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First Week Dell Problems

Monday, September 15th, 2008

The first week of school is always crazy. Teachers show up after being MIA the entire summer and suddenly find all sorts of problems that they need fixed that second. One and half weeks ago was the first day of school for Harley and was no exception.

There was the usual "help, my printer doesn't work" and "my password doesn't work!!!", but I got quite a few messages about computers not turning on. Usually this is just them being unplugged or powerstrip switches being off, but sure enough some weren't working. Lights would turn on when I hit the power button, but no drives spun or fans blew. This was actually a well known problem with certain Dell models that relates back to bad capacitors used on the mainboards. This was an easy diagnosis and fix; you just needed a new mainboard. The annoying part was that I had 7 of these systems (Optiplex SX280) all fail at the same time with the same problem and all about 1 month after the warranty ran out.

Bulging capacitor

You can see the top of the left capacitor is bulging compared to the two on its right. Sometimes this is enough to cause the board to fail. Sometimes they'll run for a while with a bulging cap, but eventually they'll explode:

Leaking Capacitor

This one went one step past bulging and started leaking.

I called Dell to see if I could complain my way into some free mainboard replacements. After all, this is a manufacturing defect on their part and I personally feel they should have fixed the problem at their cost. My complaining didn't go as well as I had hoped. First I spoke with a lovely Indian in their out-of-warranty service department. She wasn't all that sympathetic and really didn't understand what I wanted. She said those boards are $280 each! So I pressed on and asked about getting a limited warranty extension. Again she didn't get it and quoted me $195 (each) for a 1 year warranty extension. Finally I just told her flat out, "I want these boards for free, it's your companies fault they failed." She told me I'd have to speak to general support for that. She transferred me there and I went through the same thing finally have to just spell it out for the guy. He put me on hold and talked to his supervisor who said no. I asked to talk to this supervisor who told me that Dell "took a stand" on this problem and decided to not cover any more claims after January 2008. I informed him that over years Harley has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with Dell and I thought they should cover $1800 in parts; he disagreed.

In the end I had to buy the boards from Partstock who gave me a more reasonable price. After I replaced all the boards I ended up stripping one of the dead boards of all its capacitors and used those to replace the single bulging or leaking cap on the rest of the boards. Assuming that worked, I now have 6 spare mainboards for when more of them fail (which they will eventually).

I also had another problem with one of the same models: it would halt on boot complaining about not being able to detect a heat sink. I had no idea these things were smart enough to know if the heatsink was present or not. After opening it up and taking out all the parts (these are very small machines with a lot of parts crammed in) I saw this:

Normal heatsink anchor

This is the one side that was fine. Apparently that anchor is not just structural, but allows for a continuity check across the heatsink.

Broken heatsink anchor

This was the other end. Either the machine got smacked around or just had some bad soldering, the anchor ripped right out of the board. I soldered it back down which ended up being surprisingly difficult. You can't remove the z-clip in between the two anchors, it had to be soldered down with the tension of the clip on it.

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