14 Oct 2005

Suck 2

The computer I use every day, the workhorse, is a Toshiba A30 laptop. It's got everything I need - a decent processor, a good whack of memory, and most importantly, a very good keyboard. Yep, that's right. Even though I consider myself a very technical user, I didn't pick this computer because of it's tech specs. Way I figure it, any modern PC is good enough for most of what you want to do. And if you're writing software (At least until we get to Avalon, but that's a whole other story), fast processor, big RAM, you're done. Any old PC will do*. But what will slow you down is a bad keyboard. I touch type, and I prefer laptop keyboards.

So I've been pretty happy with the Toshiba**. The processor is a 2.6 Pentium 4, so it's pretty fast, but it gets hot. And when it gets hot, the fan kicks in. Normally this isn't a problem - it only kicks in when real work is going on - building something in Visual Studio, for example.

But over the past few weeks, I noticed the fan kicking in more often. And when it did, it was loud - loud enough for people to hear it across the room. Then a few times this week it just shut down. Not a blue screen, just... stopped. Whenever it did this, I'd take it off the desk and notice the back of the laptop was scorching. The P4 ran so hot that the BIOS shut it down for its own good. Not the best when you've got unsaved changes.

My colleague Dan and I got stuck in. Armed with Dan's 30 piece pro kit, we started removing every screw we could find. Our theory was that the heatsink on top of the processor was covered in dust. If we could get to that and clean the dust off, we'd be right. But the thing about laptops is, you don't really want to start pulling screws out***. But we did. A lot of screws. And when we had a whole bunch of screws sorted into tidy piles, we had to admit that it wasn't going to be that easy to get to the heatsink. We reassembled the laptop.

We've got a vacuum cleaner at work. No, it's not a Dyson. It's the bizarrely named Nilfisk Astral Comet. It's big, and seems to have pretty good suction. And my laptop has a couple of fans, right on the underside of the case. You can see where I'm going with this.

We turned on the vacuum and put the hose right over the fans. A high pitched squeal erupted as the fans started spinning faster than they ever had before. After a couple of seconds we turned off the vacuum to survey the damage. Just behind the fan grille was a huge wad of dust, fluff, and assorted filth. A few more attacks of the vacuum and both fans were completely clean. Just for good measure, I ran the vacuum around the network ports and anything else that looked a bit dusty.

So now it was time for the acid test. Had we fixed the problem or had we just sucked the brains out of the laptop. We pressed the On button.


The computer was absolutely quiet. But it was starting. After a minute or two, while Windows was starting Skype, Thunderbird and iTunes simultaneously, the fan kicked in. If you put your head really close to the keyboard you could hear it.

Since then, I haven't had any crashes. The desk under my laptop is cool and people on the other side of the room don't complain about the jumbo jet on my desk.

Only one thing worries me - there are now two vacuum-related entries on my blog. If you'd told me a few months ago that I'd have a blog filled with vacuum stories, I would have screamed like a little girl. Well, no, I wouldn't do that, but I would look very confused. It's just not right.

* Sure, any old PC will do, but if you have a choice of all the different PC laptops, do what I did. Choose the one that's blue.

** Actually, my favourite keyboards of all time are the ones Apple had on the Mac SE, but you can't really be using them these days. People stare.

*** Top tip. If you are going to pull something complicated apart, put all the pieces on a big sheet of paper. Draw little borders around related things, such as screws of the same size and label it. I think I read this in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, but that was 15 years ago and I could well be mistaken.

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