Dealing with a computer that shuts itself down

Someone called me recently about a problem with an XP based laptop  computer. It was working fine on Thursday, he went away for the weekend (with the computer powered off but plugged in to an AC outlet) and on Sunday night when he returned, there was a problem. After being powered on for a minute or two, the computer shut itself down.

The first question to be answered is whether the problem is hardware or software.

One way to tell, is to boot the machine using a Linux live CD. I've written before that everyone should have a Linux live CD, this being one of the reasons. 

But, he didn't have a Linux CD, so I suggested booting to the BIOS setup screen and walking away. If the computer was still running after a while, the problem was with Windows. If it turned itself off again, then it was a hardware problem.

Hardware it was.

I then suggested removing the battery and running the machine on electricity to eliminate the battery as a suspect. Unfortunately, the lever that released the battery was jammed.

He took it to a local repair shop and, long story short, the problem went away simply by taking things apart. Removing the battery and unplugging the machine from the AC outlet fixed the problem. When it was put back together, all was well. Go figure.

Fortunately, the machine wasn't damaged by an electrical disturbance, but this brings up a Defensive Computing point - it's best not to leave a laptop connected to an electric outlet when it's not in use.

For one thing, even if you are using a surge protector, there is still a risk. However, unplugging your laptop provides foolproof protection from any and all electrical disturbances.

Also, by being constantly plugged in, the battery remains fully charged all the time. Like us humans, laptop batteries need occasional exercise. As Apple puts it:

For proper maintenance of a lithium-based battery, it’s important to keep the electrons in it moving occasionally. Apple does not recommend leaving your portable plugged in all the time. An ideal use would be a commuter who uses her MacBook Pro on the train, then plugs it in at the office to charge. This keeps the battery juices flowing.

Lenovo goes even further. A help file on my ThinkPad called Tips for Maximizing Your Battery Life says:

Recondition your battery by letting your battery run to less than 3% at least once a month. Reconditioning the battery can restore some of your battery capacity.

Laptop batteries are expensive to replace and there are bound to be times when you need yours to last as long as possible. It's probably time well spent to read whatever documentation your hardware manufacturer offers regarding the care and feeding of your battery.

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