For many of us, our lives can be quite hectic and busy at times, so the temptation to get as much done as possible while on the go has a lot of appeal. But is it really a good idea to have our laptops powered up and running while in a backpack or bag as we commute between locations, or is it an invitation for trouble?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Photo courtesy of Kate T.

The Question

SuperUser reader Agnel Kurian wants to know if it is safe to commute with a laptop powered up and running:

How safe is it to leave my laptop running a build or other time-consuming task while I am traveling? I mostly travel on a two-wheeler, with my laptop in a backpack, strapped vertically to my back (left edge towards Earth, right edge towards sky, or vice versa).

I have heard that damage can occur if the hard drive’s spinning platter comes in contact with the drive head, but is that only a problem with much older hard drives? My laptop was purchased in 2010.

I found two related questions, but I am particularly worried whether the laptop is safe or not when positioned vertically.

Could a person have their laptop powered up and running without risk while commuting, or is this trouble waiting to happen?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor LMSingh has the answer for us:

Specific to the original question about positioning a laptop vertically:

Historically, the orientation of a hard drive was considered important.

Seeing that some versions of iPods have the drive being turned around all the time, one would think hard drive orientation change wouldn’t matter.

However, based on personal experience with desktop drives, “field” experience from multiple PC repair techs I have known over the years, and other comments by users in various forums, I’ve personally taken a cautious view that changing the orientation of a hard drive during use could be a real problem.

Specifically, the common theme I’ve heard and experienced is that if you originally formatted the drive when it was horizontal, then using it vertically was “considered to”/”guessed to” make it more prone to read/write errors. Similarly, if you originally formatted it while it was vertical, then it would be problematic when used horizontally. I have used that tidbit of info as an additional precaution when I was recovering an old drive that started clicking. However, in laptop drives it may not be applicable since manufacturers expect the drive to be moved around a lot more than desktop drives. YMMV.

I suppose your laptop drive was originally formatted when horizontal, so positioning it vertically, especially while running builds because of the large amount of reads/writes could be a problem, if the above holds true for laptop drives.

The hard drive reader heads aren’t exactly equal length levers on both sides of the fulcrum (pivot). In other words, the head is made as a lever with one side of the head being long and thin while the other side is short and heavy. Crudely shown below.


See a more accurate view of the geometry of the drives here. This might be interesting as well, knowing that the core drive mechanical structure hasn’t really changed in multiple decades.

It’s rather obvious that the design is engineered to have the same weight on both sides of the lever to minimize mechanical energy expended in starting and stopping the motion. Two things happen here:

  1. When rotating the head on another axis besides its own pivot axis, the head is subject to gyro forces, and as a result subject to mechanical stress during motion.
  2. When the pivot is vertical (i.e. the head motion plane is horizontal), then the pivot has no stress moving it sideways. However, when the pivot is horizontal (i.e. the head motion plane is vertical, in other words the drive is vertical), then due to the weight of the head mechanism, the pivot will (due to its weight) put pressure on the bearings it is positioned in due to gravitational pull. No matter how precise the engineering, there will be some measurable play in the bearings that will only come into play in vertical drives. This I guess, will be enough to cause the head to read the disk surface slightly offset as opposed to when the head/drive is horizontal.

I “guess” item #1 (gyro effect) could be a significant issue on multiple axes, especially when the laptop is in a backpack and moving/bouncing up and down, and rocking back and forth on the owner’s back as the owner is walking. Human motion is much slower compared to a drive platter’s or reader’s motion though, so it really might be insignificant. Item #2 could be an issue as well, albeit less significant and much more automatically corrected with the normal calibration that modern drives already do. In either case, don’t move your spinning drive like a pompom :-)

RE: Heat build up. Others have already mentioned the heat accumulation inside the bag. I want to reiterate from personal experience that it is a HUGE issue. I’ve had excessive heat build up very quickly inside a bag (obviously since it can’t escape). I’d really advise that you avoid putting a working/heating laptop inside a bag for any longer than 1-2 minutes. For example, I hit the sleep button, put my working laptop in a bag, and it spent the next 1-2 minutes building up heat as it was going to sleep, then I ran out the door. However, one time putting my laptop into sleep mode failed due to an error dialog popping up and I didn’t realize it was happening, then a few minutes later the laptop overheated and the CPU protection kicked in to halt it. The machine was safe but my work was lost. If you really have to keep it in a bag, see if you’re able to get a vertical air path with at least one air entry in the bag near the bottom and at least one air exit near the top, AND that your laptop has vents that align to the bag’s air entry points, only THEN would it be safe to leave it in there for any longer than 5 minutes.

Special Note: There is an additional list of reference links with this response in the original SuperUser post.

While newer hard drives should be fine sitting horizontally or vertically, being a bit more careful with older drives is a good idea. As for having a laptop powered up while carrying it in a backpack or bag, definitely not a good idea!

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
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