Dell XPS 15 Upgrade & Undervolting
The Gigabyte P34G-V2 laptop that I purchased a few years ago had been great, despite its recurrent bloating battery issues, which annoyingly sets me back a couple hundred of dollars seemingly every year—but, at last, I think it is time to replace it. Ideally that means, as usual, a good processor with a CUDA-capable GPU and decent storage, in a form factor that is convenient to carry around but not too stingy on screen real estate. But my pockets are not deep, so there remains some deliberation to be done.
This post is organized into three main sections. The first recounts the choices and comparisons I had considered; and the second and third narrates the SSD upgrade and undervolting process undertaken for the Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop. Also, I should probably give a fair heads-up that the first section especially will contain quite a bit of ranting and complaints.
Choices & Comparisons
At the time of writing, not many good options exist, which is really frustrating. The hexa-core i7-8750H processor is ideal—my opinion is that anything inferior will be rendered obsolete quickly, not without a rather bad taste in my mouth, now that Intel and AMD has engaged each other in a core-count war. Case in point, as we speak the Intel i9-9900K is being prepared for release, which pretty much outperforms my binned and delidded i7-7820X hands-down. I am much looking forward to the day we break the hundred-core mark for the consumer market. On a side note, if you find the over-abundance of technical details below excessive and weird-reading, I might just agree with you—but I wanted to include as much as reasonably possible, since it might truly be amusing to look back years later and find just how backwards technology was, at the time of writing.
The first option is the Dell XPS 15 9570. In Singapore there's the FHD model, which offers a maximum of 16 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD, the latter of which is quite unsatisfactory. The 4K touchscreen model is identical in specifications with the exception of the display, but that kind of resolution sounds overkill on the screen size of a laptop. Purchasing from the US online store, however, there is an option to upgrade to 32 GB RAM and 1 TB SSD, apparently at a lower base price than the half-as-good peak model in Singapore. I am still in the midst of trying to understand this mysterious difference. You think us Asians do not need as much space as the Americans? I mean, yes, statistically we do unfortunately suffer a bit on size, as perhaps half of my hidden and heavily protected storage suggest, but how am I supposed to fit my frustration and rage on my disk if this size discrimination continues?
Rationality points towards importing from the US, but the complication is that the US store accepts only US-registered cards and PayPal accounts. A solution is to use a forwarder service, for instance, comGateway, and utilize their BuyForMe service; but it turns out that the combined proxied purchase, shipping, and processing charges pushes the price rather significantly. Running the numbers, a local purchase followed by an independent 32 GB RAM and 1 TB SSD upgrade will cost only S$100 more than an import. Note also that re-selling or re-using the replaced RAM modules and SSD in the former case will yield some offsets. In my opinion, the savings is not worth the risk of shipping damage and the potential trouble of dead-on-arrival instances.
The second option is the newly-released ASUS ZenBook Pro 15 UX580GE that carries 16 GB RAM and 1 TB SSD, with a beefier Intel i9-8950HK processor in place of the i7-8750H. In theory, the performance gap between these two processors might be considerable, but in practice it is not, due to thermal limitations—more on this later. The Zenbook offers a colour-calibrated screen and marginally better hardware connectivity relative to the XPS 15. The $4000 price tag, however, is certainly not attractive. You know, what is the point in jamming an Intel i9-8950HK into a laptop and then slapping a thousand dollars more onto the price if it is just going to overheat and kill itself anyway? I am not even going to get started on the otherworldly engineering work by Apple on this.
A third option is the Razer Blade 15. Available configurations offer a standardized 16 GB RAM, with SSD capacities at most 512 GB. Considering my primarily CPU-intensive needs, and the upgrade to 1 TB SSD that I will be undertaking, the best choice is the lowest-end model with 256 GB SSD, GTX 1060, and 60 Hz FHD display. Unfortunately, pricing information is unavailable at the time of writing—but an intelligent guess indicates a marginal likelihood that the machine will be any cheaper than the XPS 15. In fact, the mid-tier model with 512 GB SSD and 144 Hz FHD display probably matches the XPS 15 almost exactly. I have some grievances about this option as well, being the insufferable ranter I am, but I will save it for one paragraph down.
And the fourth option is the MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 8RE. There is also the GS65 8RF model that comes with the GTX 1070; I do not need that. The 144 Hz display on the 8RE is unnecessary as well, but there is unfortunately no flexibility on that. Here I would like to whine apologetically about the recent fetish for extreme refresh rates, the 144 Hz display on the MSI GS 65 and the Razer Blade 15 being excellent examples—does anybody really think the human eye so capable? It is almost like laptop manufacturers have nothing better to do but add useless gimmicks to their money-making machines; meanwhile the CPU and friends are up in flames and screaming. This mirrors the climate change problem rather well, I have realized. Anyway, the base cost of S$3200 for the MSI GS65, bearing in mind the subsequent SSD upgrade, does not make it an attractive option—one will likely be better off purchasing the Razer Blade 15 instead. The flipped motherboard on the GS65 also complicates RAM and SSD upgrades.
And of course there are a few more alternatives, for instance the Gigabyte Aero 15X. As it stands, I passionately detest laptops with asymmetric layouts, especially those with a numpad on the right with an accompanying left-skewed trackpad. My impartial scientific theory is that the usage of these abominations result in scoliosis, unbalanced vision, degradation of aesthetics sense, is a detriment to the balance of the universe, and is overall an insult to one’s identity as a sentient adult human. One may then question if such complaints apply to desktop keyboards, to which I shall simply keep my silence and attempt to change the topic.
It appears, therefore, that the Dell XPS 15 is a reasonable choice—though, of course, it is a considerably subjective matter, for which my opinions must, of course, be perfectly correct. Next, we proceed to discuss the extreme annoyance of thermal throttling, because humanity has not yet figured out how to break the laws of thermodynamics, despite centuries of scientific progress—a very disappointing rate of development. After all, it is not as if the government had imposed fines or jail terms for these laws, unlike, say, flushing public washrooms, or a certain set of laws affecting the male sub-population of this nation. That these thermodynamic laws remain unbroken is indeed a profound mystery.
In principle, since I am an aspiring physicist, I ought perhaps to push the blame to the engineers; but since I have friends who are aspiring engineers too, I shall not do that, and shall instead just blame everyone. The sad state of affairs is that almost every ultrabook form-factor laptop available today suffer from thermal throttling issues, and while factory application of poor-quality thermal interface materials and flawed thermal design are major factors in these, there also remain physical limits on heat dissipation in packages of these sizes. All the options above, with the possible exception of the Gigabyte Aero 15X, are plagued with considerable thermal issues. Information on this is quite a mess at the time of writing, due to manufacturing inconsistencies and insufficient user-benchmarked data; but it suffices to understand that thermal throttling will limit the performance of these machines significantly, so much so that the performance gap between the Intel i7-8750H and i9-8950HK may become imperceptible.
The subject of quality control and build quality ought also be considered. It is notable that the Dell XPS 15 has several documented quality issues, including keyboard defects that result in missed keys, screen back-light inconsistencies, defects in thermal paste application, amongst others; but one also ought to bear in mind survivorship bias. Only users with major problems will bother posting on these sites, therefore the rate of defects is oftentimes over-represented. If one cares about the webcam, it is also worth noting that the Dell XPS 15 and the Gigabyte Aero 15X has shifted the webcam to the bottom of the screen, resulting in a less-than-ideal perspective of your handsome head or pretty face; the Razer Blade 15, on the other hand, has no such problems.
Notes on Ordering
For those looking to purchase the Dell XPS 15 in Singapore, be advised that the availability of the FHD models is rather poor at the time of writing. It appears that the company is focusing on physical sales of the 4K peak model; customers purchasing the FHD models will find better convenience in ordering through their local store. The claim is that these machines are built-to-order, and it stands that you'll have to wait a week or two for your machine to arrive upon ordering. A visit to their Plaza Singapura flagship branch might also yield some comfort to those who dislike online purchases of hefty amounts, but it boils down to effectively the same thing, with perhaps the only difference being that the labour of typing is transferred from you to the salesman. For those unaware, the technical support that Dell offers is to-your-doorstep, so you are saved the trouble of transporting your machine to a service center in cases of defects.
Upgrading the SSD on a laptop is not, in general, a tedious process—but this one turned out to be a longer process than expected. First, the necessary tools must first be procured. It is easy to find guides online for instructions, but it might be safer to consult the original sources directly, in most cases the service manual of the machine; the manual of the Dell XPS 15 is found here. It also pays to have common sense, such as to avoid charging yourself with a kilovolt of static before opening the machine, and to continuously coax the machine with charming compliments to aid in good luck. The machine, once revived, might also be convinced to treat you better if you do that.
I needed a Philips M2 and a Torx T5 screwdriver, and perhaps a pair of tweezers and some plastic tabs to aid in prying components apart. Please refrain from being a moron, like myself, and order the cheapest set of tools you can find online—I do not know what new element on the periodic table the Chinese manufacturer has discovered, but the screwdrivers I ordered had tips softer than my pair of glorious buttocks. The Dell XPS 15 has a dozen Torx T5 screws on its backside and two Philips screws underneath the hinged label cover. These need to be removed and the back cover can then be lifted. It is notable that the cover is held in place by internal plastic tabs, one on each side, and a strategic prying action will aid in disengaging these.
If one bothers to read the manual after finding it online, one will realize that the prerequisite instruction is to ground the machine by pressing the power button for 5 seconds, and to disconnect the battery by unplugging the connector. As it happens, I have found the manual but I do not know how to read, and I have therefore discovered that neither of these is apparently necessary. Either that or my luck was good; use your discretion. Regardless of your literacy, the removal and subsequent installation of the M.2 SSD is a matter of a single Philips screw.
In this upgrade I have chosen the Samsung 970 EVO 1 TB NVMe SSD, but this is of course not the only option. Compatibility does not seem to be an issue here. Once the SSD had been replaced, the rear cover can be re-mounted. If you have taken out the battery connector, be sure to plug that in before mounting the rear cover.
It is rather convenient that the activation code for Windows 10 is embedded in the motherboard, facilitating the re-installation of the OS at this stage. We download the Windows Media Creation Tool and use it to create a bootable flash drive for our upgraded laptop. It is somewhat confusing that there are no options to select the version of Windows 10 to be loaded on the flashdrive—whether Home or Professional—but this is apparently intended, and the bootable application will automatically detect the activation key and install the correct version. If the creation tool cannot seem to write to the flash drive, as had happened to me, try reformatting the flash drive.
And we're done at this point. Now to deal with the pesky thermal throttling issue.
Not all chips are made the same—the design can be identical, but the manufacturing process invariably introduces some minute differences, perhaps in the etching of the silicon, perhaps in the mounting of the die package, perhaps in the thermal interface material. To ensure that chips rolling off the production line can satisfy the publicized specifications, the chips are usually over-engineered to some degree; though a process of binning is also oftentimes used, referring to the testing of the produced chips and then allotting them to different production lines according to their measured performance, sometimes with the disabling of cores or components to match the specifications of a lower-tiered product.
Overclocking, as we might be familiar with, exploits the leftover potential of a chip by feeding it more voltage than default and increasing its clock frequency, usually until its thermal limits are reached. Undervolting, on the other hand, also exploits the potential of a chip, but in the opposite direction; the aim is to decrease the voltage fed to the chip, while maintaining as much performance as possible. The idea here is that we can avoid, or at least decrease the severity of, thermal throttling if we can reduce heat production; a simple way is simply to decrease the CPU voltage. As a rule of thumb, the power consumption, and hence heat production, of a chip is directly proportional to the feed voltage, and proportional to the square of its clock frequency. On a side note, this is also frequently why multiple cores or multiple sockets are preferred, from an engineering perspective, to a single socket clocked at an equivalently higher frequency—one gets to trade the square exponent for a linear one, which can make a massive difference in power efficiency and thermal control.
There are multiple software choices to undervolt a processor. One can do it in an identical fashion as overclocks—go to the BIOS and ramp the CPU voltage down, stress-test, and repeat. But perhaps more conveniently, there are softwares that allow real-time adjustments, after boot; for example, the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU). I initially tried using Intel XTU, but had noticed that it wasn't always reliable—for some reason it does not always apply itself at boot-up, and the undervolt may sometimes just dissolve into default voltages.
So I switched to ThottleStop instead. It takes some time to learn the meaning of the different acronyms, but in actuality using ThrottleStop for a rudimentary undervolt is very simple. We need only go to FIVR control, select CPU Core or CPU Cache, and ramp the offset voltage. Then stress-test and repeat. I recommend leaving the settings on saving after ThrottleStop exits—this way if your undervolt is particularly unstable, your machine will crash before ThrottleStop exits, so the voltages are not saved; otherwise you might end up in an annoying situation where ThrottleStop applies the unstable voltages upon start-up and immediately crashes your machine. In my case I settled on -145.5 mV for both CPU Core and CPU Cache—I vaguely recall reading somewhere that a mismatch in voltage can cause instabilities, though I am not sure how true that is. Anything lower and I find sporadic instabilities.
If you are wondering about whether ThrottleStop can be used for overclocking as well, seeing that it could be convenient—yes, I think it can, provided the chip is unlocked, but I have not tried. The undervolt done here, though fairly modest, indeed gives noticeable performance improvements, as judged from the sustained CPU frequency under load.
Also, if running lengthy computations, say overnight, I highly recommend a laptop cooler, instead of simply placing the laptop on a flat surface by itself. Needless to say, never place a laptop on a soft surface, say a bed, and expect the fans to still move enough air to keep it cool. There is an argument that airflow from laptop coolers cannot penetrate the laptop shell anyway and is hence ineffective, and the additional power draw might actually add to the internal heat production; but from personal experience, this does not seem to be the case. At least on the XPS 15, the shell seems to conduct heat sufficiently well for a laptop cooler to make a difference, just by moving air across the external surfaces. Perhaps that is an advantage of these ultra-book form factor laptops—their surface area to volume ratio is rather high, and heat does not have to travel far to reach the shell.
That's it for now. Till next time, see you!