Do You Know Your Computer's Worst Enemy?

Category: Hardware

Your computer shuts down without warning at random times? There are several possible causes, but overheating is the most likely, and easiest to solve. Read on to learn why heat is your computer's Enemy Number One, and how to keep your computer from being damaged by overheating...

Signs of Overheating - And What To Do

Electronic components in your computer and other devices generate heat. The harder they work, the more heat they generate. But heat is the mortal enemy of all things electronic. (Witness the "Exploding Samsung Note 7" debacle of 2016.) So it's important to be alert to temperature spikes in your computer, and take steps to cool it down when necessary.

How can you tell if your computer is overheating, and what can you do to keep it from frying, or worse? Sudden, inexplicable shutdowns of your computer are often due to overheating. Other symptoms of overheating include declining performance after running processor-intensive tasks for several minutes or hours. Games may run sluggishly, video may skip, and response to mouse clicks may be delayed.

More alarming are sudden software crashes, random reboots, and the dreaded Blue Screen of Death. These symptoms may have multiple causes, but overheating is one suspect that needs to be confirmed or eliminated.

heatsink fan overheating

Your computer's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) detects when the CPU, motherboard, hard drive, or graphics adapter is approaching its maximum operating temperature and shuts things down to avoid damaging that vital and expensive part. If you are experiencing seemingly random shutdowns, measure your computer's temperatures and do something to lower them immediately.

Temperature sensors are built into many computer components; the trick is accessing these sensors to read temperatures. Unfortunately, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X do not have built-in utilities to let users read temperatures. You have to find third-party software. Fortunately, there are several free temperature-monitoring utilities. Some can not only monitor temperatures but also do something to lower them.

SpeedFAN is a long-standing favorite temperature monitoring utility. It also monitors voltages in various devices and the speed of the fan(s) which cool your CPU, power supply, and other components. Some motherboards allow users to control fan speeds while others do not; if fan speed can be controlled, SpeedFan will do it automatically to optimize the fan's cooling.

NOTE: Unfortunately, the download link on the SpeedFan website is hard to find. Be sure to click the Download link near the top of the page (next to Screenshots). On the next page, look for "The latest version is..." You'll find the download link there. Clicking other links on the site may not get the desired result.

Another tool to display temperature readings is Speccy. Speccy reads temperature sensors built into your motherboard, graphics adapter and hard drives. In addition to that, Speccy also gives you detailed information on every hardware component inside your Windows computer. (See also my article What's Going On Inside My PC?)

Open Hardware Monitor is a free system monitoring program for Windows and Linux computers. It monitors all of the voltage, temperature, fan speeds and other sensors built into your motherboard, including CPU temperature.

Temp Monitor is a similar utility for Mac computers which will show you all available sensors in your Mac, and alert you when your Mac overheats. ($4.99)

CoreTemp is designed for Intel and AMD multi-core CPUs. It can monitor the temperature in each core in each processor in your system. It also has a logging feature to record temperatures over variable periods of time.

If you use a fan-speed controller that works with your system, it will provide several benefits. First, it will keep the temperature of your CPU and other components under the critical level, protecting your hardware and preventing shutdowns. Second, it will extend the life of your fan by running it only when it's really needed. Third, it will minimize that irritating noise than cooling fans often make.

Other Overheating Solutions

A good rule of thumb is to make sure your CPU temperature is under 70 degrees Celsius, but each processor has a different safe operating range. I recommend that you see my article What's Going On Inside My PC? to find out what hardware is under the hood, and then search for information on the maximum safe temperatures.

If adjusting the fan speed doesn't bring the problem under control, there are several other possible causes for overheating. Dust is one common culprit that leads to overheating. You can buy cans of compressed air to clean the dust out of heat sinks, fans and airflow vents. Crack open the system unit every few months and you'll be surprised at how much dust accumulates there, and how it affects your system temps.

Adequate air flow is important. A tower system should be placed so that its vents are not blocked by desk, wall, or other obstructions. A laptop can be elevated on a cooling pad to allow air to circulate under the machine. (In addition to cooling the laptop, this can keep your "human components" from overheating as well.)

It's possible that the fans themselves may need to be replaced. If a fan is noisy, that's a sign that it's not working properly. Some components have built-in fans that can fail. This recently happened to the graphics adapter on my desktop machine. My computer was shutting down unexpectedly, and SpeedFan revealed that the temperature of that component was hitting 120 Celsius (about 250 degrees Fahrenheit). After opening the system unit case, I saw that the fan attached to the graphics card wasn't spinning.

Another computer in my office would occasionally make a loud sound that I can best describe as a combination of a "moo" and a buzz. Opening the case did not reveal any miniature cows or bees, but I did find a noisy fan with a bad bearing. As a temporary workaround in both situations, I left the case open and cooled things down with a small clip-on electric fan, until I was able to replace the failing components. Ebay is a great place to find these parts at a good price, and the only tool you'll need is a screw driver for repairs of this type. If you're hesitant to go the do-it-yourself route, you can find YouTube tutorials on how to fix almost anything.

It could also be that the thermal seal between the CPU and the heat sink (which draws heat away) is not good. You can remove the heat sink and reapply thermal grease, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Again, YouTube is your friend.

Do you have questions or tips on how to resolve computer overheating problems? Post a comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Do You Know Your Computer's Worst Enemy?"

Posted by:

07 Feb 2020

The worst computer's enemy is its user. Period.

The article, by the way perfectly illustrates that - if a user didn't pay attention, the computer will be toasted.

Posted by:

07 Feb 2020

Bob is correct about fans and ventilation. I tend to keep my computers for a number of years(10 or more). I periodically open up my computers, vacuum out the dust, make sure the fans are working. Occasionally I have found a fan that is running slowly or has stopped completely. Sometimes just cleaning it fixes that. Other times I have had to put in a new fan. That's usually not difficult although some seem to be put inside the power supply in such a way that it is hard to get to. But still much cheaper than buying a new computer.

Several other things that can go bad over time on an old computer are the backup batteries for the BIOS. They are often difficult to get to in a laptop.

And as Bob has mentioned many times, disk drives have an average life of about 4 years. So expect them to fail eventually, and make sure you have good backups (and a good backup strategy).

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
07 Feb 2020

As well as a can of compressed air, you can use the compressor of your workshop, but lake sure when you blow at the CPU, case or PSU fan you fist poke a screwdriver between the blades to keep the fans from spinning madly: Over-revving a fan is a good way to shorten its life....
PSU fans are not usually replaced, since the PSU usually burns out if the fan fails, but it is worth having a spare CPU fan or two, as well as a case fans, so you can replace it as soon as it gives signs of being tired.

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
07 Feb 2020

My 3 year old HP Core i7 15 inch laptop started making a loud whirring fan noise, but only when it was cold. For example, after being in the trunk of our car after a trip in the winter it would make the noise until it warmed up, maybe 10 minutes. I took it apart attempting to lubricate the fan, but the fan bearings were sealed so I had to replace the fan. That's only a 10-minute job for this laptop and it fixed the problem.

Posted by:

07 Feb 2020

You betcha! Keeping the inside of ones computer, especially if it is a Desktop, is paramount to the lasting life of your computer. I have repaired many computers, in my day, and the first thing I always do ... Is clean out all of the DUST BUNNIES inside. After I have cleaned out the insides, I can then get to the business at hand, repairing or looking for what needs to be fixed.

I have tried to explain to the owners that keeping the insides clean of dust, is vitally important. If, you want your own car to run without any problems, you have to do maintanance regularly to keep the car in good condition. Your computer is no different. You want to have it working at its optimate, so maintance is the answer.

Posted by:

Ernest Wilcox
07 Feb 2020

I initially chose the system I am using as my day-to-day computer for my twin brother. When he passed away, I 'inherited' it - I fondly remember him each time I sit down to work or play.

During the fall - early winter of 1999, it began to auto-shut-down. I use Core Temp here, and I watched CPU temperature rise above 70 degrees Celsius as I did every-day operations.

I opened the case and used a can of compressed air to clean it out to no avail. The system temperature was still far too high during normal non-intensive operations, so I looked online and purchased a new CPU cooler.

It is my practice to get the best hardware I can afford so it will serve me well now, and continue to do so into the future - even when I do upgrades.

I later decided to upgrade my CPU to get improved performance (went from an Athlon II to a Phenom II - the best that this main-board can support).

Overall, with the newer CPU, my CPU temperature still runs in the lower 30 degree Celsius range - even when performing resource-intensive tasks.

I now have a reminder set to "Clean the system!" every three months.

FWIW, this article is smack-on-the-spot. I may check out some of the other suggestions above to see if they provide better information (I already use Speccy - excellent utility IMHO).

Thank you Bob,


Posted by:

Craig T
07 Feb 2020

I have an all-in-one (AIO) desktop computer. Any tips on how to assure there not a dust or heat problem ? There is only one small "vent" on the backside of the computer base.

Posted by:

07 Feb 2020

Thermal Control is one of the prime benefits of DIY PC builds. I currently run a 15% overclocked Intel i7 CPU and I was willing to pay extra for 10-year warranteed Noctua fans for case and CPU; without resorting to liquid cooling. Every few years, I replace the CPU' thermal paste, as this goo has just a few years of "shelf"-life, which keeps the variable (4-wire PWM) fans mostly off or at low-speeds.

Posted by:

07 Feb 2020

You wouldn't believe the size and amount of dust bunnies I find inside desktops! When I bring a PC into my shop, first thing I do is turn on my compressor and blow out volumes of dust. If there's room, I will invariably add a second cooling fan. The worst offending machines are ones that live on the floor. Dust trravels with cold air currents along the floor and the fans suck it into the box. I stress to my clients to get the box off the floor. Even 4" is enough to reduce db's. I make it a point to blow out servers I maintain annually, uslly during the Cmas vaca.

Posted by:

08 Feb 2020

I used to have this problem on an old laptop but solved it by buying an inexpensive twin fan stand from which sits under laptop.

Posted by:

David Goldman
17 Feb 2020


Posted by:

M. Grontkowski
18 Feb 2020

I had a laptop that had an overheating problem. It took a while but I tracked it down to the GPU. The processor temperature was fine but the GPU was running hot and shutting the system down. I wound up using GPU-Z to track down the temp rise and subsequent shutdown. The internal fan was not sufficient to keep the GPU cool, so I added an external fan over the air exhaust vents. The fan draws the air through the entire cooling path of the laptop and it has been the only thing that has kept that laptop running.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2020

I read that you have trouble finding 'Speedfan' to download.
I checked Major Geeks for 'Speedfan' and sure enough, they have it:-

I always download nerdy stuff from Major Geeks.
Surf the site, like the site or the bunny gets it; I have been a member for yonks, just like I have been a member to receive a newsletter for yonks from Bob.

stay safe everyone :)

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