How to Keep Your Laptop Cool


Keeping your laptop cool protects your hard drive -- and your lap -- from getting burned.
Images courtesy of TSA

Overheating laptops have gotten a lot of press over the last few years. The problem first gained popular attention around 2006, when reports of laptops actually catching fire started trickling in around the globe. The problem there was faulty batteries, and companies like Dell, Sony and Acer had to initiate major recalls.

The general issue of hot laptops is separate from those bad batteries, but laptop "explosions" certainly brought attention to the basic cause: Scorching heat is a bad trait for something that sits on your lap. People have actually gotten burned [source: BBC]. Short of that, hard drives are damaged by excessive heat.

But if the problem isn't a bad battery, what's making these laptops so hot?

You've probably noticed that all of your electronics get hot when they run for a while -- try putting your hand on the DVD player after you play a movie. Electronic components generate heat when they're working, and your laptop is no different.

In this article, we'll find out why laptops get so hot and see what you can do -- in terms of both maintenance and add-ons -- to keep yours cool. You don't even have to spend any money to do it.

There are two major reasons why laptops have more of an overheating problem than desktops. First, since laptops are smaller than desktops, those electronic components are crammed in there more tightly. Since they're closer together, and since the casing of a laptop is so narrow, there's not much room for the heat to dissipate.

­The other issue is power. As laptops get more powerful processors, and as operating systems require more of that processing power to run, more heat is being generated inside the case.

­Of course, laptop manufacturers know about this, and there's lot of stuff inside the unit that's supposed to remove this heat. Fans, heat sinks and air vents all work to cool down a laptop while it's running. Sometimes, though, it's just not enough. Overheating can happen when a fan isn't working properly or there's some other malfunction. But sometimes, it's more the user's fault than the machine's.

So before we go discuss an external cooling setup, let's find out how we can help our laptops stay cool on their own.

Laptop Cooling: Stuff You Can Do

It's easy to run programs that check your laptop's performance.
It's easy to run programs that check your laptop's performance.
AP Photo/Jan Bauer

Making sure your laptop's cooling abilities are working well can go a long way toward avoiding or fixing a problem. So one of the best ways to keep your laptop from overheating is simply to take care of it.

If you notice that your laptop is generating a lot of heat, and if the fans start kicking on at shorter intervals, the first thing to do is some basic maintenance:

  • Check your fans: The best way to make sure your fans are working properly is to use diagnostic software, since the fans are inside the case, and sometimes opening a laptop case can void the warranty. Go to the Web site of your laptop maker and see if there's a fan-diagnosing tool you can download. If not, you can download one from another reliable vendor online.
  • Clean the air vents: Most laptops use airflow to aid with cooling. They have intake vents near the front of the case, and exhaust vents at the back. Dust and debris can block these vents and impede airflow. Probably the easiest way to clean the vents is to blast them with compressed air. You can find compressed air products at any office supply store. You can also go over the vents them with a slightly damp (not wet) cloth.
  • Check your BIOS settings: There are software settings that tell your computer how hot is too hot and at what temperature the fans should kick in. Sometimes, BIOS updates implement revised temperature settings, which can help you optimize cooling. Check your laptop manufacturer's Web site for a BIOS update, but be careful -- BIOS is a trickier software system to update than the usual operating system stuff. You may want to request some experienced backup.

Once you've got your computer's cooling system on track, you can work on your laptop habits to keep it that way. It's mostly just common sense stuff: Don't use your laptop in the sun, keep it away from radiators and heat vents, and never let it sit in a hot car. One habit that can really help, though, is a bit counterintuitive: Keep your laptop off your lap.

This is where some external tools can help.

­

Laptop Cooling Accessories: Stuff You Can Add On

Even if your laptop's cooling system is working as efficiently as possible, you can still do more. The strange fact is, when you use a laptop on your lap, you're just asking for it to overheat. Any soft surface impedes airflow into and out of the cooling vents. It also can cause heat to get caught underneath the unit. This is how people's laps get burnt.

However, heat buildup can even happen when the laptop sits directly on a desk.

There are a few different approaches to avoiding this type of heat trap. One is the laptop stand, which puts some distance between the bottom of the laptop and the surface you're using it on. It basically creates a space where heat can dissipate. A stand is usually some type of flat, thin surface with short legs, and you can lay it across your lap or on a desk. With an inch or two of air underneath the laptop, heat can escape easily, and airflow through the vents is totally open.

Sometimes, a stand might be made of a special material like aluminum that acts as a heat sink. This device would actively draw heat out of the laptop to further aid in cooling.

Another way to go is a laptop pad or mat. In this approach, like with the aluminum heat sink, you're putting the device on an actively heat-managing surface. This might mean an insulating mat that traps the heat coming out of the laptop to protect your lap. It could also mean a thick pad with fans built in to actively draw out and dissipate heat.

While you can buy one of these cooling tools in any electronics store or from dozens of retailers online, you might have something in your home right now you can use. A little slatted camping table can work as a laptop stand. So can a large baking rack (that you use to cool cookies on).

One thing to remember is that the heat characteristics of your laptop are always changing, depending on age, environment and power usage. So even if you get yourself the perfect cooling setup, you might want to install some sort of heat-monitoring software. It'll help you be more aware of your laptop's fluctuating temperatures and learn how different situations can increase the heat.

For more information on laptop cooling tools, laptop maintenance and related products, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Langa, Fred. "Langa Letter: Curing Laptop Overheating." InformationWeek. Feb. 14, 2005. http://www.informationweek.com/news/hardware/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=60300177
  • Martin, James A. "Mobile Computing: Overheated Notebooks." March 25, 2004. http://www.pcworld.com/article/115158/mobile_computing_overheated_notebooks.html
  • Moore, Charles. "7 Tools for Keeping Your Laptop Cool." Low End Mac. July 24, 2006. http://lowendmac.com/misc/06/0724.html
  • Read, Paul. "How to Keep Your Laptop Cool." Suite101. July 15, 2007. http://computeraccessories.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_keep_your_laptop_cool