Providing Lesotho's Children with Keys to the World

This is the story of our efforts to end the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, inadequate education, and early death
in a remote rural community in Lesotho, Africa, by providing quality education and life skills
to the young children there. Join us on our journey ...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Problems Repairing Non-booting XO-1 Laptops

I spent a couple days this month repairing the last of the XO-1 laptops that will go to Kokobe Primary School in January 2013.

Of the 50 XO laptops I had purchased on for Kokobe, eight were not working.  Most of those were ones that became bricked during storage or shipping from the seller.  The remainder were advertised and sold as "non-working."  I bought the non-working XOs for fairly low prices, with the hopes that they were just bricked,** a problem that is usually reparable.  I figured any that were beyond my capacity to repair could be used for parts. 

**bricked = problem booting due to a failure of the internal cell battery which triggers a software glitch that prevents the laptop from booting properly

I'm not a computer technician by any stretch of the imagination, but I like to tinker and love a good challenge.  I had fixed a couple bricked XO laptops last year without any problems, so I was feeling pretty confident.   As it turned out, working on the bricked XO laptops this year turned out to be much more frustrating than I had expected.  I'm still not sure why.

The fix involves using a serial adapter, known  in layman's terms as a doohickey - a thing with wires attached to a little electronic board and plug gizmo about the size of a flash drive.  This gets hooked up between the non-working XO laptop and a working computer.  Thanks to very detailed directions on the OLPC wiki, I was able to dismantle the non-working laptop and hook the doohickey up to the motherboard without any trouble.

Serial adapter for fixing bricked XO laptops
[links to the directions I used: 
Disassemble XO laptop to reach motherboard,
Hooking up and using the serial adapter]

Running the software that lets the two computers communicate through the serial adapter doohickey is where I ran into problems this time around.  The OLPC directions were a bit vague here. (Sometimes OLPC directions are great, but other times they assume the reader has a degree of computer technical skills that I don't possess, and then the directions start reading like Greek to me.)

[link to directions: Running the serial adapter software]

I tried both HyperTerminal and Screen for Linux, software recommended in the directions.  Neither automatically linked to the serial adapter as the directions implied.  After a lot of trial and error, I got Screen to work and got one non-working XO laptop to boot, even though I never got the Page Fault message that the directions say should appear at the start. 

I thought I had it all figured out after that first laptop was fixed.  But every time after that, when I tried to run Screen, I would get an error message, even though I was following the exact same steps as the first time. (I had made detailed step-by-step notes of everything as I went through it the first time so this wouldn't happen, obviously to no avail.) 

After what seemed like hours of trying this and that, nothing worked.  I was extremely frustrated and about to give up, when I decided to try one last suggestion in the directions.  It involved an Automated Python Script that Repair Center volunteers had written.  ("Automated Python Script" means it's programming code written in Python language that can be run to fix a problem without input from you.)    I had shied away from this because I didn't know anything about Python, and I was afraid it would require programming skills I don't have. 

As it turned out, the Python script was much easier to use than Screen.  And it worked every time.  In a matter of minutes, I had all but one of the non-working laptops up and running.  (The remaining laptop needed a new motherboard, so I stripped it for parts.) 

Now all I have to do is test each laptop's hardware, adjust the settings, and load our activities, then the last XOs will be ready to go.

See the next blog post for my more detailed version of directions to repair bricked XO laptops using a second XO laptop and the automated python script.

- Janissa


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