Overbilling And Overheating: Two Tales Of Thanksgiving Weekend Debugging
Long holiday weekends are supposed to be for relaxing and recharging the internal batteries. And thankfully, mine largely fit that description (as, I hope, did yours)…that is, aside from shoveling 6+ feet of cumulative accumulated white stuff. A few tech issues inevitably also begged for my attention, but although neither of the two I’ll mention below is definitively resolved at this point, both were great learning opportunities.
A month and a half ago, I mentioned that a friend’s father’s ancient Sony laptop was suffering from overheating malaise, and that I’d found him a fiscally (and otherwise) compelling upgrade. Thermal issues apparently run in the family, because my friend began experiencing a similar situation early last week. Her laptop, a Lenovo ThinkPad T60, abruptly shut off on several separate occasions, encouraging her to seek out my advice on a fix.
Her knee-jerk response to the PC problem had predictably been to blame Microsoft (Windows XP Professional powers the system), but I instinctively suspected that something else was amiss. Admittedly, I’d encountered a few situations in the past where the O/S had abruptly rebooted all the way back to the BIOS initialization screen, but usually Windows at least threw me a cryptic in-between BSOD. And in my several decades of using computers, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a Windows- (or application running on it)-related crash that completely shut a system down
Instead, I suspected that overheating was the culprit, and I confirmed it by firing up SiSoftware Sandra’s built-in burn-in test along with SpeedFan to monitor internal temperatures (that is, until the system also shut down on me). Google search results suggested that this particular model was prone to such behavior, especially as extended use translated into abundant particulate accumulation on the internal fan and heat sink assembly…and interestingly that the GPU (not the typical CPU) was seemingly the primary overheating victim in these particular cases.
My friend wasn’t prone to running the ThinkPad T60 in excessively dusty climes, but she’d owned the system for a number of years (thereby answering the question that I bet many of you have; is it still under warranty? No, alas). As a non-techie, she probably wasn’t too careful about keeping it away from air vent-blocking and otherwise heat-trapping situations, either. And did I mention that she likes to watch CPU-clobbering videos, and to more generally hang out at Flash-flush websites?
Speaking of videos, I found some detailed disassembly tutorial clips online. Using them, I was able to easily remove the system’s palm rest and keyboard, thereby exposing the fan and heat sink assembly for perusal. I didn’t have a can of compressed air handy (yes, I know…for shame…what kind of engineer am I?), but intense exposure of the system fan, along with the air in- and out-flow vents, to my vacuum cleaner seems to have lowered the operating temperature to a sufficient degree to restore stable long-term operation. If the unintended shutdowns return, I’ll head to the hardware store and go the blast o’air route. And worst case, there’s always the possibility of using a third-party utility such as TPFanControl to override the BIOS defaults and take RPM matters into my own hands.
My other notable recent tech travail also involves my friend. A month-plus back, I finally convinced her to migrate from T-Mobile (which has horrid service where she lives) to AT&T. She’s now using my old Apple iPhone 3G on a no-contract basis, since she brought her own hardware to the cellular carrier relationship, while I’m still toting the 3GS successor. Both handsets are still running iOS v3.1.3 (which, as you’ll soon see is important, doesn’t provide a cellular data on/off setting option).
Since she was too late to the AT&T party to take advantage of the $30/month unlimited data plan that I’m still ‘grandfathered’ on with both my iPhone and iPad, she had two cellular data plan options available to her:
- 200 MBytes/month for $15/month (i.e. DataPlus), with a $15/month overage fee for each up-to-200 MBytes over that initial threshold, or
- 2 GBytes/month for $25/month (i.e. DataPro), with a $10/month overage fee for each up-to-1 GByte over that initial threshold
Hmmm…which one to pick? Check out AT&T’s guidance:
DataPlus. Provides 200 megabytes (MB) of data - for example, enough to send/receive 1,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 150 emails with attachments, plus view 400 Web pages, plus post 50 photos on social media sites, plus watch 20 minutes of streaming video…Currently, 65 percent of AT&T smartphone customers use less than 200 MB of data per month on average.
DataPro. Provides 2 gigabytes (GB) of data - for example, enough to send/receive 10,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 1,500 emails with attachments, plus view 4,000 Web pages, plus post 500 photos to social media sites, plus watch 200 minutes of streaming video…Currently, 98 percent of AT&T smartphone customers use less than 2 GB of data a month on average.
My friend’s by no means a power user. She finally emailed her first picture from the phone the other day. She occasionally monitors email (but never downloads file attachments to the handset) or does light web browsing. But she’s never streamed a video from YouTube (or music from Pandora, for that matter, or any other bit-intensive multimedia data) to the iPhone. The only time an app gets downloaded or updated is when her IT department (i.e. me) is using it. And as a general rule, the vast majority of the time she’s online with the iPhone she’s tethered to a Wi-Fi connection which, AT&T takes great pains to point out, accrues no cellular data network usage penalty. So we went with the cheaper option.
Imagine her surprise a few days back, then, to receive a free (how generous of them) text message from AT&T reporting that she’d used up 65% of her 200 MByte allotment for the month, with more than a week to go in her billing period. Two days later, she got a follow-on text message from AT&T indicating that she’d just passed the 90% threshold! When we accessed her account details online, we were bewildered by what we found; dozens of few-MByte transfers throughout the billing period-to-date, along with a handful of even more mind-boggling few-dozen-MByte sessions.
At that point, I started doing some serious head-scratching. I quickly found the entry in the account listing where she did the email-a-picture thing. Admittedly, a few of the notable-payload entries might be the result of me carelessly doing app updates when the phone was cellular- versus Wi-Fi-tethered (in my defense, it’s easy to forget about bandwidth caps when your own account isn’t capped). And neither she nor I had remembered that Google Maps (which she’d used a few times that month to get directions) doesn’t natively store map data on the handset but instead dynamically downloads it on an as-needed and as-space-available basis.
But the sheer plethora of entries, as well as their payload sizes, suggested me that something was seriously amiss. Her iPhone is configured for ‘push’ synchronization with her Google Calendar and Contacts databases, but neither one gets updated. We also have ‘push’ sync set up for her Yahoo email account, but dynamic updates related to it only occur when the iPhone’s Mail app is in the foreground. The handset is associated with my MobileMe account for Find My iPhone purposes, but to date we’ve never used that particular feature with it. And many of the large data transfers have occurred in the middle of the night or at other times (or days) when neither of us would have been using the iPhone.
AT&T, who we rang up as soon as we uncovered the issue, has filed a ’service order’ and has promised my friend that until the company’s research is concluded, she won’t get charged any beyond-200 MByte overage fees. And after-the-fact research on my part has revealed that plenty of other folks are having similar issues. I’m very curious to see what AT&T tells her when it reports back in a few days, assuming that it hits its promised response timeframe. And in advance of that fateful conversation (which may result in her once again going carrier-shopping), I welcome your suggestions on what’s going on here…although I’ll warn you in advance that ‘just pay $10 more per month for DataPro’ isn’t an acceptable response.