Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Death of a Laptop, Dell M1330

I have been a Dell customer since 1996, when I bought a Dell Pentium 166 equipped with a fancy 17 inch CRT for over $2,000. I've since purchased three more Dell desktops and three laptops and made recommendations to countless others.

My current Dell laptop, the XPS M1330, has been a lemon almost since the beginning. Purchased in March of 2008 by April it had already exhibited strange behaviors, which I attributed to Vista. By mid-April, Vista blue-screened and I could not reboot even in safe-mode. Unfortunately, I was traveling in Europe at the time. My laptop became a brick that I had to lug around Italy and Greece. When I returned to the US, I spent two days reformatting the drive and installing applications from scratch. This was the first time I have ever had a computer fail to the point of requiring a complete reformat and yes I am a lifelong Windows user (maybe I've been lucky?).

At the present time I am again in Europe for business and, once again, my Dell XPS M1330 has failed me. This time, no amount of technical knowledge can solve the problem--I've been hit by the defective NVIDIA GPU issue. On Sunday (five days ago), my laptop screen started to freeze up and automatically reboot. This happened seven times in five hours (I'm stubborn and I was working on a deadline). Now my laptop refuses to boot at all--or, more accurately, boots with these beautiful vertical lines (see below). And no, plugging in an external monitor does NOT fix the issue. This is a video card problem, not a monitor problem. I should note that I am extremely reliant on my laptop--it is my primary computer (I'm almost like a Mac person in that way... perhaps I should take the hint and switch to a Mac?). Thus, I have incurred considerable cost in work time trying to remedy this issue not to mention the fact that I am now stuck in Europe without a computer.

An early indication of failure?

The current state of my machine. Unusable.

Fortunately, Dell support has been incredibly responsive, answering my requests for help only hours after the initial email. However, since I am in Europe they want me to upgrade to international warranty coverage in order to receive support here. I most certainly do not want to blow this out of proportion but that offer seems a bit ridiculous. You would think that in the case of a known hardware defect, they would make some compromises in their regular procedures. From a Dell support email:
...since you are in Europe right now, if a service call needs to be processed to repair your system, I do regret to inform you that your current warranty does not support International coverage. You can either return first to U.S and have your system serviced there, or Transfer your system's ownership to Spain so Dell Spain Support will be the one assisting your for this matter, or lastly you can contact our Ext Warranty Department at 800 247-4618 to upgrade your warranty to have an International Support so we can process your request and provide service on any country that are covered by Dell International Warranty support.
Some Background on the Issue
In early July, NVIDIA informed stockholders of the problem:
...the company just informed investors that "significant quantities" of previous-generation graphics chips have been failing at "higher than normal rates," and that it's lowering its Q2 estimates due to pricing pressure. NVIDIA will be taking a $150M to $250M charge against earnings next quarter to cover the cost of repairing and replacing the affected chips, but didn't specifically announce what products were defective, just that they include GPUs and "media and communications processors." Laptop makers have apparently already been given an updated GPU driver which kicks in fans sooner to reduce "thermal stress" on the GPU, and NVIDIA says it's talking to its suppliers about being reimbursed for the faulty parts
Dell's initial strategy was to release a BIOS update, which essentially keeps the laptop's CPU fan on continuously to decrease the temperature. This is a major kludge in my opinion but better than nothing, the major downsides are that #1, it does not really address the problem and #2, the resulting noise and decrease in battery life. From engadget:
...quite a few NVIDIA GPUs have been acting up. Nothing new there. However, Dell's attempting to help its laptop owners out by making a few notable BIOS updates readily available for download. Apparently the issue "is a weak die / packaging material set, which may fail with GPU temperature fluctuations." In order to combat the problem, Dell's BIOS flashes "modify the fan profile to help regulate GPU temperature fluctuations," though the Round Rock powerhouse only promises that the updates will "help reduce the likelihood of GPU issues." Hit the read link and give it a go -- it can't hurt... we hope.
Many are upset with Dell's strategy here as a BIOS update does not fix the problem, it only decreases the likelihood that it will occur. As many have pointed out, this could simply delay the problem until the laptop is out of its warrenty period. From the Inquirer:
To make matters more laughable, the fix that NV is forcing on Dell, HP and everyone else does not fix the problem, it simply makes it less likely to occur during the warranty period. With HP now offering an extended warranty period, and Dell looking likely to do the same, this will only multiply the cost. Add in the fact that Nvidia is sending out defective parts as replacements (there are no good ones), and you have a recipe for a long and expensive tale.
On Monday of this week, perhaps as a result of HP offering a similar deal to customers, Dell released this statement on their direct2dell blog:
NVIDIA GPU Update: Dell to Offer Limited Warranty Enhancement to All Affected Customers Worldwide. Dell will offer a 12-month limited warranty enhancement specific to this issue. For all customers worldwide, we plan to add 12 months of coverage for this issue to the existing limited warranty up to 60 months from the date of purchase for the following systems:
Where Do We Go From Here?
However, what remains to be seen, is exactly where do Dell customers, like myself, go from here? It appears that there are, in fact, no good reliable NVIDIA video cards available and Dell is absolutely drowning in the problem. Also, from the Inquirer:
"We just got our first casualty from the Nvidia mobile graphics [expletive deleted]. Laptop used by one of our senior engineers started acting up this past weekend. Won't boot except in SAFE mode. Called Dell, they tried a few things, gave up, stated it was the graphics module, and said that because they were SO swamped dealing with that issue, they were just going to send a completely new laptop!"

There are two messages here which have echoes in earlier emails received over the past few weeks. First is that Dell is replacing full laptops over this, contrary to what they claim (read the comments here and here for more). The second is that the small 'under control' problem is far from that. If they had a handle on it, they would not be so far behind and drowning in backorders. Anyone want to bet Dell isn't going to get stuck with the bill here?
If Dell chooses to send me a new laptop, I hope it's a laptop with an ATI mobile graphics card or even Intel's own integrated graphics chip. Many are asking whether Dell is still shipping laptop's with defective parts and whether replacement parts are also defective (there is speculation that NVIDIA still has not corrected the problem).

Some related posts:
Update 08/21/2008 6:07PM GMT +1: I just had an online chat with a Dell customer agent by the name of XPS_Michael_135201. Here's the transcript:

5:40:55 PM Agent: May I ask if you are in the united states currenty?
5:41:10 PM Me: i am not currently in the united states which is the essence of my problem
5:41:16 PM Me: i am traveling for business
5:41:37 PM Me: this makes my laptop even more significant to me
5:42:01 PM Agent: You need a new motherboard/integrated video card, sir
5:42:12 PM Me: that is true
5:42:26 PM Agent: This is a known Nvidia problem.
5:42:31 PM Me: yep, i know that
5:42:39 PM Me: but this is a dell system
5:42:45 PM Me: nvidia doesn't sell computers
5:42:57 PM Agent: have you contacted international support?
5:43:16 PM Me: i was informed by a previous support agent that i would need to "upgrade" my warrenty in order to receive international support
5:43:53 PM Agent: I would get you one immediately for next day service if you were in the United Sates
5:44:00 PM Me: Great. i am in Europe.
5:44:07 PM Me: let's talk about what you can do for me here
5:44:10 PM
Agent: one, moment please
5:47:27 PM Agent: XPS_Michael_135201 pushes page,
5:48:03 PM Agent: you could place a local phone call to where you are at to get that replaced.
5:48:18 PM Agent: Is there anything else I can help you with today?
5:51:41 PM Me: ok, assuming i got the next day onsite service, would the replacement motherboard/gpu contain a new revision of the Nvidia hardware
5:53:13 PM Agent: The Nvidia problem, was a weak series of chips in the actual construction ( a weak die-cast) the replacement would not be from that line
5:53:25 PM Me: could i get an ATI chipset instead?
5:53:34 PM Me: or could i opt simply for the intel integrated video?
5:55:36 PM Agent: We can offer to replace it with a good part that is the same as what you purchaced.
5:57:41 PM Me: ok
5:58:10 PM Me: thank you for your help.

Update 08/22/2008 7:38PM GMT +1: Some people have asked for more pictures and a better description of how I knew my laptop was failing. It took five days from the first day of experiencing problems to complete failure (e.g., a completely dead laptop). My first indication that something was wrong occurred on Sunday, August 17th (six days ago now). I was using Excel and Word and then suddenly my screen would change color, look pixelated and Vista would freeze. This transformation usually lasted about 5-10 seconds before Vista would either blue screen or simply force-reboot my laptop. I had not heard of the NVIDIA GPU issues so I (ignorantly) thought this was yet another Vista bug. I do not have any photographs of my laptop screen in that state in Vista, unfortunately, but here is a picture I took on Monday when trying to run a diagnostic tool that froze mid-session:
This is what the diagnostic screen should look like.

You know things are bad when even the diagnostic tool crashes (note the vertical lines)

After Monday, things only got worse and by Thursday I could not boot my laptop at all. Or, more specifically, the laptop would boot and look like this:

Update 08/25/2008 01:00PM GMT +1: Dell sent a service technician to fix my laptop, who, I must say was both incredibly efficient and friendly. Unfortunately because my Spanish is far from as good as my English, I was unable to gain much more information from the technician about how rampant and widespread this problem is. The "fix" for this issue, incidentally, is a whole new motherboard, which requires one to take nearly everything apart in the laptop and then put it back together. This particular technician had clearly dealt with many M1330 before as he was able to take apart the laptop, put in a new motherboard, and reconstruct the laptop in under 15-20 minutes.

Note that I am not certain whether this "new" motherboard is really new (or just a refurbished one). Nor am I aware of whether this "new" motherboard contains a fixed NVIDIA GPU. The BIOS software read A08 upon first boot. I immediately upgraded it to A12; however, the A08 number gives some indication as to the age of the laptop (e.g., when was the A09 BIOS firmware released?). Here are some pictures.

The faulty GPU (the chip just above the label WWAN).

The screen works!


Kristy said...

So it looks like it's working out so far, from the sound of that online chat transcript. Hopefully they will be able to fix the problem for you.
Good luck (and excellent blog, BTW)!
--Kristy (former UbiGreen participant #9)

Alex Lerza said...

Hey man, this is amazing! My xps 1330 is probably one day from death. but, i am glad to have found the a link from the direct2dell forum. anyways, maybe you can spell this out clearly for me, but in the end did Dell give you a new laptop or your original laptop but replaced with a non-faulty GPU?

Anonymous said...

This is a HUGE problem. I have just had the motherboard replaced for the second time. The first lasted 3 months, the second lasted 5 months. Previously I was told that if replacing the MB didn't work, they would provide a new computer. When it failed again, they refused to provide a new computer, instead just replacing the MB yet again. The real issue is, what happens if (when) it fails for the third time? The one year warranty is almost up. Despite recent suggestions that Dell is extending its warranty because of this problem, they have refused to confirm that. Also, they are finally offering me a new unit, but what's the point when this is clearly a design and/or manufacture problem? So, I replace this defective unit for that defective unit? That doesn't solve anything. Dell has yet to take a unified position on this issue, and that is desperately needed. Each tech has a different line on the whole thing. Like many users, I thought buying a top of the line laptop was prudent; what I got instead was a giant (and expensive) headache. More people need to pepper Dell about this issue until it provides a comprehensive solution.

Anonymous said...

I have exactly the same problem! Like millions of others, judging from the thread on NotebookReview and other sites. Dell MUST offer replacement with a non-NVidea GPU to all of us who got burnt with this.

Anonymous said...

This happened to me also. I just received the laptop today from DHL and I've notice the fan is running all the time now. I hope the GPU failure doesn't happen again because I've got only 3 months left on the xps warranty.

karo said...

Your explanation is right on and thanks for sharing your experience! I am overseas, Sri Lanka, and have been on line with several technicians that never give the type of information you just provided. I will be packing mine off to the US and like the rest of Dell XPS laptop users fearing the solution is just a hyped-up fan. karen

GCO Event Page said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is the most cogent explanation of what is happening with my M1330. Thank you so much for starting such an intelligent discussion! I get the blue screen of death regularly. I was taking an online web cam class with streaming video yesterday and my computer crashed every 20 or 30 minutes. I ended up finishing the class on another computer. Dell has recently replaced my motherboard with graphics card and the problem is occuring again. It looks like I had better give Dell another call and look into getting a different graphics card. Frankly, at this point I don't mind paying for it to get a reliable computer. Peggy

Christophe Beyls said...

I live in Europe and I'm experiencing random video corruption wich causes my M1330 to crash. The last time, this even occurred 5 minutes after a cold boot so it's not caused only by overheating anymore. I'm mainly using Linux and sometimes Windows XP and the problem occurred in both environments. When I power down the machine after one of these graphic crashes, on the first next reboot the screen appears like in your screenshots. i have to disconnect the laptop and remove the battery for one minute to have it fixed.

Because th machine still mostly works and is still under warranty (it was purchased in december 2007), is it enough to take pictures of the crashes and send them to Dell support or will they only replace motherboards of completely dead machines?

Also, I experience another annoying problem: sometimes my webcam starts/stops repeatedly (its light is flashing all the time) until I reboot the machine.

Edit: the machine crashed when I was writing this posts and I just took a few pictures. The end is near...

jonfroehlich said...

Hi Christopher,

Once your system starts crashing as a result of the NVDIA hardware issue, overheating no longer really matters. The sauder or copper pins or whatever underlying mechanisms connect the parts together in the NVIDIA chip have been physically changed/deformed by the heat. There is no going back.

I would send Dell an email or call them. You can post pictures online (which is what I did) so that they can, indeed, see that you are experiencing the faulty GPU.

Not sure about webcam.

Christophe Beyls said...

I sent the pictures to Dell along with a detailed description of my problem and they sent a guy to replace my laptop's mainboard. He also replaced my LED display since it had some kind of annoying small scratches at the back (I received my laptop in this state). The guy was also extremely efficient and friendly and in 20 minutes, I got a brand new laptop. Now all is working perfectly. The webcam issue seems to be gone too (maybe it was a problem with the USB controller, it was replaced with the new mainboard)

TJ said...

I just shut the door for my Dell technician who has replaced the motherboard, heat sink and fan on my XPS 1330 with bios A12 update already installed on the mother board. We installed the techbios update disc and it said the motherboard already had the A12 installed. I am happy to state that thefan is not spinning in jet engine mode any longer!! It is as quiet as I remembered. I will some test with the POTC Online game and see if I have any issues like I used too. Good luck everyone!

TJ in Pittsburgh!

DavidH said...

Thanks for posting this information - my m1330 is in the early stages of this and a new motherboard is hopefully being installed within a couple of days. Somewhat cynically, they are still selling this laptop in the uk with the same parts but with an additional years warranty - fortunately there is now a wealth of sites such as this to offer effective 'buyer beware' guidance. I must say I do like the m1330 though and all my initial irritations with it were resolved as I learned how to de-vista Vista and get it running more like xp.

Anonymous said...

i bought a m1330 just 4 months ago and was sold the same dud gpu as everyone else. what does this mean? the problem is far from resolved, they just give you another nvidia gpu and hope it lasts longer. bascially we m1330 users are bound to become serial motherboard replacers. i am considering legal action given that this defect is obviously known. how can dell sell me a known dud product?

Michael M said...

I, too, have had the video problems with the M1330 and had my motherboard replaced at least 2 times (maybe 3, I don't remember). However, in the last 6 months, it's the hard drive that's f****d up. First, about 6 months ago, it failed and I had to low-level format it and reload all programs and data. Then 2 weeks ago it failed utterly and had to be replaced which, again, forced me to reload all my programs and data a process I was only now completing when the drive failed yet AGAIN!!!!! Clearly this thing is a complete lemon and I'm now prepared to go toe-to-toe with Dell until they replace it with a model that has a more reliable history. I'm really, really tired of spending so much time talking with the (very nice)Dell support people and reloading software and data.

Steve said...

Thanks for posting your pictures of the repair process. I considered replacing the motherboard myself until I saw that I would have to reduce the laptop down to its elemental parts in order to do so.

used computers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brad Fallon said...

Why does my new dell laptop crash regularly? It says there is a driver issue, what do I do?

Anonymous said...

This was the issue that pushed me over the edge. I had my motherboard replaced 3 times because of this issue, because apparently if you do anything that stresses the GPU (image editing, games, etc) it appears more frequently. Dell's answer was to keep putting a board with the same bogus part into the laptop, which they did until I was out of warranty. I went Mac and never looked back. In addition to realizing what junk computers my previous laptops were, I also realized after the fact that some Macbook (not mine) were affected by the Nvidia problem. However Apple replaced all the bad chips with chips that were NOT BAD, showing they have a brain and actually care about their reputation.