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How to Diagnose and Fix an overheating laptop


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One of the most common issues with aging laptops is overheating, something many people aren’t sure how to fix. We’ll help you figure out what’s causing the heat and how to keep your notebook functioning at a lower temperature.

Overheating computers can cause a lot of problems, from seemingly random blue screens to data loss. You might not even know that it’s the root of your issues, and before you know it you have a burnt-out motherboard on your hands. Let’s go step by and step and see how to deal with overheating computers. We’ll be dealing primarily with laptops, but most of the same principles apply to desktops as well.

Find the Heat Source

Air Flow and Heat Transfer

The first thing you need to do is figure out where the heat is coming from. No air flow means no heat transfer, so figure out where the air vents are. Are they blowing hot air, or is there barely a breeze, even when the fan is overtaxed?

Most commonly, an accumulation of dust in the vents and fans through the cooling channels will be culprit in restricting air flow. Cleaning it out will work best. Turn you laptop upside-down and look at what you’ve got.

Unscrew the fan doors and you should be able to lift out the fan and clean everything with a can of compressed air.

If you find that a fan is spinning erratically, you may want to try lifting the sticker off of the axle and putting a drop of mineral oil to keep it going.

You can also try to look up the part number from your laptop’s user manual or by searching your laptop model number online. Once you have that, you can find replacements pretty easily on eBay and the like.

Dying Batteries

There are plenty of different types of batteries, and many different schools of thought on battery maintenance and life span, but one thing that seems pretty unanimous is that batteries aren’t meant to be stored at 100% or 0% capacity. I know plenty of people who buy laptops and always keep the charger in, never actually using the battery. You can definitely expect to kill your battery’s health this way, since you’re essentially storing the battery when it’s full. Bad batteries don’t just give out really quickly, they can generate heat.

(Image credit: Bryan Gosline)

You can buy replacement batteries pretty easily online, even for laptops that are four years old. You just need to know what model your computer/battery is. If you can’t find one, you may consider using your laptop as a desktop and remove the overheating battery completely from the equation.

Persistent Overheating

If you’ve taken the air vents and battery out of the picture and you’re still having problems, then you might have a more persistent heat issue. Sometimes a dusty hard drive can cause heat problems and data loss. Some laptops just “run hot,” even without a major load on the CPU. Try cleaning out these areas as best you can before you move on to another solution.

Dust under the processor and RAM doors to get rid of any dust and debris. If you’ve got a netbook or a laptop without compartments underneath, things might be more difficult. You should be able to find instructions for getting the back off so you can clean things properly.

(Image credit: fellow HTG author Justin Garrison)

Lighten the Load

If your computer’s heat is related to how much data the CPU chugs through, you might want to manage your processes better. You can use the Windows Task Manager to see what’s most intensive, then use Autoruns to see all your startup processes and trim them down. You can also change the order of the startup processes that are necessary. The staggered loading of software will help balance your processor’s load.

You can install and run Process Explorer to see the files that each process has open and its associated CPU usage over time. This can help you decide what to get rid of and what to spare. We’re also big fans of CCleaner, which allows you to clean history and cache files as well as manage your startup applications quickly and easily. You can free up some much needed space that way and get a little more efficiency out of your OS.

If you want to keep an eye on the temperature of your laptop, I recommend Core Temp for Windows. It’s an extremely light-weight app that won’t pressure your CPU, but lets you keep an eye on your internal temperature.

You can tell it to display the temperature when it’s in the system tray. One of the best features is under the Options menu: Overheat Protection.

Here, you can define a temperature that will trigger your computer to Sleep, Hibernate, or Shutdown. Core Temp also works as a Windows Gadget, though if you’re overheating from CPU-intensive processes, I’d turn Desktop Gadgets off. Another thing you can do is turn that fancy Aero interface off, and you can create a shortcut to quickly toggle it if you can’t live completely without it.

If you’re using Linux instead, you might want to consider a more spartan distro. I’ve personally had a lot of success with Crunchbang; a clean install leaves me with Openbox as a window manager, a nice dock, and some nice desktop effects, along with only 80MB of RAM usage. It’s based on Debian, so there’s a good amount of compatibility with software. If you run Arch, you might want to try ArchBang instead, which is the same thing but built on Arch instead of Debian.

Behavior Changes

Laptop owners have a lot of luxury by not being tethered to a chair and desk. We develop a lot of habits, like browsing in bed, that can actually work against of computers. A lot of laptops are designed with their air vents on the bottom for some ridiculous reason, so setting it down on soft bedding or carpet for prolonged use is a bad idea. You’d be surprised at how quickly the heat can build up. If you this is a habit, you might consider investing in a laptop stand to keep the air flow unobstructed.

CoolLift Laptop Stand

If none of the above methods helped cool your laptop sufficiently, you might consider using a cooling pad, like this:

Laptop Cooling Pad (USB Powered)

The fans will help direct cool air into the underside vents of your laptop. Some even come with USB hubs and other bells and whistles.

If your vents are placed on the sides or elsewhere, but the bottom of your notebook is still really warm, you can try out a thermal (passive) cooling pad.

Targus Thermal Cooling Pad

These are soft pads filled with special crystals that are designed to conduct heat away from the source. You can find thermal cooling pads in smaller sizes, too. I used a 9” one for my old netbook and it did wonders for me.

Sure, these will make your laptop less mobile, but if it helps with overheating then at least you’ll have a laptop that runs.

Repurpose It

(Image credit: mray)

If you can’t use it as a laptop anymore, consider repurposing it. The compact motherboards fit great inside of older and smaller computer cases and cardboard boxes. These kinds of rigs are great for in-drawer HTPCs, closet-servers, or under-the-desk mounted workstations. You’ll have to be a bit more careful if you leave the guts exposed, but depending on the room, it can cut down on dust problems. You can also regulate air flow a bit better and mount some standard computer fans in clever places, like in the back and sides of the drawer or desk.

Another idea is to try running a very light-weight version of Linux, and use it for something that isn’t very CPU-intensive, like a file server. The lack of processor-heavy tasks will keep the temperature low, but you can still get some use out of it. And, if you’re only ditching the battery, then you can leave things inside the case and stick it on a shelf as a head-less (SSH and command-line only) server. The possibilities are endless!

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