What to Do When Your Laptop Keeps Overheating

What to Do When Your Laptop Keeps Overheating
Photo: Hugo Felix, Shutterstock

If your laptop tends to overheat, you’re likely familiar with the signs: fans that spin louder than a jet engine, a computer that’s too hot to use on your lap, and the general sense that your machine is fighting for its life. Constant overheating is no way to live with a laptop — in fact, you can help cool it down using a few different methods.

Why laptops overheat (and why it’s a problem)

An overheating laptop is more than a comfort issue. If your laptop gets too hot, it can actually stop the machine from working as well as it should. That’s because the CPU, which acts as sort of the “brain” of your computer, and the GPU (the chip controlling your computer’s graphics) are not allowed to get too hot. If these processors were allowed to get as hot as they could unchecked, it would permanently damage or ruin the chips.

Once the components reach a certain temperature, typically above 90˚C, the system starts to slow down its peak speeds and performance in an attempt to cool things down. That’s great for preserving those computing parts, since they could fry otherwise, but it’s not so good for your ability to get things done.

If you’re just sending emails and doing some light browsing, you might not notice the throttling too much. But if you rely on your computer’s speeds to get things done, these slowdowns can be painful.

How to keep your laptop cool

There are more than a few ways to keep things cooler on your laptop; while not all methods will work for all machines, these steps can help reduce the temperature of your computer, while at the same time boosting overall performance.

Check the fans

One of the ways many laptops keep their components cool is through fans. Your computer might be particularly nosy when the fans are kicking into high gear. The idea here is to take cool air from the room, and pump the hot air away from the machine. Over time, however, dust builds up on the fans, and eventually diminishes their ability to move air in and out of the laptop. The fans are working overtime, the components aren’t getting cool, so your machine throttles to reduce the heat.

The first course of action should be to clean out your laptop’s vents with a can of compressed air. If the dust and debris aren’t too severe, this noninvasive procedure can quickly help your laptop start cooling itself down again.

If things still are too hot, and your laptop is easy enough to open, you have access to the fans. From here, you can use a brush, compressed air, or a vacuum to gently push away dust and debris. If you don’t know how to properly open your laptop, there’s likely a tutorial online on how to open your specific model.

Of course, not all laptops have fans. If you have a MacBook Air, Chromebook, or other thin and light laptop that don’t feature fan-cooling, you’ll want to look into other alternatives here.

Mind your surface

Your laptop craves a flat, cool surface for optimal performance. If it has fans, that’s helpful for airflow, but heat will dissipate easier when the laptop is touching such a surface.

Soft, uneven surfaces however, such as sheets, pillows, or carpet, are not good for heat management. Soft materials can block vents, hampering the fans’ ability to move air through your machine. These materials are also poor at dissipating heat, meaning the heat will build up in your laptop.

In general, keep your laptop on a hard surface — tables, counters, desks, etc. You could also suspend your laptop on a stand, or use a laptop cooling pad to help facilitate airflow.

Thermal paste and thermal pads

Thermal paste allows heat from your CPU and GPU to more efficiently move to the heat sink, which keeps things cooler. Thermal pads, on the other hand, help move heat out of the heat sink, so the two thermal tools work well together. Let’s start with thermal paste: While all laptops ship with thermal paste from the get-go, the paste weakens over time. Not only that, sometimes the paste used during manufacturing isn’t ideal, or isn’t applied effectively, so you’re disadvantaged from the start.

Reapplying thermal paste is no easy task, though, especially if you aren’t familiar with opening up laptops and tinkering inside. Once you open your laptop and access the CPU and GPU, you’ll need to remove the previous layer of thermal paste and apply a new coat.

You can apply thermal paste to virtually any device with a CPU and GPU. The harder these devices are to open, however, the trickier the process. Some laptops are designed to be easy to work on; others, like MacBooks, are notoriously difficult to open. To make matters worse, most MacBooks have their CPU and GPUs facing away from the backplate, meaning you need to take apart the entire machine, then flip the board over, just to get to the processors.

Applying thermal pads, on the other hand, is often much easier. Linus Tech Tips improved the performance of the fanless M1 MacBook Air by simply adding thermal pads to the device’s heat sink. While doing so increased the temperatures of the MacBook Air’s base considerably, it actually bested the M1 MacBook Pro with its fan-cooling system during a stress test.

Whether you’re looking to add thermal pads, apply thermal paste, or do both, your best bet is to look up a tutorial for your specific laptop, as you would for any repair.

Do less

It’s natural for us to push our computers, especially if we’re doing multiple things at once. The above methods should improve your device performance naturally, so you might be able to run more apps anyway. However, even with these cooling strategies, your laptop might not be able to handle the multitude of programs you have running at any given point.

If you keep too many Chrome tabs open, for example, try only keeping the ones you really need open. If you don’t need to keep your game of The Sims running in the background while you’re working, keep it closed until it’s time to play again. If you want to edit video, but overheating causes slowdowns, try closing all apps but the ones necessary for the editing project.

Being mindful of how your use your laptop can go a long way towards keeping things cool, especially the longer your keep your machine.

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