This article is, in the main, about heat and how you can most effectively keep it from shortening the life of your notebook computer. And you would not believe how damaging heat can be; how it tends to be the single biggest cause of premature notbook failure. Some people think notebooks are supposed to only last two or three years. They're wrong. If they die that fast, they're dying prematurely; and, trust me, heat's the most likely cause.
In its "Clever Uses" section, LifeHacker recently made mention of these images, and the Reddit comments about them, which show how to, as LifeHacker worded it, "Improvise a Laptop Cooling Pad with Plastic Bottle Caps."
The bottle caps are a great idea, at least in theory, because they provide the kind of airflow space that notebooks actually need to stay cool. However, because they're hard plastic, and they're not affixed to anything, they slide around and are kinda' unwieldy, as the LifeHacker piece mentions. The solution, though, is not merely the purchase of a commercial cooling pad, as it suggests.
Come with me, now, if you will, on a little primer on heat, airflow and airspace, fans, cleaning, and pretty much everything else you could possibly need to know to keep your notebook running for far longer than its manufacturer ever anticipated when it planned the notebook's obsolescence.
Do not underestimate the importance of getting some serious airflow space beneath a notebook. Just the greater space, even without a cooling pad, can make a 5ºF to as much as a whopping 20ºF temperature difference inside the notebook case.
In line with that kind of thinking, then, is never putting the notebook on your lap or, especially, on a bed or upholstered furniture. Yes, of course, all the TV commercials and shows all have people using them as they walk around, or when they're sitting on the bed or sofa, or on their laps at airports or in the doctor's office waiting room. Do not do it! At least in terms of where it should sit while actually on and in use, always think of a notebook as little more than a small and portable version of a desktop computer. It needs SERIOUS cooling... especially if you do a lot of video work or gaming on the machine.
If you want to handle a notebook like you see on TV, then get a tablet! Period.
Heat is, and has always been, the enemy of integrated circuitry; and the motherboard of any computer is pretty much nothing but integrated circuitry. Desktop computers at least have some space inside for air movement (and, therefore, cooling). Notebooks do not; and the miniaturization of the components in notebooks makes for even more heat generation. Identical (in terms of features, and in brand name) video cards, for example -- one made for a notebook, and one for a desktop -- will not generate the same amounta of heat. Believe it or not, the smaller notebook version -- in part because of what happens to integrated circuits when they're "over" miniaturized -- will run hotter... at least on a per square inch basis.
If integrated circuitry is allowed to get reasonably hot, and stays that way; or if it gets unreasonably (way too) hot for just a little while, even if it's then allowed to cool down, trust me when I tell you that its useful life will be significantly shortened... and I mean significantly. Nothing is more important, with integrated circuitry, than keeping it as cool as possible, all the time.
And dust is the enemy of keeping integrated circuitry cool. Dust is, in effect, a blanket when it sits atop an integrated circuit chip; and it's an impeder/blocker of airflow when it's lodged in vents and/or internal airflow passageways. Dust should be removed from the inside of all computers at least twice a year, and I prefer four times a year. In dusty environments, obviously, one would do it even more. Even a home -- even a clean one -- can be a quite dusty environment. If there's enough dust on the furniture that it needs to be removed by means of typical weekly dustings throughout the home, then you can bet your life there's enough dust inside your computer that it needs to be removed at least quarterly. If I had the time, I'd do mine monthly: Keeping the dust off the chips from disrupting airflow, is that important.
And here's my helpful tip-o'-th'-day for IT managers: Remember that the cleaning people are dusting in the office every night. Therefore, you may get lulled into believing that the office isn't really that dusty because you don't see very much of it. Don't be fooled. Schedule routine dust removal of all desktop and server machines a MINIMUM of twice yearly... preferably more; and prepare to be stunned by how much of it is in there! Schedule similar cleanings for notebooks, too, doing what I herein describe.
Notebook cleaning is tricky, because unless you're willing to disassemble the notebook to get it really clean inside, then you're limited to the dust you can get at and remove via the various vents. If you do it right, however, that's actually good enough. Oh, sure, you can use compressed air cans: If you want to be all prim and proper about it, then, fine, go spend $20 on less air than you could make with your own lungs completely for free. In my over 35 years in IT, I've learned how to get my mouth good and dry (so I don't blow any spittle) and I just go ahead and blow into all the vents... hard... really hard... in torrential blasts. Of course I clean the outside where I'm gonna put my mouth first for obvious reasons; and the exterior cleaning described in a moment makes it so that my client isn't being handed back a notbook that has my germs all over it. But I don't care how it looks, or what anyone thinks. I can blow more dust, in a high-quality way, out of a notebook than could any five cans of compressed air. You think it's gross? Tough. It's what I do.
And it works. Just make sure that mouth is dry. Remove the notebook's battery. Locate all the vents, and all the edges of all the removable panels, and blow like hell! Open the CD/DVD drive, and blow, hard, into it, above and below. Blow into each USB, firewire, and all other ports. If there's a vent screen of little holes on top, above the keyboard, blow, hard, into every square inch of it. Get at a 20 degree angle from the leading edge of each keyboard key and blow, blow, blow... hard. Then turn the notebook around and do it from the top. Then repeat the whole thing.
Then, just in case you did accidentally blow a little spittle inside, don't put the battery back in quite yet. Let the notebook sit for 20 minutes to a half hour. While it's sitting, get some glass cleaner (the kind with no silica grit in it) and some soft paper towels and clean the entire outside of the notebook really well... the screen (but really gently), too! Then, finally, replace the battery, plug it in, and fire it up.
Do this entire process no less often than twice yearly... better, yet, quarterly. If the notebook is used in particularly dusty places, do it bi-monthly (that's the one that's every other month... yeah... I get 'em confused, too) or maybe even monthly.
And I don't care what anyone says: All notebooks need a cooling pad beneath them... and I mean one that's got actual fans in it, which move a fairly significant amount of air, as measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM). There are some "cooling" pads which have no fans in them. They're pad, alright, but they just have airflow pathways or channels that allow whatever breeze happens to be in the room to pass through said channels beneath the notebook, hoping against hope that it'll carry away sufficient heat. It won't, though. That's not good enough. Always make sure there are actually fans inside the cooling pad.
But be careful, because there are a lot of crappy pads with fans in them out there. Find a balance between the highest possible airflow (measured in CFM), while still not being too noisy. It's an airlow vs. noise balance thing.
Here's some information about cooling pad fan effectiveness, though, that could change your life... er... well... okay, maybe not quite that dramatic... but you get my drift...
There are two fan blade types, and one is significantly better than the other for cooling pad purposes.
Propeller axial fan blades, such as one finds in an oscillating room fan, or a typical ceiling fan...
...are good as long as they're really clean. However, once a layer of dust gets on the leading edge of the blade, that kind of fan becomes just short of completely useless... won't move air to save its life. Don't believe me? Go find a ceiling fan somewhere in the house with really dirty blades. Set the speed to "low" and stand beneath it and just kind of notice how much air it seems to be pushing down onto you... really pay attention... maybe hold a feather in your hand and watch how much it rustles. Make a mental note of it. Then turn it off and go get a clean wet washcloth and clean all the dust off the blades... particularly the leading edge, where it'll be caked up. Then turn it back on to the low speed, grab your feather, and stand beneath it.
If you don't impulsively and uncontrollably utter "wow," possibly followed by "what a difference," then you're legally mute. You'll suddenly find yourself running around the house cleaning every fan in sight; and you'll never let 'em get that dusty again.
You're welcome. [grin]
When propeller axial fans are in a notebook cooling pad, they, too, need to be cleaned... at least as often as the notebook gets cleaned... maybe even more often.
Another fan type -- the better one -- is the centrifugal fan...
...and its various derivatives. The blower motors in most home and office forced air HVAC systems are of the centrifugal type; and one of the many reasons why is that they will still move air fairly efficiently even if they get dusty... some of them, even if VERY dusty. It's also the kind of fan blade system used in this type of device...
...which is commonly seen on construction sites. (Ugh. Apparently Lasko hasn't learned that short and SEO-friendly URLs are best!)
Most notebook cooling pads (and most desktop computer cabinets) utilize propeller axial type fans. Again, as long as they're clean, they work fine. And, of course, no notebook cooling pad would have a classic centrifugal fan such as found in a home or business forced air HVAC system or the above construction fan. However, there are derivatives/alternatives that some cooling pads actually use. In my experience, the best of them are the two made by Antec...
...a well-known computer cabinet and cooling product company. The first of one linked-to, immediately above (the silver one), has been around a long time, and even got discontinued a year or two ago; but consumer demand made Antec bring that model back; and then Antec upped the ante by coming out with the second, darker, one. Because of the variation on a centrifugal style fan blade inside both those cooling pads, they are able to keep cooling fairly well even if the blades get fairly dusty... quite unlike a propeller axial style fan. For that reason, they are the only cooling pads I ever recommend... even though I prefer the looks of several other pads (all of which, sadly, utilize propeller axial fans); and even though I wish the Antec pads' CFM ratings were a little higher.
Unfortunately, even the Antec cooling pads are inefficient if the notebook is set right down onto them. There needs to be airflow space between the bottom of the notebook and the top surface of the cooling pad...
...which is exactly the sort of thing provided by the bottle caps (unwieldy though they are). What cooling pads do is draw heat off the bottom of the notebook. Even if there are no vents on the notebook's bottom, the plastic of the notebook's bottom can act as something of a heat sink. Oh, sure, it would be better if it were aluminum, but no notebook is made that way. Heat radiates from the notebook's circuitry down into the notebook's plastic bottom; and even if there's no cooling pad, the amount of heat drawn away from whatever breeze is in the room will, at least theoretically, help keep the temperatures inside the notebook within a safe operational range. And, actually, if you're not over-taxing the notebook by doing a lot of intensive video viewing/editing, or video game playing, it almost will. Almost.
Sadly, the amount of airflow space beneath the notebook when it's just sitting on its factory-installed little rubber feet just isn't enough... even if you're not doing a lot of video stuff, truth be known. The kind of airflow space provided by the bottle caps is closer to what's actually needed. Even if there's a cooling pad beneath the notebook, there still needs to be significant airflow space for the fans in it to even work well enough to matter. That's right: If the airflow space beneath the notebook (but above the cooling pad) is too small, then it's almost as if there were no cooling pad at all; and almost all cooling pads -- including the Antecs -- allow too little airflow space between the cooling pad and the notebook.
If you don't believe that, then try this little demonstration: Take any small propeller axial cooling fan such as is used in a desktop computer cabinet and turn it on; then hold it horizontally (flat) with the airflow pointing toward the ceiling. Then lower the fan, parallel to a table top, down to maybe one-eighth of an inch above it; and then hold the palm of your free hand about two or three inches above the fan and feel how much air is blowing. Then slowly raise everything (the fan and both hands, together, as a sort of "unit") very slowly upward toward the ceiling, and away from the table top. Notice that as the distance from the fan and the table top increases, so, too, does the amount of air blowing upward onto the palm of your free hand... until, at some point as you raise it, it hits whatever is the fan's rated CFM terminal airflow. Notice that as the fan gets just about the distance from the tabletop as the bottle caps would have provided beneath the notebook, the airflow's pretty darned good... pretty much the fan's rated maximum CFM.
So the distance above such as the Antec cooling pad that the bottle caps can provide is about right, give or take, for good airflow. Again, though, sadly, the bottle caps are hard plastic, and nothing's glued or stuck to anything, and the surfaces are smooth and not non-skid, and so using bottle caps can be unweildy, at best. Not really a good idea, all things considered.
Fortunately, there's a superior alternative that can be obtained quite inexpensively from your nearby Radio Shack...
Jumbo Self-Stick Cushion Feet (8-Pack)
...or you can usually find them (packaged differently, and under a different brand name) at your local ACE hardware store, or Home Depot, or Lowes (though they're sometimes, from those places, either white or clear, rather than Radio Shack's preferred black).
What I used to do with them was peel off the backing and stick them right next to the shorter existing rubber riser thingies on the Antec cooling pad, and then the computer sits down on the Radio Shack rubber feet instead of the Antec's shorter (and softer) rubber riser thingies. So doing puts just about the right amount of airflow space between the bottom of the notebook and the top of the cooling pad.
Lately, however, I'm experimenting with sticking the rubber feet right onto the bottom of the notebook, instead of onto the cooling pad. Oh, sure, it's ugly; and it makes sliding the notebook into a neoprene skin a bit of a challenge (though I've now found a skin that works well). The thing of it is, though, that sticking the rubber feet onto the notebook (but in a way that lines-up properly with the Antec cooling pad so it can work with it, too), instead of onto the cooling pad, ensures that there's always decent airflow space beneath the notebook even if there's no cooling pad present... like when I'm out in the field with the notebook, and I've left the cooling pad at home or at the office.
Unlike the bottle caps, the rubber feet, if stuck to the bottom of the notebook, are more stable. And since they're rubber, then as long as they're clean, and the tabletop on which they're sitting is clean, there's no sliding around. So, then, it's a better solution than the bottle caps; and whenever the notebook's at home or office, it and its rubber feet can be set right down onto the cooling pad (as long as the rubber feet are in the right places on the bottom of the notebook), and the airflow space is just about perfect when the cooling pad's in use. So, I dunno... I'm kinda' starting to like the rubber feet on the bottom of the notebook instead of the top of the cooling pad. I'm still deciding, though.
The bottom line of it all is this: Heat is the notebook's enemy. It's the primary killer, in fact, of most notebooks. Most people are so oblivious to it, and also to...
* that one should never set a notebook onto a lap, blanket or upholstered furniture; and,
* the importance of adequate airflow space beneath the notebook; and,
* the consequences of dust in the notebook, and the need for quarterly cleaning; and,
* the consequences of dust with most cooling pads, and the need for periodic cleaning; and,
* which of the cooling pad fan types is better; and,
* the value of a $5 pack of black, jumbo, sticky-backed rubber feet...
...that most notebooks last maybe three years, at best. While all of what I've herein written may seem like a lot of fuss, trust me when I tell you that if you'll first bother to understand it all, and then do exactly what I've herein written, your notebook, I promise, will last far longer than three years... far longer than its manufacturer even thought possible, or, more importantly, intended.
Understanding exactly what the bottle caps can do for a notebook is where to start; but getting the rubber feet and whichever one of the Antec cooling pads I herein linked to, and doing the quarterly cleaning of everything, will get you right where you need to go!
Hope that helps!
NOTE: The increased longevity of your notebook, after you start doing what is herein prescribed, may or may not be very much if you've already been using your notebook for a while, and heat, then, has already damaged it a little. If that's the case, then the above will definitely make it finally die less soon than it otherwise would have, but who knows by how much. It may or may not really add very much life to it at all if the notebook's got some miles on it (or even if it's new, but has been fairly hot a time or two). If your notebook is brand new, though, and you've not ever seriously overheated it, the above procedures can really make a difference. Just wanted to make sure that was clear in the reader's mind. (This note added a couple days after the article originally published)