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Better Living through Old Computers

I like rebuilding laptops.

The first one I actually rebuilt was a Dell XPS-M170. When I was in highschool, my youth group leader (a fellow nerd and local IT manager) had gotten one brand-spanking-new for playing WoW when he traveled to Canada to visit his girlfriend. I remember being blown away in 2005, and deciding then and there that someday I'd own one. In 2008 or so, I found a dead one for sale for parts on eBay, and found some parts for sale, and eventually a video card. I followed some video guides on YouTube at the office after-hours one summer, and stripped it down to the motherboard, then built it back up with the new parts.

It was a nerve-wracking experience, but also quite rewarding to learn the ins and outs of laptop repair. Over the years I ended up working on dozens of laptops (for friends, relatives, and myself), but something about rebuilding the gaming dinosaurs of recent history intrigued me.

In 2014 or so, I got to do my second big rebuild: an XPS M1710. I'd gotten scammed for one on Craigslist in 2008, but a buddy had an old one with a dead video card, and he didn't want to pay for a replacement. I did some research, bought a sneaky "similar but different" replacement on ebay (the older Quadro vs GeForce cards are mostly a matter of semantics, no matter what a salesman tells you) and did another strip-down and rebuild.

I always used to tell people in college that once I graduated, my first big purchase would be a ridiculous top-of-the-line Alienware laptop, because I could finally afford it. Circumstances changed in ways I hadn't foreseen, and suffice to say I'd never really gotten that screaming Alienware machine. One of my buddies who graduated did, though, I think because I talked it up so much. I'd ended up making a fiscally smart choice in 2010 and picked up an M11X, a fun and solid investment, but hardly a scream machine even at the time.

Last summer, I'd gotten stressed and bored, my least favorite combination, so I got on ebay looking for old deals. I found a super cheap Alienware Area 51 gaming laptop that "worked", but was without a power adapter (never a good sign) and seemed kinda sketch. I bought it, an adapter, and a deal on a replacement video card, and started off on a crazy rebuild process with a computer that I swear was straight-up moody. Deserving of a post all it's own, the short story is it boots via black magic and some spare change shoved into the chassis, but it works brilliantly.

This year, the itch started again, and I looked around for a deal. I'm hardly in the market for top-of-the-line, but it's fun to find what you can afford to fix from the luxury computers. This time around, I found an almost decade-old Alienware M17 R1 in good working condition, but almost double the power of the most recent rebuild job. It was cheap, blemish-free, and as an added bonus, I somehow had an upgraded CPU, RAM, and a spare SSD laying around that were exactly the oddly-specific requirements of this model. One just doesn't get that lucky with laptops; maybe an SSD or harddrive, sure, and sometimes a RAM upgrade, but a CPU was just unheard of for me.

There's a bit of a story behind the CPU, and how I'd bought a refurbished gaming laptop in 2010 and then tried to upgrade it with one of the first quad-core CPU's available commercially. I dropped something like $300 on it on ebay (back when I could afford such silliness) only to find out I had the one motherboard revision in my laptop series that didn't support it. I'd put it back in the protective clamshell and stuck it away on a shelf, then moved with it 5 times. I have no idea how it worked out that I still had it, could find it, and it'd actually work, but it was pretty cool.

So I assembled my upgrade parts and awaited delivery of my new rebuild project. I got home from work on a Friday afternoon of a stressful week, looking forward to focusing on rebuilding...only to find the seller had accidentally shipped me the wrong item. Fast-forwarding through a return process, waiting on ANOTHER buyer to finally return my laptop to the seller, a new tracking number to finally get my laptop, and then finally having it shipped to a different guy with my name in Oklahoma, I finally got frustrated, found another laptop on the same model but with what looked like significant flaws on eBay for a third of what I'd paid originally, and got it delivered promptly.

The upgrades all worked like a charm, the laptop ran great despite looking like it'd gotten rear-ended by a Jeep, and somehow I'd skated by once again on a rebuild for fun.

There's no real point or moral to all this, I just like rebuilding laptops. It's fun and kind of relaxing to focus on a project, make everything work, and then try to push it to it's limit. A weird hobby, but it's mine.


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