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The great question of our time



On this day when LGM seems obsessed with trivialities such as the historical meaning of the Obama presidency and how to construct a viable progressive political movement, I would prefer to discuss a more important issue: What is happening to my computer?

The screen for my laptop (four year old Dell) was black all weekend — none more black, even though the computer seemed to all external appearances to be otherwise working normally (obviously I couldn’t actually do anything on it since I couldn’t see what was on the screen, but all the lights were on and it made the appropriate noises when I hunted around with the cursor like a blind man).

So this morning when I plugged it into my work station at my office the screen magically lit up again. Any ideas as to what could be going on? (I’m getting a new computer in a few weeks but am trying to figure out if I need to get a loaner in the interim).

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  • Hanspeter

    Black black, or just very dark? If the former, you might have switched it to external monitor (usually fixed by going to function+F-something-or-other.). If very dark, as in you can see something if you view it at the right angle, the backlight for the monitor might have given out, but since it works on your docking station, it’s probably the former.

    • Holden Pattern


    • David M

      It looks like a black screen, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue.

    • JR

      Check the F-keys (mnemonic, “F these keys”) for a picture, probably in medium-light-blue ink, of a round-cornered rectangle reminiscent of a cathode ray tube, back when displays weren’t perfectly rectangular. Also look for the initials “CRT/LCD” like this keyboard has on the F8 key. Hold down Fn (lower left, pronounced “Effin”) and then tap the offending key once.

    • If it’s anything like my Dell notebook, the driver for the graphics card may have crashed.

  • Froley

    Don’t know what caused it but my Toshiba did something similar for a couple of weeks (screen would remain black for no apparent reason). Sometimes moving the top back and forth would make the screen come on. Eventually it started working normally; so I’m no help as to fixes, but I’m here to let you know there is hope (maybe).

    • jefft452

      odds are its the power transfer for the backlight
      sometimes moving the screen up and down will work for a while, but its dying, and kinda pricy to replace – like a couple hundred bucks

      since you can get a new laptop for under a grand, you may not want to pay 275 to fix a 4 year old one

    • Warren Terra

      I had a similar problem with my Toshiba – If I looked really closely I could see that the graphics were on the screen, but it was all much, much too dark to see anything. I thought it was going to be the power converter (inverter? I don’t recall) for the video display, with a replacement cost of ~$300, but it turned out to be a broken connection to the power converter/inverter, for a fraction of that. All done at the licensed repair shop four blocks from my house.

  • Hanspeter’s explanation is the first thing I’d check, adding only that it could also erroneously think that the lid was closed. After that, if the screen is off completely, the connector between the motherboard and the screen could’ve come unplugged. On my eight year old Dell the screen connects with a simple ribbon cable that runs to a connector underneath the keyboard. If that thing is even the least bit loose the screen will be completely off even as the computer itself runs normally. With Dells you can usually get access to that kind of stuff with nothing more than than the user’s guide, a small Phillips, and about three minutes of effort.

    • Patrick

      “adding only that it could also erroneously think that the lid was closed” +1

      Had this happen with a laptop of mine – there was actually a little push-button at the top of the keyboard that was depressed by the screen closing on it and turned off the monitor for power saving. Got gummed up and stuck in the ‘closed’ position.

  • Steve H

    I think it means the aliens out behind Jupiter will be paying us a visit soon.

  • Jonathan

    Does your laptop get hot when you use it? Do you set it on top of things like carpet, your lap, paper, or other surfaces that might interfere with airflow? If so, your GPU has cooked itself and in a week or two you’ll start getting a series of beeps when your system starts up, then nothing.

  • greylocks

    A slightly loose connector is possible, but so is a short somewhere on the video portion of the mobo or in the display’s own circuitry.

    The best test you can do on your own is to connect the video to an external monitor for a while (as in a few days, not a few minutes). If the problem occurs on the external monitor, it’s not a loose connector, and since the video is integrated on the mobo on nearly all laptops, you’re basically fucked. Just not worth paying for a new mobo plus labor charges on a four-year-old craptop when you look at the cost of a new one.

    If it occurs only on the built-in display, then it could still be a loose connector, but it could also be a fault in the monitor’s circuitry, in which case you are also basically fucked.

    If it’s a loose connector, it may be possible for a sufficiently talented screwdriver ape to get to it and fix it for a modest fee. I don’t recommend taking laptops apart yourself unless you have experience assembling/fixing computers (which I do).

  • Josh G.

    There’s always the possibility it was an errant setting (as mentioned by other commenters, you could have had it set to use the external video port). But if that’s not the case, I suspect the backlight inverter module may be going bad. Alternatively, if the laptop has received a lot of rough handling, the thin ribbon cable connecting the LCD panel to the video device may be coming loose or be damaged. Unfortunately, there’s no way to be certain about either of these things without taking the laptop apart.

    • greylocks

      Backlight problems are usually (but admittedly not always) not intermittent. Once they go, they usually just go. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d not put it at the top of the diagnostics list.

      Intermittent binary works/doesn’t work problems where bad user settings/input have been ruled out are usually shorts or loose cables. Backlight issues tend to have intermediate shades of workingness.

  • Murc

    Question. During all the time it was blacked, was it unplugged? That is, not plugged into the wall, but running on battery power?

    I’ve seen instances where laptops whose batteries are dying or are having other power issues go into extreme austerity mode, doing things like not adequately lighting the screen or disabling certain web browser addons or even killing wifi access. These issues go away if you’re plugged right into the wall.

  • Alan Tomlinson

    Obviously it is mourning. Nurture it, be kind to it, give it time.


    Alan Tomlinson

  • parrot

    the plumbers have been compromised …

  • anniecat45

    Computers are not machines. They are colonies of silicon-based life forms, and they are staging guerrilla war against the tyranny of the carbon-based life forms (human beings). What you experienced was a guerrilla attack by the Silicon Based Liberation Front (SBLA).

  • I don’t know why with all these technically savvy readers nobody mentioned the obvious answer. It’s Because The Gays Are Getting Married.

  • wengler

    As someone who has done some computer tech in my days, I can tell you that it can be any number of things. Start with the easy things first.

    1) Make sure your lid closing sensor isn’t stuck down. It’s usually near the hinge.

    2) Make sure your computer hasn’t set itself to an external monitor. On Dells, I think this is Fn + F8.

    Other problems can be more difficult. If you aren’t even seeing a boot screen, then it’s probably hardware-related.

  • Sharon

    Your laptop was having a sad because it knew that your law school blog would be the subject of a segment on Michelle Martin’s radio show this afternoon.

  • Lee Hartmann

    there is none more black than when your laptop apparently dies. good that it came back.

  • cpinva

    what you have there is a really nice, very expensive doorstop. in fact, Dell is famous the world over for the high quality of their doorstops.

    tell ya what ya do, go to: http://www.newegg.com, and pick yourself out a nice asus or HP. if you’re lucky, they might have one on sale, with no shipping charges, that meets your needs.

  • Fred

    You wouldn’t be having this problem if your monitor went to 11.

  • Kurzleg

    A pastel black?

  • Halloween Jack

    I was thinking loose/defective video cable, although I don’t know if there’s a quick fix. (Fun fact: the Apple III (the planned replacement for the Apple II, although after its failure Apple just extended the II line for several more years until the Macintosh was well-established) came to market with many defects of design and manufacture, and one official fix for recurring problems was to pick the unit up a few inches off the desk or table that it was sitting on, and then drop it–some of the chips had a tendency to work loose, and a short drop would re-seat them.) If it goes kerplonk, I’d second Asus as a preferred replacement; some models are inexpensive and a very good value for the money.

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