Laptops give us an amazing amount of freedom. Whether it’s taking your work overseas or just shifting over to the couch, laptops give us mobility and convenience that even the smallest desktop can’t match. As technology advances and they grow slimmer, lighter and more powerful, laptops can perform all but the most demanding of tasks, extending that freedom even further.
That convenience and mobility comes at a cost, however. The tight confines of a laptop’s case mean that cooling is more important than ever, and overheating is a much greater risk than it would be in a desktop. If your laptop overheats, you’re looking at anything from severe hits to performance to, in the worst cases, permanent damage as the components inside the laptop start to degrade.
Symptoms of overheating
The laptop’s cooling fans constantly running on high is the first sign of an overheating problem. As things progress you may find the system slowing down, stuttering or freezing as the CPU throttles itself in an effort to cool down, or suddenly shutting down without warning as a last ditch effort to protect the hardware from the excess heat.
How to fix it
Most overheating problems can be tracked to one issue: Airflow. Without the air passing over the components to remove the waste heat, it quickly builds up.
Put it on a table
The first and easiest fix is to use the laptop on the correct surface. Despite the name, laptops are really designed for use on desks or tables. Most models draw in air from below and vent hot air from the back, and if any of these intakes or exhausts are blocked you’re looking at a rapid temperature build up. Placing the laptop on soft surfaces – for example, on a bed – is likely to interfere with at least one of the vents. Put it on a table, and make sure that air is free to pass around and under the laptop.
Dealing with dust
If you’re still having problems, the next most likely candidate is dust – especially on older systems. Over time, dust will be drawn into the laptop through the cooling system. It will gather in nooks and crannies, and be drawn to electromagnetic fields like hair will stick to a balloon. In large amounts, it will insulate the components inside the laptop, reducing the amount of heat the flow of air can pull away. Eventually it will start to interfere with the airflow itself, to the point of clogging up the fans and blocking the vents.
Fixing a dust problem will require you to open up the laptop. First, you should shut it down and unplug it, as well as removing the battery. Grounding yourself with an anti-static (or “ESD”) wrist-strap is recommended, to prevent static shocks which might damage some of the more sensitive components.
With the case open, the first thing you should do is to make sure all the vents are clear. Dust is more likely to build up around exhausts than around the intakes. If you want to blow dust out, it’s best to use canned air. More stubborn dust can be removed with a cotton-bud and some isopropyl alcohol – make sure all the alcohol has evaporated before closing everything up again.
With the vents clear and the free floating dust cleaned out, it’s time to look at the fans. You have to be a little careful with the fans, as they’re easily damaged. Never turn them in the reverse direction, and if you’re going to hit them with canned air, gently pin them in place with a finger first. Cotton-buds are your best bet for cleaning between the blades – be gentle, especially with older models where the plastic might have become brittle with age. If they still feel gritty or stiff when turning after all the dust on and around the fan is removed, you could try peeling off the sticker to reveal the lubrication point.
Most fans have a small rubber bung over the axle. Carefully lever this out with a small, flat bladed screwdriver, and place a single drop of mineral oil on the end of the exposed shaft. After covering everything back up, the fan should be moving more smoothly. For some detailed photographs of the process, here’s a good guide to oiling a fan.
Degraded thermal compound
Another thing that may cause issues with overheating is degraded thermal compound between the CPU and the heatsink. Applying new compound can be done, but the exact method is going to depend on the model of your laptop. Expect the process to be a bit complicated!
If your laptop is dust free and you’re still having issues – or you’re doing something intensive like video editing and you want to push your laptop a little harder – you could look into using a laptop cooler, like those supplied by KLIM Technologies.
Broadly speaking laptop coolers come in two varieties – active and passive. Active coolers use fans to either increase the airflow around the case, or to push extra air into it. Passive coolers act as large heatsinks, pulling heat directly from the case of the laptop.
Software based approaches
There are two options to look into if you want to use a software-based method of improving your laptop’s cooling efficiency. Both require getting rather technical, and should be approached with some care.
Underclocking is the lesser-known cousin of the high-performance computing staple, overclocking. Where overclocking involves forcing the CPU to work harder by increasing the number of calculations it performs per minute, underclocking does the reverse. The obvious trade off here is a sacrifice in performance – whether or not this is worth investigating further is down to your specific circumstances. For most people, however, it’s going to be a last resort.
That brings us to the other option – Undervolting. Undervolting takes advantage of the fact that not all CPUs are made equally. Like all manufacturing processes, chip manufacturing involves tolerances, and the precise voltage that will make each CPU perform at their best varies from to chip to chip. To save time, the voltage from the factory is usually set to an average value. By reducing the voltage you lessen the amount of energy the CPU is using for each calculation, and thus reducing the amount of waste heat you have to deal with. As an added bonus you may also see a direct improvement in performance.
Although doing it can be somewhat involved, there’s no risk of doing permanent damage if you can get it wrong – everything can easily be set back to how you found it with little issue.
If you want to investigate undervolting, I thoroughly recommend The Undervolting Guide hosted on the Notebook Review forum.