IT support often requires a good bit of detective work, and the troubleshooting process usually begins with the simple and moves on to the more complex. There are times, however, when the solution is so simple, yet so uncommon, that we overlook it and move on to more complex potential solutions. We’re so familiar with hardware conflicts, faulty device drivers, memory errors, and the like, that we often forget to look at the mechanical side of the problem.

I recently encountered a laptop CD drive problem that will make me think twice before hastily dismissing a mechanical solution again. Here’s why.

Some computers are nothing but trouble

This laptop is of particular interest because of the many challenges it has presented in the past. The now defunct Progen Systems originally sold this laptop, and because it is no longer in business, support is nonexistent. Check out these articles for more information on my battles with this machine:

A malfunctioning CD-ROM
The problem was that each time the laptop in question tried to access the CD-ROM drive, the error message shown in Figure A appeared. CDs would not auto-launch when inserted into the drive. In fact, it didn’t even sound like the drive was spinning the discs. The BIOS recognized the drive during boot up, and the drive’s LED would blink when a disc was inserted (indicating a good power supply), but Windows would not read from the drive.

Figure A

This laptop had once experienced a similar problem with its floppy drive. Reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling Windows 98 had remedied this previous problem, so I thought maybe a similar solution would resolve the current crisis. But what if the drive was bad? How could I reinstall Windows without having access to the CD-ROM drive? Simply put, I couldn’t. (This laptop was not connected to a network.)

First things first: Check the driver
Thinking the problem was a software glitch, I removed the drive from the Windows Device Manager and restarted the laptop. The BIOS picked up the drive, Windows found the new hardware, and the driver was reinstalled without incident. So far so good, right? Hardly. The drive still didn’t work.

Check the facts and list what you know
Then I decided to list what I knew for sure. First, it did not seem to be a software problem. Second, I had suspicions about the physical integrity of the drive. When functioning properly, the drive makes quite a bit of noise when spinning a disc. When this laptop’s CD-ROM is running, you know it. You cannot mistake that noise for anything else. But now, those familiar sounds were not apparent. In fact, when a disc was inserted, it sounded as if the drive would start to spin for a second, stop, then try again, only to fail. The LED would flash but then go dark.

A bad drive? Get out the toolkit
So if I did in fact have a bad drive, what options did I have? I could replace it, but as you probably already know, working on a laptop, when compared to working on a desktop, is a completely different beast. Uniformity between brands is few and far between, and even the simplest upgrade, such as increasing RAM, can be difficult. It is no wonder that most retailers won’t touch laptop repairs and upgrades. Plus, since laptops vary greatly in construction, I knew finding a replacement CD-ROM drive would be difficult, to say the least.

In fact, having never dismembered this model Progen laptop, I didn’t really even know how to get to the drive. Access to the battery and the floppy drive was obvious, but this wasn’t the case for the CD-ROM. So having nothing to lose, I decided to get out my handy computer toolkit and operate.

Scalpel, clamp, forceps…
And so, I proceeded to dismantle the laptop. Out came the battery, the floppy, the hard drive, and even the LCD screen (see Figure B).

Figure B

Let me take a moment to emphasize one very important point regarding computer surgery: Remember where things go! Keep the screws and parts you take out organized. I recommend drawing a diagram or grouping any screws that you’ve removed with their respective parts. However you do it, just make sure everything goes back in its proper place when putting the computer back together. An extra screw lying around afterwards is not a good sign.

Sometimes it’s just that simple
In the end, I discovered that I could access the CD-ROM drive by removing the keyboard (see Figure C).

Figure C

I was able to detach the drive from the motherboard and remove it from the case. The drive looked fine from the outside, so I decided to look for problems on the inside. A flashlight quickly illuminated the problem.

To my chagrin, I discovered that the root of the problem was a tiny warning label that had been peeled back inside the drive (see Figure D). It had somehow come up at one of the corners, probably due to the heat, and was physically impeding the disc from spinning correctly. This explained the stop-and-start noise the drive made when attempting to read a disc.

Figure D

After all that—checking for software problems, considering a hard drive reformat and reinstallation of Windows, and then taking the laptop completely apart—the problem turned out to be a simple warning sticker. I quickly removed the protruding label and reassembled the laptop, being careful not to forget any screws. And before I knew it, the laptop was up and running, and the CD-ROM functioned like new. It just goes to show you that, sometimes, it’s just that simple.