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Update: Lenovo responds | ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 failure: What's happening, why it's happening, and how to fix it

Thunderbolt 3 functionality is failing across multiple ThinkPad variants.
Thunderbolt 3 functionality is failing across multiple ThinkPad variants.
Nearly 40 ThinkPad models have a problem - the Thunderbolt 3 ports in them randomly stop working. Lenovo has pushed out a fix to users, but what does it do? Does it actually solve the problem? If it doesn't, are the devices even repairable, and will Lenovo repair your device for free?
Loki Rautio,

Recently, we published an article about a widespread issue with Thunderbolt 3 on certain ThinkPad laptops. We're still learning more about this issue as time goes on, but currently we don't have any official information other than what's publicly available (like info from the knowledge base). There's an on-going investigation (and discussion) happening on Reddit about this topic, which can be found here.

I'll be updating this article as more information arrives, but here's what we know right now.

Last updated on 1/25/2020 at 2:30pm (CST (GMT-6))

  • Added Lenovo's official statement about this issue.  
  • Adjusted the article to reflect official statement

What's going on?

If you missed our article about the issue, or you simply just don't know what this article is about, there are a variety of symptoms for this issue. Lenovo notes these symptoms on their knowledge base page:

  • USB-C port not working
  • Intel Thunderbolt controller not visible in the OS/Device Manager
  • USB-C or Thunderbolt docking stations not visible or having connectivity problems
  • HDMI output not available
  • System battery not charging with a USB-C power adapter connected to the USB-C port
  • Intel Thunderbolt pop-up error message
  • Intel Thunderbolt safe mode error message
  • BIOS Thunderbolt communication error or hang during POST

Basically, if your USB-C stops working (for charging or otherwise), you might be running into this issue. A number of ThinkPads rely on the Thunderbolt 3 chip for communicating with their power delivery ICs (based on the schematics, part numbers, and change logs), so the Thunderbolt chip failing (either software or hardware wise) could mean restricted (15w) or no charging.

Affected Alpine Ridge controllers (2016) PCI IDs: 15bf 15d9 15d2

Affected Titan Ridge controllers (2018) PCI IDs: 15eb 

Why is this happening?

Lenovo shared an official statement with us on 1/25/2019 regarding the cause of this issue, as well as answering a few of our questions directly. (Our article with this statement specifically can be found here.) This is Lenovo's statement on the issue.

Lenovo identified and provided a fix for this issue in August 2019, since when the patch has been pushed through Lenovo Vantage to affected users. While we believe that the impact of this will be minimal, should customers experience difficulties, they should contact Lenovo Technical Support who will be glad to help.

Regarding specific issues, things are looking rather grim. Lenovo says that the old version of the firmware has an issue in it that will damage the SPI-ROM over time. Devices running this version of the firmware for any meaningful amount of time likely have damage on their chip which is not able to be fixed via software.

Unfortunately for everyone, this means that repairing this issue now requires either a board swap or a bit of soldering. Luckily, Winbond SPI-ROMs aren't hard to come by for out of warranty users. Regardless, it's unfortunate that this occurred on so many devices.

What was our theory on why this was happening?

The issue seemed to be Intel's (not Lenovo's) NVM (Non-Volatile Memory) firmware. This was based on the fact that, for one, the NVM firmware is highlighted specifically in the knowledge base page, and also because each device affected has had their NVM firmware updated. We're still aren't sure exactly what the purpose of this firmware is for the Thunderbolt functionality, but online resources are generally pointing towards it being the Intel-provided firmware for the controllers themselves (basically, it provides TB3 functionality). Based on Lenovo's statement, any other Thunderbolt 3 devices on the same firmware and controller would likely exhibit similar symptoms. However, there are no confirmed cases.

Here's a snippet from the X1 Carbon Gen6's changelog (found by u/heljara).

 

ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen6 Thunderbolt Controller:
   New version:       43.00
   Remote ID:         lvfs
   Summary:           Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen6 Thunderbolt Firmware
   License:           Proprietary
   Size:              262.1 kB
   Vendor:            Lenovo Ltd.
   Description:       Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen6 Thunderbolt Firmware
       
   Fix Thunderbolt SPI ROM Wear out issue.
       
   This Firmware is just for units which Thunderbolt BIOS Assist Mode is set to "enabled" in the BIOS.
       
   Revise FW version typo,"43.0.0" is typo, it should be “43.00”, they are the same version, no need update again.
       
   DO NOT FORCE UPDATE Thunderbolt Controller. This may damage the firmware.

This snippet seems to suggest that there's a wear-out problem somewhere related to Thunderbolt 3, but not specifically where.

Theories were that the old firmware was causing unnecessary writes to the chip that stores the Thunderbolt controller firmware, causing wear over time. Over the course of a year or so, depending on how much is being written to the chip, the chip may start to go bad and the firmware could corrupt. This was our most accurate theory on the issue.

Another theory was that the issue has something to do with how Lenovo is handling updates for the Thunderbolt 3 firmware. However, this was revealed to not be the issue.

Is the problem fixed?

Yes, this problem is fixed. Lenovo seems to have identified that the old firmware was causing damage to the SPI-ROM in some way while the new firmware doesn't. There's little to no reason to worry about any further damage after a firmware update at this point.

Can we repair laptops with this problem ourselves?

Maybe. The first course of action should be running the latest Thunderbolt 3 updates per the instructions at Lenovo's knowledgebase. If that doesn't work, be sure to get in touch with Lenovo and let them know. We'd advise against doing anything you're uncomfortable doing in an attempt to repair this, especially if you're in warranty still.

A guest with the name "x380" replied to our previous article on this topic and said this:

Also had issues with my x380 thunderbolt [...] the issue was the 8 mbit flash chip where thunderbolt firmware is written, so i,ve (sic) replaced it with another flash and worked again. [...]

Lenovo has told us that the physical SPI-ROM chip is becoming physically damaged, not the actual Alpine or Titan Ridge controllers becoming damaged themselves. Depending on how severe the damage is to the SPI-ROM, a fix might be running the official flashing software, using a clip to manually flash the firmware, or replacing the entire Winbond chip and flashing it manually again.

On Nadim's Posts, you can read about a user fixing their Thunderbolt 3 firmware on a ThinkPad P1 for unrelated reasons here. There are details about how he went about fixing his broken Thunderbolt configuration by manually flashing the firmware with a clip.

Will Lenovo repair my computer?

At the moment, only if you're under warranty. Lenovo seems to be turning down users for repairs if this issue occurs after their warranty period, despite the issue supposedly being due to official updates from Lenovo themselves. We'll let you know if this changes, but based on user reports, you need warranty coverage right now to get this repaired.

u/jcornuz on Reddit mentions how Lenovo wanted the user to pay for the motherboard replacement because the device was recently out of warranty in this post. Providing an out-of-warranty repair program for this issue seems like the appropriate thing to do in this situation, and unfortunately Lenovo doesn't have one at this time. This could change in the future, and we'd be happy to report on that when it does. Apple and Dell have introduced repair programs for similar failures in the past, so we're hoping Lenovo will do the same.

What should I do?

Update your drivers and firmware ASAP. If you're looking at used hardware affected by this issue, make sure to check if the Thunderbolt 3 and charging is functioning properly before your return period closes. If you're out of warranty and experiencing this problem, going to Lenovo's Product Forums and complaining about the lack of free repair over this problem might be worth your time. If you've already spent money trying to fix this, posting on the forums might also be advisable for seeking compensation.

If you've experienced this issue first-hand, we'd love to hear how you resolved the situation down below in the comments.

 

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2020 01 > ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 failure: What's happening, why it's happening, and how to fix it
Loki Rautio, 2020-01-24 (Update: 2020-05-15)
Loki Rautio
Loki Rautio - News Editor
When I was 9, I tried to modify a PC game. The mod I made worked (mostly) and sparked my current, intense interest in software development. A few years later, that interest led me to experiment with all kinds of tech around the house, which has ultimately given me an eye for small, but substantial, problems in devices and software. I'm now writing articles about technology and its nuances for Notebookcheck.