Computer shutting down on its own? Maybe it's time to play it cool.

Martin Lønn Naess’ PC “suddenly turns off while rendering a video.” My guess is that it’s overheating. Here’s what to do about it.

Chips and hard drives use electricity, and therefore generate heat. That heat can seriously damage the circuits inside your PC. Luckily, the computer is smart enough to shut itself down when it gets too hot, protecting itself from permanent damage. A PC that suddenly shuts itself down may be a lesser evil, but it’s still something you want to avoid.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

Heating problems are almost always ventilation problems. Most PCs use several fans to circulate air through the case to bring down the temperature. If your PC is getting too hot too often, something is probably blocking the ventilation.

Desktops and laptops have different ventilation issues. Here’s how to fix each.

Desktops

Most desktop PCs have vents on the back. Make sure they’re not up against the wall, and that nothing outside is blocking the vents.

Turn off, unplug, and open the PC. Look for anything that might be blocking the air flow on the inside. For instance, is a cable up against a vent? If it is, move the cable aside.

Turn on the PC and check the fans. Make sure they’re all spinning.

Shut down the PC again, and look for clumps of dust, especially around the fans, vents, and heat sinks. Use a can of compressed air (you can buy this easily at any store or website selling tech equipment) to blow away the dirt.

In most cases, that should do the job. If not, try Marco Chiappetta’s more painstaking cleaning.

Laptops

Laptops are more of a challenge. They produce less heat, but they’re tightly packed, creating more ventilation problems. And they’re more difficult to get into.

Once again, make sure that nothing is blocking the vents—which are usually on the side. Never put a running laptop on a cushion or pillow, or inside a bag. You can do so safely only if the PC is off, hibernated, or in sleep mode.

If you have a continuing problem, consider buying a laptop cooler. These are pads that go underneath the laptop and whisk away the heat. Some have fans.

Laptop coolers can cost anywhere from $3 to $35. Mine was free. I use a sturdy but empty cardboard box. It works great.

0710 vacuum

Cleaning a laptop is more difficult than cleaning an easy-to-open desktop tower. Rather than compressed air, which will just blow the dusk deeper inside the PC, use a small PC vacuum to suck dirt from the vents.

You might also want to turn the laptop over and look for screws to remove. Being very careful, you’ll probably get access to the RAM and hard drive. Clean around them.

Unless you’re a professional, I don’t recommend opening the main body of a laptop for cleaning or other purposes.

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