take your computers apart once in a while and blow the dust out of ’em

We bought a cheapo laptop a couple years ago that has been…well…pretty good to us, I guess. We mostly use it around the house — it’s particularly handy in our test kitchen, given how many recipes we find online, and having our conversion tables hosted there, etc. Also, that’s the computer we take with us when traveling.

So anyway, over the last year or so, it’s gotten noticeably slower, and I had been hard-pressed to figure out why. We don’t make it work very hard:

  • There’s rarely more than one person logged into it at a time.
  • Although we could, there are no web or database servers running on it.
  • I do a little light-weight photo editing via the GIMP from time to time
  • We mostly use to connect to the web via WLAN, for the purpose of
    • general surfing
    • checking our mail
    • uploading pictures to flickr
    • plain text editing and uploading of web page files (like when I’m tinkering with the blog)

Nothing too taxing. This is a laptop running Kubuntu, a Linux distribution, which by reputation is great for older (cheaper!) hardware. So I was flummoxed by symptoms of dreadful slow-downs in performance after about 20-30 minutes of having the machine on. I could tell when it was going to happen because it would get pretty hot near the exhaust ports, and I could just hear the fan make a certain high-pitched noise at the top of my hearing range — sort of like how I can tell when the TV is on but muted without looking at it. When it starts making that sound, everything grinds to a halt.

I thought it was related to Firefox (which had/has a reputation for being a memory hog) and noticed that the slow-downs seem to come quicker when using Gmail — especially after leaving that page open for a long time. Using our Gmail accounts via IMAP/Thunderbird instead of through http://mail.google.com seemed like it helped, but didn’t completely relieve the symptoms. I’d even beefed up the RAM awhile ago and more recently taken the back off of the laptop to look for obvious problems or dust I could clean out…no dice.

So, I was just about to junk it and purchase a newer cheapo laptop from the little second-hand computer store in the Pustet Passage, next to the Ex-Faßl Döner shop. I armed myself with about 500 Euros (planning to spend between 350 and 450) I walked into the tiny shop early Saturday morning and described the problems I was having to Stash Komputerski (he seemed Eastern European). His first guess:

“Sie sind Raucher, oder?” Taken a bit aback, I told him no, we don’t smoke. Then he put his nose right up against the lappy’s exhaust port and took a big sniff.

“Hmm, tatsächlich.” (As if my word wasn’t good enough.)

“Prozessor? Celeron, 1.5GHz.

“Schauen wir mal…” So we fired it up and he whipped out a little digital keychain thermometer — 35°C right off the bat.

“30 Minuten. Das wird 30 Euro kosten. Gehen Sie einen Kaffee trinken.” I shrugged and headed home (we live around the corner; Sarah’s coffee’s the best.). When I came back exactly thirty minutes later, he looked up as I walked in and shouted “Fertig!”. He popped up from around his tiny workbench and whipped out his iPhone. I wasn’t really impressed; I’ve seen those before, and why was he encroaching on my personal space? I was sure I smelled bad, and he looked like he did too.

Then I clued in. He was showing me pictures he took of the work he did during those thirty minutes (I’ll post them here if he emails them to me — he seemed reluctant). He applied a heat paste and pulled a metric buttload of dust and hair out of the nooks and crannies of the heat sink, none of which was visible to me upon my cursory inspection. I asked why there was no heat paste on the processor to begin with and he told me Siemens Fujitsu expected me to throw that computer away after a few years, so they didn’t bother with that stuff. He also told me that the reason he asked whether we smoke was that tar gums up the heat sinks, reducing their effectiveness. We fired up the computer again and the thermometer showed 28° — a marked improvement.

I took it home, excited at the prospects of using that lappy for longer than a few minutes at a time, but was disappointed to find that Firefox was still pretty sluggish — with or without Gmail open. Bummer. Last ditch effort: complete, fresh, re-install. You should only have to do with that Windows, right? Apparently not, because it seems to working like a champ now. A few hurdles with the re-install:

  • The proprietary drivers for the Broadcom 43xx series of WLAN chips still have to be downloaded separately (albeit more easily than before), so you’ll need a cable connection to get that working if your machine has that brand of WLAN chip.
  • The X server couldn’t start for some weirdo reason. I remember how much trouble I had with that, getting it to work originally…there were many hours of tweaking involved (I suspect it has something to do with the lappy’s 1200×800 resolution). Fortunately I’d made a backup of my xorg.conf file as the absolute last thing before staring the reinstall and could fall back to that.

The lessons here:

  1. Take it in before giving up hope. There may be something Stash can see that you can’t.
  2. You might have to reinstall, even if that’s something only Windows users are supposed to have to do.
  3. If you do have to reinstall, think about the hours you invested in tweaks (your network settings, your video settings, etc.) and back those files up for safekeeping!