel) without much light and with no equipment to speak of. But 5% is still something, so I decided to disassemble the machine to see if I could find anything fixable.
I'll spare you the details, but it took about an hour to reduce the machine down to component parts. The rest of our team kept circulating by and taking pictures- I always forget that most people, unlike me, probably don't disassemble their own computers just for fun like I do.
When fully disassembled (just a mainboard +cpu left) I plugged it back in and tried again. This time- something different! (When diagnosing different is always good because it let's you triangulate which pieces are having problems). Without a screen there was obviously no video, and there was still no audio, BUT this time the three keyboard lights flashed, then began a slow blink, and this time the power and fans stayed on! (This is normal behavior for a mainboard- the keyboard light flash is an error message that would tell me more if I had enough internet access to look it up). But I felt like a doctor who thought his patient was dead but sudenly has a pulse! Something at least is still working here.
Leaving the computer disassembled I managed to reconnect video and reinstall the memory. Success! We have video! I powered off and added the hard drive. Not good- it went back to just a power light and fans, no video and no flashing lights. Removed the hard drive, still the same.
Long story short I was able to get the notebook working again, but with a weird caveat. The first time you turn it on you usually get the "dead condition" - power light and fan, nothing else, and it powers off after 20 seconds. But if you TAP ON THE CPU before pressing power, it works fine nearly 100% of the time. (Yes, I've removed and reseated the cpu and it's heat pipe several times).
I've had to leave some pieces out (internal braces and the top piece of the keyboard) so that the cpu is easily (?) accessible for "tapping".
My best guess is that there is either a short or electrical problem in the vicinity of the cpu, and that the "tapping" is fixing it enough for the computer to start- for now. I have no doubt that this won't last for long. But for now we were able to recover all the files and reports to a thumbdrive and make our plans for today.
So I've had lots of "firsts" on this trip. First time in Congo, first time kicked out of a country, first time having to use my high school french to get around. And now I can add "my first 3rd world notebook repair". :)