Dell and the hot air solderer
A while ago there was a known issue with several Dell and HP laptop models shipped with Nvidia GPU. As in many issues, it can pass unnoticed until it happens to you. Nvidia provided chips that were overheating and failing. There were several symptoms, such as vertical lines in text mode (even when showing the BIOS message), black screens when starting the graphical mode or psychedelic colors while working in a session (hanging the OS). Of course, it failed after the warranty expired and this particular model was not included in any recall.
The first symptoms were triggered when accessing some operation or “feature” using Nvidia’s driver, and it happened either using Linux or the pre-installed OS. Therefore, it was a hardware problem. Anyway, it was possible to boot in single mode, so, the next step was trying X using the nouveau driver in xorg.conf and it worked! (oh yeah, less is more!). All this happened to my wife when she was in Canada back in 2009, so the credits for the trick belong to her.
After Googling a bit, we figure out it was the famous overheating issue that melt some contacts in the GPU (nothing related with the lid button, though. Just the “good” quality of the Nvidia chipset :-).
It was a bit weird that the problem was not triggered using the nouveau driver. But weirder was when, back in Chile some months later and without any rational explanation, she booted the laptop in the pre-installed OS (that is the irrational part). She had forgotten the issue and the laptop failed again. Ok, no problem, it was the issue with the driver, we thought. However, in Linux, X could not start anymore (that is the weird part). After giving kindly our best wishes to Bill, we decided to buy another laptop. No more Nvidia, but we still trusted in Dell.
The return of the King
Before we moved to Canada in 2010, we decided to sell the useful parts of the old laptop (everything but the motherboard). As some months before, my wife disassembled the laptop, cleaned each component, and later, she wanted to give it a try… and the flipping laptop worked again! No vertical lines in text mode, just like the good old times. Obviously, we only tried the nouveau driver. Then, that laptop became my laptop because I did not own one (I used to use the one provided by my employer). So far, so good.
Nothing lasts forever
Some months later, in August, the laptop started to fail again, randomly. In its best times it worked with 256 colors at 1024×768, but commonly the maximum resolution was 800×600. It was like having a tablet, just a bit heavier and not cool at all. However, it was getting worse and was hanging the system continuously.
[ 20.999392] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Detected an NV40 generation card (0x046800a3) [ 21.000840] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Attempting to load BIOS image from PRAMIN [ 21.066680] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: ... BIOS checksum invalid [ 21.066685] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Attempting to load BIOS image from PROM [ 21.066691] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: ... BIOS signature not found [ 21.066694] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Attempting to load BIOS image from PCIROM [ 21.066908] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: ... BIOS checksum invalid [ 21.066910] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Attempting to load BIOS image from ACPI [ 21.066914] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: ... BIOS signature not found [ 21.066917] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: Using BIOS image from PRAMIN [ 21.133482] [drm] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: No known BIOS signature found [ 21.154946] nouveau 0000:01:00.0: PCI INT A disabled
At that time I was not in a position to afford a new computer and the only replacement parts at a reasonable price were in China, but I did not have a credit card and I was unsure about the custom office in Canada.
The hot air solderer to the rescue
In my all search, a friend of mine recommend me some videos where people baked the motherboard during 10 minutes at 200°C (yes, baked the motherboard in a oven). After following some links, and asking here and there, I got to the hot air solderers and some videos in Youtube School™. That sounded more reasonable… if I only could get one for some minutes.
When the term started in September, I went to IT support and they had one. I explained what I wanted to do to the technician, and he brought some old cards to show me how the hot air solderer worked and to gain confidence with the tool. I realized it takes a while to melt the components. So, I thought it was safe enough. Finally, I took off the motherboard and applied hot air to the Nvidia chipset some minutes (10-15 minutes).
And it worked! Always with the nouveau driver. It lasted around 5,5 months, until some days ago when the laptop started to fail again.
Thus, yesterday I repeated the procedure and the laptop is working again. I only have to pay attention to the system temperature to force the CPU clock to run slower, which is pretty fine with GNOME applets.