Does your DELL XPS 15 become unusable when it heats up?
This is a long post and very much off topic for this blog but this is something that has been irritating me for years. It will be of no interest to most here but if you happen to own this laptop, it may save you from an expensive session with your local mental health professional.
If you own a DELL XPS 15 9560 laptop, the chances are that you have come across this problem on more than one occasion. Export a large batch of photos, edit in a warm room, play a game or muck around in Flight Sim and the next thing you know your system goes from being a swift, high performance machine to something resembling a house brick. If you’ve ever tried to write a word document on an old brick, then that will make sense. The computer gets hot, the fan starts spinning its head off, and then the CPU clock speed drops from 3.4GHz to a mind numbing 0.78GHz where even moving the mouse pointer across the screen becomes a challenge.
If you’re a professional sports photographer, there’s a good chance you own one of these. At all the major sports events I cover, I see a ocean of XPS’s and Macs so I have to wonder, how many of us are intermittently, and unnecessarily losing the plot over these retched computers?? It’s true that it ticks all the boxes, massive grunt, outstanding screen and its rugged, but, there is a massive design flaw that renders it pretty much useless at exactly the times you need it the most.
If you have one, you’ll know what I mean. It’s an extremely expensive laptop, so just buying another one just isn’t an option for most of us and it’s not a warranty issue. You’re pretty much stuck. But there’s hope!
So, what exactly is happening under the hood that causes this loss of performance? Dell under engineered the cooling system, and over engineered the overheat protection. What you’re left with is any time the laptop is pushed a little, and you happen to be working in any location that isn’t a fridge, it will throttle itself down to a CPU speed of 0.78GHz – barely enough to move the mouse around. Merely sending an email becomes a challenge. I’ve been having this issue intermittently since the day I bought it. For me, it mainly happens when I’m on location shooting sports. The media rooms are often pretty warm and I’m churning out images like there’s no tomorrow. The same problem happens at home whenever the central heating is on. It’s so bad for me that if I need to export a large number of photos, I have to add some extra layers, a puffer jacket and turn on the air conditioning in winter. Even then, it’s a bit touch and go. This has driven me to the point of insanity on so many occasions, exactly when I have deadlines and the pressure is on.
More recently, it’s been happening a lot more because I want to play Microsoft Flight Sim. For those that know me, particularly through sports photography, it may startle some of you that I used to be a pilot. It’s true. Sadly, I no longer fly (maybe happily for some) but Flight Sim is about as close as you can get. Also, my son is showing interest in aviation so there’s no better place to start as an 11 year old. Maybe, just maybe, I may get off my backside and fly again. I can’t think of a better way to get around to the various racetracks and other events I shoot at.
Given I really want Flight Sim to work properly and my work schedule next year is going to be extremely full, the time came that I had no choice but to finally find a workable solution or buy a new laptop. It must be said that as far as I know, Dell have been able to redesign the current crop of XPS’s and have solved the overheat problem. They really look amazing and I wish I could justify buying one, but after I made these modifications, I now own an incredible laptop that still outperforms most on the market and I see no reason to upgrade.
Before I go into the mods, if your budget allows, consider expanding the RAM. I went to 32GB (from 16GB) and it made a huge difference especially when you have both Lr and Ps open. I also installed a new SSD, the Samsung EVO Plus 1TB NVMe because, for major sports events, I didn’t have enough hard drive space to fit all the images, which forced me to carry additional external SSD’s and it would become confusing. Now I use those SSD’s as backup drives. PhotoMechanic allows you to ingest multiple cards onto multiple drives so if anything goes wrong during an event and your RAWS are corrupted, it’s no problem. Sadly though, whilst they added considerable performance and utility, those upgrades didn’t help with our little overheating issue. If you shoot in JPEG for the performance and workflow improvements, that upgrade alone will allow you to shoot RAW, there’s almost no performance cost at all. I highly recommend it.
Alright, let’s get into the guts of how to fix this insanely annoying problem. YES! There is a cure and it will make your laptop outperform most of the current models available. At the very least, it will be every bit as good as the best you can currently buy.
It turns out it is a feature called “Power Limit Throttling” and ”Thermal Throttling” that was the wretched source of all our woes.
There’s a feature called Intel Dynamic Platform and Thermal Framework (DPTF) and it monitors various sensors inside the unit and throttles down the GPU and CPU to keep them from getting too hot and bothered. According to Intel, it is a ‘solution to help enable thin, quiet and cool platform designs..’ or in other words, it makes your ‘puter run like sh……
This can be a good thing if melting your XPS is something you’d rather avoid. After all, Dell didn’t feel it necessary to properly cool the unit. But the problem is that the DPTF works in an overly aggressive and erratic way. It kicks in far too early, and continues to throttle well beyond the point where the system has cooled and then it keeps it there. I often see a system temp of around 40 degrees c and I still can’t use the laptop. For some reason, they didn’t think that easing the throttling in, and making it more responsive was a good idea.
Some people recommend uninstalling the DPTF software, but I personally think that’s a bad idea. Our aim today will be to modify the CPU (via software) so it never reaches those high temps that trigger near shutdown in the first place. Then we can safely bypass it without uninstalling. But do to this, we must also address the substandard cooling design. To do one without the other can be a recipe for disaster.
So we will be addressing two problems – the system cooling, and modifying the power bus to reduce heat generation to undervolt the CPU. Once we have done these, we can then disable the DPTF software so that it never bothers us again. Don’t worry, there are still protections built in to prevent system meltdown if you happen to like working inside an oven. It’s probably a good time to say this though – *NOTE – unless you follow the measures I set out, this can destroy your very expensive laptop, so do this at your own risk! With the right protections in place, this is a perfectly safe modification, but you MUST have those measures in place.
What is undervolting? Your CPU needs power to run, but often the amount it draws is set too high by the manufacturer or the OEM, this is because not every CPU will run stable at lower power. So they choose to make it run at a higher voltage to there are fewer unstable CPUs.
Most CPU’s can run at much lower voltage than they get supplied at stock, when you undervolt, you offset the amount it gets. So if the CPU requests 0.900v and you offset it by 50mv, the CPU will receive 0.850v.
By undervolting you reduce the amount of watts the CPU uses, this is because: voltage x amp=wattage. This means your CPU will produce less heat at the same clockspeeds, or the same amount of heat at higher clockspeeds. A win in either case! That means you will not lose performance, in fact you gain a significant amount of performance because the CPU can run at the speeds it was intended.
Unfortunately, Dell recently released a BIOS update which prevents you from undervolting. So first, we have to downgrade the BIOS.
Step 1: Downgrade BIOS to v.1.18.0
Head over to Dells update page and a search for your model’s BIOS. You’ll find a link there to ‘older versions’, click on that and download 1.18.0.
Before installing, reboot the system and repeatedly press the f2 key to get into the BIOS setup. You need to find the option to allow downgrades. Check that box and reboot.
Install the new BIOS, let it reboot again. Actually, here’s a video that walks you through the process – it’ll make more sense: Please note, this is for the 7590 series so ignore the BIOS version number – The procedure is exactly the same though. Download BIOS 1.18.0 for the XPS 15 9650.
Step 2: Address the Internal Cooling Design
Given the CPU and GPU’s inside, the cooling system is insufficient to keep all the internal bits and pieces in good order. So we need to give it a bit of a helping hand. You’ll need a jewellers screw driver set for this as you’ll be taking the back of the unit off. Specifically, you’ll need a small Phillips head screwdriver and a T5 Torx driver as well. There’s a couple of Phillips head screws under the flip top flappy thing with XPS printed on it. So don’t forget to remove those.
While it’s apart, why not upgrade that RAM and SSD while you’re in there? Both upgrades are pretty inexpensive. Just note, the screws are VERY soft, so be careful!!! I buggered a couple of mine and had to order replacements.
You’ll need to re-paste the CPU and GPU as well as add some thermal pads to some of the internal parts that are known to heat up.
It’s an extremely easy job, but rather than me taking you through it, here’s a link to an excellent article on what and how to do it. Just follow the instructions on how to re-paste the CPU and where to add extra thermal padding but ignore the stuff about Throttlestop, its been upgraded since this article was written and the settings they provide don’t work. Don’t panic, this is really easy, but be careful of the screws.
That article also links to where you can buy the thermal paste and pads too – so all your bases are covered.
Step 3: Install the Latest Version of Throttlestop
Now that you’ve taken care of the mechanical cooling, it’s time to undervolt the CPU.
Go ahead and download ThrottleStop and save it somewhere in your documents folder.
Once you’ve downloaded it, go to where you saved it and run the application.
Throttlestop has 4 presets that you can configure. Performance, Game, Internet and Battery. I have mine set to Game all the time as I rarely ever require battery for any length of time. If you do require lengthy battery time, I recommend using those presets, just google setting up Throttlestop for how to configure those for various use cases. For me, Game works perfectly for ALL my use cases so it stays on that.
Set up it exactly the same as in these screenshots making sure that you have the bullet checked next to “Game” on the top left:
Leave everything unchecked except Speed Shift, and BD PROCHOT (Very important as that is your last line of defence if it does overheat)
Now Set Voltage Offsets
On the right hand side, under the LIMITS button, click on FIVR, a new window will pop up like the one below and set it up the same way as I have:
You will need to set the undervolt offsets for:
CPU Cache, and
The CPU Core and CPU Cache must be set to the same offset value.
So lets work from the left to the right.
Starting from “Turbo Ratio Limits”, set each core to 38 (this sets each core to its maximum potential, you can leave them at default if you wish)
Now move to the middle column – FIVR Control
1. Select CPU Core
3. Check the ‘Unlock Adjustable Voltage” checkbox
4. Slide the “Offset Voltage” slider down to -100.6 and click Apply. You may be able to go more, if you go too much, your system will freeze or turn off. Don’t worry, no damage will be done and it will reboot just fine. There is a sweet spot, go as low as you can (as in a higher negative number), without inducing any instability. For me, -100.6 is rock solid. Some have succeeded at -125, but I can assure you, -100 works!
Follow the same process for CPU Cache and set it to the same value – this is important as it will not work if the CPU Core and CPU Cache values don’t match.
Again, follow the same process as above, but this time set the offset value to -75.2. Have a play, maybe you can go more than that, but this setting will work.
And finally, on the right hand site of the FIVR window, about half way down, check the box next to “Disable and Lock Turbo Power Limits” This disables the DPTF software, preventing it from overdoing its job and is the ultimate cure, but without modifying the cooling system, and undervolting, it will break your laptop. Don’t panic though, as long as you have BD PROCHOT ticked in the main window, that will shut the system down if temps go too high before any harm is done.
Make sure you select “OK – Save voltages Immediately” and then click OK to close the window.
Now its time to set the Turbo Power Limits.
On the main Throttlestop window, next to the FIVR button, click on the TPL button and set it up exactly as you see here:
Once you have completed these steps, the power limit throttle issue will be a permanent thing of the past. I now happily achieve 3.7GHz of consistent power out of the CPU. My laptop is running about 30% faster and it never overheats and never throttles. I can run Flight Sim at the highest graphic settings and it works like a dream and there’s never any slow down. I’ve tested it on other high end games too just to make sure. I’m not a gamer but I wanted to test it out and see.
Best of all, my workflow is now completely stress free. Lightroom exports photos around 20% faster than before, the import has sped up considerably, there’s no delay in moving through the Loupe and the edit process is perfectly smooth as it should be. This is now an epic laptop, even three years later, now that it’s cooling properly. Happiness has finally kicked in. Add in that extra RAM and a high performance SSD and it will probably outperform almost anything currently available. I’ve seen some people suggest that upgrading the WiFi card to an intel version also helps increase performance, but for me, the Killer Wireless unit that comes in the laptop is lightening fast and I’ve had no connectivity issues at all.
Now, just in case you missed it before – WARNING: Keep that “BD PROCHOT” flag checked at all times. Because you are essentially removing all the governors, this is your final safeguard to make sure the laptop doesn’t enter magma stage and melt down.
If you happen to be editing in an oven, or maybe its just a really hot day and the system does heat up – keeping that BD PROCHOT button selected will allow for the system to protect itself. So please, keep it checked and double check from time to time it’s still checked.
Managing power and temperatures in a laptop is a painful fact of life now that they are cramming so much grunt into smaller spaces. I’m not complaining because with so much power, owning a desktop is really quite redundant, although they have their places.
Sometimes you just have to spend the time to tweak it in order to unleash its full potential and for the DELL XPS 15 – WOW and what potential it actually has – I had no idea how much grunt this thing had until now, three years after buying it!
I finally have a laptop that can do all the things I throw at it without stuttering or hanging, whether its editing on the fly on location in a hot media room, playing Flight Sim, or editing videos smoothly (not that I really do that much). I just wish it didn’t take me three years to investigate the problem and solve it. It’s like a new machine now – amazing!
I hope this blog post saves someone else the time I had to spend finding a cure. I know its not really related to sports or photography, but if you do own one these beasts, it will save your sanity!
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Dave shoots for Speed Media Image Agency, a professional photo agency providing coverage of all sports, events and photojournalism. We photograph for international, national and local media agents, including Getty Images, Icon Sportswire, AP, News Corp, The Times, ESPN and CNN. We have a team of commercial photographers ready to shoot for sport teams and sponsors.