Mobile Computing: Overheated Notebooks

Feature: How to Keep Your Notebook Cool

Did you hear the one about the Swedish scientist whose laptop caused extensive blistering in a sensitive area? Turns out the professor had been typing for about an hour, notebook on his lap, occasionally experiencing a burning sensation. Later, the scientist noted irritation, which led to blistering and a trip to the doctor.

This sounds like a joke--but it actually happened, according to the BBC.

Overheating notebooks have been a problem for years. Some say the problem is about to get worse. Here's a look at why some notebooks overheat, and what you can do about it.

Why So Hot?

We all know that notebooks are more compact than desktops. To achieve that smaller size, a notebook's internal components--the motherboard, the hard drive, and so forth--must be placed in close proximity to one another, explains Simon Blackstein, an independent San Francisco-based engineer and IT consultant.

The problem is that microprocessors, hard drives, and other components produce heat. Because a notebook's insides are crowded, it's more difficult for that heat to escape, despite the internal fans and heat sinks (pipes and fins that move heat from one place to another) included in many notebooks.

This heat may affect a notebook's internal components over time. For instance, some notebook hard drives are more likely to fail than desktop hard drives partly because of the heat, Blackstein points out. Also, the bottom of some notebooks tends to grow warm--even hot--after a period of use, as the Swedish scientist can attest.

The faster the processor, the more heat it's likely to generate, says Blackstein. Also, subnotebooks, though they often use slower processors, can be more prone to overheat as well, because of their ultra-compact design.

What's Being Done?

Computer makers are well aware of the problem--particularly after what happened to Toshiba. In August 2002, owners of Toshiba's Satellite 5005 series notebooks filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Toshiba knowingly concealed a design flaw that caused the notebooks to overheat and shut down.

The Satellite 5005 notebooks were among the first to use desktop processors in mobile computers. Typically, desktop CPUs generate more heat than most mobile processors, which are built to reduce power consumption and heat.

To address this issue, in June 2003 Intel released its Mobile Intel Pentium 4 processor, which was designed to give desktop-replacement notebooks the same performance as a desktop CPU, yet also reduce power consumption and heat generation. And Intel's Centrino architecture for notebooks is specifically designed to consume less energy and therefore produce less heat.

Meanwhile, a number of third-party companies are working on new technologies to keep notebooks cool. For example, NanoCoolers is developing a cooling system for notebooks that uses a small electromagnetic pump, according to a recent Dow Jones Newswire article. Prototypes are currently being tested by notebook and microprocessor manufacturers, the company told Dow Jones. (NanoCoolers' Web site is under construction as of this writing.)

What Can You Do?

Shop wisely. If you're in the market for a new notebook, consider one with the Centrino architecture or another low-power, low-heat model. Check out PC World's Top 15 Notebooks for ideas.

Adjust the power settings. In Windows XP, go to the Start menu, select the Control Panel, click Performance and Maintenance if you're in Category View, and choose Power Options. That dialog box lets you set your notebook's hard drive and display to turn off after a specified period of disuse. You can also configure the computer to go into standby or hibernate modes as well. These options help keep your computer from heating up when you're not using it. You can adjust power settings in earlier versions of Windows, too, usually through the Control Panel. The steps sometimes differ from those I just described, however.

Shut down. When you're done for the day, shut down your notebook. It needs the rest as much as you do.

Don't leave your notebook on inside a bag. Why? One picture is worth a thousand words.

Clean the air vents. Your notebook's internal fan has a vent. Over time, that vent collects dust, which, when it accumulates, could block the vent. To keep the vent open, use a forced-air duster such as Blow Off's Contact Cleaner ($25).

Troubleshoot your fan. If your notebook seems to be overheating, check your manufacturer's online support. Some vendors offer diagnostic tools that test your computer's fans to ensure they're working properly.

Update your computer's BIOS. Sometimes the heat presets that control a computer's fans are adjusted with new BIOS updates. A later version of your computer's BIOS may make the notebook's fan work more efficiently. If you suspect your notebook is getting too hot, check your vendor's Web site to see if a new BIOS is available. Note: Installing BIOS upgrades are a bit more cumbersome than your average software upgrade, so make sure you're comfortable performing the task.

Consider a third-party solution. There are a number of "notebook coolers" on the market. I've never tried any of them, so I can't attest to their usefulness. But if you use your notebook for long hours, and it often feels hot to the touch, you might give one a try. You can begin your search at these sites:

  • BuyExtras.com. This online store has a whole Web page of notebook coolers, including the below-mentioned Evercool. You can return unopened products within 14 days for a full refund. If the product has been opened, expect a 15 percent restocking fee.
  • LapWorks. The Laptop Desk ($30), a portable platform for notebooks, includes ventilation channels that the company claims keeps your notebook cooler, thus preventing its fan from turning on so frequently.
  • Xoxide.com. Xoxide's Evercool Notebook Pad ($23) includes four built-in fans and draws power from your notebook's USB port. The company allows refunds after 15 days but may charge a 15 percent restocking fee.

How Hot Are You?

Does your notebook seem to get just a bit too hot under the collar? Do you use a third-party notebook cooler? If so, tell me all about it.

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