2012/11/20

Replacing thermal paste in a Dell XPS L501X

Burn Baby Burn!

I must confess Dell has been my brand of choice for quite a long time, but lately, my latest purchase, a Dell XPS L501X couple years old is giving lots of trouble. First the hard drive died, mostly because I'm not the most gentle guy when handling my stuff, but also because Dell hasn't used ANY shocking protection for this model when it comes to hard drive. After fixing this, I realized the fan was going mad all the time. 

A quick search in google will give a thousand pages of people complaining about fan noise in this model. Updated BIOS, used SpeedFan, nothing seemed to work. So I though, hey, maybe the fan is working mad because the laptop, is like...real hot?


Ok, you can start the stress test now, ready here

Installed CPUID Hardware monitor, a neat program, and discovered something scary. At idle, core temps were intimidating, 50-60 Cº, doing....nothing.

Idle test

So I said, whoah, let's try to do something hardcore, like...playing a Youtube video in Firefox, here are the results:

Playing Youtube video test

What the heck? 80-90 Cº after a minute playing a Youtube video in Firefox? No way, guess its time to clean off the dust and replace thermal paste.

State-of-the-art dust cleaner, living on the edge heh

The process

I'm used to disassemble and assemble laptops, mostly not mine, but from friends and relatives (you know the feeling, you're the IT tech freak, you know everything right?), so the process of disassembling a laptop is pretty straight forward for me, no big deal. Once you've done a few times, you realize that laptops are built to be disassembled and assembled quite easily, but if you're not feeling comfy, I'd recommend downloading the User's manual for whatever your laptop it is and follow its instructions. 

In my case, I only checked this wonderful video occasionally to know how to do the tricky parts for the XPS L501, worth a check, great explanation from the recorder. Check the following pics to see how the diassemble process took place, if you're curious :P.

After removing back plate and laptop screen, you face the plastic cover:

Plastic covering motherboard

Hard drive, Wireless and RAM out

Detached screen
The root of all the problems, the unfamous Dell XPS L501 fan...you can tell that is not top-notch quality by the way it looks. Anyway, I cleaned it as best as I could, removing a lot of dust in the process.

Evil little one
After removing the plastic covering case, the motherboard shows up. As you can see, heat sink is on the left. Intel i7 is right in the center and Nvidia GPU is on the left.


After removing the heat sink, you can see that the fabric thermal paste from Dell is long gone...dried out and completely uneven distributed along the chip surface.

i7 crying out loud for thermal paste replacement

Same goes for the GPU...
 A close look to the heat sink contact surfaces also shows up a terrible mess with the thermal paste

Contact point with i7
Contact point with GPU, at least heat pads seem to be alright...
Now the boring part: cleaning both the heat sink and the chip surfaces from any remnants of the old thermal paste. My recommendation would be to buy a proper solution for this, like the Arctic Silver Arcticlean Thermal material Remover & Surface Purifier or something similar. If you don't have anything similar, use pharmaceutical alcohol and some lint free cloth to clean up the mess. Do not use any other thing, you will definitely cause more problems than you already have. Check the Artic guide about how to do this if you ever done it before.

After careful (and boring) cleaning, the best I could come up with can be seen here

Intel i7 almost clean
Nvidia GPU quite clean too
Not perfect, but should do the trick. Now the funny part, I bought Artic 5 silver thermal paste, already used that one in my gaming rig and it really works like a charm.

The tools
Use the plastic card to extend the paste along the surface til it is flat enough. There is no need really to put big chunks of paste, you really don't want the Artic 5 to be spreading out of the surface. Reason for that is that the components are highly conductive and may transfer some of the heat to other components of the chipset (as far as I know), something you don't want to happen. Once applied, you should have something similar to this:

Heat sink contact surface with i7
And the GPU part
I didn't do anything with the heat pads, the seemed ok to me, but you can buy some and replace them if you think is needed.

Everything back in order
The results

Ok, time to try it. You should keep in mind that, depending on how you laptop/computer dissipates the heat, the break-in time for the thermal paste varies, so these results should not be taken literally, but they can tell you how good or bad the process went.

In this case, I first started Windows and did the same as before, idle and Firefox playing Youtube video.

Windows 7 idle test after replacement
Windows 7 playing Youtube video
While in idle temperatures seem to be pretty much the same, the "load" test has dropped dramatically, almost 20ºC!!

Let's see what we get in Linux x86...

Linux idle
Linux playing Youtube video

Hmmm, I kept playing the video for quite a long time and temperature never went higher than 57-58 Cº. I've been using the computer for 12 since the replacement and never get past 65 Cº while browsing, playing music, etc. Still gotta try with some hardcore test, like gaming or some testing benchmark, but looks good so far.

So yeah, replace your thermal paste as soon as possible folks. If you, like me, use your laptop a LOT, like, 3-6 hours every day, fabric thermal paste is not going to last long...specially the one from Dell, as it seems. As I said before, I'm quite happy with Dell, specially when it comes to workstations and servers, but I keep seeing more and more laptops from this brand having all kinds of troubles. That said, my next laptop is not going to be a Dell :)


18 comments:

  1. CPUID HW Monitor version 1.21.0 shows on my Dell XPS15 L501X only data for the battery. Nothing else/more. Did you use CPUID HW Monitor Pro ?

    I shall also clean and repaste my L501X.



    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, not sure why really, mine is also 1.21.0, free version, "no pro". Maybe you have to run it as Admin to work properly?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I use HWiNFO64 http://www.hwinfo.com/index.html now.
    This works perfectely as normal user.

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Always good to know other alternatives, thanks AW!

      Delete
  4. Running CPUID HW Monitor as root - sorry admin - shows more infos.
    I did it.
    I replaced the thermal paste on my L501X.
    For disassembly I followed the instructions in the service manual ftp://ftp.dell.com/Manuals/all-products/esuprt_laptop/esuprt_xps_laptop/xps-15_service%20manual_en-us.pdf
    Reassembly no problem. I feared that disassembling will weaken the plastic parts and add more noise etc. to the housing, but that is not the case.
    Did you replace the Coin-Cell Battery at this occasion ?
    I got only about 10C° reduction, but the fan is running at much lower speed now.
    I have a i5-M560 processor only.
    Thanks for your help. Very useful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello,

      Nope, I did not replace the battery, since I never got a warning about it being empty. BIOS will tell you when you have to replace it, and now that you know how to disassemble your laptop, piece of cake :) Glad to hear you got it working and with such a temp and noise reduction.

      Delete
  5. Thank you so much.
    Even playing silly flash games would cause my l501x to slowdown badly as it was hitting the thermal limit (100c) and would throttle cpu cycles. I followed your guide and it wasnt going over 65c. I used arctic mx-2 as the thermal compound. There was only a smallish amount of dust. a lot less than a 3 year old system often has. It annoys me that companies save tiny amounts of money cutting corners like these. Fair enough on budget machines, but the XPS is supposed to be premium.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey James,

      Good to know you got it fixed and yeah, I know how you feel. It is a shame top notch laptops aren't built properly. Saving a few bucks using a cheap thermal paste leads to replacing laptops more often, something I'm sure DELL (and virtually any other brand) is quite happy with...

      Regards

      Delete
  6. How difficult would you say this process is for someone with moderate tech skills? I've replaced RAM in my laptop and switched out a keyboard on another laptop before, but nothing like any of this. How long did it take you?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi!

    Should be ok if you already replaced RAM and keyboards...only different here is that you also have to detach the screen. But it all comes down to diassembling and assembling, remember the parts and the order you followed...nothing really complex. It took me about an hour to do the whole process, maybe an hour and a half, can't really recall exactly...but its not a hard thingy, just have to be a bit careful about the parts and the execution order

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have taken the l501x apart several times for cleaning and other upgrades. You dont have to remove the screen, hdd, wifi card, nor ram, you just have to remove the two outer screws holding the screen.
    But my problem is, I have repasted with AS5 and still get really high temps gaming, same as with stock paste, I get throttling at 96c on the gt435m, but gameplay doesnt seem to suffer much and I play (shamefully admitted) for hours at a time. Ive had it for about 3 years, well since it had been released. I must say it has held up quite well considering all the titles I have completed. Tomorrow I will try to repaste once again with a thinner cleaner coat. Nice job on the application pics. Do you screw down the heatsinks completely? Or open them back up a quarter turn?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello Charles,

    Well 96 Celsius should be worrying enough...high load temperatures should be 85-90 (according to my own experience, I also used this laptop for gaming...not anymore though). If I were you, I'd check the paste again, if pasting was fine, paste should be in the same place. I'm afraid you're using too much paste or something, you shouldn't need to repaste that often.

    Regarding the screws...I can't really recall that, but normally I'll always screw down to the limit, so I'd say that yes, I screw down the heat sink completely...I can think of any reason not to do so...the better contact the two surfaces have...the better heat dissipation you get.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Charles and Alejandro, can you please tell me how to remove/replace with just opening the two back screws? All the video tutorials show removing screen, HDD etc. thank you very much in advance :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Avi,

      You'll have to wait til I get back home I'm afraid. I have my old L501X there (I had to replace it 2 months ago) and can't access it from here, I'll be back in a week and I can make a small video if you can wait....

      Bests!
      Alejandro

      Delete
    2. yes! I can wait and that'd be amazing. Thank you very much :)

      Delete
  12. Hello.
    If anyone will replacing the thermal paste, be careful with the heatsink for NVidia IC. I found that the heatsink on my L501X couldn't touch the chip, there is a gap about 0.2mm between them. I solved it by putting a piece of copper between the radiator and the IC. I guess that's why they put so much thermal paste on the factory.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Knowing how to reset the BIOS Password in Dell PCs is presently fundamental for framework managers and even easygoing clients. Maintain a strategic distance from issues by resetting your BIOS passwords in the right way. Having a secret key introduced in the BIOS of your Dell PC is an effective method for giving security, and for those that share one PC, it is even a need. https://www.customercaretoll.com/listings/dell-inc-customer-support-toll-free-phone-number

    ReplyDelete