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Upgrades on a Shoestring: Power Supply Units

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! Last year, we covered solid state drives with regards to upgrading parts in a desktop computer or a laptop on a shoestring budget, since those parts have reached a point where achieving a performance uplift through faster internal storage for little outlay became viable. But which other computer parts do upgrading on a shoestring budget makes sense?

Today, we look at power supply units, which are one of the core parts a desktop computer needs in order to function. Power supply units are designed to turn alternating current drawn from the mains socket, into low-voltage direct current, and then feed that low-voltage direct current to the other internal components (including the processor, storage drives and any peripheral devices) to enable them to function.

Modern power supply units are designed to be energy efficient, based on different levels of power load; this means that they consume less power drawn from the mains and in turn, produce less heat. This also means that they can also operate quieter, since the fans inside the power supply units do not need to spin up as much; in fact, some high-end power supplies are designed to operate silently at low loads, or generate sufficiently little heat that enables them to be cooled passively. They also commonly have built-in safety features that help protect against excessive temperatures, loads or currents, short circuits and over or under-voltage problems that can cause damage to the power supply unit itself, or potentially to other hardware components.

Of course, even now, there are generic power supplies that are manufactured at such low cost that they are marketed at people who are looking to build or upgrade their desktop PCs, but cannot afford to buy a good quality unit from a reputable brand, such as Corsair, Seasonic, be quiet! and Thermaltake. They usually tend to be lighter in weight than with reputable units, due to fewer internal components and thinner metal casings.

Unfortunately, because these generic, no-name power supply units are often poorly-designed and assembled, they lack the extra safety features built into units manufactured by reputable brands. With metal cases as thin as cornflakes cardboard boxes, they are perhaps the one kind of computer part where you absolutely do not want to scrimp and save on. After all, the last thing anyone wants to see happen to their computers for the power supply unit’s internal components to snap, make the whole unit itself crackle, and potentially cause the other hardware components to go pop, with the end result being a possible electrical fire and the replacement of any other hardware parts damaged by such a power supply failure.

In summary, the power supply unit is one computer part where it is better to spend that bit more and get a decent quality unit than a generic one. We would recommend buying a power supply which has a wattage capacity that is appropriate for your computer or build, with around 25-30% headroom to take into account ageing and efficient operation.

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Stuck for things to do during the lockdown?

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! We hope you are all keeping safe and well in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak and ongoing lockdown which, sadly is continuing for a while longer. But that in no way means that you should wallow in boredom at home if you absolutely cannot work as a result of the lockdown; there are still many ways that you can entertain yourself and pass the time in the meantime.

We have put together a list of just some of the activities that you can do while the lockdown is still ongoing, some conventional, others more on the wacky side.

Bring an old computer back into use

Chances are, when you buy a new desktop PC or laptop, or a recent refurbished machine, your old machine is still lying around somewhere, gradually gathering dust. So if that old computer still works, then instead of throwing it away, why not use it for something else?

For example, if the old machine still has CPU and graphics horsepower left, then it is worth turning it into a media hub for playing music, games, videos and movies. Many music and video players, games and other media-focused software applications, as well as media streaming services, have cross-platform compatibility, meaning that you can use your favourite operating system with your favourite media apps!

Try out different GNU/Linux distros

If you feel that you are becoming fed up of using the same operating system day in, day out, that it is getting really slow to use even after trying to optimise it, or just fancy trying out something else, then there are numerous different GNU/Linux distros, from mainstream distros like Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora and Gentoo, to less well known distros like Trisquel, Tiny Core Linux and MX Linux.

With a spare USB drive and utilities for creating a bootable USB drive, you can then run the chosen distro as a live session, so that you can find out how it will be used when it is installed, and whether or not the distro will work correctly with all of the components in your machine. So if you decide that the distro you tried is not the right fit for your needs or device, you still keep the operating system you currently have installed on your machine, along with all of your documents, software and media.

Learn how to fix common problems with computers

Encountering problems with different items of hardware and software is a fact of life in the world of computer repairs. Particularly, if you are working from home while the lockdown is ongoing, having something go wrong while getting important work done can be more problematic than usual without the support from local computer repair shops to fallback on.

That said, it is worth spending some time reading through a wide range of articles and blog posts, and watching videos on YouTube about a wide range of hardware and software issues, and how those problems can be fixed. You can use a notepad or some spare sheets of paper to write down notes on any tools or other items needed, and the steps taken to fix a problem, if you feel that this would be useful for you.

If you prefer to learn by practical means, then you can use a spare machine to practice fixing hardware and software problems, so that you know what to do if those issues arise on your primary machine.

One important task that you need to remember, is to regularly back up all of your important files to your cloud storage, or to an external hard drive or USB drive – that way, your data will be safe should the worse comes to the worst, where something goes badly wrong with your computer.

Give the insides of your computer a clean

Just like many everyday items, your desktop PC or laptop naturally attracts dust over time, and too much dust clogging up the heat sinks of critical components such as your CPU means they can’t cope with the resulting excessive heat being trapped under the layer of dust.

Modern CPUs in particular are designed to throttle (reduce its clock speed) to keep themselves within a certain temperature threshold to prevent heat-related damage; if they do exceed that temperature threshold even while throttling, then they initiate what is akin to a safety cut-out, which completely shuts down the computer as a last resort to protect the CPU from damage caused by excessive heat.

With that in mind, it is definitely a good idea to get into the habit of periodically cleaning out the inside of your computer to get rid of as much dust and debris as possible. Getting into most desktop PCs is just a simple matter of removing a couple of screws or thumbscrews from a side panel and sliding the panel off the case. An air duster works wonders for removing dust from hard to reach places, and especially from heat sink fans on laptops, though if you don’t have one at hand, then alternatively you can use cotton wool swabs or soft brushes to sweep the dust away.

Those are just some of the things that you can do to keep yourself occupied while the lockdown continues. Just remember though: make sure to stay safe and well, and we will pull through together!

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QuickFIXit: Using rubber for wedging a hard drive in place in laptops

The blue pieces of rubber shown in this picture kept the hard drive wedged in place inside this Dell Latitude E7440 laptop, which had its caddy missing

Ever found yourself in a situation where you bought a laptop and found out that it came without its caddy for the hard drive or solid state drive? Or where you inadvertently misplaced the caddy while performing a solid state drive upgrade, and can’t remember where you had last placed it?

Well, if you don’t have a spare hard drive caddy at hand for your laptop, then there is one quick fix that you can try to prevent the hard drive or solid state drive from becoming dislodged from the SATA ports inside the laptop – wedge it in place using rubber!

Find a large piece of solid rubber (something like an eraser for removing pencil marks should do the trick!), and then place it against the edge of the hard drive bay inside your laptop. Then, make a small incision into the rubber using a knife, a scalpel or other suitable sharp blade; the incision should ideally be roughly 1-2mm more than the gap between the edge of the hard drive bay and the edge of the hard drive itself. Then carefully cut through the rest of the rubber, until the piece comes off from the rest of the rubber. Finally, push the cut piece of rubber into the gap, as shown in the above picture.

The idea with this QuickFIXit is that the extra millimetre or two of rubber ensures a tight fit into the gap between the edge of the hard drive bay and the hard drive or solid state drive, which is what keeps the hard drive or solid state drive firmly connected to the SATA ports and thus, prevent them from moving about in the hard drive bay and potentially disconnect, leading to the drives becoming unrecognised in the BIOS and operating systems.

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BitREPURPOSEit: Using CPU Heatsinks As Stands & Holders

A pair of CPU heatsinks from old desktop PCs used as stands for pens and leaflets respectively

Here is a neat way of repurposing old CPU heatsinks from various broken, tired, or otherwise obsolete desktop PCs; using them as stands and holders for documents, leaflets, business cards, notes, stationery and other small items!

CPU heatsinks are typically designed in a way that maximises the surface area so that as much heat can be drawn away from the heatsink as possible. Due to that design, they come in quite handy for more than just drawing heat away from processors and therefore keeping them nice and cool.

I salvaged a total of three CPU heatsinks from some old desktop PCs that were kept in the store room, and cleaned them up by removing the old thermal compound from underneath the heatsinks and removing as much dust from in between the fins as possible. Two of the heatsinks are seen in the above photo taken during the Sheffield Community Toolbank relaunch event.

As you can see from the photo, the rectangular heatsink makes for quite a nice holder for forms, leaflets, notes, and other small documents, while the circular heatsink has a recess in the centre that makes it useful for holding pencils, pens and other small items of stationery. Chipset heatsinks can also be used for this purpose as well; their diminutive size makes them useful for smaller items like business cards, shopping lists, tags and labels.

So rather than simply discard the old heatsinks along with the rest of the parts inside the computers, why not take them out of the computers, clean them up, and use them as stands and holders? A computer part that gets reused and repurposed for something useful, means one less item meeting its end in landfill!

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The Successful Laptop Power Socket Transplant

At this weekend’s community IT workshop, we had a successful case of a laptop repair that involved a spare laptop power socket from an old Toshiba laptop in the store room.

We had a client who came into the workshops with a Toshiba laptop that was unable to receive any power from the socket at all, so we decided to open up the laptop, and on opening it up we noticed that the socket was held in place by some form of epoxy glue. So I went into the store room, picked up a similar Toshiba laptop among a pile of old laptops, brought it into the community room, and extracted its power socket so that it can be transplanted into the client’s Toshiba laptop.

We tried plugging a laptop charger into the replacement socket and, hey presto, the laptop began receiving power again! After a short while removing dust accumulated on the heatsink fan after we realised that the laptop began overheating (which meant opening the laptop back up again!), we finally closed up the client’s laptop for good, ready to hand back over too him.

And thus, we have a successful case of a laptop repair carried out using spare parts from other laptops!