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How To Diagnose and Fix an Overheating Laptop

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One of the most common issues with aging laptops is overheating, something many people aren’t sure how to fix. We’ll help you figure out what’s causing the heat and how to keep your notebook functioning at a lower temperature.

Overheating computers can cause a lot of problems, from seemingly random blue screens to data loss. You might not even know that it’s the root of your issues, and before you know it you have a burnt-out motherboard on your hands. Let’s go step by and step and see how to deal with overheating computers. We’ll be dealing primarily with laptops, but most of the same principles apply to desktops as well.

Find the Heat Source

Air Flow and Heat Transfer

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The first thing you need to do is figure out where the heat is coming from. No air flow means no heat transfer, so figure out where the air vents are. Are they blowing hot air, or is there barely a breeze, even when the fan is overtaxed?

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Most commonly, an accumulation of dust in the vents and fans through the cooling channels will be culprit in restricting air flow. Cleaning it out will work best. Turn you laptop upside-down and look at what you’ve got.

laptop underside

Unscrew the fan doors and you should be able to lift out the fan and clean everything with a can of compressed air.

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If you find that a fan is spinning erratically, you may want to try lifting the sticker off of the axle and putting a drop of mineral oil to keep it going.

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You can also try to look up the part number from your laptop’s user manual or by searching your laptop model number online. Once you have that, you can find replacements pretty easily on eBay and the like.

Dying Batteries

There are plenty of different types of batteries, and many different schools of thought on battery maintenance and life span, but one thing that seems pretty unanimous is that batteries aren’t meant to be stored at 100% or 0% capacity. I know plenty of people who buy laptops and always keep the charger in, never actually using the battery. You can definitely expect to kill your battery’s health this way, since you’re essentially storing the battery when it’s full. Bad batteries don’t just give out really quickly, they can generate heat.

removing battery

(Image credit: Bryan Gosline)

You can buy replacement batteries pretty easily online, even for laptops that are four years old. You just need to know what model your computer/battery is. If you can’t find one, you may consider using your laptop as a desktop and remove the overheating battery completely from the equation.

Persistent Overheating

If you’ve taken the air vents and battery out of the picture and you’re still having problems, then you might have a more persistent heat issue. Sometimes a dusty hard drive can cause heat problems and data loss. Some laptops just “run hot,” even without a major load on the CPU. Try cleaning out these areas as best you can before you move on to another solution.

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Dust under the processor and RAM doors to get rid of any dust and debris. If you’ve got a netbook or a laptop without compartments underneath, things might be more difficult. You should be able to find instructions for getting the back off so you can clean things properly.

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(Image credit: fellow HTG author Justin Garrison)

Lighten the Load

If your computer’s heat is related to how much data the CPU chugs through, you might want to manage your processes better. You can use the Windows Task Manager to see what’s most intensive, then use Autoruns to see all your startup processes and trim them down. You can also change the order of the startup processes that are necessary. The staggered loading of software will help balance your processor’s load.

You can install and run Process Explorer to see the files that each process has open and its associated CPU usage over time. This can help you decide what to get rid of and what to spare. We’re also big fans of CCleaner, which allows you to clean history and cache files as well as manage your startup applications quickly and easily. You can free up some much needed space that way and get a little more efficiency out of your OS.

If you want to keep an eye on the temperature of your laptop, I recommend Core Temp for Windows. It’s an extremely light-weight app that won’t pressure your CPU, but lets you keep an eye on your internal temperature.

core temp

You can tell it to display the temperature when it’s in the system tray. One of the best features is under the Options menu: Overheat Protection.

core temp 2

Here, you can define a temperature that will trigger your computer to Sleep, Hibernate, or Shutdown. Core Temp also works as a Windows Gadget, though if you’re overheating from CPU-intensive processes, I’d turn Desktop Gadgets off. Another thing you can do is turn that fancy Aero interface off, and you can create a shortcut to quickly toggle it if you can’t live completely without it.

If you’re using Linux instead, you might want to consider a more spartan distro. I’ve personally had a lot of success with Crunchbang; a clean install leaves me with Openbox as a window manager, a nice dock, and some nice desktop effects, along with only 80MB of RAM usage. It’s based on Debian, so there’s a good amount of compatibility with software. If you run Arch, you might want to try ArchBang instead, which is the same thing but built on Arch instead of Debian.

Behavior Changes

Laptop owners have a lot of luxury by not being tethered to a chair and desk. We develop a lot of habits, like browsing in bed, that can actually work against of computers. A lot of laptops are designed with their air vents on the bottom for some ridiculous reason, so setting it down on soft bedding or carpet for prolonged use is a bad idea. You’d be surprised at how quickly the heat can build up. If you this is a habit, you might consider investing in a laptop stand to keep the air flow unobstructed.

laptop stand 1

laptop stand 2

CoolLift Laptop Stand

If none of the above methods helped cool your laptop sufficiently, you might consider using a cooling pad, like this:

fan pad

Laptop Cooling Pad (USB Powered)

The fans will help direct cool air into the underside vents of your laptop. Some even come with USB hubs and other bells and whistles.

If your vents are placed on the sides or elsewhere, but the bottom of your notebook is still really warm, you can try out a thermal (passive) cooling pad.

thermal pad

Targus Thermal Cooling Pad

These are soft pads filled with special crystals that are designed to conduct heat away from the source. You can find thermal cooling pads in smaller sizes, too. I used a 9” one for my old netbook and it did wonders for me.

Sure, these will make your laptop less mobile, but if it helps with overheating then at least you’ll have a laptop that runs.

Repurpose It

shelf server

(Image credit: mray)

If you can’t use it as a laptop anymore, consider repurposing it. The compact motherboards fit great inside of older and smaller computer cases and cardboard boxes. These kinds of rigs are great for in-drawer HTPCs, closet-servers, or under-the-desk mounted workstations. You’ll have to be a bit more careful if you leave the guts exposed, but depending on the room, it can cut down on dust problems. You can also regulate air flow a bit better and mount some standard computer fans in clever places, like in the back and sides of the drawer or desk.

Another idea is to try running a very light-weight version of Linux, and use it for something that isn’t very CPU-intensive, like a file server. The lack of processor-heavy tasks will keep the temperature low, but you can still get some use out of it. And, if you’re only ditching the battery, then you can leave things inside the case and stick it on a shelf as a head-less (SSH and command-line only) server. The possibilities are endless!

 


I hate seeing machines go to waste. My last project took a seven-year-old overheating Dell Inspiron 9100 and turned it into a cool-running under-the-table HTPC.

 

Have you recently given an overheating laptop new life? Have some better tips for temperature management? Know what to kill to keep CPU load light? Share in the comments!

Yatri Trivedi is a monk-like geek. When he's not overdosing on meditation and geek news of all kinds, he's hacking and tweaking something, often while mumbling in 4 or 5 other languages.

  • Published 07/8/11

Comments (55)

  1. ccfdgr

    don’t forget correct amount of thermal paste on cpu, can generate lots of heat if not done properly.

  2. Марфа

    It were useful yesterday

  3. Jim Kray

    Here’s a simpler “stand”: use one or two (for stability) rubber door stoppers. They can be adjusted for the angle and they’re small enough for travel. Cheap too!

  4. Chris Rogers

    If all else fails a fridge works wonders. My shop just encountered this problem earlier this week. Nothing we tried worked. Finally, my employee got the idea to put it in the fridge for 3 hours. We were able to pull all affected user’s files off the machine. Result: One very happy customer and our IT shop getting Kudos from the execs for innovative thinking. As Charlie Sheen would say “WINNING”.

  5. Antonio del Rosario Jr.

    Another way to clean the air vent is to vacuum it at full whack. Very convenient if you don’t want to bother opening the guts of your laptop. And if the fan isn’t that accessible like the photos above. Just don’t forget to REMOVE THE BATTERY whenever you’re doing it.

  6. john3347

    An ideal use for a “re-purposed” and otherwise useless laptop is that of a clock. Install a clock screen saver, set it on a shelf somewhere, turn the computer on and walk off and leave it. If you have any battery life to speak of, you don’t even have to reset it if the electricity flashes off. The screen saver that I use is , but there are several free ones available. The laptop that I am using was used as a print server for a few years before Vista came along and would not play nicely with anything. Back then, the battery would hold a charge for perhaps 15 minutes so you didn’t even have to reset the print server if the electricity went off momentarily. (WiFi network printers have kinda replaced the need for tricks like that) Either of these tricks require very little CPU usage to generate heat within the computer.

  7. john3347

    Ref previous post:

    I guess no links are allowed here. The screen saver that I use is called clock-screen-saver. You will have to look up the URL.

  8. Neil

    If you want a laptop to run cooler, install a decent operating system – Linux!
    Microsoft always runs hot. Try dual booting Linux and Microsoft and you will feel the difference.

  9. Michael Shaw

    On hot times of the year, on my Vista laptop, I go into Control Panel/Power Options and select Power Saver. Runs much cooler that way. Sometimes I resort to an underneath fan but the Power Saver usually is enough up to the high 80′s/low 90′s. I noticed, though, that in AZ I need the fan more though…dryer I guess.

  10. Cirric

    Hi. I have an old Dell laptop and it overheats. I installed Ubuntu 11.04 but the machine still overheated. It sits on a twin fan cooler but neither of the two small fans in the rear of the laptop spins. I only use it for emergencies so it is not a problem, but when it gets hot the machine slows to a crawl.

  11. czvet

    I had this problem with a seven year old Toshiba Satellite … took it apart and cleaned out years of dust from the fan assy and all inside passages… it worked like new after that…. however it had become quite out dated…. replaced it with another brand (stupid) which developed optical drive not recognized problems after only two and a half years… bought a new drive after trying all the software fixes… same problem… bought another Toshiba….

  12. rbailin

    Cleaning the fan isn’t enough, especially if you have pets in the house. Pet dander & fur builds up not only on the fan but on the leading edge of the heat sink fins.

    Use compressed air to clean the heat sink fins and the fan blades by blowing into the area where the hot air usually exhausts. You’ll get a significant cloud of dust when you do this the first time. Cans of compressed air may work, but using shop air at 80-100 psi works much better. Hit it with short bursts of air (laptop off, of course) so as not to overspin the fan. Try several times through each of the air outlet openings. If you’re using shop air (from a compressor, using a standard nozzle attachment), make sure the air is clear and free of water vapor before dusting the laptop.

  13. Jwarn

    I had a acer aspire 5715z, and it used to run vista. It a few times froze, but it coped better with win7. Then I went through to linux distros. First Mandriva, then Ubuntu, but that made it overheat so much that it turned off after half an hour. Then I put xp on it, and it was fine.
    My acer one netbook gets nowhere as warm as when had xp. As soon as I got my Mac though, I gave my 5715z to a club I go to as there laptop is very limited on what it could do.

  14. Matt

    How would i go switching out a dell xps fan? it seems to covered by other parts, i don’t want to risk screwing my laptop up over a minor cleaning project.

  15. Matt

    Also if you smoke around your computer, it can cause a lot of nasty buildup and isn’t good for the internal components.

  16. dave

    >I know plenty of people who buy laptops and always keep the charger in, never actually using the battery.

    Haha, that is me right there.

  17. Aaron Enten

    http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2006-04/diy-digital-photo-frame
    Turn your old laptop into a Digital Picture Frame

  18. Eric

    I have xps m1530, I found that certain nvidia drivers make the gpu and hdd run hot. If that’s a problem with anyone, you might want to test with older or beta drivers.

  19. Jason

    Not unless you have a $500 laptop that doesn’t have a cover for the fan, which means you’ll have to take the whole dam thing apart just to get to the dam fan. I guess you get what you pay for.

  20. Furryface

    I have a Dell Inspiron 1720 that I bought about 3 years ago. It started over heating and I could not figure out why. I talked to one of the guys at the local computer store that I deal with and he suggested opening up the computer and blowing all the dust out that I could find especially the air vents. He also suggested buying some CPU paste, clean and replace the paste that was between the CPU and the heatsink as it will dry out over time. I did as he suggested. The paste between the CPU and the heatsink HAD dried out but after scrapping off, cleaning and replacing the paste then putting everything back together it ran MUCH cooler. A cheap easy fix.

  21. mcalleyboy

    I have an HP Pavilion dv9715nr Entertainment Notebook PC but the fan is not removable and it does not look so easy to just remove an entire panel, I might try it though, any suggestions.

  22. MaxWgn

    mcalleyboy… with the HP consumer series laptops, you will have to practically tear the entire laptop apart to get to the HSF assembly. My ex-girlfriend had a dv2000 with the infamous athlon / nvidia overheating issue – and to repair it, i had to rip the entire unit apart… dreading it, if I have to do mine – I have an HP Dv6000 series – but I intentionally chose an Intel based unit, after reading about the AMD heating issues…

  23. kaushik

    thanks

  24. Italy8868

    Hi! I have a Toshiba Satellite P200 -1HM, and wanted to clean the fan. But it seems impossible to access it! I think I need to unscrew everything underneath, remove components like motherboard, dvd-drive, cpu, … then I could remove keyboard to get to the fan. Seems like a lot of work. Does anyone know how to access the fan on my laptop without taking it apart that much? Thanks!

  25. Patrick

    DON’T vacuum the vents at full whack. This will almost certainly destroy the fan bearings!

  26. Zing

    Just finished working on an HP entertainment series laptop that was shutting down in less than ten minutes. The cooling system on this machine was not designed for simple cooling system maintenance. Like MaxWgn said, you have to disassemble the machine entirely. It boots up quickly now and runs fine. The question I have why is there no simple way of dealing with the dust and pet hair that accumulates inside?

  27. Ken

    Here’s a thought, try cleaning your work space and your house/bedroom this will keep your laptop n PC from sucking up a lot of dust. When cleaning someone’s hardware wear a mask.

  28. Old Soldier

    I have an old Dell Inspiron 1720 which my home health aide inadvertently left running for several days while I was in the hospital. Before I got back home it overheated so severely that it will no longer boot. Is there a “reset’ button somewhere which I can access and try? If not, should I just open it up and change out the motherboard and/or the power supply? Which is more likely to have failed due to the heat it generated while it was not being monitored (pun intended)? Any other suggestions? Thanx

  29. mark

    Thank you .. gave me a great idea for my old laptop

  30. Diggerjohn111

    I love how the Mac Zombies, the Linux clones and even someone with OCD cleaning issues got their jabs in. The best thing to clean an older laptop, and even a newer laptop is to do exactly what this piece says; Keep the vents free of dust and get a cooling stand.

  31. Marjorie

    I have an HP Pavilion dv7 Entertainment PC. It has run very hot since the day I bought it. I complained about it to HP by phone. They told me that’s norml for the machine, but I don’t believe them. It’s hot enough to dry out the wood desk it sits on. Has anyone else had this problem?

  32. orkid

    Smoking is bad for computers now woweee… wouldn’t undervolting be a good cooling idea as well?

  33. Asmodeus

    Undervolting hurts a computer just as much as over volting maybe even more. Computers are designed to run at a certain voltage too far under or over damages the computer. Undervolting can reduce the effectiveness of your cooling system for one and your power supply.

  34. lance

    I just fixed a laptop that was overheating, vacuuming it out fixed the problem. You can also use a software called speed fan to control your temperatures, very good.

  35. barkhat

    Could you explain ‘turn your laptop into a desktop?’

  36. Rick

    To ensure a decent air passage I solved the overheating by “borrowing” my wife’s rectangular wire cake stand. Cheap and effective. (I did buy her another!)

  37. sandy

    Run the vacuum at full speed, but lock/hold the fan (one of the fan blades) in place by pushing an opened out paper clip thru the vent.

    Another tip : put small amounts of IPA (iso propyl alcohol) onto the heat sink vents. The IPA will take the debris off the heat sink. The entire heat sink and the vents of the heat sink should look like new/shiny when finished. This may be a little difficult and would involve holding the laptop at certain angles so that the extra IPA slides out. IPA dries out after some time though ( < 1 minute). Getting the HDD out would be a good idea if HDD is located near the vents.

    Changing the thermal paste under the CPU is also a good idea.

  38. GB

    What about hot macbook pros?

  39. Jimmy

    GB: send your whole laptop to Apple and the will fix it.

  40. TsarNikky

    If your laptop is used mainly on hard surfaces, you might want to put four adhesive-backed rubber flower-pot feet under the bottom of the computer, The extra 1/4″ inch of height you gain makes a big difference in how much air can easily get in and flow under the bottom vents.

  41. Aalam

    It is very helpful thanks

  42. Qais

    actual reason for overheating is not mentioned.

  43. Ron

    On rare occasions (every six months or so), when I close the lib of my laptop and place it inside it’s carrying bag, the unit will become so hot that it is almost too hot to handle!

    What would cause the laptop to overheat when it is in “standby” mode?

  44. David Packard

    be careful if you ever use a vacuum in a computer… there are special vacuums for electronics… vacuums can create static electricity that will kill a motherboard
    ALSO, be careful using canned air.. if the liquid gets on motherboard and kills it, you are screwed as manufacturers consider it a ‘liquid incident’ that voids all warranties

    compressed air with moisture guard is what I use… sometimes i use a regular air compressor and shoot the air through a rag to stop moisture

  45. RogerTDJ

    Once had a client with a failing hard drive. Put it in a zip lock and in the freezer (squeeze out air as best as you can). Later pulled it out, hooked it up, and it worked… got the files off ASAP and set her up with a new hard drive..

    Beware putting a hdd straight in freezer or with too much air in the zip-lock, you can get moisture. Dry-Ice is actually preferable.

  46. horizonguy

    I can attest to the heatsink/fans being clogged without seeing it from the outside. I just tore down my Toshiba Satellite A75 over the weekend, and even though it looked OK at first, when I got to dismantling the fans and heatsink I uncovered several completely blocked airflows. I tried the compressed air trick into the vents and it seemed to work but didn’t fix the issue. I had to order some new thermal compound and cleaner but hopefully this will save what I thought was a dying laptop (my friend was going to throw it out so I took it). Now the fun s putting it all back together again and hoping for the best!

  47. Bessie Ball

    I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshiba laptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff, BidsGe t.com

  48. stevieG

    Had running hot with my Comqact since day one ,so when its on a hard surface put two 1″ door stoppers under,battery is 10yo and plenty of life still,and dont obstruck the fan flow

  49. Krushna

    Thanks a lot .

  50. marion quiambao

    acer aspire 3000 bout 6yrs old. checking to see if battery was chaged. it said 95%. so i unplugged cord from laptop and used battery power. went to kitchen came back and laptop was off. turn it on with battery and only yellow light was blinking. removed battery and tried to turn it on and nothing. really like my laptop. do you think its worht it to have it checked or is it time for a new one. feec back please!!!!!!!!!!

  51. Brian

    Dont use a standard vacuum to clean a computer out…they generate static electricity and can fry your computer as fast as anything. You need to find someone with an electronics vacuum or buy one yourself.

    Also with the fan trick of putting mineral oil on the bearings under the sticker…yes and no, first put graphite powder powder down and then the tinyest drop of oil that you can on top of that. Put the sticker back down and secure it with some duct tape. I have fixed unusable and noisy fans with that trick several times. Oil alone seemed to cause more problems than it fixed.

  52. Ricardo

    I had a toshiba satellite A135 s2386 had burn parts of the motherboard cause overheating my laptop almost 7 years thanks this fixing overheating of laptop, now my laptop is dead ……..i been late to know how to fix overheating laptop thanks…….

  53. Rick S

    Just had a laptop given to me because it kept shutting down. They replaced it with a new one.
    Everything inside was clean, Not enough dust to even bother cleaning.
    I noticed the rubber feet were gone so there wasn’t enough air flow. After making new ones it works just fine. This has happened to me twice. I wonder how many perfectly good laptops end up in the scrap heap because the little feet fell off. lol.

    Somebody commented that if you keep your house clean your computer will stay clean longer.
    It’s true. lol.

  54. horizonguy

    UPDATE to my post on 7/11 – I am happy to report that I was able to clean out the 2 heat sink vents (they were blocked by about 3/4″ of dog hair/dust from previous owner). I added some thermal compound and re-assembled my Toshiba Satellite A75-2112. So far so good – no heat issues/shut downs. I have installed another 1GB of ram and switched from XP to Peppermint Linux. The laptop boots in under 30 sec. and shuts down in 10 seconds. I made 2 laptop risers out of soda bottle tops for better airflow for the bottom 2 fans. In total, I spent about $50 and revived a laptop that was headed for the dumpster.

  55. Yonko54

    Try velcro to hold ‘feet’ or your cooler fan onto the bottom of your laptop. Of courseThe fuzzy side goes on the laptop

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