Back in September I purchased a new Dell Precision M3800 Mobile Workstation. I was really excited about this machine because it has all the qualities to be a great developer workhorse: quad-core I7, 16GB Ram, 512GB SSD, NVidia GPU and 15.6" 4K touch LCD all in a nice looking form factor.
I also purchased the recommended Dell (by DisplayLink) D3100 USB3 docking station so I could connect two external monitors, network, keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc.. The advantage to the USB dock is that instead of having to plug and un-plug a gazillion cords every time I wanted to take the laptop anywhere, I now only have two cables to mess with: the laptop's power cord and the USB cable going to the dock.
All in all, it's a pretty nice setup. Horsepower when I need it regardless of whether I'm tethered to the desk or on the go.
The laptop shipped with Windows 8.1, but as soon as I unboxed it, I immediately upgraded to Windows 10. The upgrade went smooth and there were no driver issues afterwards. Then there's the fun of installing stuff.
The first month or two the machine ran fine, Windows 10 ran fine. As updates become available through Windows Update, I generally apply them. Maybe I've been asking for trouble, but I've been doing that for years and have never really been burned by it.
I would occasional experience sound issues when I would switch between speakers connected through the USB dock and headphones connected directly to the laptop. So I visited the Dell Support site and ran their tool to identify updated drivers that may be available. There were a handful of driver updates available including Intel Chipset and Intel 4600 HD Integrated Graphics driver updates among others. I downloaded and installed the driver updates. Everything installed successfully.
Looking back, I wonder if this is where the problems began.
Over time I started to experience sluggish display and occasional display driver crashes. This isn't a screenshot of the error on my machine, but you get the idea.
Fast forward to mid-December and I visit the Dell Support site again and download a newer Intel 4600 driver and also an NVidia driver. The problem doesn't go away, in fact, it starts getting worse.
Then finally on New Years Day it gets to the point that the display driver is crashing every few minutes. I quickly saved the work I had in progress and shut the machine down. Now I'm fearing that there's been some damage done. Is it the LCD, the Intel 4600 HD, the NVidia GPU or the motherboard?
When I turned the laptop on the next day, the LCD was dead! Nothing! Yet when I connected the USB dock, the external monitors were still working. Good! The machine isn't quite dead yet and I can try to do some troubleshooting now.
Long story short, when I purchased the laptop, I also purchased Pro Support (for a couple extra hundred Dollars) that includes next day on-site repair after diagnosis over the phone. I spent a good portion of my Sunday afternoon working with a Dell Technical Support Representative (Cameron) troubleshooting the machine. Cameron was both helpful and patient. Some of the tests were time consuming, caused reboots, etc.
Some lessons learned:
1. Don't bother with a USB dock when trying to troubleshoot a laptop issue like this. You can't see the POST, the BIOS, nothing until the OS loads and the drivers kick in to drive the external monitors connected to the USB dock. Connect your external monitor, keyboard & mouse directly to the laptop. It's super helpful to be able to see the POST, access the BIOS as well as the onboard diagnostics.
2. Holding down the D key while pressing the power button on the Dell M3800 runs an LCD built-in self test (LCD BIST). I was able to confirm that the LCD itself is still in good working order.
3. Pay attention to the beeps or tones the computer makes when you enter the built-in onboard diagnostics. Notice the patterns, count the number of beeps. In my case, it was a short musical tune (sort of) followed by 10 beeps, then a 3-note tune and 3 series of 3 beeps each. The 3-note tune series of 3 beeps would repeat. Apparently this meant that the LCD couldn't be detected by the graphics chip.
4. It takes a tech less than 30 minutes to crack open the laptop case, extract the motherboard, replace it and put it all back together.
It's no fun being without your computer, having to wait for it to be repaired, but...
Moral of the story: The extra cash for the Pro Support has already paid for itself. Dell often gets a bad rap for poor service and tech support. I have to say that I am very happy with both Cameron and the Unisys tech that came to my house to replace the motherboard.
We don't really know for sure the root cause of the problem; whether it was a driver or maybe a bad Intel 4600 on the motherboard. Who knows!
May M3800 laptop is healthy and I'm happy again!