Road Worrier Tests Out Chill Mats

Chill mats — notebook stands or rests with a built-in USB-powered fan to keep your machine cool — can be handy if your laptop tends to run on the warm side, especially in the summer months. But making them work with a PC that's constantly on the move can be more of a challenge.

In the past, I've been sceptical about the usefulness of chill mats. This is what I wrote about them two years ago, back in November 2008:

While overheating can definitely be an issue, I’ve always found chill mats more hassle than they’re worth. For one thing, they put the keyboard at the wrong angle for my liking; for another, they’re too bulky to throw in my laptop carry bag.

Circumstances change. These days, I constantly use a chill mat in my home office. The main reason is because my 18-month old Portege notebook is running very hot these days, occasionally to the point of actually shutting down with heat failure. Yes, that's a clear sign it needs replacing, but I want to squeeze a little more life out of it while I can.

For my home office, I've been using the Logitech Speaker Lapdesk N700 (which costs $149.95) for some time. Aside from cooling, this also serves two other useful purposes: it acts as an external set of speakers which offer better sound than the built-in option on the Portege, and it also raises the laptop closer to eye level.

Despite the "lapdesk" name, I've never found the N700 comfortable to actually rest on my lap: it's a bit too bulky, and there's an uncomfortable ridge at the top edge. It's also way too large to use anywhere except in my actual office. (The overall size would certainly be handy if you had a larger notebook screen, but I'm firmly in the sub-13 inch camp when it comes to notebooks, since they work better on planes and in my luggage generally. The N700 is too large to even qualify as hand luggage.)

So over the past couple of weeks, I've been testing out three different recently released chill mat models to see if they can be of use when I'm on the road, or even just working casually in front of the TV. This isn't an exhaustive selection of what's on the market, but it does give some idea of the diversity of design that's out there at the moment.

Rather than the cushioned "stable table" design, the Targus Lap Chill Mat ($59.95) uses a hollowed-out design which maximises airflow at the sides, whilst pushing cool air up through a series of holes on top. My biggest issue was the rubber stops on the top, which are designed to hold your laptop in place but with smaller models like mine actually just tend to make it wobble.

The Belkin Cooling Lounge F5L041 ($59.95) has a centralised fan which runs all the way through, and a cushioned base. This was easily the most comfortable to actually rest on my lap in front of the TV, and the slightly curved base means you can actually feel the cooler air circulating.

In portability terms, the clear winner was the Targus Chill Mat For Laptops ($39.95). Despite the bargain price, this sports two cooling fans, and is thin and light enough that I can pop it into my laptop carry bag without a second thought. It's also the only model I tested with a detachable USB cord, which makes it even easier to pack away. While it's not as comfortable to rest on my lap on the chill mat, it's not uncomfortable, and in really hot weather I imagine it would stick to my legs a bit less than the cushioned surface.

Just how much difference a chill mat or fan will make to your overall heating performance varies. Even if your machine doesn't run particularly warm, having something between your laptop and your bare legs is often a good idea for health reasons.

There's one undeniable issue with all these products: there's a noticeable increase in noise level when you attach a chill mat. This is a lot less obvious if you've got some music playing, but it could make a chill mat less than ideal in, say, a library. With that said, I prefer the constant low-level hum of an external fan to the dread whining sound that comes as your processor and on-board fan fire up when a particularly CPU-intensive activity kicks in.

What's been your experience with chill mats? Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is tempted to try cooking bacon with the heat output from his laptop fan. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    Ive got a zalman cooler for my 17" studio, and while its great for woking while on desk or at a table, the frame really digs into you when you try and lap it.

    Its aluminum and plastic so its not overly heavy but i think its really just par for the course with most laptop coolers, if your going to lap it theres going to be increased airflow around it anyway, and personally for me, my productivity falls off the charts when i try and work with it in my lap

    I have my closed laptop which is connected to an external keyboard and monitor sitting on a biscuit cooling rack.

    The base never gets hot which it used to do.

    I have one of the coolermaster 23 series that i picked up for $39. It has a huge fan that doesnt put out that much noise and cools my laptop pretty well.

    I have the CM Storm SF-19 Strike Force. I had to buy new fans because th eones that come with it were absurdly loud.

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