Computer hardware in flames
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Computers produce heat under normal use, but they produce a lot more of it when under heavy load. This can lead to a decrease in performance, known as thermal throttling. So what exactly is “throttling” and how can you avoid it?

Thermal Throttling Protects Hardware

Computer components like the CPU, GPU, and even memory modules produce heat. Under heavy load, they produce a lot more heat, which can lead to them getting too hot. Under sustained high temperatures, these components could be susceptible to permanent damage.

When a component reaches a high enough temperature, performance is limited to prevent heat build-up and encourage cooling. Components can only safely run at their full potential if whatever cooling solution is provided can keep them within a safe operating temperature.

RELATED: 10 Quick Steps to Increase PC Performance

“Throttling” in this context means “ditching performance” in the form of lowering clock speeds. Your GPU or CPU will run slower, dragging performance down with it. On the desktop, you might find that the UI is a little more sluggish, while GPU thermal throttling will reduce frame rates in games.

More severe signs of overheating include crashes, visual artifacts and distortion on the screen, and sudden restarts.

Fanless Devices Are More Susceptible

While high-end graphics cards and processors might produce a lot of heat, staving off thermal throttling is possible with adequate cooling. You can find out whether you’re thermal throttling by using a system monitor tool like MSI Afterburner to watch your GPU and CPU clock speeds.

But this phenomenon isn’t just limited to computers. Many tablets and smartphones encounter thermal throttling due to their fanless design. These devices rely on passive cooling, which is fine for light tasks but might trigger thermal throttling under sustained load.

MacBook Air (2020, M1)

For example, the Apple Silicon M1 chip has been lauded by critics for its excellent performance and efficient design, but neither the base model MacBook Air nor the 2021 models of iPad Pro are actively cooled. This has led some MacBook Air owners to mod their laptops with thermal pads to better dissipate heat through the aluminum chassis.

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Increasingly powerful mobile chips have led to device manufacturers using vapor chambers in their smartphones and handheld consoles.

Stay Cool

Ambient temperature can play a big role in how well your computer, console, tablet, or smartphone can cool itself. The cooler the room, the better.

Keeping your computer cool under load will prevent thermal throttling and the other undesirable effects of heat build-up. You can go all-out and water-cool your computer or spend some time getting the airflow inside your case right.

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He has covered a wide range of topics including Apple, security, productivity tips, gaming and more for publications like How-To Geek, Zapier, and MakeUseOf.
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