Is Your Laptop Overheating?

Category: Laptops

Laptop computers get hot. All those electronic components crammed solidly into a small space generate lots of excess heat. The heat can shorten the life of the electronics, and it can be uncomfortable for the user balancing a laptop on his or her lap. So what can you do to cool your laptop? Read on...

laptop overheating

Laptop Cooling Fans

Aside from the fact that heat can damage electronics, there are apocryphal tales of people suffering burns from overheated laptops, and also credible reports of laptops exploding into flames. So consider each of these tips to keep the temperature of your laptop to a practical minimum.

Keeping the laptop's built-in cooling fan running longer is one option. Laptop fans are controlled by software which switches a fan on when temperatures measured at critical points on the motherboard get too high, and switches the fan off when temperatures fall into an "acceptable" range. The problem is, what's acceptable for a CPU chip may be too hot for your lap.

Check your laptop's documentation and the maker's website. Your laptop may come with software that lets you set the fan to "always on", or you may be able to find a third-party program to control your laptop model's fan. SpeedFan and Notebook Hardware Control are two free programs that work with hundreds of computer models. Both of them will monitor your internal temps and display the info on the taskbar.

So how hot is too hot? Documentation on the acceptable temperature range is sometimes hard to come by, but if it's burning your legs, or the bottom of the unit is too hot to touch, that's too hot. If your laptop continues to runs hot after adjusting the fans, you may have a defect that should be addressed by the vendor or a repair shop. If you have any doubts, do some Googling and see if others with the same model are having the same problem.

An external fan can supplement the built-in cooling fan of your laptop, and keep cooling when the laptop's fan shuts off. These fans are about two inches square and latch onto the air vent from which hot air blows from your laptop. They're powered by USB ports or, in some cases, batteries. The downside of external fans is that a laptop often won't fit into its bag with an external fan attached; the fan must be attached and detached often.

Laptop Cooling Pads

Laptop cooling pads are basically slabs of metal or plastic that sit between your lap and your laptop, protecting you from heat. Well-designed laptop cooling pads absorb and dissipate heat from the laptop's case. There are several factors to consider when purchasing a laptop cooling pad.

First, metal beats plastic when it comes to sucking heat out of a laptop. Aluminum cooling pads can be as effective as the aluminum heat sink that sits atop the CPU chip inside your computer. Plastic is generally an insulator and does not do a good job of draining heat away from the laptop. Metal is generally more durable than plastic, too.

A passive cooling pad has no fans built into it. It depends on external air flow to move hot air away from the pad and the laptop. A passive cooling pad that leaves a gap between laptop and itself is virtually useless. The gap isn't wide enough to let air move freely in large volumes, and even a metal pad won't absorb heat from a laptop it isn't in contact with.

Active cooling pads have fans built into their surfaces to draw cool air across the hottest parts of a laptop's bottom. A gap between pad and laptop case is essential with an active cooling pad. Make sure the cooling pad has a fan directly under the hot spot(s) on your laptop's bottom. Feel the bottom of your laptop after it's been running about half an hour to find the spot(s) where fans will do the most good.

Bear in mind that active cooling with fans, internal or external, consumes electricity and shortens battery life. But if you have to make the tradeoff between battery life and the lifespan of your laptop, the choice is pretty clear.

Do you have something to say about laptop cooling? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Is Your Laptop Overheating?"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Jack mccurdy
24 Feb 2010

Laptops have a small passage way, that pulls air from outside, to the heat sink, or one from the heat sink to the outside. This gets plugged up with lint. You have to take the cover off the bottom, and blow it out with compressed air, along with the fins on the heat sink. I fixed one that had it so bad, the bottom of it would burn you in a couple of seconds, then it would shut down. I cleaned out the large fuzz ball, and removed the heat sink, then cleaned it with alcohol and applied Arctic silver thermal paste. Then reformatted it with windows 7, and it runs perfectly to this day. Also putting them on blankets or pillows is the worse thing you can do. The guy was lucky he didn't take it to a shop, There's a very good chance he would have gotten the universal diagnosis of "Bad Motherboard that will be 300 dollars sir" I can't tell you how many times I have done simple repairs, that were supposedly bad motherboards. So if you have one that's getting super hot and shutting down it's probably a big fuzz ball packed in the tiny little passage way. But after they have been really hot, it's a good idea to re apply thermal paste, because it looses it's ability to transfer heat as well as it should. On some laptops you can only access it by removing the keyboard and monitor, but if you download the service manual, it's not very hard, unless you are really bad at tinkering with stuff. Then most people have at least one friend who is good at stuff like that. Remember Google is your friend.


Posted by:

myself
24 Feb 2010

My laptop overheating problem was solved instantly by blowing out the dust with a can of compressed air. Everytime it begins to consistently run too hot, I blow it out again and the problem stops.


Posted by:

Bill Knowles
24 Feb 2010

I have had two Toshiba laptops in my household, over the past 6 years. Both of them kept shutting down due to overheating. The latest one is a Satellite A210-04f, Model PSAFGC-04f08c. I will never buy another Toshiba Laptop again. It seems that they can't build/engineer a laptop to stop this recurring problem.


Posted by:

Bruce Houghton
24 Feb 2010

When you are running on batteries, your laptop screen intensity drops and the CPU generally runs slower, so you use less power and should not need additional cooling, unless you are blocking the air vents.
When you are plugged into AC power and need extra cooling, use external power for the cooling fan instead of drawing more power and generate more heat in the laptop.
Never place a laptop on a soft surface like a rug or foam surface as it will block the bottom air inlets and increase the laptop's internal heat.


Posted by:

Russ
24 Feb 2010

With your notebook unplugged and turned off, I have blown some dust out of the fins and fan area. Can you take a vacuum and do a better job of cleaning out the dust bunnies clogging the fins and cooling path? What if you have a bad fan? How hard are they to change out? Can you get easy access to the fins/fan to clean them out?

Russ


Posted by:

dizzeedudlee
25 Feb 2010

HI Bob,
Even though they're called laptops,it's actually not a good idea,to put them,on your lap,or any other soft,flexible surface.If the PCs are placed there,it usually blocks the vents,& makes the computer run hot,even if the fan is always on.It's always best to use a laptop,on a hard surface,like a desk or table.If you have to use it,on your lap,it's a good idea,to possibly carry a thin board,that fits your laptop,& can be carried with you,in your laptop case.Even if you use an active cooling pad,as I do,you would still need a board under it,to vent the cooling pad.BTW,I really like your tips;thank you for them.


Posted by:

Chris
25 Feb 2010

As a 57 year old electrician/electronics tech I agree with everything you said and would also add that heat is an enemy and a warning sign for any device that consumes electricity.
This applies to electric panels, tv's stereo eqp, etc. as well as laptops.
Even a modest amount of air circulation, such as a paddle fan or room fan will drop eqp temps by a noticeable amount.
How hot is too hot? Most people feel a pain threshold of approx 140-145 deg F, so, as you pointed out, if it's hot for you, it will shorten component life too.
I look for heat buildup when troubleshooting electrical devices. Check receptacles, power cords, and plugs for noticeable warmth, especially when using high amperage appliances (and space heaters!)
Keep up this excellent site Bob, I have learned a lot here, every now and then, I can contribute something useful.


Posted by:

Kevin
25 Feb 2010

Am I missing something here, or is it just too hard to put the computer on the table? If you are sitting with it in your lap for so long that it is burning you, maybe the problem isnt with the computer but with you spending too much time on the computer? If I am missing it, then someone needs to invent a pair of pants with heat sinks in the top crease seam---hey, now theres an idea! Anybody have any Chinese manufacturing connections???


Posted by:

tony
25 Feb 2010

My son uses a laptop cooling pad & swears by it. I bought a pair of stick-on legs for my laptop. They fold out like the legs on a keyboard and prop up the back of the laptop. So far my laptop seems to be running cooler with them.


Posted by:

Joe M
25 Feb 2010

The big issue I find is asinine engineering that puts the intake vent on the BOTTOM of the laptop where, you guessed it, your LAP is! Now I know the older Dell C800 series had the intake vent on the top, so why did they, in their wisdom, move it to the BOTTOM of the unit on the D600 series?


Posted by:

d
25 Feb 2010

Cooling on a MacBook Pro is handled thru vents that share the hinge for the screen rather than holes on the bottom and sides. The two internal fans barely move air. I've tried coolers with fans but the fans only wash the bottom of the case with moving air. No cooling there. I've tried a cooling pad that was absolutely worthless. I've found a program called SmcFanControl that helps speed up the internal fans to provide more air movement. There's a similar program for the Windows side when I run dual boot in WinXP. I've found that XP side runs considerably hotter than the Mac side. Add Photoshop or graphics heavy programs and the MBP will burn up without the fan control progeram. I wish someone would design a fan for Macbook that matches up with the hinges and moves the air out of the laptop and thru the fan device. One that costs $20-30, not $90-100 like most Mac products.


Posted by:

Mark
25 Feb 2010

I don't know why you're treating burns from a laptop as mythical... I dozed off one morning before work in my recliner with my work laptop and ended up late for my morning IT meeting not because I woke up late but because I woke up with burns and a couple of large blisters.

That was 2 years ago now and I still have scars from it, and it wasn't even a laptop known for running warm, it was a Thinkpad T60p. I've found Dells run much hotter, I don't dare actually using them in my lap without setting them on a pillow or something. The trick really isn't that it needs to get as hot as something that would normally burn you, it just needs to be warm and pressed up against you without moving for a while.


Posted by:

Doug
25 Feb 2010

One simple solution for overheating is to check the little grille underneath your laptop where the fan sucks in air. If it's clogged with dust, your fan isn't working at top efficiency. A quick pass over the grille with a vacuum cleaner periodically can make a huge difference. (Same applies to desktops.)


Posted by:

Alistair
25 Feb 2010

What surprises me about my Dell laptop is that when I shut the lid it does not go into a deep sleep. Thus, if I forget, and put it in my bag, then when I take it out the fans are running and it is about to melt. This seems odd (and didn't happen with my old Toshiba). Closing the lid seems to me to be a clear indication that it should be in a state to be put away.


Posted by:

Jim
25 Feb 2010

Hey Bob,

I purchased a laptop stand from http://keynamics.com/ and it works great. It allows plenty of airflow and tilts the computer so I don't have to bend over to type. It also comes apart to fit in my computer bag.
Thanks for the great newsletter.


Posted by:

Stewart
25 Feb 2010

I have a Compaq Nx6325 which takes only 5 minutes to remove, clean and install the fan. 2 screws, 3 clips and the keyboard comes away to allow fan removal.

A good design for maintenance. Pity others aren't as easy.


Posted by:

Adrian
28 Feb 2010

I built an active one from a piece of ply, four pieces of timber, 2 old desktop power supply fans and a 240vAC to 12vDC transformer.

The vents weren't blocked by fluff. It's just that I run it in full power mode nearly all the time. I only actually turn on the fans when the laptop starts running too hot. The rest of the time it works quite well as a passive system. The additional gap (approx 25mm ~ 50mm fount to back) between the laptop and the desk makes a hell of a difference.

Some programs I run push the temps up to the point where without additional cooling, the laptop overheats and shuts down. Most notably, FL Studio, Cubase 5 and SecondLife.

Not sure I like the idea of USB powered external fans, because one of the main things in a computer that generates heat besides the CPU and GPU, is the power supply. So running additional fans from it is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. The more strain you put on the power supply, the hotter it gets, the more cooling it needs.

Nice work by the way Bob. Thanks for the great articles.


Posted by:

Edwin
31 Mar 2010

Bob, I am now using my laptop all day because I am working from home. My laptop needed relief. I sit on a leather couch and rest the laptop on the arm. By the end of the day the laptop was pretty hot. I bought a Belkin active pad. $30 at Staples. Big difference! The laptop runs cool all day now.


Posted by:

paul cramer
24 Jan 2012

I bought an "ONN" cooling pad from Walmart. Price was 13.00 dollars. Have used it for about 6 months,and it works great on my laptop. One big fan does the trick.Its not very noisy and I would buy another one. My computer DOES run cooler with this product on all the time.


Posted by:

Vahid
01 Jun 2012

Unfortunately the fan controller of Laptop (mine is DELL-XPS) is for windows and it works fine, but my main usage of laptop in on Linux environment and they don't have a fan option; and I don't know if there is a software for Linux on this matter or not? The amazing point is I'm using cooling pad, but the speed of fan is so slow that even with cooling pad, the Laptop is still hot![any help is mostly appreciated]


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