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Repairing an Acer E5-521 Laptop: A Case Study

Postmortem

Repairing board-level problems in a device may sound daunting at first. In many cases, though, it turns out to be much simpler than expected. Take basic knowledge of how buck converters operate and how their components usually fail, do a few simple checks based on that knowledge, add a little bit of luck in the form of a non-catastrophic fault like a hard short to ground, and the problem can be narrowed down to a subset of components in a specific area in a matter of minutes.

Although finding the general neighborhood of a hard fault may be easy, finding the exact component responsible for it can be trickier. In this instance, because I failed to notice the slightly tarnished face on the bad capacitor prior to deciding to remove surface-mount components, I ended up pulling caps until I was down to the second-to-last 0805. While the process of iteratively removing capacitors and checking for short-circuits only took a few minutes, it could have been a surgical strike had I not missed this tell-tale sign. Not all failures are this simple though, and not all internal component faults grant the courtesy of visible cues. When they do, they can be massive time-savers and really inexpensive fixes.

While I wasn't able to find an easy fix for whatever issue the keyboard had, disconnecting it to keep the keyboard from interfering with alternate input options at least circumvented the real problem. There are a number of simple and inexpensive work-arounds, the cheapest of which is an external keyboard. Replacement keyboards for the Acer E5-521 series can be found for ~$30 and I would have considered this option had the chassis not had so much structural damage.

Since the laptop has built-in Bluetooth, I decided to use my iClever pocket keyboard and trackpad combo to make it usable while waiting for replacement parts. Doing so eliminated the need for proprietary wireless dongles and their port-hogging ways, though I did need a working input method to configure the pairing beforehand.

Physical abuse aside, this repair is yet another example of an otherwise usable device getting disabled by capacitor failures. Unlike my PC and monitor power supply repairs, where multiple electrolytic capacitors failed after electrolyte loss that could have been avoided if manufacturers used higher-quality caps, this time it was a single ceramic capacitor worth less than $0.01 shorting out possibly due to mechanical trauma. With relatively trivial fixes like these, one can only wonder how many devices end up in landfills and recycling facilities that could be repaired by enthusiasts with little more than basic circuit theory, including mastery of Ohm’s law, a $50 multimeter (I needed that 0.01Ω resolution to quickly get me close to my short-circuit here), and decent soldering skills.

For more complex repairs, these may be coming to an end as a growing number of manufacturers are using semi-custom chips and programmable devices with proprietary firmware often available only as salvage parts. In some cases, they're even tied to each other to prevent part swaps. Combined with portable devices integrating storage to the mainboard for space-saving, this may turn into a data recovery nightmare. To reduce the risk of repair lock-out and impossible data recovery becoming the new standard, support your “Right to Repair” and similar bills if such efforts exist in your state or country.


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Daniel Sauvageau is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He’s known for his feature tear-downs of components and peripherals.