Note To Self: Clean Your Notebook More Often

A couple of months back I (along with the rest of the Lifehacker team) posted about some of the gear I use to efficiently execute my busy-work. I highlighted my aging Dell M1330 as my reliable editing workhorse, something for which I took for granted.

Not long ago I noticed my M1330's average operating temps had grown inexplicably. Where it once idled at about 40°C, 55°C had become the norm. I've had the wonderful (though sadly outdated) RMClock running in the background for years now, keeping my CPU undervolted from its standard 1.25V to 0.925-0.95V. This usually nets me a 10&degC; drop in temps across the board, but this win was being negated entirely by some mysterious force.

The M1330 has a bit of a dodgy history. While there were many different configurations, essentially, when you selected a model from Dell's site you had two options -- an Intel or NVIDIA GPU. I went with the Intel and ran into barely any issues. The NVIDIA chips in the other version, however, were found to be defective. Specifically, they were not manufactured to withstand their high (but typical) operating temperatures.

Dell, as far as I'm aware, did replace notebooks with the bad chips as long as they were in warranty. Those out of warranty had to find more creative solutions.

Anyway, the story is that the M1330 is not a cool-running notebook. With an NVIDIA GPU under the hood and a high-spec Core 2 Duo, the CPU can easily reach 70&degC; plus, while the GPU... well, 80-100&degC; readings were not uncommon.

Even without a melting GPU to exacerbate things, you can understand why I'm keen to keep my M1330's temps under control and why I found the odd rise in average readings disturbing.

To try and rectify the issue, I removed the heatsink and reapplied the thermal paste (using the high-performing Shen Etsu), and while this made a difference of a few degrees, it was not enough. I also checked the air vents near the fan... but not thoroughly -- I could see the internals by staring in from the back of the notebook, which was good enough for me.

But, after reapplying and reseating the heatsink for the fourth time, I decided there wasn't much else left to investigate. So, I took the extra step and removed the entire heatsink assembly and, boy, was I surprised by what I saw.

I wish I'd taken a photo, but I guess I was too stunned. The image to the right is pretty darn close in terms of the build-up (mine, I reckon, was maybe a few millimetres thicker). I honestly couldn't believe it. Image: Lockergnome.

Obviously I cleaned the hell out of the grill -- I felt like I was removing a layer of lint from a dryer -- and put the notebook back together. The difference was astonishing. A 10°C drop in idle temps and about a 20&degC; drop in load temps.

It's a bit distressing, though not unexpected, that this can happen. While many of us a fortunate enough to be comfortable with cracking open our PCs and notebooks and doing our own maintenance, not everyone is as confident. That's assuming they realise there's an issue in the first place. Dust build-up is not isolated to my notebook -- pretty much any notebook that sucks in air to cool itself will, at some stage, accumulate enough gunk to impede airflow. If you don't do anything about it, the hardware is going to die a lot sooner than it should.

Newer notebooks, specifically ultrabooks, tend to run cooler thanks to advances in CPU manufacturing and chassis design. That's no excuse not to read up on how to disassemble the thing and do your own maintenance from time to time. The results can sometimes be remarkable.


Comments

    My mum's computer would randomly reset both when under load and when not.

    After about 2 years of this, I was finally visiting their house when this happened. So I had a look inside the case and that was pretty bad: dust/cat and dog hair everywhere.

    Next stop: remove the heat sink from cpu.

    I nearly cried. The heat sink was solid. 2 years worth of dust and animal hair.

    After the removal: Temps are stable at around 30 degress, and around 45 under load.

    Hey Logan,
    I have exactly the same laptop and have had motherboard replaced twice etc. and recently it has been very hot. Did you unscrew the whole heatpipe etc.? What did you actually do?

    Thanks

    Logan, I'm using exactly the same workhorse and been thinking of what laptop to replace it with as it has majorly slowed down over the years. Was very surprised to see that you were writing about the same laptop! I had one of the defective motherboards and like Sam, also got it replaced twice for free (they even came to my work and home, sat down and unscrewed the whole thing to replace the motherboard on the spot... credit to them).

    Interested also to find out how to disassemble the laptop and also what laptop you would suggest as a worthy replacement. thinking XPS 15 recently.

    Great laptop. I'm thinking of cleaning mine out now - is there a guide you used? I've built desktop PCs but never tinkered with laptops beyond installing more RAM or swapping a HDD.

      For airflow, there's one key principle: check the air intake. put your laptop under load, feel where the air is exiting (nice and warm), and any other gap you should open up and have a look at.

      There'll be some kind of filter pretty quickly - whether it's a heatsink or an actual mesh screen, make sure it's clean. You can generally get away without yanking any heatsinks, but if so clean the underside and reapply thermal paste before replacing.
      (You can buy high-end pastes if you want, but there's also unick thermal paste from Dick Smiths. The difference will be a couple of degrees and it costs $3.)

      Most importantly, don't worry about it unless there's an actual problem. Your CPU hitting 60 degrees while playing BF3 or encoding video is completely normal, but hitting 80 is something you want to deal with.

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