Why Does My Laptop Get So Hot?

By Fred Decker

Despite its name, a laptop computer isn't entirely at home on your lap. Your laptop may get hot enough to be uncomfortable or downright painful. The heat is less noticeable when the machine isn't pressed against your leg, but laptops can become startlingly hot in ordinary usage, especially if you have a high-powered machine or use programs that are processor or graphics intensive. Well-established methods of dealing with hot laptops minimize the problem.

The Fundamental Challenge

Laptops are inherently difficult from the engineering perspective because they're expected to offer performance that rivals desktop computers despite their smaller size and low power consumption. Chip manufacturers have reduced their processors' power requirements and heat emissions dramatically, but they still require a significant degree of cooling. That's especially true of graphics processors, which must work ever harder as screen resolutions improve. With their tiny, slender cases and limited power supplies, the need for cooling is a major challenge in laptop design.

Space and Power Constraints

Conventional tower computers have large, powerful fans to draw hot air away from their components and plenty of internal space for secondary fans if they're needed. Laptops don't have that luxury, so they compromise in numerous ways. Most laptops have power-management utilities that switch off components to limit heat generation and power consumption when they're not in use. High-performance machines use a powerful graphics chipset when needed but switch to a low-power version for ordinary use. Modern solid-state hard drives use the barest trickle of power and generate negligible heat.

The Ounce of Prevention

You can help matters by being choosy about where you use your laptop. Avoid your lap, your bed or any other surface that's soft and retains heat. Not only won't the heat dissipate, these soft surfaces can block your laptop's fan and create dangerously high temperatures. Avoid the floor and other dusty surfaces as well, because dust can clog the vent system. Work near a fan or air conditioner, if you can, to keep the laptop cool. Install a software widget to display the processor temperature and watch for any sudden spikes in operating temperature.

The Pound of Cure

To cool your laptop, start by closing any unnecessary programs. Use a vacuum or a can of compressed air to suck or blow dust out of the laptop's vents, restoring airflow. In extreme cases, open the back of your laptop -- or have a technician do it -- and vacuum or blow out heavy dust and debris accumulations. If you routinely run demanding games, animation software or other graphics-intensive programs, consider purchasing a cooling pad for your laptop. These portable platforms contain one or more fans and continuously whisk excess heat away from your laptop.