Your Computer's Worst Enemy?

Category: Hardware

Your PC or Mac 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.

Hardware Monitor is a similar utility for Mac computers. It's part of a suite of Mac monitoring utilities written by Marcel Bresink, and it's available on a free trial basis. Hardware Monitor can detect and display information about your Mac's processor type, battery data, hard drive information, voltage sensors, power and load sensors, and ambient light sensors. If you like the software and want to keep it, you can purchase it for under $10 USD.

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 "Your Computer's Worst Enemy?"

Posted by:

22 Dec 2016

I have always been a huge advocate of SpeedFAN. I have used it for many years and I will continue to use it until something better comes along.

I open my PC every 2-3 months to give it a good cleaning with compressed canned air. I have a long hair cat and the hair that I pull out of my PC is sometimes scary. I also use a small soft brush to clean the fans and heatsinks.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2016

Great article! Just wondering how you can tell if your motherboard is capable of adjusting the fan speed and how to access where the BIOS monitors the temperature or is that a function of the program like SpeedFan that you download?

EDITOR'S NOTE: If it's capable, SpeedFan will do it.

Posted by:

Robert A.
22 Dec 2016

I have a six year old HP laptop running Win 7 that I use occasionally for web browsing and email. Often, when I run some scans from Malwarebytes, Spybot Search & Destroy or Spyware Blaster, which may take an hour or more, the computer will shut down unexpectedly. After several times, I noticed the base felt unusually warm, so I suspected an overheating problem.

After a few jerry-rigged attempts to raise the base up off the desktop, to allow more air into the fans, I found a great, cheap solution. I bought a two-pack package of cheap vinyl door stop wedges, at a dollar store, for about a buck. Placed under the base, at the rear of the laptop, these wedges raise the base up about another inch, and allow more air to get to the fan. I've had no unexpected shutdowns since then. An unexpected bonus, the wedges provide a useful ergonomic tilt to the keyboard, like those little legs found underneath a typical PC keyboard.

Posted by:

22 Dec 2016

I lived in an appartment, for 6 years, that would get too warm in the Summer months (and I don't like AC), and >= 1 my PCs would run hot occasionally. I too opened the cases and that did let them cool down enough; sometimes I had to crank up (down?) the AC to get the desired effect (Ugh!). I was always concerned that an OPEN case would NOT generate the same/proper air-flow needed by the system as a whole. They are, supposedly, designed for optimal air-flow to keep all components cool.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2016

Never run a PC with the cover off for a long time. You need air being pulled in from one end and exiting the other end, like a tunnel.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2016

Cant get it to download. Go to the page for the download and go to where it says "download" and it doesn't show to be a link. I created a account and all but still doesn't download. Any suggestions?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Look for this on the download page: "The latest version is SpeedFan 4.52" and then click on the blue "SpeedFan 4.52" link.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2016

I installed Speedfan. It shows the Core#1 and Core#2 temperatures on my older Intel I5 processor to be about 49 and 43 degrees centigrade, respectively.

But what does that tell me - is that acceptable or too high?

It's nice to know what the processor temperature is, I guess, but they ought to perhaps show a chart to show where the acceptable range is.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2016

Two comments. First, I tried following your instructions for Speedfan and was told the download link is corrupt and I should get out fast.

Second, a couple weeks ago my wife's 5-year old desktop started crashing. The technician said it was overheating wildly but whatever he tried didn't work because it was not really hot and the heat reports were simply being imagined by the system. Still, that didn't stop it behaving AS IF it was overheating. He was on the point of telling me to replace the machine. Then he had a brainwave which he said could be dangerous but might just save the day. He updated the BIOS driver and hey presto all is well.

What makes it more interesting is that my 2006 Elantra has the same issue, the temp gauge keeps leaping into the stratosphere but the engine is not overheating. Unfortunately after months of effort and replacing just about everything in the car (to be fair they didn't charge), the garage can't find anything that is causing it and told me to live with it. Just as well it is not crashing the engine :-O

Posted by:

Monte Crooks
23 Dec 2016

Folks find it amazing that the First Priority Purpose of a vehicle's motor oil and transmission fluid is to lower temperature and lubrication is 2nd or 3rd in line of priorities. Same with computers. Should a vehicle owner or computer operator forget this, problems are sure to happen, frequently! So, keeping your cool comes AFTER your machinery keeps theirs! Thank you, Bob. I advise all your readers access your current advice and visit your archives often!!

Posted by:

23 Dec 2016

Good accurate article Bob. Let me just add - Never use your pc cover as a bulletin board. I had taped a memo to my case since it was in a very convenient spot for reading purposes and you guessed it - it was covering up the vents, kept shutting down and it took my repair guy one look when he came to the office and said " Keep the vents clear and you won't have a problem." He was right and it has never happened again:)

Posted by:

24 Dec 2016

1)Use of compressed air to clean in the vicinity of any Motherboard is certain to lodge dust particles even further into connectors and components which may further add to the heating problems.
2)Older PCs are usually equipped with 2-wire fans which do not allow for speed control. The newer motherboards provide for the use of 3 wire (PWM) fans which can be natively speed-controlled based on temperature or user customization.
3)In the case of new-ish desktops that may prefer to get more cooling; most motherboards provide for extra connections for adding supplemental fans for the chassis, along with BIOS (UEFI) settings for their control w/o resorting to external utilities within the OS.

Posted by:

24 Dec 2016

I (tried to) download CoreTemp a couple of years ago after a similar article of Bob's that listed it as a useful utility. I received a zillion warnings from MalwareBytes and WinPatrol, which I had running. A little online research found a bunch of reports that CoreTemp was heavily laden with malware. I backed off in a hurry and went with Speccy instead, which has been great.

CoreTemp may have since cleaned up their act, but I'd recommend extreme caution before choosing that product.

Posted by:

17 Aug 2017

Speccy installs goggle malware!

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