**Update: My laptop has been repaired. See the info at the end of this post.
Well, I thought it could never happen to me, but isn’t that the way we all feel when misfortune befalls others.
I’ve been the happy owner of a Dell XPS M1330 for two years and one month. Around the time that I bought it, I had seen rumblings about problems with the Nvidia 8400M GS that shipped inside the M1330. People were reporting that their machines were suddenly bluescreening, shutting down, and throwing out weird graphical errors. The video chip, plagued by inadequate cooling, would fry itself and render the computer unusable. Here is one of the threads where the GPU issue was first discovered.
I figured it was an isolated issue, and that these cases were within the normal failure rate. Well, apparently not – shortly after purchasing my M1330, Dell was forced to extend the warranties of computers with certain nVidia chips by a full year. Not so much an isolated issue.
My experience with the problem started about a week ago. While browsing around Google Earth, my laptop suddenly displayed a memory parity error like the one above, and I had to force a restart. When it booted back up, all seemed to be fine for a few hours. However, in the middle of a video I was playing it locked up again with the same error, and this time it refused to boot up again normally. The problem didn’t manifest itself until it actually booted into Windows, and I found that it worked alright in safe mode (although often with thin lines running across the screen).
During my attempts to find the source of the problem it eventually devolved into a rave-like display every time I started it outside of safe mode.
At this point it’s pretty clear that the video chip is the problem. Now it won’t get past the Windows welcome screen. It immediately starts displaying flashing colours and checkerboard patterns across the display. This video is pretty much what I’m getting, but without the aurora borealis-like stuff that happens at the end.
But at least in my case, the chip hasn’t failed completely (yet?). In safe mode I uninstalled the Nvidia drivers and had Windows fall back to the default VGA drivers. Now it will work starting up into Windows normally, although without hardware video acceleration. This seems to be working for the short term, until I can get it shipped back to Dell for repairs.
In retrospect, I had been getting a bunch of “The display driver nvlddmkm stopped responding and has recovered” messages in the days leading up to the final meltdown. I thought it was just driver issues with my version of 64 bit Windows 7, but I guess not.
Just doing some quick searching reveals a widespread problem with the M1330′s video chip. There are some possible “solutions” such as modifying the GPU’s heat sink or even underclocking the GPU, but it doesn’t really get to the issue, which seems to be bad design. The 8400M GS puts out a lot of heat and laptops aren’t that great at cooling hot components.
Unfortunately, the standard fix of replacing the motherboard + GPU doesn’t really fix the issue either, since the replacement parts are the same as the old ones. So really you’re just getting another few years before it might fail again.
In any case, I’ll be calling Dell to get the repairs done and I’ll update this post with the details.
**Update 1: After resuming my laptop from standby, I got pretty vertical lines like a lot of other people have had.
Here is someone who had the exact same symptoms that I did, almost 2 years ago – http://bindoo.blogspot.com/2008/11/dell-xps-m1330-nvidia-gpu-failure.html
**Update 2: I called Dell tech support. The technician I got had me do a few tests so he could confirm it was the video chip that failed. First he had me test the display by pressing D + the power button. I had run this test before, and it ran successfully again, so the laptop screen is fine. He then had me connect an external display via VGA to see if the same graphics problem showed up there. It managed to display the desktop, but there was significant corruption, exactly like the image below.
This was enough to convince him the GPU was at fault, and he said I would get a box within 2 business days to send the computer back to depot in. I also confirmed that my warranty was extended by a year (for GPU related problems only). When he said that the motherboard + GPU would be replaced with parts that shouldn’t fail again, I asked him what changes were made to the design. He said there was a problem with the thermal pad that sits between the GPU and the heatsink (for all M1330′s ever manufactured up to when Dell discovered the problem), causing the graphics chip to overheat.
**Update 3: I got my box, 2 business days later.
Inside the box: A sheet of paper where you can describe the problem, when it happens, etc., and the return postage sticker. Once you put your hardware in, you call Purolator and schedule a pickup.
**Update 4: Fixed! I just got my M1330 back via Purolator, 5 days after I had it picked up. I think that’s pretty quick, considering the 2 day transit time to and from the depot.
The motherboard + the gpu has been replaced. It looks like the original heatsink is still attached, which supports the technician’s comments about the faulty design of the thermal pad. The fan might be running more with the newer motherboard, but I won’t know for sure until I test it out for a while. It wouldn’t surprise me since that would keep everything a couple degrees cooler.
The hard drive was also replaced and the old one was sent back to me, even though there was nothing wrong with it. The reason might be that I had Windows 7 installed on the drive and the system is supposed to come with Vista. Replacing a motherboard isn’t always as simple as just dropping in a new one, often you need to reinstall the OS. So, since they would have had to nuke my Windows 7 install to put Vista back on, I guess it was easier for them to drop in a new drive with Vista on it. Dell returns the old one (you can only keep it for 10 days, then you have to send it back) so you can get any files you need off of it. I’m not complaining, I’ll take a newer drive over an older one any day.
All in all, it was a smooth process from calling tech support to when I got my computer back. I was only without it for 5 days in total. Yes, it’s too bad Dell shipped out computers with major defects that caused them to self destruct over time, but Dell’s support is good. If you have a problem it shouldn’t be difficult to get them to fix it in a reasonable amount of time. Whether the new parts are going to last longer than the replaced ones is anyone’s guess, but I sincerely hope Dell has gotten enough flack over the issue to make the GPU problem go away. Negative publicity just ain’t good for business.
**Update 5: Thanks to a class-action lawsuit, U.S. buyers of certain laptops with Nvidia GPUs may be entitled to financial compensation if they’ve had video problems. No love for Canada yet.