Laptop Overheating and the State of the World

by Bob Schwartz

Laptop Overheating
Overheating is the single greatest source of problems with laptop computers. And before you run away from unwanted geek talk, be aware that it is also a lesson on the state of the world.

If you don’t know about overheating, that probably means that when things go wrong with your laptop, you leave it up to somebody else to make it better, maybe even having an IT department to take care of it, or you replace your laptops once a year, or you chalk up terrible performance and failure to bad luck, or you just throw the damn thing out.

Those of us working on our nth generation of laptops know better: they are frequently baking, and that can’t be good.

To understand overheating, we go back to the prehistoric days of computing, with cavemen searching for wall plugs. Before there were minicomputers or microcomputers (PCs), there was big iron. Giant rooms filled with big boxes, that compared to your smartphone had pretty tiny brains. But it was a wonder at the time. One of the upshots was that these big computers generated a lot of heat; processing is a hot business. So the rooms were equipped with powerful air conditioning to keep the machines cool and healthy.

As computers shrank, new solutions to heating were devised. They had to be. Even as microprocessors got smaller, the heat problems didn’t go away. The more powerful the processor, the hotter it got. Desktop computers solved this with space around the processors—the heat sink—and a fan to blow that heat out of the box. Desktops were usually placed in a space with some air around it, and for the most part (except, for example, with ultra-powerful gaming computers), this worked pretty well.

Laptops changed all this. The laptops didn’t offer much space around the processors. There was a fan, but the vent from it was frequently blocked by the way laptops were used and placed. The final compounding element was the development of very powerful laptop processors. If you had shown a 3rd generation Intel i7 processor to a computer engineer fifty years ago and told them the specs, when they picked themselves off the floor, the first thing they would say is “yeah, but I bet it gets plenty hot!” And they would be right.

This level of heat destroys components, especially processors themselves. An entire cooling pad industry has grown up around the problem, though that is far from a complete solution—even if you stick your pad in the freezer. When you search for suggestions on which laptops are the least likely to overheat, you find that the simple answer is: none of them.

(Funny personal anecdote about overheating—and all true. A very powerful laptop was showing increasing signs of overheating; besides getting blisteringly hot, crashes were more and more frequent, and cool down periods were getting less effective. One morning it simply refused to start up. Putting the whole laptop in the freezer was not an option. Fortunately, it was below freezing outdoors, where it was placed on the deck for an hour and then started there. The damaged components were soon replaced.)

So what, as promised, does this have to do with the state of the world? Technology—maybe progress in general—can take us down some very beneficial roads. But some chronic endemic problems come along for the ride. Our confidence that we can “solve anything” is misplaced. We can create situations with built-in disabilities that leave us helpless, just as we can build millions of genius laptops that can do anything but stay cool.