Fighting the fixers: thermal paste edition

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-08-19

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.