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  • Dell disappoints again… but it’s not alone (firmware update, undervolting))

    Posted on Ascaris Comment on the AskWoody Lounge

    Home Forums AskWoody support PC hardware Dell disappoints again… but it’s not alone (firmware update, undervolting))

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        Just a brief recap here that is more relevant than I thought. The real post begins after the short fourth paragraph!

        Not long ago, I became interested in the idea of using liquid metal thermal material to increase the performance of my Dell G3 gaming laptop’s cooling system. The end result of all of that was that I bought an inexpensive ($50ish) nickel plating kit to make the liquid metal work better with my laptop, and the result was quite good.

        The bigger question that now occurs to me is one of why I became interested in using the liquid metal to reduce temps right at the moment I did.

        Before I had investigated the liquid metal, I had undervolted the G3 to reduce its temperatures. Undervolting is kind of like the opposite of overclocking in some ways… in overclocking, you’re using the stability headroom of the CPU to increase clock speeds (and thus performance), but it comes with a heat penalty. Overclocking is only something you would do when you have extra cooling capacity, which is why heat sinks for overclockers are quite large. Sometimes they use water-cooling setups with water pumps and radiators like a car engine.

        When you undervolt, instead of increasing the clock speed and voltage, you reduce the voltage. You’re using the stability headroom to run the voltage as low as possible without making the system unstable (BSODs, lockups, etc.).

        The benefit of this is that less voltage means less heat, and that can mean that a CPU won’t have to dynamically underclock itself as much to avoid damage to itself.  That means clock speeds end up higher, and so does performance– the same goal as overclocking, even though the individual did the opposite thing as overclocking to achieve it.

        The difference is that overclocking is done when you have more cooling capacity than the CPU would ever need in non-overclocked usage, and underclocking is done when you have less cooling capacity than what you would prefer. The latter is usually what you see with high-performance laptops, since their constrained size prevents the use of a large, robust cooling system.

        Underclocking can also be useful for extending the battery run time on laptops, but that’s not my goal with the G3 at the moment.

        I had assumed at first that the underclocking tools would be strictly Windows-only, but I soon found out that I was wrong, happily. There are a number of Linux tools for underclocking, and when I tried them some months ago, I had a decent improvement in performance.

        But something recently had made me once again pondering the cooling system’s performance, and that was what prompted me to try liquid metal TIM again.  I pondered that a bit yesterday, and just for the heck of it, I decided to check and see if my undervolting modification was still holding.

        It wasn’t. I had not changed its settings at all since I got it stabilized, but it was no longer happening. In retrospect, it’s clear now that the interest I had in the liquid metal coincided with a firmware update that Dell offered for security reasons. I found several articles describing how the fix for the branded security vulnerability known as “plundervolt” would restrict overclocking and undervolting by locking the voltage at its defaults.

        No problem, I thought. “Plundervolt” only affects people who are using Intel’s Software Guard extensions, and the attacker has to have physical access to the PC. My G3 is a gaming PC, not the kind of PC that would be expected to use enterprise features like that.  Indeed, I’ve had that feature disabled fromt the start.

        Before I installed the firmware upgrade, I’d made sure that my Dell has the box checked for “allow BIOS downgrades,” and I had made sure that there was no comment in the description or changelog of the new firmware about it being non-removable.  I’d touted Dell for being wise enough to allow downgrades, since there are often very valid reasons for doing so,  while others (like Acer) do not allow downgrades.

        I tried to do the downgrade, and it got to the last step, then announced that it was stopping because of an unsupported downgrade option. Even with the option to allow downgrades enabled, it stopped short. The option to enable downgrades doesn’t actually enable them… it just removes one of the two independent blocks on downgrades.

        There’s that same definition of “unsupported” again. Every tech company seems to believe that the word means “prohibited.”

        I’m disappointed in Dell. They manufactured my laptop with the screws that were supposed to hold the heat sink to the nVidia GPU missing, they deliberately packaged it with a power supply that is too small for the job at hand (and they called their insufficient power supply “hybrid power” to try to make it sound like a feature).  Now I find that the option to allow downgrades was just a sham, and that Dell doesn’t allow them any more than Acer does, at least on the models I’ve used.

        It took some searching and reading, but I did find a way to get the previous firmware installed.  I used the tools provided, and they did work! I’m once again running the 1.11 firmware rather than the deliberately broken 1.12, and my undervolting is back.

        It seems that all of the makers of laptops have gone the same way. That’s the thing I do not like about these heavy-hitting security updates that slow the PC or reduce its usefulness… the manufacturers of these machines would be hard pressed to tell anyone that they are deliberately not going to fix a security bug, so even those of us who are not worried about a given security threat end up having to pay the cost along with those who do. This particular security issue does not affect me, but the fix for it certainly did.

        I don’t realistically expect Dell to ignore security bugs, but it would be nice if the option to downgrade the UEFI/BIOS firmware actually did what it says on the tin.  I enabled downgrades in the settings, yet they were still disabled.

        Another option would be to have a checkbox in the UEFI settings that would lock or unlock the CPU voltage.  I don’t know how much of the change comes from the microcode update that accompanied the change in the firmware code itself, but to just remove such a useful feature is not good.  Some people had this firmware update delivered by Windows 10 without even knowing it was coming, until one day there was no more undervolting.

        My G3 has a more robust cooling system than some other PCs with discrete GPUs, it would seem. I get decent temps and performance without undervolting, but “decent” still leaves room for improvement.  For other laptops, the ability to undervolt is said to be imperative if good performance is desired.  The Dell XPS, a considerably more expensive laptop than my Dell G3, is supposed to be one of those that really needs undervolting to be able to handle more than the most brief heavy load.

        One of Apple’s higher end Macbook Pro units had similar issues, with their i9 model actually performing worse as delivered than the i7 model (the i7 ran a lot cooler), and it took a firmware upgrade from Apple that essentially did all of the undervolting and other fine-tuning to give it reasonable performance. The OEMs are so wrapped up in making their laptops stylishly thin that their cooling performance is seriously limited, where my lower-end G3, as a gaming laptop, is supposed to be somewhat chunky. As gaming laptops go, it’s fairly thin, but compared to a Macbook or XPS, it’s thick and quite heavy. That’s a feature, not a bug, as far as I am concerned.

        I just re-ran the Folding@Home test of my G3’s clock rate that I had when I switched to liquid metal TIM, and its sustained clock rate went from ~3450 to ~3850. Before the liquid metal, it had been down around 3100.

        Group "L" (Fedora 32 Linux w/ KDE Plasma).

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