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Dell Optiplex 9020 surprises

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Mar 7, 2008
As posted on the "what did you get today" thread I literally pulled two Dell desktops out of a skip at work. They both posted but the disks had been previously removed.

With the units home, first thought was obviously to see how it runs. I had a random SSD from uses forgotten, plugged it in and hoped for the best. It had Win7 on it, but the display output was 640x480 in 16 colour, with no option to change it. I'm connected to a 4k60 monitor over DP so this was... interesting. Not wanting to fight with it, pulled it out and swapped in a 128GB SSD pulled from a laptop. I wiped it and proceeded to install Win10 on it. In the installer, the resolution was still way below 1080p and was monochrome. It certainly was an experience. Surprised to find it was activated after the install. I never entered a key, nor used any online account.

Anyway, with Windows 10 1909 installed, I still had the low resolution thing on the desktop. Fine, plugged in a network cable and let it get on with updates. After a while I finally had a colour 4k display! Hurrah! This is the first system I've ever used with a non-usable screen resolution during install. Presumably due to bad DP support.

Once in Windows I did the usual configuration. The SSD still had over 90% life remaining. Crystal Disk Mark was ok for sequential reads around 550MB/s, but writes were rather low around 130MB/s. Random reads 15MB/s, think this is the lowest I've ever seen on an SSD. Forgot to mention, it was some Samsung OEM model with a Lenovo part number on the label.

After doing various software updates I remembered to check for a bios update. It was ancient from years ago, and could be updated to something from this year, presumably with the smeltdown updates in it. I ran the Dell installer and it rebooted the system. Nothing happened. I tempted insanity by doing the same again a couple more times. It wasn't updating. Ok, let's try the Win7 install again, even at low resolution. I used a USB-SATA adapter to copy the bios update file to the existing user's desktop on the SSD. This was to be a mistake, as once I booted in, I had no permissions to do anything with the file. Fine, downloaded another copy to a USB stick, and... it wont run. Just crashes. I didn't check, maybe they dropped support for Win7 already?

Back into Win10 I hit google, and one of the first suggestions was to disable VT in bios. Don't see why that should affect a bios update, but I'll try it. Restart, and... it wouldn't show bios, giving me some error about no valid display mode. This is the first system I've ever come across to do this. The system had DP and VGA outputs on the back, so I dragged out a VGA monitor, and that worked fine. How can anyone make a system design like this? I turned off the two VT related settings, went back to Windows, ran the installer. This time on rebooting it actually did the update. It was turning off VT that allowed it to work.

As it is getting late I thought I'd start the system crunching. Currently I have it running PrimeGrid tasks. This is comparable to small FFT Prime95 loading. The i7-4790 is taking around 88W hitting somewhere just over 80C with the stock Dell cooler. This isn't as bad as I thought, although I might still put an enthusiast grade cooler on it later to get the noise down.

So, not bad overall. In effect a free system from work and lowering the recycling pile a little bit. I have a 2nd unit I can give similar treatment tomorrow.

As a side comment, I also tested the mSATA drives I got. For some reason, these wont get picked up by my USB-SATA adapter, but works fine in an actual system. I wonder if it is a voltage thing, if the adapter only supplies 5V but mSATA also requires 3.3V for example.
there are msata and mpcie connectors and not always compatible, yet they appear the same. I have a carrier card for an m.2 nvme drive and the dell 9020 will boot windows from it. have heard tell that the samsung 950 pro drivers have some drivers built in to facilitate booting in some computers. but can always boot any nvme withh a clover boot disk
I'm pretty sure they're mSATA as they work fine when connected to mobo SATA with a desktop SATA power connector. From memory, the SATA power connector can provide 5.0v and 3.3v. It might be the case these mSATA drives uses 3.3v, and the adapter I have only passes through USB 5.0v since most 2.5" SSDs run only off that.
Got the 2nd unit set up tonight. The bios had already been updated saving me a step, and once again just installing Win10 activated.

Where it differed was when I put Prime95 on the CPU. It shot up over 90C and the fan noise was horrible. I checked out the fan, there was no significant dust on it. I re-did the thermal compound, but this made next to no difference.

I guess now I'm left with a choice, do I delid the CPU? Or just upgrade the cooling. The latter option isn't straight forward, as it looks like the mobo uses a non-standard fan connector. It might just be mechanically different, with same signalling, but it is more work to sort that out if I wanted to replace it. Without taking the mobo out, I'm also not sure if there is a bracket behind the mobo, or worse, if there are standoffs on the case specifically for the cooler. That could get in the way of any replacement.

There is a 3rd option: I can swap the CPU with another i5 of same generation. At least in my other system I can put proper cooling on it, and the lower power i5 will probably cope better with limited Dell cooling solution.

I also note the mobo power connectors and PSU are non-standard. So I can't just replace it and drop a higher power GPU in it later. Guess I'll keep them as pure CPU crunchers then. I've left it going on World Community Grid work since it isn't up to prime number finding.