Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


What your physics teacher never told you about electronics

File under: Sound And Fury, Meta-Meta, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:31 am.

The Gulf Islands were lovely, just lovely. And I have photos! Postcards! Tales of hitchhiking, prawn delivery, epic seasickness, and more! None of which you’ll get to see or read for a long, long time, because my computer is dead.

“Dead?” I said to the guy at Future Shop, in the way that one asks questions when coming to terms with that chasm between one’s formerly-held beliefs and reality. “I thought it was just the adapter. When I left for my vacation, it was working ok, but the battery was discharging even though it was plugged in. Mind you, when I came back, it sputtered for a bit and then just shut off.”

“Adapter’s fine,” said the technician. “It’s giving me nineteen and a half volts. And your computer won’t even turn on.”

“The hell? It’s only a few months old. And -”

“We’ve had a lot of power surges on the Island in the last few weeks,” the technician recited. “And brownouts. It’s the brownouts that’ll really fry ‘em. Lotta machines in in the last couple weeks, completely dead.”

“Dead,” I repeated.

“Is it still under warranty?” he asked me.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “And the most important files on it are music, so that’s okay. But - a brownout will just kill a computer? Laptops only, or does this happen to desktops too?”

“We’ve had a lot of desktops in here, too.”

“Is there any way to predict brownouts, or power surges?”

He shook his head. “Nothing you could have done about it. This is not your fault.”

And from there, something about serial numbers and warranties and they’ll send you a box to ship it in and should have it or a reasonable facsimile thereof back to you in a few weeks. A few weeks. I’m going to cart the bloody thing down to the mom and pop computer shop at the north end of town - I still have this rental car for another day - for a second opinion, but barring that, a few weeks.

I’m at the library now, and I’ll be back, because my EI reports need to be filed electronically. Should pick up a few books, while I’m here. I hear people used to read those before there were computers.


  1. You might want to consider a UPS with surge protector. This should help guarantee that you always have the correct voltage coming into your computer (but I may be wrong about this).

    - vito prosciutto — 6/13/2005 @ 2:51 pm

  2. My condolences on your loss.

    - sheepish — 6/13/2005 @ 9:17 pm

  3. Many UPS’s won’t boost the voltage during brownouts.
    The best UPS is a “continious online” type, but those are expensive.
    A line conditioner would compensate for brownouts, and weighs a lot less than a ups.

    IMHO, it’s not the brownouts, and maybe not a surge. Did the tech try a different, fully charged battery to see if it would turn on? Might be an intermittant problem with the power jack.

    - Jayrtfm — 6/13/2005 @ 9:26 pm

  4. More to the point, you may want to have Mom&Pop pull the hard drive from your laptop and see if its contents can be read, and if so, backed up.

    No sense in sending the machine in for repair just to have the service personnel wipe all your pictures and other stuff for their convenience.

    - Engineer-Poet — 6/13/2005 @ 9:47 pm

  5. Vito is right — a Uniform Power Supply (I think it’s called) has surge protection — but those can get pricey. Hell, I believe my plug strips have surge protection. Computers should always be plugged into a surge protector of some sort.

    Get something like this

    - meep — 6/14/2005 @ 2:39 am

  6. I’d assumed (yes, I know) that the battery and charging circuit of the laptop filtered the power like a UPS would. I guess to the extent the computer is a desktop replacement a UPS would be fine, but it really reduces the utility of a portable computer if you have to haul around an extra piece of gear.

    As far as UPS’s go, I’ve been able occasionally to find battery backups from APC for US20 after rebates. I like hardwareguys recommendations for backup power-supplies.

    - Sanctimonious Hypocrite — 6/14/2005 @ 6:29 am

  7. We have a UPS that we bought at Office Despot for around USD70. Which probably means that in Canada it’s CDN140. But it’s the power filtering and uniformity that’s the deal.

    I would keep the UPS in the place where the laptop is used the most (while plugged in) rather than lugging it around though. Perhaps buy 2 (one for home one for office) or better still get the uni to buy 2.

    But first, it’s worth making sure that the UPS will indeed filter power as I assume it would. I’m sure some do and some don’t.

    There are rackmount power conditioners that musicians use to keep their equipment from being toasted by being plugged into the same circuit as the neon signs in the window, but those are even more dollars.

    - vito prosciutto — 6/14/2005 @ 8:24 am

  8. Thank you, all.

    Wee update: computer is showing signs of life (flickering green light when I plug it in), and after talking to some people who know more about these things than I do, I’m a bit more optimistic than I was yesterday that it can be saved. And, the warranty will take care of things, so that’s a relief.

    I also called the Toshiba hotline, and described the computer’s symptoms without mentioning that someone had told me it was probably a power surge/brownout issue. The tech-support guy said without hesitation, “it’s the motherboard, and your warranty will cover the replacement cost.” So. And if it’s a power surge/brownout thing, then there’s a good chance that only the battery was affected. In either case, my data is probably safe. Computer is now on a trip out east to the dealer; don’t know when it will be back. (Engineer-Poet - thanks for the advice, but apparently the warranty will be void if I, or anyone else, opens the computer. And since my data is probably ok, I’m not going to risk that.)

    But, after bringing the machine to Future Shop yesterday, I remembered that I’d had to get my bike battery replaced a few months ago. It was doing really weird stuff (lying about how charged it was, making random beeping noises when it wasn’t connected to anything (!!), not registering any connection with the bike even though its voltage was fine) that seems potentially consistent with electricity problems. So, we’ll see. In any case, I’ll be spending a lot of time at the library in the next few weeks. I should be cleaning my apartment and packing, too, so this’ll be one less distraction. Feh.

    - Moebius Stripper — 6/14/2005 @ 10:58 am

  9. UPS (_Uninterruptable_ Power Supply) will indeed provide a constant voltage for up to half an hour or so after black/brown-outs. I’m surprised this would be an issue for a laptop though (which it sounds like it may not be). At any rate, you might want to contact the dealer before they work on it. As mentioned earlier, dealers like to do a hard drive wipe and reinstall everything from scratch regardless of what the problem actually is. Don’t let them!

    - sheepish — 6/14/2005 @ 1:58 pm

  10. Meep;
    the problem with those cheap surge protectors is that they will only work once or twice, after which they need to be replaced because they will no longer protect against surges. You have no way of telling whether or not it’s actually working. Basically they depend on a 50 cent part called a varistor. They are worse than useless, since they give a false sense of safety.

    - Jayrtfm — 6/14/2005 @ 4:53 pm

  11. Ooooh. That’s good to know, Jayrtfm. We’ve got a UPS for our G5 now, and it’s my husband who’s in charge of all things hardware, so I never paid much attention to that.

    - meep — 6/14/2005 @ 5:31 pm

  12. Well, technically….

    IIRC, there are two kinds of varistors in use in surge protection systems:  metal-oxide varistors (MOV’s) and silicon-oxide varistors (SOV’s).  MOV’s have a lifetime energy dissipation rating, after which they fail catastrophically (I’ve seen one exploded all over the inside of a power strip).  SOV’s do not; they are more like spark gaps.  I don’t know the relative prices but I suspect MOV’s are cheaper else nobody would use them.

    What I find odd is that a laptop power brick, which may be an internationalized unit specified to be happy on anything between 90 and 250 VAC and 50-60 Hz, should do anything with spikes besides eating them for breakfast and saying “Yum!”.

    - Engineer-Poet — 6/15/2005 @ 9:01 am

  13. Oh, and for the record:  there are two kinds of UPS.  One is the off-line type, which powers its loads directly from line power and has a relay to switch to batteries when line voltage drops.  The other is the on-line type, which runs loads off its inverter all the time and has no transfer relay.  All power going through an on-line UPS goes from AC to DC and back to AC.

    The on-line UPS is noisier and less efficient in normal operation, but the off-line UPS does not offer any special defense against spikes.  If you are buying a UPS to protect your equipment from dirty power, make sure you get an on-line UPS.

    - Engineer-Poet — 6/15/2005 @ 9:05 am

  14. Hopefully not too off-topic:

    Engineer-poet, I’ve never heard a noisy on-line UPS. The only noise I hear from mine is a quiet hum when they switch to battery for self-test or a voltage drop. They’re not hot enough to even require a fan. All mine are APC brand, though; I always feel better spending a little more for a brand I trust. Do cheaper ones make constant noise when they’re on?

    - Matt — 6/15/2005 @ 12:11 pm

  15. Power conditioners are better bet than UPSs for protecting against brown-outs.

    They don’t protect against blackouts, but blackouts tend not to do much damage, and you have a laptop anyway. It’s already protected against blackouts.

    - Leon — 6/15/2005 @ 12:23 pm

  16. Matt, I think she/he is referring to voltage noise and not acoustic noise.

    - sheepish — 6/15/2005 @ 7:08 pm

  17. I do think that usually you can pull the hard drive without voiding the warranty, but of course you have to ask Toshiba. I really wouldn’t trust anyone to not break my hard drive, unless I can see what they’re doing in front of me (it’s nice when you have on-site service that way).

    - plam — 6/15/2005 @ 8:35 pm

  18. Sheepish: Oh yeah, you’re probably right. I feel… um, sheepish that I didn’t think of that. :)

    - Matt — 6/16/2005 @ 11:39 am

  19. Condolences really.

    I had a similar problem. We were having power problems due to our pool pump and my computer died. It too showed “signs of life” in the form of a “flickering green light.” It’s a good thing your computer is under warranty. It’s definitely the motherboard, not just the battery. VERY expensive if not under warranty - my computer was lost in the “is it trash?” heap for months. On the up side, I didn’t loose any data, so you probably don’t need to worry about that.

    - Muon — 6/16/2005 @ 3:18 pm

  20. Had I meant line noise
    I sure could have made it clear
    I guess I didn’t.

    - Engineer-Poet — 6/17/2005 @ 8:21 am

  21. Still at the library, still without computer. No real blogging for some time, then. Doesn’t mean you can’t have a laugh at my expense, though:

    I packed up my computer, and an adapter, to ship out east. Came back home, and saw that my computer’s adapter was on the kitchen counter. Didn’t take me long to figure out that the adapter for my electric bike was missing. Yeah.

    So, living out here in rural heck, where every adult besides me in my neighbourhood owns a car (we no longer have bus service by my place between the hours of 10:00 and 3:00), I find myself biking for efficiency up 15% grades to the public library, 8.5 km away. Battery should hold up until my next bout of island hopping, but still. Shee.

    Meanwhile, some dork writes a column in the town rag about how great a town for biking Island Town is, because - and I quote - “there is a bike path”. Yes, a bike path. If you live by the highway, meanwhile, you get irate truck drivers nearly running you off the cliff, honking, middle finger extended. And don’t even think about biking after dark. Feh.

    - Moebius Stripper — 6/18/2005 @ 4:14 pm

  22. At least you can’t see the middle fingers after dark?

    - sheepish — 6/18/2005 @ 8:25 pm

  23. Y’see, when he says it’s a great town for biking, what he really means is that it’s a great town for putting your bike on your car’s bike rack, driving to the end of the bike path, and then biking down the bike path for a while and turning around to bike back to the car so you can drive home.
    Biking for transportation? Who would be crazy enough to do that?

    - dave — 6/19/2005 @ 9:44 am

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