Dell-pocalypse 2017

Not unlike the upcoming Transformers films, Dell’s crappy support is something no one asked for, but seems to remain indefinitely like a stain upon the Earth. If you recall, after a poor experience with Dell’s “consumer grade” XPS 15, I purchased a customized “business/enterprise class” Precision 5510 laptop workstation. Could my existing relationship, however poor, with Dell get any worse?

Yes. Far worse.

Truthfully, I should have known better. However, I figured Dell’s enterprise/business lineup was similar to Lenovo – comprised of quality, stable, tested, and reliable products. After all, they are being used in the enterprise, and no one likes having to work through major technical issues when you have hundreds or thousands of systems in your organization. But within the first week or two of owning the Precision, it was clear I was wrong. The sounds of the trumpets played and my world was turned upside down. The Dell-pocalypse begins in March 2016, shortly after the system was ordered.

It started when I began noticing small glitches while manipulating large file sets. Not just duplicating them from one folder to another, but simply moving them around the disk from one folder to another. My build included a Class 50 NVMe PCIe Solid State Drive and with direct access to the PCIe lanes, there shouldn’t be lags like this. When right clicking on zip files, the system would lock up before the context menu even appeared. If you were patient, the system would eventually resume and spawn said menu. This was an issue I faced day in and out, trying to live with it was impossible.

Something was wrong.

I suspected this “glitch” was caused by one of two things:

  • The laptop has dual graphics cards, one is the integrated Intel graphics and the other is a discrete NVIDIA Quadro card. Based on what you’re doing, the system may switch to the discrete graphics and in theory, there could be a small pause in the system. I suspected it was possible Windows was facing a dilemma when trying to draw the requested context menu. Granted, drawing a pop up menu in Windows is probably one of the easiest tasks a computer can perform these days, but the zip files in question were large, many over 5 GB on disk. Perhaps it wasn’t sure which video card to use. (Yes, this entire idea seems silly, but never discount the most unlikely of scenarios when troubleshooting a computer.)
  • But then again, I also suspected it was the hard drive itself. Now, I have no engineering experience or hard evidence to definitively say this was the cause, but if you think about it logically – you’re manipulating files on a drive and the system hangs for a few minutes. When the only drive around was mechanical, this would often signify a dying drive, a corrupt disk, or just that it was mechanical and slow. The drive installed was a Samsung SM950 which appeared to be a OEM equivalent to the Samsung 950 Pro at the time. The benchmarks for the drive revealed it to be quite fast, but these issues didn’t make sense.

A few of the troubleshooting steps I took to try and reliably replicate the issue to determine a cause included:

  • Forums – Reddit, Dell’s own Community Forums, and Notebook Review revealed some information about the issue, complaints about issues which were similar to the one I was facing on systems equipped with Samsung SSDs. As with anything on the internet, you take it with a grain of salt, but when you see the same or very similar issue on multiple forums it makes you wonder.
  • Creating dummy ZIP files with nothing in them really, except an empty file of varied size. Some were 500 MB some were 5 GB. The goal of this was to determine if the issue could be duplicated (reliably) with faux files.
  • Manipulating the same files I had issues with and the fake ones I created on my desktop – Lucinda. (More on her later) 😉
  • Reinstalling Windows 10 from recovery partition and then a newly created bootable USB drive from the Microsoft Media Creation Tool.
  • Attempting to update the firmware on the SSD – which is a no go, Samsung doesn’t provide the firmware updates to consumers and their Samsung Magician doesn’t work with this drive.
  • Installing another operating system – could I replicate this issue in Linux?
    • Yes. Ubuntu. OpenSUSE. Fedora. I was able to replicate the issue in each distro with relative ease. 
    • Before anyone asks, yes I checked the graphics adapters installed/in use on the Linux installs, and they only listed the integrated Intel graphics, not the NVIDIA card. This simple check eliminated my first suspicion.

It took some convincing, but after speaking with Dell ProSupport, they agreed to send me a new SSD. My warranty included “Keep Your Drive” which left me with a spare Samsung SSD.

Remember me mentioning Lucinda earlier? Well, let’s introduce her properly.

Lucinda is the most recent PC I’ve built, and though she really deserves a post of her own, here’s some details:

  • Intel Core i7-6700 8M Skylake Quad-Core 3.4 GHz processor
  • Gigabyte GA-Z170XP SLI motherboard
  • Asus GeForce GTX 750 Ti Video Card
  • Crucial 32 GB RAM
  • Seasonic SS-760XP 760 Watt 80 Plus Platinum Fully Modular Power Supply
  • 2 Noctua case fans
  • Noctua NH-D155 140 MM CPU Cooler
  • Noctua Thermal Compound (I really like Noctua, if you can’t tell)
  • Fractal Design Define S Black Silent ATX Case
  • At the time of build, I had a Crucial MX500 SSD installed, as well as a HGST 3 TB mechanical drive.

A good build if I say so myself. She runs like a champ and if you’re wondering, her name is a reference to Glissinda the Troll from The Big Bang Theory – Season 4 – “The Hot Troll Deviation”. Below, some photos of the parts during the build process.

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Returning to the issue at hand, after installing the replacement drive into my Precision notebook, I began installing Windows 10 from scratch. Following this, I installed the hard drive which came out of the Precision notebook into Lucinda. Surely it wouldn’t have the same issues as the laptop, right?

Wrong!

I installed Windows, configured the system just as though it would for the foreseeable future be my primary hard drive. I worked on Lucinda daily waiting for the same glitch I noticed on the Precision to appear on Lucinda. It took longer than I would’ve thought, but after a few days the issue reared it’s ugly head. Lucinda was built to be as reliable and stable as possible and in the near year I’ve had her running I’ve never had a problem with hardware. Working with nearly any file became a chore. I had no choice but to return to safety – my Crucial MX500.

Most people will tell you Samsung makes good products, except when their phones explode, their TVs spy on you, and their dishwashers and washing machines leak/flood homes. It seems we need to add their PM/SM series OEM SSDs to their list of crappy products.

Over the next few months, Dell and I worked through every manner of troubleshooting apart from sending the computer directly to them. In September, they agree to send me a replacement unit, i.e. a “system swap”. At the time, I had only owned the Precision for 4-5 months and after some back and forth, they agreed to send me a new machine, not refurbished. This newly received unit, which I still have today, arrived with a Samsung PM961, newer – and much faster, turns out.

I had high hopes this machine wouldn’t show the same problems as it’s predecessor. It took a couple months, but the same issue began happening. This time on nearly any file or compressed folder. The system began to hang when attempting to rename files or setup network shares. It was maddening!

March 2, 2017 – When the bow broke…

Gather around, let me tell you of my pain!

On March 2nd, I decided enough was enough. My productivity was down and (trying to) work through the constant system hangs were going to give me an aneurysm, so I called Dell ProSupport. After catching the agent up on the history of this machine, the previous issues with the drives, system swap, and the issues persisting, we agreed it would be best to send out an onsite technician to install a new motherboard and hard drive. As the appointment was ordered on a late Thursday evening, the parts wouldn’t be available until the following Monday. We agreed the technician would call me between 12 pm (Noon) and 4:30 pm. It seems the same technicians who work for Dell/Unisys also work for your cable company.

I waited until 5:30 before calling the technician. He said he was going to be an hour late, would that be okay? Sure. You can imagine what followed this minor delay.

This “I’m running late” charade went on until he stated he would arrive at 10:30 pm. This is where I drew the line. I wasn’t happy about waiting all day and evening for someone to put parts in a laptop (a task I could easily do myself, mind you), let alone allow a stranger into my home at such a late hour. Immediately, I informed Dell about this incident, and requested it be rescheduled for as soon as possible as I had appointments that week honestly didn’t have a lot of time to sit around at home and wait for a tech. The next morning, March 7, both Dell ProSupport and the company they use for OnSite Service – Unisys phoned me to discuss the incident. After they apologized profusely, they were willing to meet me at my appointment and repair the laptop while I was with my client. After my meeting, the technician informs me not only did the hard drive Dell ordered “go missing”, but the motherboard they shipped is DoA (Dead on Arrival).

I gave that tech a system that would at least power on and boot into Windows and in return I receive a laptop which won’t even turn on.

After speaking with ProSupport, they reordered the motherboard, daughter-board, and hard drive while simultaneously scheduling another technician visit for the next day. Awesome! Maybe I can finally get this resolved. On March 8th, the technician phoned, gave me an accurate time of arrival, and had the right parts on hand. He was ready to go! The replacement parts installed perfectly and worked. I had a working system.

Thank the flying spaghetti monster! This is now complete.

Bear in mind, the hard drives Dell has been sending me are blank, with the exception of one which was imaged with Windows. To reinstall Windows 10, I’ve been using the Microsoft Media Creation Tool to download Windows 10 to a USB thumb drive. Fortuantely Dell did have the foresight to give me a Windows Product Key with the new hard drive. Too bad they didn’t work! A Dell ProSupport technician and I sat on the phone with Microsoft Activation Assistance for over 2 hours while they (Microsoft) attempted to sort the problem. Finally, they came back with a new Windows Product Key which activated.

After all this, you’d think my problems would be over, right?

Guess again!

The hard drive they shipped to the technician and later installed is a lowly Class 40. It is not an equivalent drive to the one which came with the system in March, or September. I recall phoning Dell and Dell’s Executive Care team after an interaction I had with a ProSupport agent where they promised me a Toshiba XG3 drive, Class 50. Also, it was during this time we decided we would try to get away from Samsung drives as it is conceivable this issue lies with them. Unfortunately, the drive he shipped was another Samsung, this time a PM951. Fast as it was, in minutes the same problem reared it’s head. At this point, the Advanced Resolution team stepped in and agreed, it was worth a try with a non Samsung drive.

Dell hasn’t setup their parts dispatch application to enable an agent to ship a specific part. They can only ship a hard drive, for example, and the customer will receive one from a list of acceptable parts. The Advanced Resolutions team seemed to have a way around this and said they would try to ship the Toshiba XG3 drive I was promised. The drive I received was another Class 40 Toshiba drive.

As of this writing, the drive in my Precision is the slower Toshiba drive. It appears Dell either cannot provide a drive comparable to the Samsung models that isn’t manufactured by Samsung.

In summary, Dell has exercised the following (futile) attempts to resolve the issue:

  • Dispatched 3 technicians to repair my issue, at unknown cost.
  • Replaced at least 7 SSD drives, at a cost I’d estimate near $1400
  • Replaced a motherboard, at a cost I’d estimate around $650
  • Replaced the entire system, which would be at retail slightly over $3000, but at Dell’s cost I’d estimate between $1500 and $2200

Time has a cost as well. I have spent (as of 4/13/2017) 8 hours, 45 minutes, 12 seconds on the phone, and have sent/received at least 123 e-mails to/from the Dell ProSupport team, Executive Care, and Advanced Resolutions Department.

For all that, you could’ve upgraded me to the Dell Precision 5520, or even higher and spared me the agony. Or, alternatively, you could have drop shipped me a Class 50 SSD drive (like the Toshiba/OCZ RD400 which is a firmware enhanced Toshiba XG3 SSD) from one of your partners, like Ingram Micro.

In the time since I purchased my Precision, 1 year, the laptop has been a burden, left to rest on the desk or shelf for occasional use. Due to the disk lag and constant repair + troubleshooting, I have been unable to enjoy my >$3000 purchase, and instead have been forced to dedicate significant amounts of my time and energy in a futile attempt to resolve this problem, and yet the SSD drive installed in my laptop is not a Class 50 equivalent to what came with the system, forever hindering the performance of this system.

Dell = Hell.