Recently I had the opportunity to change out the system board in a ThinkPad T500 and brush up on my hardware skills. I found the experience extremely valuable, and I came away with a deeper appreciation for the talent of our design and product engineers, as well as our service technicians in the depot and the field.
As a bit of background, while still in school, I started my career in the late 80's as a part time PC tech and Lan admin of a Novell network, running on Arcnet. This was little more than a couple soup cans and a string by today's standards. I spent time as a tech and service manager in a retail environment, building white box PCs and servicing the major brands of the day. I remember when the 386 CPU running at 33mhz was the pinnacle of performance, 120 MB HDDs were standard and a 1GB drive was something only found in a server. Think about that! The average laptop, or even netbook of today has more RAM than an average PC server had hard disk space in 1990. When I joined IBM, I began as a support tech, fielding phone calls and helping customers with their PS/2 systems. Over the years since, I've worked in a number of roles at IBM and now Lenovo, but always with PCs, and ultimately, with customers.
My participation in our forums has provided a broader view of customer experience points across all our systems, and these product discussions have renewed my passion for the hardware.. Taking a product apart first hand lends an appreciation for the integration of design and engineering - seeing how the mechanical challenges are met, as well as all the electrical, functional, and aesthetic ones.
To change out a system board or planar on this T500, the LCD assembly and all the plastic covers are removed along with all of the small sub-components. Eventually, the unit is reduced to the magnesium roll cage and the system board. Wiring for the wireless antennas and LCDs are threaded through the hinges, and multiple wiring connections for various ports, connectors, and sub-components intertwine between the board and cage. A few quick photos captured with a cell phone camera or other digital camera taken while disassembling the system can be extremely helpful aids in putting things back as they were before.
Use of a static mat and wrist strap is essential to avoid damage to ESD sensitive components
There are a lot of screws, and while the designers did an excellent job of standardizing screws length and diameter where possible to reduce complexity, there are still a lot of them and they all need to go back where they came from. One of the lab techs shared his secret - a rectangular piece of foam cut to the size and shape of the laptop. He has several, each corresponding to the particular model of unit being worked on. As screws are removed from the bottom cover, they can be pressed into the foam in the corresponding location. This keeps them organized and matched up with the hole they came out of. Of course, the hardware maintenance manuals available on our support site, and the service training videos can be quite helpful too.
While I've always been a hardware guy at heart, my work assignment for much of the last decade have been more customer and business focused, and so these recent opportunities to really tear into our products has been appealing. I intend to get under the covers of more of our products in the future. Lucky for me, the techs in this particular lab have been extremely supportive and have even donated some bench space and my own static mat for future tinkering.