Care and Feeding of Laptops

I have recently been receiving a number of phone calls from volunteers telling me that their laptop computers have stopped working correctly. A number of these problems could have been avoided by taking a few simple precautions.

Laptops are very sensitive pieces of computer equipment. They are much more fragile than a common desktop because manufacturers have to work with a lot smaller spaces so they incorporate extremely sophisticated and tiny pieces of electronics. If you look at the size of a modern laptop you will quickly see what I mean – wafer thin they are elegant pieces of modern art. People tend to forget this and treat laptops just like they would their desktop machines – leading to many problems.

Environmental Considerations

In the Gambia, as you may have noticed, it is hot. And humid (this time of year particularly). Both of these things are the death of many a laptop. With the addition of dust that we are “blessed” with, a laptop used incorrectly barely has a chance.

A few sensible precautions that should help mitigate any problems caused by this:

  • DO NOT use a laptop in the heat of the day – Try to use the laptop when it is a bit cooler (unless, of course, you have air conditioning – lucky you!).
  • DO make sure the laptop is well ventilated when using it – Manufacturers seem to forget that they need to allow adequate ventilation to prevent the CPU or other critical components from overheating. A good suggestion is to use the “feet” that may have been included on the base of your laptop or, if there are none, prop the laptop up on the spine of a book at the rear of the laptop. My laptop has a vent right near a door-covered port for “USB” devices so I make sure that I leave the port door open to provide extra ventilation.
  • DO cover or put the laptop away when not using it – Keep the dust AWAY from the computer. The best bet is to always return the laptop to it’s carrying case (because of the dust problem here in The Gambia I also put the laptop into a plastic bag before putting it into it's case).


The supply of electricity in the Gambia is notoriously unreliable (you may have noticed). I know that in Banjul a number of days we have had the power go off and on in excess of 10 or 12 times in a day making work at best difficult at worse impossible. Though, I must admit, if it is bad we all tend to give up and go home. There are a few things you can do to avoid problems:

  • DO unplug the laptop as soon as the electricity goes OUT or becomes unstable – When the electricity comes back on if your laptop is plugged in (even if you are not using it) it runs the risk of being “spiked”. Typically electricity will surge as soon as the power comes back in and this surge has the significant potential of causing problems. You should make sure that you unplug the power cord from the wall as this surge can also damage any power supply (the box often found on the power cord) on this cable also. Aside: If you are using a surge protector or line conditioner (voltage regulator) it would be a good idea to make sure you disconnect those from the outlet as well since they can also be damaged.
  • DO NOT leave your laptop plugged in and unused for any significant length of time – This is an invitation for disaster as you are not around to unplug the laptop when the power comes back on (see above) never mind the fact that laptops were never intended to be left plugged in (unlike many desktop computers).
  • DO use a surge protector (at the very least) or a “Line Conditioner” (Voltage Regulator) – Be aware that a surge protector will only protect you against power “spikes” and may need to be replaced if a spike actually occurs. Any “Line Conditioner” you purchase should have a certain amount of surge protection also (not necessarily true of all line conditioners).

A “Line Conditioner2 is a good investment (though a significant one in this country) but if you are sensible and pay attention to the power situation you should be fine.


Even here in the Gambia where it is considered quite safe and very little crime there are some steps you can take to minimize your laptop being stolen:

  • DO NOT use your laptop in a public place – Taking it to the beach is just asking for trouble.
  • DO use any password facilities your laptop may have come with – A password may, at least, discourage someone from considering your laptop as their property.
  • DO keep your laptop in a place hidden from view in your house – Someone looking in your window and seeing your laptop case could consider it an invitation to take it.
  • DO mark the laptop with your name and contact details – Either permanently on the outside or, if possible, as a screen that is displayed when the laptop is turned on. Then, if someone “finds” your laptop they may just return it (offering a reward is also a good incentive).

Extending the Life of Your Battery

If you are using an older laptop (those without Lithium-Ion type batteries, check your laptop manual if you are not sure what you have) the recommended advice to prolong the life of your battery is:

  • DO NOT recharge your battery when only partly discharged – To extend the life of your battery it is best that once you have started using the battery that you fully discharge it before plugging it back in to recharge. There is a problem of “memory” in these older batteries where if you recharge when the battery is only half-way charged then it will “remember” where it started charging (1/2 way) then only discharge back to that point so your battery now only works for half the time as before!

For newer laptops (those WITH Lithium-Ion type batteries) the recommended advice to prolong the life of your battery is:

  • DO avoid frequent FULL discharges of your laptop battery – Frequent partial discharges of are fine
  • DO apply a deliberate full discharge once every 30 charges – This will re-calibrate batteries with fuel gauge so that if the computer says there is “10% charge remaining” it really means it!
  • DO NOT purchase spare lithium-ion batteries for later use – Lithium-Ion batteries do not store well so it is not recommended that you purchase spares for use at some point in the future.

Further (detailed) information about how to prolong the life of lithium-based batteries, see Battery University: How to prolong lithium-based batteries.

General Advice

Many people have spent a lot of money on their laptops but actually know very little about it. A few suggestions:

  • DO read the manual that came with your laptop – This manual typically contains advice about how to keep your laptop working for many years. If you have (surprise!) neglected to bring your manual with you to the Gambia typically most laptop manuals will be available on the World Wide Web from the manufacturer’s web site (e.g.,, etc.).
  • DO NOT use illegal copies of software – Despite the fact that this is actually stealing (in every definition of the word) it is also a great way to get the latest and greatest software viruses. Yes, software IS expensive but, then, so are cars and you would not just take one of those – or would you?
  • DO use anti-virus software – There are a LOT of computer viruses floating around in the Gambia so if you communicate with any computers either via the Internet, local area network (LAN) or by diskette you should use anti-virus software to protect yourself. There are also a few free virus scanners available on the Internet (for example, try


A laptop is an expensive investment and the options available to you when something DOES go wrong are quite limited here in the Gambia since laptops are highly specialized and tend to use very “proprietary” equipment that is not easy or simple to replace. There are a few places that you can take it but you may have to have it sent back to where you purchase it for service – which can, of course, be very expensive. Exercising a bit of caution may save a lot of hassle, and money, in the long run.