Repairing an Acer E5-521 Laptop: A Case Study

What do you do when a dead middle-aged laptop lands on your desk? Most folks would throw it away without a second thought. Me? I take it as an opportunity to try fixing something different. After all, I had never bothered trying to repair a laptop beyond bypassing broken DC-in jacks, mostly believing that board failures are likely to cascade and kill multiple difficult-to-replace components.

Over the past year, though, I've watched a lot of repair videos that showed me many failures are far more trivial. So I decided to see if this was the case for today's test subject. Since many failure modes are the same across multiple product types, from low-end to high-end, help with one repair is often broadly applicable to other devices, too.

ModelAcer E5-521-27FN
CPUAMD E2-6110 (Quad-Core 1.5 GHz)
IGPRadeon R2 (128 Shaders)
Memory6GB DDR3-1600
Display1368x800 TN
Hard Drive
1TB Western Digital Blue
Networking1000Base-T, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth
IO1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, 1x VGA, 1x HDMI, 1x SD Card

While this laptop doesn't boast impressive specifications, it should work well enough for basic productivity, Web browsing, and media consumption. How did it land on my bench? Funny story. A friend's sister works as a gas station manager, and one of her clerks accepted the laptop as collateral on a $100 bill when a customer claimed she had left her purse in her hotel room. After a few days of waiting for the customer to come back, pay her tab, and reclaim the laptop, they tried turning it on only to realize it was dead. When my friend heard about this $100 paperweight from his sister, he asked me if I’d like to have a look and here we are.

Before doing anything to it, let’s perform an external inspection to see if it yields some clues as to what went wrong.

First Glance

Looking at the laptop from the top, its chassis doesn't appear to be in particularly bad shape except for one missing hinge cover. While not indicative of a loving owner, that shouldn't be critical damage, either.

Left Hinge Cover

The first obvious sign of abuse is apparent from the front-left corner where the hinge cover was barely holding on. There is even a tear in the chassis’ plastic slightly to the right from the missing hinge cover piece. To rip plastic in such a way, this corner must have seen either a substantial impact or crushing force. Since the lid corner appears mostly intact (apart from a faint hairline crack and chipped surface finish near the edge), a corner impact on the bottom was the most likely cause. Given our observations, mechanical damage to the circuit board or heavy surface-mount components, such as inductors ripping pads off, is a possibility.

Right Hinge Cover

The same story applies to the blown-off right hinge cover. Unlike the left side, though, the bottom chassis isn’t cracked. This either means the impact on the left side transmitted enough force to pop the hinge cover off, or that the laptop endured multiple falls. Either way, the likelihood of structural damage to the board, LCD, and HDD increase. On the corresponding lid corner, damage is limited to slight visible creasing without obvious cracking.

Scratched Cover

Last on my list of obvious top-side damage is a sizable scratch spanning half-way across the middle of the lid, hinting that this laptop landed upside-down after a drop and skidded on a small rock or other sharp object at least once, adding another reason to worry about its LCD.

Prior Repair

Flipping the laptop on its back reveals a few missing screws and a screw that got ground flush against a steel nut. Whatever happened to that right hinge at some point in the past, the damage was apparently severe enough that whoever put it back together had to use a screw through the chassis to secure the hinge again. Slightly below and to the left from the nut, you can also see the bottom chassis “blistering” from what later turned out to be an excessively long screw in the wrong location just about to poke through.

LCD State

After observing significant exterior damage to the chassis and cover, the next most logical thing to worry about is the LCD and its thin glass substrate. Looking at the display, there is an odd, grainy speckled streak of non-uniform width going straight across the middle of the screen spanning about one-third of its width. At first, I thought the streak lined up with the lid scratch but upon verification, the two were roughly an inch apart and likely unrelated. My next best guess for its origin story was stress from the LCD or cover hitting a straight edge of some sort, such as the edge of a table while falling. An impact causing the LCD bezel to separate from the lid would explain the uneven gap between the LCD and bezel, along with the multiple dabs of glue “securing” the bezel to the LCD’s front membrane. Surprisingly enough, there are no apparent signs of fracture on the LCD. Assuming the LCD survived, I’m expecting those to at least cause some visual distractions.

Powering Up (Or Not)

Is this moderate amount of structural damage a possible hint at what may have happened internally, or is it completely unrelated? After giving the laptop a good shake to make rattling bits of plastic and dislodged brass inserts fall out of the hinge holes, I proceeded to the next logical step: plugging it in to see what happens, half expecting smoke signals telling me that I am done. What did I get? No response to the power button, no charging light with the AC adapter plugged in (regardless of the battery being present or not), no smoke or tell-tale smells.

I measured the voltage coming from the laptop’s AC adapter just in case and got a clean 19V unloaded, which at least rules out the possibility of a completely dead adapter. This AC adapter has no brand or specifications sticker on it, only a white serial number barcode sticker on one side and a yellow “Caution: may become hot” warning sticker on the other. Did an intermittent malfunction in this adapter of unknown origin cause it to fry the laptop’s power input circuitry? That’s definitely a possibility. Time to proceed with an internal inspection and see if there are obvious visual cues, such as spill damage, a broken circuit board, or burnt components.

MORE: Best Gaming Laptops

MORE: Gaming Laptop Previews

MORE: All Laptop Content

This thread is closed for comments
24 comments
    Your comment
  • keith12
    Ha, that was interesting!

    At first I thought, 'what the heck is this about?'. Thought the title alone was very random. Anyway, I read the article and it's changed my mind. Not only is it well written, but also informative. I've had maybe, three laptops that I've either thrown away or given away, some with minor issues that I couldn't have been bothered to try and troubleshoot. Screens failing, other unusual behaviour with power issues etc. I guess Ill brush up on some basic engineering skills, and give future dead devices a chance for redemption.

    Thanks Daniel, I enjoyed that of a Sunday morning :)
  • farberj
    Nice and informative article, nice to see the logical train of thought that a true problem solver uses.
  • Danny Leiva
    Thanks for the very informative piece! About 6 months ago I repaired my wife's macbook air after there was a spill accident that occurred. With resources online, I figured out and was able to diagnose that the connector on the board with the ribbon cable to LCD had a few pins that had disintegrated. Was able to buy the replacement connector online and, after learning to get much better with tiny-piece soldering, was able to replace the connector successfully! Felt really good!
  • AnimeMania
    The real question is how much information was retrievable from the hard drive. Name, address, phone number, SSN#, (amazon, facebook, twitter and banking access), personal photos (some of a very private nature (nude)), tax returns, emails, etc. What are your legal rights to this information, is it similar to when someone buys one of those abandoned storage lockers contents? Anyone with minimal computer skills could probably remove the hard drive and revue its contents.
  • Allen_B
    Great article, thanks! I've got some electronics knowledge but this is inspiration to learn more. It's such a shame to see electronics end up in the trash, and friends having to shell out for new stuff they didn't really need.
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    182540 said:
    Ha, that was interesting! Thanks Daniel, I enjoyed that of a Sunday morning :)

    2567956 said:
    Nice and informative article, nice to see the logical train of thought that a true problem solver uses.

    Glad you liked it!

    1849854 said:
    Thanks for the very informative piece! About 6 months ago I repaired my wife's macbook air after there was a spill accident that occurred.

    Liquid damage can get pretty nasty when power stays on long enough to let electrolysis eat the pads. Congrats on managing to replace the connector!

    1839266 said:
    The real question is how much information was retrievable from the hard drive.

    The HDD is fully operational, whatever information on it that wasn't encrypted would have been easy picking. When my friend told me that I could keep the laptop when I couldn't repair the keyboard, I did a factory reset to get rid of the password instead of poking around for ways to crack it.
  • mikewinddale
    "support your 'Right to Repair' and similar bills"

    But that just means that devices will be more expensive. Presumably, devices are being constructed with more proprietary parts that are difficult to repair, because this makes the final product less expensive for the consumer. (After all, manufacturers compete with each other, and it is difficult to imagine them deliberately making their products more expensive than necessary.)

    Furthermore, as standards-of-living increase, wages tend to increase relative to raw material and other manufacturing costs. This rise in relative wages means that it is economically less sensible to repair broken devices. When wages are low and manufacturing costs are high, it makes sense to pay a repairman to avoid purchasing a replacement. But when wages are high and manufacturing costs are low, it makes more sense to trash the device and buy a new one.

    So a "right to repair" would essentially mean increasing manufacturing costs without any benefit. The device would cost more to purchase, and in the end, high labor costs mean it wouldn't be worth it to repair it anyway, so you'd still end up buying a new device when it breaks. So you're paying more to purchase a repairable device, and even then, it still isn't worth it to repair.
  • IInuyasha74
    Certainly was an interesting read. Must feel like a big waste of time for a beat up old laptop with an AMD E2 processor in it, but excellent for the fun of seeing a notebook taken apart and parts soldered on and off of it.
  • berezini.2013
    Meh there's better tutorials and walk through's on you-tube.
  • Kawaii Penguin
    heh... "A Case Study"
    I get it.
    Nice pun.
  • Rookie_MIB
    Great article. I've gone into some laptops myself to keep them from the scrapyard, but never down to this level. I had one friend of mine have a fairly new i3 laptop go down, and I managed to trace it down to a bad solder joint where the input jack wire attached to the motherboard. 30 seconds with a soldering iron to reflow the solder and it was charging as good as new.

    I think just as important as the right to repair law is, so too should we also support manufacturers that make devices that are easy to get into. My Zenbook is a breeze. 10 torx screws on the bottom and the entire bottom panel lifts right off. Everything else is simple to get to and work with (had to replace the keyboard). Battery is a piece of cake. Stuff like this means my laptop is running fine after 5 years of being on 24/7.
  • shrapnel_indie
    2384751 said:
    "support your 'Right to Repair' and similar bills" But that just means that devices will be more expensive. Presumably, devices are being constructed with more proprietary parts that are difficult to repair, because this makes the final product less expensive for the consumer. (After all, manufacturers compete with each other, and it is difficult to imagine them deliberately making their products more expensive than necessary.) Furthermore, as standards-of-living increase, wages tend to increase relative to raw material and other manufacturing costs. This rise in relative wages means that it is economically less sensible to repair broken devices. When wages are low and manufacturing costs are high, it makes sense to pay a repairman to avoid purchasing a replacement. But when wages are high and manufacturing costs are low, it makes more sense to trash the device and buy a new one. So a "right to repair" would essentially mean increasing manufacturing costs without any benefit. The device would cost more to purchase, and in the end, high labor costs mean it wouldn't be worth it to repair it anyway, so you'd still end up buying a new device when it breaks. So you're paying more to purchase a repairable device, and even then, it still isn't worth it to repair.


    Today, they aren't interested in you inexpensively repairing you electronics, or anything else for that matter. They are wanting your money. So, if your laptop dies as soon as the warranty expires, Super, you'll just buy a new one, or spend 2x-4x the actual part cost to repair. Not all repairs are labor intensive, but they certainly have a premium mark-up on the parts. It's one reason the market for used or direct from China parts is so successful on eBay.

    The 1980s was the start of cutting corners, engineer the product to last just so long (warranty period) and after that, who cares. Charge a premium for replacement parts. Corporations have moved to maximize profit today, not build it over time.
  • Kahless01
    we don't even repair those anymore. I used to work on them but cant remember how long its been. mostly came in from people hotplugging them and blowing through the charge circuit or from plugging in phone lines. then the usual coffee spills.
  • DotNetMaster777
    Thanks Daniel for the good article !
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    2384751 said:
    So a "right to repair" would essentially mean increasing manufacturing costs without any benefit.

    The right to repair has very little if any effect on manufacturing costs: devices are still made using the same parts and schematics, the only difference is repair shops' ability to get those same parts and related information from legitimate tier-one sources instead of either scavenged from dead boards, obtained through shady deals off the back of a delivery van headed to an iThing factory and bribing people at companies involved in the manufacturing process. Making these proprietary parts available through official channels may actually reduce manufacturing costs by reducing the number of parts shipments that go missing in transit.

    What is really scaring manufacturers about the right to repair is that it would undermine their ability to use proprietary protocols and programming specifically for rendering trivial repairs, such as replacing a fingerprint sensor home button, seemingly impossible. I can think of absolutely ZERO good reasons why Apple disables home button functionality on its touch-ID sensor when using any sensor other than the one the iphone/ipad originally shipped with. Broken touch-ID shouldn't disable plain dumb home button functionality. That serves no purpose other than massively inconveniencing anyone who accidentally kills touch-ID and force them to pay a huge premium for non-warranty repair from Apple (which often costs as much as a refurb unit) even if you don't care about touch-ID and just want a home button that works.

    That's one flavor of total BS right to repair seeks to eliminate. That's companies going out of their way (increasing costs) specifically to make their devices less repairable, granting them a monopoly on repairs and effectively forcing customers into $300+ replacements for a $5 part that you may be able to swap out yourself.
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    1312467 said:
    Certainly was an interesting read. Must feel like a big waste of time for a beat up old laptop with an AMD E2 processor in it, but excellent for the fun of seeing a notebook taken apart and parts soldered on and off of it.

    The laptop itself may not be worth it but the story is... and as crappy as it may be, it is currently the fastest laptop I own as I haven't needed nor wanted a new one since my Athlon XP 3000+ from 2006 :)
  • JonDol
    @Daniel Savageau:

    For that precise disabled home button problem the fix is the "virtual home button" aka "on screen home button" found under the "Assistive Touch" label somewhere in the Accessibility options. While it won't fix the Touch ID problem, it is far more practical than the physical button since you could place it more conveniently under your thumb wherever you like on the 4 sides of the screen and even if it takes 2 touches for the "home button press" action it is actually faster than the physical button. It is so convenient that I use it at all times even if the physical button works. A huge help for big phones in small hands and it even works for iPads...
  • NightLight
    more of this please :)
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    2131435 said:
    For that precise disabled home button problem the fix is the "virtual home button" aka "on screen home button" found under the "Assistive Touch" label somewhere in the Accessibility options.

    I know. But many people still prefer to use the home button.

    I've had a Nexus 7 and I loathed the on-screen system menu due to how often I was accidentally activating it. When the menu auto-hide feature appeared and most apps implemented support for it, accidental activations became less common but then I got annoyed with having to 'summon' the system keys before I could activate them. I much prefer the physical clicky home button on my Samsung tablet, only wish it could be configured to ignored while sleeping.
  • Fulgurant
    2384751 said:
    Furthermore, as standards-of-living increase, wages tend to increase relative to raw material and other manufacturing costs. This rise in relative wages means that it is economically less sensible to repair broken devices. When wages are low and manufacturing costs are high, it makes sense to pay a repairman to avoid purchasing a replacement. But when wages are high and manufacturing costs are low, it makes more sense to trash the device and buy a new one.


    Wages have been stagnant for 40 years. Apologies for the tangent, but your comment made me spit out my coffee. Foxconn has installed nets on the windows of its Chinese factories to keep their worker slaves from jumping to their deaths; the notion that our disposable electronics arise even partially from an excess of general prosperity is absolutely risible.

    If you're arguing that paying someone a living wage in a Western country to repair your device costs more than paying foreign serfs to make a new one, then yes, absolutely. Generally, though, reality is directly opposed to your theory here. We have inexpensive electronics/durable goods in large part because of dirt cheap outsourced labor, not because workers have graduated to some sort of shining utopia where their salaries dwarf all other costs.
  • IInuyasha74
    1736083 said:
    1312467 said:
    Certainly was an interesting read. Must feel like a big waste of time for a beat up old laptop with an AMD E2 processor in it, but excellent for the fun of seeing a notebook taken apart and parts soldered on and off of it.
    The laptop itself may not be worth it but the story is... and as crappy as it may be, it is currently the fastest laptop I own as I haven't needed nor wanted a new one since my Athlon XP 3000+ from 2006 :)


    Oh yea the story certainly was worth the time. I'm not saying that, just the E2 processors aren't that great. Like Atoms before Baytrail.

    Ha, I know how you feel. I used a desktop with a Socket 764 motherboard with a single-core Sempron from 2006 until I think 2012. Had an Nvidia GT 6600 in it for a while, but for a lot of its life I used the slow Via Unichrome iGPU while trying to play games. Couldn't imagine still being limited to that, but if it works for you :)
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    1312467 said:
    Couldn't imagine still being limited to that, but if it works for you :)

    I've been working with dual and triple display setups for the past 10+ years and there are many times where I feel like three displays still aren't enough but I'm out of desk space to put any more. I'd probably go nuts in a matter of hours if I had to do a significant amount of work on a laptop with only one display.

    I haven't used a laptop for anything much beyond media player and 4th display for PDFs or SSH console in ~10 years.
  • IInuyasha74
    Try going higher res. I had three displays for a short while, but felt my desk was a bit cramped that way. They were all mismatched. Thought about getting two 24" 1080p screens to replace them, but ultimately re-purposed my 42" 4K tv to do the job. Then I just quarter everything off, which Windows 10 can do easy by just dragging stuff to any corner. I have to zoom out a little on some pages, but otherwise it works perfect. Almost like having four 20.2" screens. Or two and one extra-long portrait-style screen.
  • Daniel Sauvageau
    1312467 said:
    Try going higher res.

    With prices as they are today, the only higher resolution worth considering is UHD. I'll get there eventually but don't really want to have yet another TN/IPS display as I'm growing weary of LCD backlight bleed-through. I'd like my next monitor to be an HDR OLED and don't plan to replace my current monitors until they die in a way I can't repair. To a lesser extent, I'd also like the variable sync "format war" to be over before then. Another issue is that I'm going to need a new computer desk to fit a main display over 27"26", not in a hurry to get there. (Well, I could modify my desk to move the side shelves out 2-3 inches, which may be enough to accommodate a 30" display.)