Fighting the fixers: thermal paste edition
By Abhijit Menon-Sen <email@example.com>
While cleaning accumulated dust out of Hassath's Athlon64 heatsink the
other day (to silence an overheating alarm), I accidentally lifted the
heatsink off the CPU and broke the layer of thermal paste. After that,
of course, the machine refused to boot at all, emitting a loud
siren-like wail at startup.
I didn't have any thermal paste handy, so it was off to Nehru Place yet
again. I decided to look for someone who would remove the heatsink and
apply the paste for me, because I'd never worked with a spring-clipped
heatsink before (I thought it was just a matter of applying more force
to remove it than I had, but I wasn't sure).
The "customer-facing" parts of Nehru Place are often quite clueless. The
people who know how to fix things live in cramped little cubicles inside
the seediest buildings and basements. The showrooms send computers (not
customers!) down to them, and they fix them and send them back upstairs
to feel the sunlight once again. I could probably have left the computer
with any shop, told them it
doesn't work, and asked them
to get it fixed. But I was in a hurry and I knew exactly what I wanted,
which always makes things more difficult.
Unfortunately, I don't know any competent fixers; but I do know someone
who's good at finding hardware, and I know his shop (also in a basement)
does assemble and fix machines. I started there, but my clueful friend
wasn't around. I introduced myself to his minions (there were two of
them, let's call them Sixteen and Twenty-five) and explained that my
CPU was overheating, and needed some thermal paste reapplied.
Pick up your machine in an hour and a half, they said, but
(being wily, suspicious, and short of time) I told them I'd hang around
right there while they fixed the system they were already working on.
Thus pressured, Twenty-five moved his machine over and told Sixteen to
plug in and test mine. I repeated that I knew what the problem was and
told them how to fix it, but they didn't want to accept my diagnosis at
face value. (I can't blame them, to some extent. They didn't know me,
and the boss man wasn't around to tell them I knew what I was doing.)
Unfortunately, having seen that the machine wouldn't boot and heard the
overheating siren, Sixteen still wouldn't accept my diagnosis,
and began to clean the DIMM contacts with an eraser. When he was finally
convinced that the machine wouldn't boot even with clean RAM, he pulled
the motherboard out of the chassis and began to clean it with isopropyl
alcohol and a toothbrush. I had lost my patience by then, so I told him
to take the heatsink off first… but it turned out he didn't know how to
do it either, and asked me to help! With some help from Twenty-five and
myself, he got the heatsink removed, but the CPU popped out of its
socket with it, locking lever notwithstanding.
Look, it's pasted on just fine, Sixteen announced
triumphantly. I ignored him, prised the CPU off the heatsink, and began
to cleaning the old thermal paste off while he continued to brush the
motherboard's teeth. Once the alcohol had evaporated, I reseated the
(now-shiny) CPU and asked him to put on the thermal paste, then clipped
the heatsink back on. In the meantime, however, Twenty-five had vanished
with the system he was working on, and the only working monitor in the
room, so we had to take the motherboard to a neighbouring shop to test
it. We plugged it in and shorted the power pins, and it booted up fine
(at least after we had replaced the CMOS battery, which had popped out
during the brushing), as I had expected it would.
Back in shop #1, Sixteen—who was still trying very hard not to accept my
diagnosis—blamed my power supply for the problem. We put the motherboard
back into the cabinet, and carried it back across the corridor to test
it once again. It worked perfectly, much to his disappointment. But I
had a working machine once again, so I left him muttering darkly about
faulty power supplies.
Shopping in Nehru Place is also a similarly frustrating experience. It's
quite likely that you can find whatever hardware you want, but the more
specific your desires—in terms of model numbers and such—the harder it
is to meet them. This is a problem for people like me, who need to be
selective about hardware because of concerns about compatibility with
Linux. Buying a new video card, for example, is a balancing act between
picking one based on Xorg specs and picking whatever is easily available
without knowing what Xorg will make of it.
For optimal results, in either case, a lot of legwork is required.