In order to save a little bit of money, maximizing profits, it's common for companies to use cheap thermal interface material. In the case of the PS3, the thermal paste that Sony used for the Cell processor and the RSX graphics processor doesn't age very well.
I recently bought an original 60GB PlayStation 3, with the CECHA01 model number. In the past I have used newer PS3s, and they were all reasonably quiet, so I was surprised at what I heard not long after turning on my console. The fan went to full speed, and never went back down to a reasonable level.
I immediately took apart my PS3, and replaced the decade old thermal paste on top of the two processors. After replacing the thermal paste the PS3 would remain quiet for longer, but would still always end up reaching 100% fan speed.
After searching for a solution, I read that delidding the processors to replace the thermal paste underneath the heat spreaders was the solution. That's what this post is about.
RSX graphics processor IHS removal
Let's start with what I consider the easier chip to delid, the RSX graphics processor. The chip is circled in the image above. If you look around the edges of the metal heat spreader you can see that there are four pillars, one at each corner. In between those pillars are gaps.
Those pillars are memory chips, and the gaps make it really easy to remove the IHS. There isn't any sort of glue holding the IHS, just the thermal paste on those four memory chips, and the graphics die in the middle.
To remove the IHS from the RSX:
- Heat up the heat spreader using a heat gun (or hair dryer). You want it to be hot to the touch, but not so hot that the solder underneath melts.
- Stick a tool underneath the IHS in the gap that the arrow is pointing to. It's important to use the gap facing the Cell processor, because there aren't any components on the chip on that side. It's also important that you don't stick the tool too far into the gap, you might damage the RSX in the middle.
- Slowly apply a prying pressure to pry the IHS off of the chip. It's important that you don't apply too much pressure and damage the chip.
I found a video that follows these same steps. He used a butter knife to pry off the chip really quickly. I was surprised to find out that it worked. I'd recommend going slower though. I personally used a metal spudger from iFixit. I used the bigger rounded curved tool pictured on the left of the image below. It's safest to use something that's not sharp, preferably plastic, so that you are less likely to scratch the chip.
Cell processor IHS removal
I was really scared to remove the IHS from the Cell processor. When I did it I had just finished flashing custom firmware on the system, I didn't want to break the chip and have to start fresh with a new PS3. The Cell processor is much harder to remove because there is glue all the way around the chip that you have to cut.
At one point there was a tool made specifically for cutting the glue around the Cell processor, but it's not being made anymore. There are many different ways to cut the glue. Razor blades are really common, but their sharpness makes it really easy to damage the processor.
One of the more interesting methods I found was someone using a fishing line. He heated up the IHS, cut a corner of glue away, and then used fishing line to saw away the rest of the glue. In theory this should work, but the fishing line I bought was way too thick to get into where I made the cut.
I ended up using a painting knife to successfully cut the glue. They were recommended in a forum, but I was skeptical. I was surprised at how thin the knives were when they arrived in the mail. They are very thin, and not sharp at all, perfect for what I needed them to do.
Here's what I did to remove the IHS from the Cell:
- Heat up the heat spreader using a heat gun (or hair dryer). You want it to be hot to the touch, but not so hot that the solder underneath melts. I found it useful to occasionally reheat the IHS throughout the remaining steps.
- Using the painting knife marked with a "1", carefully cut the glue at one of the corners. One corner may be easier to cut than the other. It's important that you don't knock off any of the small surface mount components around the processor. Also make sure that you cut the glue, but don't cut too deeply and damage the processor. It's also important that you don't scratch the processor, keep your knife flat.
- Now cut the glue on one side of the processor. I used a combination of the "1" and "4" blades to do this.
- Repeat the third step until you have cut all of the sides away. I was able to cut three of the four sides, and all four corners, and then wiggle the IHS off.
The key with the Cell processor is to go really slowly, and be careful. There's a lot that can go wrong, many consoles have been destroyed while removing the processor's IHS. I was able to successfully remove the IHS on my first try.
Painting knives worked extremely well. I was able to get a feel for the amount of pressure needed to cut the glue. The hardest part was removing the glue on the sides where there were a lot of components on the board. That's where I found the "4" knife useful, it was long enough to reach all the way across a side of the processor.
Putting everything back together
Now that you've removed the heat spreaders from the Cell processor, and the RSX graphics processor, it's time to clean them, and put your PS3 back together.
Cleaning the heat spreaders, and processors
First you'll want to clean the heat spreaders, and the processors. I used a combination of toilet paper, an iFixit plastic spudger, and isopropyl alcohol. Use the spudger to break away any suck pieces of thermal paste, and the remaining glue. Isopropyl alcohol, and toilet paper will get rid of any of the remaining thermal paste. Make sure that you don't damage the processors, or any of the small components on them.
Applying thermal paste to the processors
Once you have cleaned the processors, you can apply thermal paste to them. It doesn't really matter what paste you use, I just used some that I already had. You'll want to apply some to the middle of the processors, and on all four of the memory chips. Then you'll want to spread the paste over the surfaces using something plastic, like an old credit card. As long as you aren't using conductive thermal paste you don't have to worry about getting the paste on the chips. In general it is better to have too much thermal paste than to have not enough. You should try to have some paste overflowing the edges of the center surfaces (around the edges of the processor die).
I used regular thermal paste, but I might end up switching to some form of metal thermal adhesive in the future. Thermal paste isn't permanent, so it can be removed and reapplied. Thermal adhesive is permanent, once it has hardened it can't be removed. The advantage of thermal adhesive is that the heat spreaders won't move out of alignment. Depending on the adhesive, it can also perform better than thermal paste. I'll make another post if I end up using thermal adhesive.
Applying thermal paste to the heat spreaders
Now that you have applied thermal paste to the processors, you can place the heat spreaders on top. You can then apply thermal paste to the tops of the heat spreaders. To do this, just put a blob of paste on top of the IHS, and spread it out over the surface using a piece of plastic like an old credit card. You may need to hold the IHS in place because it is just being held in place by thermal paste. Before you install the heatsink, make sure that the heat spreaders are centered on the processors.
The image above was taken right after I had removed the Cell's IHS. I still needed to do some cleaning up.
After delidding the processors, and putting everything back together, my PS3 ran quite a bit quieter. It was still louder than slim consoles, but it's much better than before. While playing Uncharted, the fans ran in the 50-60% range, instead of the near maximum speed that they ran before. More importantly, the fans will actually go down in speed when the game is less demanding, and when not playing a game.
I recommend that everyone replaces the thermal paste underneath their heatsinks on their gaming consoles once your warranty expires. It's really easy to do, and will keep your console alive for longer. I find it harder to recommend delidding your processors. It's a very risky process. In the case of an old PS3 that I bought for $50, there wasn't a whole lot to lose. Fortunately both the PS4 and the Xbox One don't use heat spreaders, so they don't need delidding.
Leave a comment if you have any questions.