Laptop Repair à la Backyard Dentistry

A friend of mine had purchased a nice Alienware laptop a number of years ago (an AW15R3), and it had some serious problems. He wanted help repairing it – and in fact, he had already done a great deal of diligence in tracking down problems and solutions. Here’s how we pulled a bad tooth out of a problematic laptop, so to speak, and restored it to its former glory!

Mikes beast of a laptop was now out of warranty; the laptop would power on to a black screen and get very hot. Mike got his hands on a thermal imaging camera and got to work analyzing the problem:

Well, there was clearly a problem. Unsurprisingly, it was in the power supply circuitry. You can see just how hot this thing was running:


Mike managed to source a schematic for the laptop (I have no idea how, I’ve never been so lucky!) and asked for my help troubleshooting the power section and repairing this unit. I had just received my hot-air rework gun, so this came with good timing!

After some brainstorming, we reasoned that the likeliest cause (And one that would be possible to fix) was that one or more of the circled power MOSFETs had gone bad – and indeed one of them correlates to the hot spot on the motherboard:

Of course, it could be the supporting circuitry that caused the MOSFET(s) to fail in the first place. Nothing else appeared damaged, so we took the chance. We sourced the replacement parts and got to work repairing the unit. Our game-plan was to replace all of the MOSFETs circled. However – we underestimated just how much heat it takes to get the solder flowing on this multi-layer motherboard, undoubtedly with many large copper planes for the power supply:

I couldn’t tell you how long we spent trying to get one of these power MOSFETs to reflow – easily over half an hour. This is normally done with a large oven to bring the whole board up to temperature before rework. We made do with brute force and ignorance.

And so – with inadequate heat and too much force, We managed to get some of the bad parts off of the board – it became apparent that soldering something back on was out of the question. We were getting hopeless – you can see some of the copper pads lifting underneath a MOSFET die… yes, we pried the case off, and the die was still stuck to the board…

Not my proudest work….

But, wait a minute – looking at the schematic, these MOSFETs have parallel counterparts on the other side of the PCB. What’s the current capacity of these things, anyway?

These MOSFETs can each handle 24A pretty handily, and the current calculations printed in the schematic worked out to under 20A total – so, theoretically, this laptop did not need the paralleled capacity, if the calculations are to be trusted. It looks as if they were paralleled to spread out the heat a little bit, and perhaps for some added redundancy. We had removed the thermally challenged MOSFET; could this thing “just work” at this point? I was skeptical about turning the unit on, but Mike was willing to accept the risks. We soldered some of the casualties back in place (diodes) and cleaned up the desoldering mess as best we could. We reassembled the laptop, booted it into a diagnostic mode – and everything worked!

I don’t know that I’ve ever fixed something by removing a part. We effectively pulled a bad tooth out of the laptop, and the problems all disappeared. Go figure. Mike stress tested it with some intensive gaming when he got home, and the thermal issues had entirely disappeared.

So – when your laptop is misbehaving, should you go removing parts? Absolutely not. I will point out that we had an appropriate fire extinguisher present during all of our tests. Power electronics can get very – well, “explodey” – this is why we did all of our testing outside! This was only remotely advisable on account of the research and precautions that Mike and I had done (okay, it was mostly Mike!)

A big thank-you to Mike for the fun project, the hard research, and the photos. You can catch Mike Himbeault on reddit and github.