The word laptop is a misnomer, isn’t it? I mean who really sits their laptop on their lap when they’re working on something? Maybe that college student sitting on the floor in the hallway, but certainly no one working at your company does that, right? One reason I never put my laptop on my lap is because it jiggles around too much when I try to type something. Then there’s that warm feeling I feel down under when it’s been running awhile on my lap.
I mean laptops can get pretty hot — some of them, anyway. Older more powerful laptops designed as “desktop replacements” generally tend to get quite warm after you use them for a while. Anything more than 5 years old that’s intended for business users probably falls in this category and can double in a pinch as a hand warmer in cold weather. Gaming laptops are especially prone to overheating because of the heavy loads they constantly run under.
Laptops with modern processors, however, are less likely to generate excessive heat. But simply looking at a machine won’t give you clear indication of whether it’s going to run hot or not. For example, I used to avoid 17 inch or larger laptops, thinking that they would likely generate more heat than ones with smaller screens. But it’s not actually the screen size that causes most of the heat problems, it’s how the cooling system and airflow is designed inside the machine. And you can’t actually see any of that unless you take your laptop apart.
So, what can you do to prevent your laptop from running so hot your cat is afraid of sitting on it? Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years from talking with my colleagues.
Choose your surface wisely
The first and most important thing is to always place your laptop on a surface that allows for good air circulation. For example, putting it on a hard surface like a desk or floor is good, but putting it on a rug or on the duvet of your bed is bad. An uneven surface like a rug can partially block the air vents on the side and beneath your laptop. And putting it on the blanket on your bed might block your vents completely, and that can cause serious heating that could damage your machine, or cause data loss by having it suddenly shut itself off to cool down its processor, or at worst it might cause a fire.
Personally, I like to trick my laptop out by adding little rubber feet to its bottom so it sits about a half-inch or more above the surface of my desk. The catch is that you need to glue these feet on really well, otherwise one of them might slip off when you pull your laptop out of your bag, resulting in a laptop that wobbles when you try to type on it.
Blow out dust — carefully
While the vents on a laptop are intended to allow air in to cool the processing components, they also allow whatever the air is carrying into your laptop. That can mean dust, skin fragments, cat hair, whatever is floating around your workplace, home, or the coffee shop where you write your reports. Thank goodness that at least most indoor places ban cigarette smoking nowadays as tobacco smoke tends to leave residue on the guts of any electronic devices in its presence.
A few years ago here on TechGenix, I wrote about the nasty effect of different airborne particulates and what you can do to protect your servers and PCs from such problems. In the second article of that short series I mentioned you should try to keep the surrounding environment clean by vacuuming regularly and use compressed air to clean dust from PC cases and peripherals. I also described in detail some of the many causes of system hardware overheating as well as the types of problems that can result from system hardware overheating, and I concluded my series by describing some of the vendor and third-party tools for identifying when system hardware is overheating. While much of what I wrote in those articles can apply to laptop overheating, you need to be particularly careful when you try to blow compressed air into the vents on your laptop to shake loose any dust inside.
The reason for this is because normally when you blow dust off the fan of a PC or server, you open the machine up, use a pen or pencil (not your finger — static electricity!) to keep the processor’s cooling fan from spinning, and then blow compressed air at the fan. The reason you should do this is because the fan will freely spin when you blow air on it, and the power of the air coming out of the nozzle or straw of a can of compressed air can cause so much later force on the fan that you could damage its bearings, which would lead to worse cooling performance instead of better.
With laptops, however, you can’t just pop the lid and immobilize the fan as most laptops are difficult to open up and service, plus doing so yourself might void the warranty for the machine. My own solution to this conundrum is to blow compressed air in very short bursts into all the vents of my laptop. It might not get all the dust out of the machine, but if you do it often enough (say once a month) then you can probably prevent dust from accumulating in the first place. And while I know a couple of colleagues who said they took their overheating laptops apart and cleaned them thoroughly, especially the heat sinks, and said it solved their overheating problems completely, I wouldn’t advise anyone doing this unless they’re very knowledgeable about servicing laptop hardware.
Do your compiling elsewhere
Finally, try to avoid using your laptop for running workloads that are very processor-intensive. Developing and compiling very large code projects is one type of workload that can push your processor up to 100 percent utilization for minutes or even hours and cause laptop overheating. Certain kinds of games can also place your laptop’s processor under heavy load for extended periods of time as you try to rack up points or dig up loot boxes. And even browsing certain websites that have a lot of script running on them can cause your processor to hit the ceiling for an extended period of time, especially when the script has a bug in it causing it to never terminate. Nowadays, of course, a lot of dev work takes place in the cloud, and with Google Stadia coming maybe most gaming will eventually move to the cloud as well. But badly coded websites that have scripts that never end? I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of those.
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