Laptop Computing

Compaq heatsink closeupThis is the third in a series of posts about how to identify and solve laptop overheating problems. The first two posts have covered how to understand and diagnose laptop overheating. This post explains what you need to do to fix the problem without having to pay a big repair bill.

Please read though to the end of the post (including the warnings and cautions) before you attempt any of the procedures described here.

First: understand why your laptop overheats

Your laptop could be suffering from overheating for a number of reasons. One of the most common is that you are using your laptop in a way that is preventing the cooling system from working properly. For instance, you may be using it on a cushion or some other soft surface that is stopping cool air flowing through the laptop’s cooling system.

If that is the case, then the simple solution is to start using the laptop on a flat surface (such as an eTray laptop tray) that will allow the air to flow freely.

Closeup of laptop heatsink clogged with dirtIf using the laptop on a flat surface does not provide a solution straight away then it is safe to say your laptop’s cooling system is faulty. It needs to be repaired before the laptop will run properly again.

It is possible that the fan that drives air through the cooling system has failed. But, it would be very unusual for this to happen. It is much more likely that your laptop’s cooling system is simply clogged up with dirt and dust. Removing the dirt and dust will allow the air to circulate freely again.

The big question is: how to do this? The answer to that depends first on how bad the problem is and second on how easy it is to get access to the critical parts of your laptop’s cooling system. Some laptop designs make this a very easy thing to do, and some require a major strip down to gain sufficient access to the fan and heatsink components.

Stage one fix – the laptop maintenance clean

Let’s start with the easy bits first. Over the years I have developed a method for cleaning a laptop’s cooling system without any dismantling. I call it the Laptop Maintenance Clean.

It’s a simple procedure that can be very effective if the build up of debris is not too bad, and if the laptop design allows good access to the heatsink cooling fins through the exhaust port.

Doing this is easy and it doesn’t need you to dismantle your machine, or to do anything that will invalidate your warranty. You will need two items of equipment:

  • A can of aerosol air duster.
  • A vacuum cleaner, preferably with a crevice tool.

 

Start by taking a look at your laptop and see if you can identify two things:

AcerExhaust2

1. The cooling system’s exhaust port. This is usually on the side of the machine and it is easy to find when the machine is running because it will blow hot air out over your hand. You may be able to see the metal fins of the heat exchanger through the grill.

 

 

Acer_air_intake

2. The cooling system’s air intake grill. This is often on the bottom of the machine.

If you are not sure which they are, have a look at my previous posts on this subject to get an idea of how the cooling system is arranged.

 

Make sure that the laptop is switched off and disconnected from any power source before you begin.

  1. Start the vacuum cleaner and hold the nozzle at the air intake grill
  2. Using the air duster, blast air through the exhaust ports into the machine.

The aim is to dislodge any dust and dirt that has accumulated on the other side of the heat sink fins so that the vacuum cleaner can suck it out of the intake grill. You need to make sure that the airflow is reversed in this way because some particles may be too large to pass through the heat sink fins and they need to come out the way that they came in.

Now switch on your laptop and run CoreTemp or SpeedFan and check to see if there is any improvement. If there is a noticeable difference then this may be all that you need to do.

If it works for your laptop, my advice would be to repeat the procedure every month or two to keep your laptop’s cooling system clear. And, of course, to get yourself a laptop tray to reduce the amount of dirt and fluff that goes into your machine when you use it.

Maintenance clean limitations

The laptop maintenance clean can be very effective at dislodging debris from the laptops cooling fins, but it doesn’t always work. The dirt and dust that accumulates behind the fins can be sticky and difficult to dislodge, and sometimes it collects into large clumps of a felt like material. Even if this material is dislodged, the blast from the air duster may not reach through to the fan blades, which may be deep inside the machine. Dirt build up on these can put the fan out of balance and that can make it noisy in operation, and sometimes the felt can jam the fan, preventing it from turning at all.

If the maintenance cleaning procedure made little difference to your overheating problem then you are going to need to use a brush to dislodge the dirt before you can blast it away with the air duster.

Going deeper – laptop deep clean

Going to the next stage means you are going to have to open the laptop’s casing and its important for you to consider the implications of this before you go any further.

Some laptops allow easy access to the fan and heat sink by removing a panel on the bottom of the machine. If that is the case with your machine then this will be a very straightforward procedure. However, if you have dismantle beyond this point, or there is any kind of seal that you would have to break before opening the panel, then this could invalidate any warranty that you have on the laptop.

Also, arriving at a laptop repair technician with a box of parts and asking them to put it back together for you is almost guaranteed to get you a big bill. If, after reading the following description, you are concerned that you might not see the process through to the end, or you are nervous about your ability to open your laptop without damaging it, then this might be the time to hand the job over to a qualified technician.

But, if you have some basic manual skills and the ability to work carefully and systematically then there is no reason why you shouldn’t do the job yourself. If you do, you will save yourself a large sum of money. And, you will probably be so pleased with yourself and life in general that you will glow with satisfaction for days to come.

Prepare yourself carefully

If you are still with me, the first thing to do  is for you to make a backup of all the important information on your laptop. Just in case.

Then do a little research to find out what information is available regarding your particular laptop model. Try googling the manufacturer and model name with the word “manual”. You may be able to find a service manual containing precise instructions for dismantling it.

Try searching YouTube using your laptop model name – sometimes people post step-by-step videos showing exactly how to strip them down. These can be very useful, particularly at showing where there may be tricky parts of the sequence. At the very least it will give you an idea of the extent of the task you are setting yourself.

Before you begin there are a few items that you are going to need to obtain. You will probably get most of them if you buy yourself computer repair toolkit, but some you may need to source separately. Remember, good tools help you to do good work:

– A precision screwdriver set. This should contain a variety of different sized crosshead and Pozidriv type screwdrivers. Depending on the manufacturer of your laptop, you may also need hex head and Torx-star bits.
– A small, stiff paint brush.
A can of aerosol air duster.
– An antistatic wristband. This is important. It is needed so you can earth yourself to avoid damaging the sensitive electronic components in your laptop.
– Some small containers where you can keep screws and small components as you remove them.
– A selection of pliers, tweezers and other gripping tools for small parts.
– A magnifying glass
– A small torch
– A telescopic magnetic pick-up tool small parts. This will invaluable if you drop a screw in to a tight space. It can also be used to temporarily magnetise the screwdrivers to hold a screw on the tip when you are replacing it.

In addition to these items, you will need a clear area on a desk or table with good lighting where you can work and, most important, the time to work in a careful and methodical manner.

Cleaning an easy to access laptop fan

The following shows a typical procedure with an easy access laptop, the Acer Aspire 1690.

  1. Make sure that the laptop is switched off and disconnected from any power source.
  2. Make sure you are wearing the antistatic wrist band and that it is connected to a known earthing point.
  3. Close the lid and place the laptop, lid down, on to your working surface.
  4. Identify the access panel containing the air intake grill, which is next to the exhaust port. Acer_air_intake
  5. Remove the three retaining screws and remove the panel, revealing the heat pipe and fan.Acerfanscrews
  6. Remove the four screws holding the fan outer cover and fold the cover back out of the way. laptop_dust5
  7. Loosen the dirt and fluff attached to the heat sink and fan with the brush, and then clean it with the air duster.
  8. Close the fan cover and replace the screws.
  9. Replace the access panel and secure it in place with the screws.

As you can see this is a very simple and straightforward procedure. It doesn’t require any particular skill or knowledge of electronics – just the confidence to go ahead and try. If you have completed it successfully, you have saved yourself well in excess of the cost of a new eTray in repair bills, and you have gained the ability to maintain your laptop into the future. Congratulations!

Going even deeper – difficult to access laptop fans

Compaq_stip_downUnfortunately, not all laptops have cooling systems that are as easy to access as this Acer. Some may require you to remove the keyboard to get to the fan. Some, like the Compaq CQ60 that I worked on recently, required a complete strip down involving the removal of the keyboard, screen and motherboard before it was possible to access the fan and heatsink fins.

This may seem a little more daunting, but it is still possible using only basic hand tools and a methodical step-by-step approach. And, of course, the potential savings on repair bills are much greater.

If your laptop requires major dismantling and you are going to attempt it, there are two problem areas that you will need to overcome:

  1. laptop_pcb_connectorDisconnecting the various electrical connections without damaging them so they can be reconnected during re-assembly. Some of the plug-in connectors are tiny, tight and easy to damage. Some of them have locking connectors and the locking mechanisms are sometimes difficult to spot if you are not familiar with them. This makes it difficult to know exactly how much force you need to use to disconnect them.
  2. Laptops are complex and after a couple of hours it can be difficult to recall the exact re-assembly sequence or to remember exactly which screws are required where.

The solution to these problems is to take your time, prepare well, and do as much research as you can before you start work.

  • Try to get a copy of the service manual for your machine and take the time to watch any walk-through videos that are available on YouTube.
  • During the dismantling process stop at each stage and take photographs from several different angles before moving on.
  • At each stage use a different container for screws and small parts. Keep them in sequence so you can see exactly what you need to use at that stage of the re-assembly process – if you have parts left over you have missed something.
  • If you get something wrong just go back and redo it – take your time and have a break if you need to.

Expect that there will be some teething problems when you try to start the machine after reassembly. If the laptop starts up and runs the first time that you press the power button then award yourself genius status as a laptop engineer.

Otherwise, you may have to go back a couple of stages to remake a connection or fit something you have forgotten. Go back a step at a time and double check. Remember that, if you had to disconnect the bios backup battery then you may have to reset adjustments in the bios again. The point is to expect and accept problems so that they won’t seem like such a blow when they occur. You will be tired at this point and it is easy to just give up over a relatively simple problem. Remember that if you keep on going you will get to the end.

If you manage this mammoth task you will have achieved a number of things. First, you will now have a fully working laptop that no longer overheats. You would have also saved yourself a very large repair bill. You would have learnt an awful lot about how laptops are constructed and how to fix them. And, perhaps most important of all, you will have a tremendous sense of achievement.

Please take care

Finally, can I please point out that you must do all of this at your own risk. I am providing this advice in good faith, but I can’t be held responsible for what happens when I am not present. Please read the instructions in the service manuals carefully and observe all of the warnings and cautions they contain.

In my last post I explained that laptop overheating is often caused by a gradual build up of dust and fluff in the laptop’s cooling system. If this your problem and you want your laptop working properly again it is going to be necessary to clean the cooling system. I am going to explain how to go about doing that, but first I thought it would be useful to explain how to diagnose an overheating laptop just to make sure that is the problem.

This may seem like a no brainer, but the fact is that laptops operate at different temperatures by design and some run very hot indeed. If you compare different machines with different processors you can often feel a difference in temperature, but that does not necessarily mean that the hotter machine is actually overheating. By overheating, I mean that the laptop is running at a much higher temperature than it is designed to operate at.

How to recognise overheating

Depending on the processor fitted, some laptops run very hot by design. They may be uncomfortable on your lap, but they will continue to run quite happily that way. If your laptop is overheating you will probably experience symptoms that include:

1. The machine’s cooling fans will work continuously and noisily at maximum speed.

2. The laptop will suddenly shut down by itself without warning, perhaps after only 5 to 10 minutes of operation.

3. The laptop will work fine when it is idling, but will shut down soon after you start to use any software that makes the processor work (3D Games, movie players, image or video editing software, etc.).

Temperature monitoring

CoretempIf you experience one or more of these symptoms then it is reasonable to assume that your laptop is overheating. Nevertheless, you may want to double check, and the easiest way to do that is to download one of the free temperature monitoring programs that are available on the internet. These work by interrogating the digital thermal sensors that are built in to the CPU.

The software I recommend is called CoreTemp but if you find that won’t run on your machine try googling for “CPU Thermometer”, “RealTemp” or “SpeedFan” to find an alternative. For the rest of this post I will assume that you are using CoreTemp, but I don’t think you will find it difficult to translate if you are not able to.

If you have not seen CoreTemp before you may be surprised at the information it provides about what is going on inside your laptop. For our purposes we are mainly interested in the value of Core 0, which is effectively the CPU temperature. If you have a multicore processor you may also see values for Core 1, Core 2, etc. These are also internal CPU temperatures and they are likely to be similar, but a few degrees difference is not going to be significant.

How hot should the CPU run?

This is the big question and I wish I could tell you, but the fact is there isn’t any single answer. The range of normal operating temperatures for laptop CPUs runs from the low 30s (Centigrade) all the way up to 100C and it can depend on many factors including the ambient temperature in the room.

When you run CoreTemp it will provide a value labelled Tj. Max. This is the maximum temperature the CPU will operate at before it will begin to shut down. For your machine what you want to be seeing is that your Core0 temp is at least 25 degrees below Tj.Max. If the difference is much less than that this suggests that your cooling may not be operating effectively.

Stress testing

Being able to monitor the CPU’s temperature is very useful, but what CoreTemp is showing you is the temperature with the machine idling. If you are having problems with your laptop overheating then it is most likely happening when the machine is working hard. So the next stage in this is to do what is called a stress test – that simply means that you give the CPU some work to do and then monitor the temperature to see how if responds.

OCCTTo do this you can simply run a few programs, but it is probably more effective to download and run a stability testing application such as OCCT. This program will allow you to control exactly how much load you put on. And it will allow you to take it off quickly if overheating becomes a problem.

Once you have downloaded and installed OCCT make sure CoreTemp is running and click the OCCT ON button to start the default test. After a minute idling it will start to run your CPU at close to 100% capacity. Watch your Core Temp readings for (Core 0, etc.) and see how much the temperature rises. If your laptop has an overheating problem the temperature will quickly rise to meet the TJ. Max figure. You can end the test at any time by clicking the OFF button. When you end the test, watch the temperature readings and observe how quickly they return to normal.  If the cooling system is healthy the readings should be back to the pre-test figures within a minute or so.

Please read the manuals and take care

Finally, can I please point out that you must do all of this at your own risk. I am providing this advice in good faith, but I can’t be held responsible for what happens when I am not present. Please read the manuals for the software carefully and observe all of the warnings and cautions.

Next Post – Part Three: How to clean your laptop’s cooling system

Laptop cooling system exhaust grill We are sometimes asked why eTray laptop trays don’t have built in fans like some laptop coolers do.

The short and simple answer is that we do not fit fans because our experiments have shown that they are neither necessary nor effective. If it is working properly, the laptop’s built in cooling system will do an excellent job of keeping the laptop cool and blowing air on the outside of a laptop will make little difference to the cooling of the laptop’s internal parts.

The only real exception to this is in cases where the laptop fan has failed and it is possible to locate an external  fan so that air is blown directly through the machine’s cooling system. This will help keep the machine going until it can be repaired, but it is only a temporary solution.

So, if you are having a problem with your laptop overheating then that usually indicates that some maintenance work is required. If that sounds alarming then let me reassure you: the solution may be much simpler than you think.

How laptop’s built-in coolers are designed

The fact is that the laptop PCs produced by top manufacturers are designed by some of the world’s best engineers. They know that the laptop’s processor and other parts generate heat when they operate and, because of this, they provide the machine with a carefully designed, highly efficient cooling system.

When laptop design engineers specify the components they will use for a new laptop design, one of the first things they do is to calculate exactly how much heat those components will produce when operating.

The result of this calculation tells the laptop designer exactly how much air the laptop’s cooling system will have to blow through the laptop to dissipate that heat. From this, they can calculate how big the fan needs to be and what size and shape the internal parts of the cooling system needs to be to remove that heat.

Laptop designers also know that sometimes that ambient air temperature can be high, the cooling system air intakes can get partially blocked, and that some applications like games can cause the computer to work harder than normal and consequently produce more heat. Because of this, they will add some extra capacity to the cooling system to make sure that it can cope.

The point is that laptop cooling systems are carefully designed to do the job that they need to do. New laptops rarely overheat unless they have a manufacturing fault. If overheating becomes a problem then it does so gradually over time – and there is a very good reason for that.

How laptop cooling systems work

Acer laptop cooling system showing fan and heat pipeNot many people realise that a laptop’s cooling system doesn’t simply blow air through the inside of the laptops casing. In fact, it is much more sophisticated than that. The laptop cooling system is precisely designed to cool the main heat generating parts of the machine. This is usually the CPU or main processor and sometimes the GPU – the graphics processor.

To do this a device known as a heat pipe is used. You may have noticed it if you have ever opened your laptop up. They can vary in shape but in the picture it is the bright copper component that looks a bit like a piece of plumbing.

You may have thought as I did that this is simply a length of conductive metal that is there to act as a heat sink. In fact, it is a cleverly designed heat pump that works on a principle similar to a gas refrigerator to actively cool the component it is attached to.

The heat pipe contains a liquid and a wicking structure that runs the length of the pipe. As it is heated by the CPU the liquid evaporates, absorbing heat and cooling the CPU. The vaporised liquid travels to the heat sink end of the pipe which is being cooled by the fan where it condenses back into liquid, giving up the heat it absorbed from the CPU. Capillary action then causes the liquid to return to the other end of the pipe via the wick. As the fluid circulates continuously it removes heat from the components and dumps it to the air via the heat sink.

Why laptops overheat

If all this is true, and the engineer’s are so smart, then you may be wondering why it is that laptops ever overheat. The fact is that there are two things that engineers can’t control. One is the way that you use your machine; the other is the amount of dust and dirt in the world.

The reason that most laptop cooling systems gradually become less effective is often due to the way that the laptop is used. If it is in a domestic environment with upholstery or cushions and carpet then the cooling system will continuously suck up particles of dust, fluff and dirt as it operates.

These become electrically charged as they make their way through the hot and dry interior of the laptop. The particles gradually accumulate inside the machine, particularly around the narrow fins on the heat sink. As they build up they form in to a thick, felt like material, which gradually reduce the cooling system’s ability to remove heat from the laptop and, eventually, overheating begins.

Once this has happened, no amount of air blown on the outside of the device will keep it cool. The only solution is to clean out the cooling system so that it can begin to operate properly again.

So, the reason that we don’t fit fans to eTray laptop trays is because we don’t think they are a good or effective solution to the problem of an overheating laptop. If you keep your laptop’s cooling system free of obstructions (by using on a flat surface such as a laptop tray) and the laptop overheats, then your machine has a cooling system fault.

Either there is an real fault such as a fan failure, or (more likely), the cooling system has become blocked up with dust and dirt over time. In either case you simply need to fix this problem to get your laptop running the way it did when it was new.

Over the next few posts I am going to explain how to diagnose a laptop’s overheating problem and, after that, how to fix it without getting a big repair bill.

Next post – Part Two: How to identify laptop overheating problems.

According to The Register, a condition called “Laptop Computer Induced Erythema ab Igne”) is now causing concern amongst medical researchers. Erythema ab Igne is more commonly known as Toasted Skin Syndrome – the term used to describe the blotchy red areas that can appear on the skin after exposing it to heat for long periods.

In this case it is caused by the sufferers using their laptop computers directly on their laps for a long periods of time.

These blotches can get very itchy and they are undoubtedly ugly, but the main concern is that the discolouration may be permanent. Also, it is not clear if there may be other long term problems such as an increased risk of skin cancer as a result. eTray laptop tray keep you cool

There seems to be some fuss about it at the moment, but it is not a new problem, and we have been concerned about it for some time. Toasted skin syndrome is just one of a number of potential health issues that are caused by using laptops computers in this way.

The obvious way to avoid the problem is to put some separation between yourself and the laptop, and I can think of no better way to do that than by making use of an eTray laptop tray. The eTray will protect you from the heat of the laptop and will also put you in the correct ergonomic position  so that you avoid back and neck strain.

When you get up after a long session of using your laptop how do you feel?

Stiff neck? Achy shoulders? Twinges in your lower back?

These are all signs that your laptop, or rather the way that you are using it, is hurting you. If you keep on using it that way there is a risk that those aches and pains will turn in to a permanent injury. Fortunately, it is easy to avoid the problem by making a few small changes in the way that you use your machine. Read on to find out how.

Laptop ergonomics

From an ergonomics point of view, using a laptop on your lap is close to the ideal thing to do. The position allows you to recline slightly and this means that, with your hands comfortably on the keyboard, your head and neck are in a naturally comfortable and relaxed position.

Contrast this with what happens when you put your laptop on a standard height desktop. You have to sit forward and, with your hands on the keyboard, usually need to duck down to see the screen clearly. Sitting forward is bad for your back anyway, but the added distortion involved in ducking down means you could be setting yourself up for some real problems in the long-term. Ouch!

Three big problems

So, using your laptop on your lap is the best thing you can do from a back health point of view, but doing this does present some problems. I think I could go on expanding this list for some time, but here are three immediate examples:

Bottom view of an Acer laptop showing the cooling system intake

  1. As soon as you set your laptop down on the top of your legs you will most likely block off the air intake grills (2) to your machines cooling system. Starved of air, the machine will quickly overheat. This threatens to cause actual damage to the electronic components inside the laptop, but before this happens it is more likely that it will become so hot that you will be forced to remove it.
  2. Putting a laptop on your lap means adopting a knees together posture that causes another potential problem for men. We are just not built to spend time sitting this way, and it has been suggested that local overheating could damage male fertility.
  3. Laptop computers are a source of electromagnetic radiation at a wide range of frequencies. Modern machines operate at around the same frequency as your microwave oven does and they have built in radio transmitters for wifi and Bluetooth. None of the machines I have examined have had any significant shielding, and it is common to locate the wifi antennae right at the bottom of the machine. There is no evidence that these signals are strong enough to cause any harm whatsoever, but some experts think it is wise to work on the precautionary principle and I am inclined to agree.

Do not leave the bottom of your MacBook Pro in contact with your lap or any surface of your body for extended periods. Prolonged contact with your body could cause discomfort and potentially a burn.

Apple MacBook Pro Manual

So, what is the solution?

eTray laptop tray with Acer laptopWell I guess you must realise at this point that I am probably going to say to you that you should get yourself an eTray laptop tray. Its true, I am going to suggest that, but eTrays are not the only solution so I should explain what I think you should be looking for.

The worst thing you can do is to insert a cushion or similar between you and the machine to provide some insulation. The air intake will still be blacked and the overheating will continue, but now you won’t be aware that is happening until it is too late. If the machines does get damaged you might find that the manufacturer is reluctant to honour the warranty and that might mean a very expensive repair bill.

Nor do you need to buy an elaborate gadget with built in fans. The laptop’s cooling system will work just fine on its own as long as you keep the ventilation slots clear. The fans are noisy and require power from somewhere to work. That usually means you have to plug them in to a USB port where they will take power from your machine’s battery. Even if you are running off the mains adapter that will cause additional heating, and there if there is any benefit this will most likely neutralize it.

The laptop needs to be placed on a flat surface so that its feet can maintain a clearance (usually only 3 or 3 mm is required) that will allow cool air to reach the intake grill. Nothing more is required to keep the machine happy, so you could use a piece of plywood or MDF, or even a large book and you would have a solution. If you use one that is big enough then you will have space for the laptop and room for a mouse.

Of course using a board in this way is going to get a little uncomfortable after a while and the machine will still produce some heat in normal operation. Putting a cushion of some kind under the board will make it more comfortable and provide some insulation from the machine.

The question of what to do about electromagnetic waves is a bit more complicated and needs some explanation. The problem and solution are summed up pretty exactly by the old phrase “you need a long spoon if you are going to sup with the devil”. Electromagnetic waves obey what is known as the inverse square law, which simply means that the amount of energy they contain reduces considerably with distance. You will never get completely away from them if you use computer equipment, but you can reduce your exposure by adding some distance.

Even short distances make a considerable difference and the spacing you introduced by putting a cushion under the board will have reduced your exposure considerably. You can reduce it even further by introducing some shielding that will reflect electromagnetic waves.

Cross section of eTray laptop tray showing the main components

For eTray we use a sheet of heavy duty aluminium foil which is located directly under the centre of where the laptop will sit. It’s not a complete solution, but it will reduce heat transfer and interrupts the direct path for wi-fi signals between your notebook and your lap. You can get a similar effect with something as simple as kitchen foil.

 

Custom eTray designWe often get asked if we can produce custom eTray laptop trays, personalized  using photographs uploaded to us.

The answer is always yes – we can do that. And we are not limited to digital photographs. We can print any kind of digital artwork including cartoons, company logos, line drawings, or scanned images.

To order a personalized eTray from the web site go to:

http://www.etray.co.uk/etray_personalised_laptop_trays.htm to order your custom tray directly from the web site.

If you have any questions or need information about  the technical details of the process go to:

http://www.etray.co.uk/etray_personalised_laptop_trays_FAQ.htm

Do you want a number of eTrays?

Incidentally, if you are interested in having several eTrays of the same design we may be able to give a quantity discount. Let me know which eTray size you want, and the quantity required, and I will provide you with a quotation.