Updated on 27 June 2017.
Laptops have become more powerful and compact than ever before. A steep increase in CPU performance was facilitated by chips that are ever more densely packed with transistors. In parallel, slimmer cases pack an ever increasing number of processors and stronger graphics cards support bigger screens with higher resolutions. These developments come at a cost: excess heat.
The greatest threat for your laptop, except for your coffee mug, is overheating. It can cause hardware failure and permanent damage. Let me show you how to prevent or fix an overheating laptop and thus improve the performance and extend the lifespan of your computer.
The Basics of Overheating Computers
How Do You Know Your Laptop Is Overheating?
Just because your laptop seems hotPC Operating Temperatures: How Hot Is Too Hot?PC Operating Temperatures: How Hot Is Too Hot?Excessive heat can affect your computer's performance and your hard drive's lifespan. But how can you tell if it's overheating or just hot?Read More doesn’t mean it’s overheating.
A sure sign that your notebook gets too hot though is when your fan is always running at maximum speed. You may also experience reduced performance because the CPU cuts back its clock speed to escape heat pressure. Moreover, the fail-safe software may trigger a sudden shut down to prevent hardware damage.
If you want to measure the actual heat values inside your laptop, you can use a tool like HWMonitor.
What Causes Overheating?
In two words: insufficient cooling.
Potential reasons include dust blocking intake grills or exhaust ports, a clogged up fan, or a degenerated thermal grease (aka thermal compound) between the heat sink and the CPU. You can fix all of these things yourself, though some jobs will be tougher than others.
If you need a quick fix and don’t have the handy skills to de-lid your CPUTwo Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPUTwo Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPULooking to purchase a Haswell or Ivy Bridge Intel CPU? A secret may change your mind. According to bloggers, Intel recently got caught using thermal paste on its CPUs and lying about it – the...Read More and apply fresh thermal paste, read on.
How Can You Prevent or Fix an Overheating Laptop?
Several simple hardware fixes can cure overheating.
1. Fix Internal Cooling
The first and most important thing you need to do when your laptop is overheating is to clean the fan(s) that provide(s) cooling to the CPU and graphics card. Over time, they build up layers of dust and dirt that slow them down and block airflow. Consult your laptop’s manual or manufacturer to find out how you can open the laptop to access and clean these parts.
Before you attempt to do any cleaning, however, follow these steps:
- Shut down the computer
- Remove the battery
- Unplug the power strip
- Ground yourself
Carefully clean the fan(s) with a cotton swab dipped in a drop of alcohol. Make sure the alcohol has completely evaporated before you reconnect the laptop to the power. You can also use a vacuum cleaner to remove the dust and dirt that clocks up the fan(s). To prevent damage to the fan, do not let it revolve in the wrong direction. If you want to use canned air to clean the fan, arrest the fan by holding it down.
Next, you can clean the exhaust port by sucking out air with a vacuum cleaner. The exhaust port usually sits on the side of the laptop. It’s the opening that blows out hot air.
The intake grills are small openings that allow air to be sucked into the laptop by the revolving fans. They can sit on the sides or at the bottom of your notebook. To clear the intake grills, spray them with canned air.
Finally, you can apply fresh thermal grease to the interface between the CPU and its heat sink. Again, please consult the laptop’s manual or manufacturer to obtain instructions on how to disassemble these components.
See our guide on cleaning out dust from your MacBook or iMacHow to Clean Out Dust From Your MacBook or iMacHow to Clean Out Dust From Your MacBook or iMacCleaning dust out of a Mac isn't as easy as cleaning dust out of a PC, but it's not impossible. Here's what you need to know.Read More if that’s the hardware you use. Furthermore, Inside My Laptop has some great tutorials on how to fix your laptop, including how to apply thermal grease on your laptop’s processor.
2. Keep the Laptop on a Hard & Flat Surface
Most laptops suck in cooling air through their bottoms. Uneven surfaces, like a blanket, pillow, or your lap, obstruct your laptop’s airflow5 Ways To Utterly Destroy Your Laptop, Slowly But Surely5 Ways To Utterly Destroy Your Laptop, Slowly But SurelyYour laptop is a fragile piece of machinery. It’s a complex system packed with fast hardware, yet it also finds itself in constant use. This is how you prolong its lifespan.Read More. Subsequently, the cooling is impaired, heat builds up, the surface becomes hot, the temperature of sucked in cooling air increases, and eventually the laptop overheats.
This scenario is easily avoided by keeping the laptop on a hard and flat surface. You can use something as simple as a tray or get a special laptop holder or lap stand. We’ve previously shown you how to build your own laptop stand or you could buy a laptop tray.
Personally, I’m using this laptop stand for surfing on the sofa:
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3. Invest in a Laptop Cooler or Cooling Pad
Laptop coolers are meant to provide additional cooling. However, getting the wrong cooler can actually make the problem worse. Before you purchase a cooler, you need to understand the flow of air into and out of your laptop.
As mentioned above, most laptops suck in air for cooling from the bottom. This makes sense because warm air rises upwards. However, a cooler that sits underneath the laptop and sucks air away from it, does not contribute to laptop cooling and rather accelerates overheating.
If your laptop has intake grills at its bottom, purchase a cooler that blows cool air upwards, i.e. into the laptop. You can also get a passive cooler that does not consume power and merely absorbs heat.
If you’re handy, you can build your own laptop cooler or cooling pad5 Cool DIY Ways To Keep Your Laptop Cool5 Cool DIY Ways To Keep Your Laptop CoolRead More. We even found a solution that will cost you under five bucks!
What Are Potential Software Fixes?
If none of the hardware fixes result in lasting improvements, you can also revert to software fixes that address the performance and power usage of your laptop. However, addressing excessive heat with a software fix means you give up performance in favor of preserving the hardware.
You can either reduce the brightness of your screen or reduce the CPU clock speed. In Windows, underclocking or undervolting is done in the BIOS, but can also be controlled through software tools. Consult our undervolting guideHow Undervolting Decreases Heat & Increases Battery LifeHow Undervolting Decreases Heat & Increases Battery LifeWould you believe that many computers and smartphones can run cooler and consume less power? A trick exists, called undervolting, which can increase your CPU's efficiency with few drawbacks. If performed right, devices generally produce...Read More for more information about this procedure.
If you own a MacBook, try one of these fixesMacBook Air Overheating? 5 Things You Can DoMacBook Air Overheating? 5 Things You Can DoYou might think your MacBook is overheating if it sounds like a hairdryer and feels like a grill. Here are some things to try when you can no longer stand the heat.Read More.
The Top 3 Signs Your Laptop Is Overheating
Finally, let’s lighten this up a little. This list was inspired by a Top 11 list on BBSpot.
- You’ve underclocked the CPU so much that the Commodore 64 team is overtaking you on Folding@Home.
- Frodo tosses the one ring into your keyboard.
- Al Gore shows up to kick your ass.
How often do you clean your laptop to save it from overheating? Do you have any additional tips and tricks to share? Let us know in the comments section below!
Image Credit: alphaspirit via Shutterstock.com
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One of the most common issues with aging laptops is overheating, something many people aren’t sure how to fix. We’ll help you figure out what’s causing the heat and how to keep your notebook functioning at a lower temperature.
Overheating computers can cause a lot of problems, from seemingly random blue screen crashes to data loss. You might not even realize that overheating is the root of your issues, and before you know it you have a burnt-out motherboard on your hands. Let’s go step by step and see how you can deal with an overheating computer. We’ll be talking primarily about laptops, but many of the same principles apply to desktop computers, as well. And as always, before you start messing around with hardware—especially anything involving disassembly—take the time to back up your PC first.
Step One: Find the Heat Source
The first thing you’ll want to do in diagnosing an overheating problem is to find where the heat is coming from.
Check Air Flow and Heat Transfer
Just like with desktop computers, laptops need a way to expel the hot air created by their components. No air flow means no heat transfer, so your first step should be figuring out where the air vents are located. Most laptops have vents on the bottom.
And some—especially thicker models—have vents on the back panel.
You’ll likely see multiple vents. Some are intake vents where cool air gets drawn into the laptop and some are outflow vents where fans expel the hot air.
While the laptop is running—and ideally while it’s running a taxing app—check to see if the outflow vents are blowing hot air and the intake vents are letting air in. If you’re not feeling much airflow at all, the most common cause is an accumulation of dust in the vents, fans, and cooling channels. It’s not too hard to clean out this dust. Turn your laptop upside-down and look at what you’ve got.
You may be able to get by with just blowing the dust from the vents using a can of compressed air. If you have a laptop that makes the fans easily accessible through panels you can remove, unscrew those panels and lift out the fan so you can blow the dust out even better.
And while the fan is out, don’t forget to blow out the area where the fan sits, as well.
If you find that a fan is spinning erratically, you may want to try lifting the sticker off of the axle and putting a drop of mineral oil to keep it going. You can also use contact cleaner, which is designed to evaporate quickly and leave no residue.
If you find that your fan is too gummed up with dust or other debris and just doesn’t spin freely, you can also try to look up the part number from your laptop’s user manual or by searching your laptop model number online. Once you have that, you can find replacements pretty easily on eBay and the like.
Check for Dying Batteries
There are plenty of different types of batteries, and many different schools of thought on battery maintenance and life span, but one thing that seems pretty unanimous is that batteries aren’t meant to be stored at 100% or 0% capacity. I know plenty of people who buy laptops and always keep the charger in—never actually using the battery. This can definitely reduce a battery’s life span, since you’re essentially storing the battery when it’s full. And bad batteries don’t just give out all of a sudden. As they slowly get less efficient (and finally die), they can generate a lot of heat.
You can buy replacement batteries pretty easily online—even for older laptops. You just need to know the model your computer and battery. If you can’t find a replacement, you could also consider using your laptop as a desktop by removing the overheating battery completely from the equation.
Deal with Persistent Overheating
If you’ve eliminated dirty air vents and a dying battery as your problem, then you might have a more persistent heat issue. Sometimes a dusty hard drive can cause heat problems and data loss. Some laptops just “run hot,” even without a major load on the CPU. Try cleaning out these areas as best you can before you move on to another solution.
Dust under the processor and RAM doors to get rid of any dust and debris. If you’ve got a netbook or a laptop without compartments underneath, things might be more difficult. You should be able to find instructions for getting the back off so you can clean things properly, but it often involves a fair bit of disassembly.
Step Two: Lighten the Load
If you suspect your computer’s heat is related processing load rather than hardware, you can try some tricks to better manage those processes. Fire up the Windows Task Manager to see what’s using your CPU so intensively. It might help to limit what apps start automatically with Windows and even change the order of the startup processes that are necessary. The staggered loading of software will help balance your processor’s load.
You can also install and run Process Explorer to see the files that each process has open and its associated CPU usage over time. This can help you decide what to get rid of and what to spare. We’re also big fans of CCleaner, which allows you to clean history and cache files as well as manage your startup applications quickly and easily. You can free up some much needed space that way and get a little more efficiency out of your OS.
If you want to keep an eye on the temperature of your laptop, you can use an application like Speccy or any number of others to keep an eye on what’s going on.
If you’re using Linux instead, you might want to consider a more spartan distro. I’ve personally had a lot of success with Crunchbang. A clean install leaves me with Openbox as a window manager, a nice dock, and some nice desktop effects, along with only 80MB of RAM usage. It’s based on Debian, so there’s a good amount of compatibility with software. If you run Arch, you might want to try ArchBang instead, which is the same thing but built on Arch instead of Debian.
Step Three: Look for Behavior Changes
The freedom that laptop owners enjoy by not being tethered to a chair and desk can actually work against us. We develop a lot of habits—like browsing in bed—that can cause overheating issues. A lot of laptops are designed with their air vents on the bottom, so setting the laptop down on soft bedding or carpet for prolonged use is a bad idea. You’d be surprised at how quickly the heat can build up when those vents are blocked.
If you this is a habit, you might consider investing in a laptop cooling pad to keep the air flow unobstructed. There are even powered versions that help direct cool air into the underside vents of your laptop. Some even come with USB hubs and other bells and whistles.
Sure, these will make your laptop less mobile, but if it helps with overheating then at least you’ll have a laptop that runs.
Step Four: Repurpose the Laptop
If you just can’t use your computer as a laptop anymore, consider repurposing it. The compact motherboards fit great inside of older and smaller computer cases and cardboard boxes. These kinds of rigs are great for in-drawer HTPCs, closet-servers, or under-the-desk mounted workstations. You’ll have to be a bit more careful if you leave the guts exposed, but depending on the room, it can cut down on dust problems. You can also regulate air flow a bit better and mount some standard computer fans in clever places, like in the back and sides of the drawer or desk.
Another idea is to try running a very light-weight version of Linux, and use the laptop for something that isn’t very CPU-intensive—like a file server. The lack of processor-heavy tasks will keep the temperature low, but you can still get some use out of it. And, if you’re only ditching the battery, then you can leave things inside the case and stick it on a shelf as a head-less (SSH and command-line only) server. The possibilities are endless!
I hate seeing machines go to waste. My last project took a seven-year-old overheating Dell Inspiron 9100 and turned it into a cool-running under-the-table HTPC. Have you recently given an overheating laptop new life? Have some better tips for temperature management? Know what to kill to keep CPU load light? Share in the comments!
Image credits: Bryan Gosline, mray, and Justin Garrison.