Ask LH: Why Is My Laptop So Hot, And What Can I Do About It?

Dear Lifehacker, My laptop is hotter than the surface of the sun. No, seriously. It's a tad old, but I'm not ready to get rid of it yet. Unfortunately I can't use it without feeling like it's going solar on me. Is this something I should be worried about, and how can I fix it? Sincerely, Combusting Computer

Title photo remixed from an originalKurhan/Shutterstock.

Dear Combusting,

Ah, the classic, too-hot-for-your-lap laptop. It's something almost every laptop owner has experienced at one time or another. When you cram that many computer parts into such a small space, without a lot of room for airflow, things are going to get hot. Couple that with a heat-conducting case — like the aluminium one on modern MacBooks — and you've got a computer you could probably cook an egg on. (Well, maybe not.) It doesn't necessarily mean your computer is having problems, but either way, there are a few things you can do about it.

Determine Whether Your Computer Is Overheating or Just Hot

Laptops get hot. It's what they do. However, if your laptop is shutting down, suffering from the blue screen of death or experiencing serious slowdowns, then you have a much bigger problem on your hands. In this case, you should probably take it in and get it repaired, if possible.

Macs have a built-in failsafe for heat problems; they'll turn off before they reach unsafe temperatures. So it's pretty easy to tell when your computer is actually overheating, because it'll shut down unexpectedly. Windows computers don't always have this, but you can install something like the Core Temp CPU monitor to get it. Check your laptop's manual for safe temperature limits, subtract about 10C, then plug that value into Core Temp under Options > Overheat Protection. You can set your computer to give you a popup message or go to sleep if it ever reaches unsafe temperatures. If it doesn't ever notify you, it probably isn't overheating, and your problem is merely a matter of comfort.

How to Keep Your Laptop Cool

Even if your computer isn't reaching overheating temperatures, it can be hot to the touch, which isn't always ideal. Here are a few things you can do to keep things running cooler.

Check (and Clean) Your Fans

When you feel your computer getting hot, put your hand next to the computer's fan vents. If you feel hot air blowing out of them, then your fan is working, but if you only feel a little bit of air, it could be your fan is built up with dust or is otherwise not working. If you're comfortable opening up your computer, you can unscrew the case, find the fan and blow it out with some compressed air (or replace it, if it's just broken completely).

Keep It Out of Hot Weather

Remember that direct sunlight and hot ambient temperatures will help contribute to your laptop's heat. Even if your computer doesn't regularly overheat, temperatures over 35C are likely to cause problems, from damaging your battery to making your hard drive expand and more. When possible, keep it in the shade and out of the sweltering heat.

Use a Lap Desk

Your laptop is designed to sit on a flat surface. Those little rubber feet on the bottom are supposed to lift it off the ground just enough to get a bit of airflow underneath the computer, and when you put your laptop on your lap, you restrict that airflow, transferring all that heat to your legs instead (ouch). sitting Indian style can help, but a much better solution is to get a lap desk. They don't need to be expensive; we've shared a ton of DIY options here before, and they'll not only keep your computer cool, but they'll keep your legs from getting burned, too. And, with all that airflow, it might keep your fans from running at full speed, keeping everything a bit quieter.

Control Your Fan Speeds

While the above should be sufficient, you can take slightly more intense measures to cool your machine off, if desired. A great way to keep everything cool is to install a program like SpeedFan (for Windows) or smcFanControl (for OS X). You can read more about fine-tuning your fan control in this how-to. Just know that it isn't necessary to keep your computer safe, but is good if you'd rather keep your computer loud and cool rather than quiet and hot to the touch.

Keep an Eye on Intense Processes

Lastly, you can keep your computer cool by keeping those CPU-intense processes to a minimum. Whenever you load up a website with Flash, for instance, your CPU is going to start working harder, getting hotter and running your fans more. You can mediate this by using previously mentioned FlashBlock in your browser, so you only turn on Flash videos when you actually want them. Computer games and video encoding programs like Handbrake require a lot of juice from your CPU, so it's best to use these on a desktop machine (if you have one) or maybe at night, when you aren't as worried about touching your laptop case.

Also, keep an eye out for runaway processes. If your fans start to spin up loudly and there isn't an obvious reason why, open up the task manager to see if something else might be hogging your CPU. On a Windows machine, you can do this by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Esc, and if you're on a Mac, open up Activity Monitor under /Applications/Utilities. Check the Processes tab and see if anything is using your CPU — usually, anything in the double digits is probably your culprit.

Hopefully this helps you get your laptop to a more comfortable temperature, but remember: if it isn't shutting down or causing problems, the main problem is probably that you're using your laptop on your lap, which you shouldn't be doing. These tips will help you cool it down when you need to, but the most important thing is to keep it away from your body, even if you have a layer of clothes in between you and the computer. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Got any other laptop tips or overheating experiences to share? Let us know in the comments.

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    I came across a $15 fan (18 cm diameter) that is fitted in a plastic laptop support with four legs (to sit on a desk or other flat surface). It is called NB-7 Cooler Notebook. It fans the heat away from the whole underside of the laptop. I bought this for my overheating Dell m1530. I also replaced thermal paste in the machine. I cannot recall exactly, but there were two places with old paste, the CPU and somewhere else that used a generic thermal pad I had to carefully refit as I could not find a suitable pad, although I added a bit of thermal paste tI the pad. Both these measures gave me a huge reduction in peak temp of about 15 deg. Maybe a lot more. Of course, I cleaned the fans too.
    I recently replaced the hard drive with a ssd. Now, my Dell gently simmers! No more crashes.

    I find that the propping your laptop up with a doorstop tip works wonders (mentioned in another LH article, linked from this one).

    It makes for an cheap, portable and adjustable laptop stand and gets airflow going really well. Truly recommended to anyone that's read the article but is a bit sceptic.

    Also note that some laptops do the same kind of thing with a chunky battery (especially some notebooks with 6/9-cell batteries); it will be built so that the battery props up the laptop when sitting on a flat surface giving it great airflow.

    Check the fan, as above. My wife's laptop was constantly hot and the fan was always going full bore. I pulled the bottom off and saw a lot of gunk between the fan and the exhaust port, which I cleaned out with a cotton bud. It runs quietly and much cooler now.

    Watch out that you don't have a Western Digital external drive running SmartWare automatic sync software as that can fry the living daylights out of your system.

    Seriously that is the worst photoshop picture of all time!

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