Over the last few weeks, my laptop (a Dell Inspiron 5150) had taken to getting very hot and shutting itself down whenever I did anything that taxed the HDD or the CPU too much. So compressing MP3s, editing digital video, or compressing to DivX would all make the system fan go high, then about 5 seconds later – shutdown. Dead. As if all the power had been pulled from the machine. Not good. So, I ran the Dell Diagnostics all afternoon on Sunday last – and it would consistently fall over when the HDD seek test was running.
On Monday morning, full of the joy that the idea of calling a tech-support person in Bangalore gives you, made the call to Dell. After waiting for 35 minutes, I was put through to a support agent. I explained the symptoms, and which diagnostics I’d run, and what happened when they ran. This completely threw him. He couldn’t understand how I’d known to run the diagnostics. “Who told you to do that?” he asked, as if I’d done something illegal. I pointed out that most people with half a brain and access to a diagnostics CD would have done the same. Placated, he continued, and asked me to run the diagnostics I’d just told him I’d already run! I asked him why I needed to run them again – and he said he needed to get the diagnostic code from the software. I tried to explain that he wouldn’t get a code because the laptop shuts itself off before it can return one, but he wasn’t having it. So, I ran the diagnostics. Again.
As I predicted, the system fell over about half-way into the seek test. Now the agent wanted to make sure that the system wasn’t just falling over when I did nothing on the machine. By this time, what with repeated diagnostic runs and the joy of explaining myself to three different agents, it was nearly 15:15. He asked me to open the BIOS, and just leave the system for an hour – to see if it would fall over when I wasn’t doing anything. The agent would call me back at 16:15 to find out what happened.
Well, 16:15 rolled around and, as I knew it would, the system stayed on throughout. 16:15 turned to 16:30, and still I had no agent call me back. Finally, at 17:00, I called them. Unfortunately I was put through to another agent who required the diagnostics to be run before he’d be confident of sending an engineer out. By the time those diagnostics had finished, it was after 17:30 – and all the people who book engineers had gone home. My “next-day on-site service” was NOT going to be next-day – I’d have to wait until Wednesday. Grrr! :(
You’d think that’d be the end of the problems, right? “Surely,” you’re thinking, “a well trained, highly competent Dell engineer came early on Wednesday and fixed everything to your satisfaction.” Well okay, maybe you’re not thinking that, but I was hoping for that resolution. How silly of me.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, the most incompetent, bumbling excuse for an engineer I have ever had the misfortune to work with arrived at the Barn. He started to disassemble my machine on his lap before I asked him to do it on the desk on his anti-static mat, then went hunting for the harddrive. That’s right – he was looking for it – like you would if you’d never seen an Inspiron before. After I’d shown him where it was, he removed it and replaced it. Then, after I suggested it might be a good idea (furrfu – where do they find these people?!) he ran the Dell diagnostics. Which promptly caused the machine to fall over in exactly the same way. Having reached the limits of his ability, he phoned Dell tech-support (on our phone I might add!) to ask them what to do. After an hour or so of him talking to an engineer on the other end of the phone it was decided that he would come back the next day with a motherboard, and another harddrive, and replace the whole lot.
He came on Thursday, earlier this time, and when left alone to fit the parts turned out to be a reasonably competent engineer. Maybe he read a book overnight, who knows. Anyway, the upshot is that he put it all back together with only one screw missing (I kid you not, there’s nothing holding my DVD-RW in).
Of course, that didn’t actually fix the problem. I’d fixed it myself that morning with nothing more than a compressed air duster. You know why? The Dell Inspiron line has a serious design flaw that causes dust to settle in the heatsink instead of being filtered out. Eventually that dust causes the system to overheat, and a thermal shutoff ensues – killing the system. I found this out on the user forums on the Dell site. As far as I’m aware Dell have yet to acknowledge this as a problem, and continue to send out engineers with all manner of unrelated spare parts!
Still, I got almost an entirely new system out of the deal, so it’s not all bad.
If you have an Inspiron 5150, I highly recommend you monitor the CPU and HDD temperatures regularly, and blast the heat sink with compressed air whenever the idle CPU temp. starts to rise. My system is idling at about 39C now – instead of nearer 60! A tool to monitor and control the thermal kit in recent Dell portables can be found here.