Thursday, May 08, 2014

Integrated heat spreader thermal contact failure

I recently upgraded an old PC to a Manchester socket 939 Athlon 4200+. After booting into Stresslinux, I ran mprime (the Linux version of Prime95) to check stability and temperatures. I didn't encounter any errors, but after a few minutes, core temperatures rose past 70, and approached 80. That's bad in general and especially bad for that CPU, so I had to cut power.

After removing the heat sink, the paste application seemed fine. I tried applying paste several times, and even got some new Zalman ZM-STG2 paste, but nothing helped. I couldn't even get anything as good as the first result.

Eventually I found some message board posts about decapping, the thermal paste below the CPU integrated heat spreader (lid), and how that paste can fail. The fact that the heat sink wasn't even warm when the CPU cores approached 80, and the paste between the heat spreader and CPU seemed fine afterwards made this seem like a probable explanation.

I first attempted to cut off the integrated heat spreader (IHS) with a utility knife. This didn't work because the blade was too thick and it couldn't fit into the narrow gap between the CPU circuit board and IHS. Then I pried apart a disposable razor and got one of the blades out. It's very thin and sharp, and it fit into the gap and cut nicely. The only difficulty was that it's also highly flexible, so it can cut the circuit board. Here are pictures of the decapped CPU:

The black material that was holding the IHS is like rubber. Note that it wasn't providing a hermetic seal; there is a gap on the left of the CPU. The brown material is remnants of brasso which I used to try to lap the IHS before. The IHS was definitely slightly concave, but that wasn't the problem. The grey thermal paste was entirely dry and kind of like silicone rubber, but much easier to remove. My theory is that it works fine even when dry, and that problems happen due to the force used to separate the heat sink from the IHS. The black rubber holding the IHS allows some movement. If the dry thermal paste inside breaks apart due to that, it can't re-establish good contact.

I didn't want to run the CPU decapped because that would require modifying the motherboard, and maybe the heat sink retention. The plastic frame surrounding the socket prevents the heat sink from getting low enough to make good contact with the chip, and even if that was cut away, I'm not sure if the heat sink retention would provide enough force when the heat sink sits lower. Also, the IHS seems to be plated copper, and it might actually help with heat transfer to the stock aluminum heat sink. I just shaved down the black rubber a bit, cleaned off old paste, added new paste, and reassembled without attaching the IHS to the CPU.

After all this, running mprime on both cores resulted in temperatures of 45°C and below. This was with the stock cooler for an Athlon 64+ 3500 Newcastle (also 89W TDP) and Zalman ZM-STG2 paste.

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