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Laptop Overheating: If You Can’t Take the Heat, Don’t!

Mobile computing has become something that our world takes for granted in this age.  Whether it be a laptop computer, net book, or one of the increasingly popular tablet PC’s, almost everyone relies on some form of mobile computing power.  While smaller options like tablets and even smartphones have started to let us leave the laptop at home much of the time, there are still circumstances where it becomes necessary(or possibly just more desirable) to have that full computing power in a smaller package.  However, there are several things to look out for when you come across a reason to pull out the laptop.



Keeping Your Laptop From Overheating

I’m talking about the number one killer of laptop hardware(well, maybe second to being dropped), heat! Since a laptop is a portable device much like our phones and tablets, most people don’t think of the differences in how they run and how to maintain them.  Many people have probably been told at one point or another, “Don’t put your laptop on your bed.”  If you haven’t, you should go make friends with your nearest friendly geek so that you have this advice available.  Whether you’ve heard this or not, you should know that laptops can get hot, especially if you’re using it for heavy load stuff like music production, video editing, or 4K gaming.  But what does this heat do, and how is it harmful to the computer itself?

Let’s take a look at a desktop for a moment, because a laptop is essentially just a compacted version of the same hardware.  Upon removing the side casing from a desktop, the most prominent thing inside the case is usually a large fan attached to a grid or spiral of metal fins.  These fins taper down into a flat metal square that sits directly on top of the CPU itself.  Thermal paste is applied between the CPU and cooler to smoothly transfer heat up into the fins to get dispersed by the fan.  In a desktop, there isn’t much to worry about except for having that paste replaced every 3-4 years and keeping the computer dust free.  In a laptop however, many other factors can cause a spike in temperature.

So now, I’m going to be your geek friend for a moment and give you some advice.  Don’t put your laptop on your bed or even your lap, as strange as that may sound. Every bit of hardware is compacted into the small case of a laptop, there isn’t a lot of room for air to move around.  The laptop needs fresh, cool air in order to properly dissipate heat off the much smaller fins.  In a laptop, these fins connect to your graphics chip as well, meaning extra heat, and ninety percent of laptops have the intake vents located infuriatingly on the bottom.  When these are blocked, the fan begins cycling hot air from inside the case, and it is unable to cool the chip to a proper temperature.  If these higher temperatures are maintained, suddenly the paste that would last for years dries out in under a year and causes an even worse issue, dissipating an even larger amount of heat. Then, on top of all of that, you still have to watch out for dust and attempt to clean it out of a much smaller space.

Even after explaining how a laptop can get into a cycle of overheating, you may be asking yourself, “Why do I care?”  In many cases, overheating won’t actually cause the laptop to detect risk of damage, and so it will continue to run.  Like I said in the beginning though, this is a leading killer of laptops.  In my 3 years of experience as a computer technician, I have seen about 60% of laptop hardware failures to be related to overheating.  This is sometimes due to the bad design of a laptop, but usually relates to bad choice of where to put it during use.

So what actually breaks in the laptop?  It can vary, again depending on cooler design, but most of the time either the graphics chip(physically attached to the motherboard in most cases) or the CPU(removable) begins to separate.  Repeated high heat from use and cooling when shut off causes the layers of the chip to expand and contract much more than originally designed to.  Over time slight separation or warping occurs inside the chip, making transfer of heat within the chip itself no longer consistent, and even breaking circuits inside the chip if severe enough.  Once this begins to display itself by slowing down or crashing the computer, the issue is generally progressed past a point where it can be fixed; you have to buy a new motherboard, CPU, or even an entirely new laptop.  Even if it doesn’t get that bad, the higher the heat your computer runs at, the less lifetime it has. Period.


So, here are a few guidelines to make sure you get the full life out of your laptop.

  1. Always put it on a hard, flat surface that is free from dust.
  2. Every six months, take a can of air(not a compressor), and dust out the vents and keyboard.
  3. If your laptop feels hot, get a cooling fan base for it to sit on.  Proper temperature at idle(turned on, not being used) should be under 50-55 degrees Celsius.  When the laptop is in use this temperature should not exceed 70 degrees Celsius.  If you’re a techie like me, you can use SpeedFan to check temperatures, but a good rule of thumb is that if it’s too hot to touch the bottom for an extended period of time, it’s getting too hot.  If the laptop is over 2 years old and just started doing this, it may indicate number 4.
  4. Approximately every 2-3 years, get a technician to replace your thermal paste. In a laptop, this can be a delicate job, but it’s worth the roughly hundred to hundred and fifty dollars to make the laptop run well for another 2-3 years.

Properly maintained, there is absolutely no replacement for a laptop when you really need one.  Whether you’re gaming on the go, taking your work home with you, or writing an article from the comfort of a local coffee shop, your laptop is a device that gets a lot of use.  So next time you go to pull out your laptop, take a moment to think about how you use it; you might just get another year or two out of your investment.

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