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Temperatures and Overheating: A Beginner’s Guide

temps
Written by Kevin

Learn everything you need to know about maintaining your computers temperature and methods to prevent overheating.

I recently wrote a review on HWMonitor, a program that lets you monitor temperatures on your computer. After the review was posted some had asked for insight on what these temperatures mean, how they are used to problem solve, and what can be done once a problem is found. This guide will explain all about the heat computers generate and how to handle it. This guide will most definitely be helpful for beginners who want to learn more about their computer, while it will also give more advanced users ideas of how to remedy heat issues and avoid turning their computer into a high tech George Foreman.

Computers produce heat while they are operating. This is due to the slight resistance of the components to the flow of electricity. Anyone who has rubbed their hands together very fast will know the feeling of this resistance. This heat production is a normal day to day thing in the life of a computer. When the computer produces so much heat that it slows down or even crashes, however, then you know you have a problem. The first step to determining if you have a heat problem is to look for the symptoms. There are few simple but noticeable symptoms to look for overheating:

  • Computer Runs Slow: If your computer starts to run slowly, especially during gaming sessions, the computer may be throttling (slowing down) components to minimize heat production.
  • Computer Randomly Shuts Down/Restarts: When your computer gets to this stage, overheating is pretty severe. Most computers have a fail-safe built in to shut itself down when it gets too hot to avoid damaging itself.
  • Blue Screen of Death/Freezes: Similar to randomly restarting. If you get frequent blue screens or lock-ups this could be the computer’s way of telling you its temperatures are too high.
  • You Smell Something Burning: If you smell something burning and it seems like it is coming from your computer, you need to turn it off immediately and have it looked at. Overheating can cause components to burn or even melt in extreme cases causing permanent damage.

If you have any of these symptoms, there is a good chance your system is overheating.

There are also ways of checking your computer from time to time for heat issues. This is a good way to prevent overheating before it starts to happen. There are programs such as HWMonitor and SpeedFan that can monitor the temperatures of your computer’s components. This information will be very useful to one that knows what to look for. The problem is what if you don’t know what to look for? I hope to clarify that by writing this article. I have the hopes that this article will leave the novice user with a little sense of knowledge and understanding about computer overheating and give them the tools they need to deal with the problem.

Everyone’s first question when dealing with computer temperatures is “What is the normal temperature?” Let me start by saying there is not a “normal” temperature that applies to every computer. Each component runs differently and at different speeds, so the normal heat production varies from computer to computer and component to component. For example, the CPU (Central Processing Unit) in my computer is rated for a maximum temperature of 105°C. You may have to do some digging online to find your specific temperature rating. If you don’t know what components your computer has, I would recommend another program by CPUID called CPU-Z. This program has a ton of information about your computer, but to find the CPU all you have to look at is the “Name” line at the top.

CPUs are not the only component of your computer that can overheat. GPUs (Graphics Processing Unit) and motherboards can also overheat and slow down your computer. The average temperatures on each of these vary as well so I would recommend doing some research to find out your specific temp range.

I have done a little research myself, and to help out I have found this website that has a list of maximum temperatures for a good number of CPUs. Note: These are MAXIMUM temperatures meaning the temperatures the CPUs are designed to shut down at to avoid damage. If your CPU is running at or around its maximum temperature on a regular basis, something needs to be done about it.

So, now to the good stuff: What can I do if I have these symptoms and/or think my system is overheating? The following steps outline some ways that you can minimize heat and keep those temperatures down in the safe range. While these steps are not guaranteed to solve these problems, they are definitely a good starting place to try and fix your computer before it is too late.

1. Dust Out Your Computer

Over the course of its life, your computer will accumulate all kinds of dust and debris including pet hair, dirt, insect carcasses etc. This debris can insulate your computer case and clog up the fans, resulting in restricted airflow. Filters can do wonders to minimize the buildup of dust and keep your computer clean for a longer period of time. You can go out and buy filters for your fans that look something like this:Fan Filter

You can also improvise and attach a piece of mesh to the outside of the computer case where the fans blow in air.

Note that these filters restrict airflow to your internals so I would only recommend using them if dust is an issue for you.

Whether you decide to add a filter or not, you need to clean out dust buildup in your computer on a regular basis. This will keep your components cooler and will lead to a longer life for your system. The best way to do this is to buy a can of moisture-free compressed air; sold at local computer stores (Wal-Mart should also have a supply if store options are limited). The can should look something like this:

Make sure you get a can with the little red tube to get into the all the nooks and crannies of your computer.

Before you start dusting turn your computer off, unplug it from any power source and peripherals connected (if using a laptop disconnect the battery), and leave it sit for an hour so you can take it apart and the components have time to cool down. Once an hour or so has passed, you can start disassembling your computer. For desktop users this can be as easy as taking off the side of their computer tower, but for laptop users this can be a difficult and intimidating. Sometimes a little research on my best friend Google can lead you to a disassembly guide for your specific computer. If you are not comfortable disassembling your computer, I would suggest either taking it to someone who knows how or just dust what you can reach without taking it apart. Note the latter may just blow the dust from one place to another inside and may not fix anything.

Once you have your computer disassembled, keep one hand grounded on the metal chassis to avoid shocking yourself and your computer. Making sure you are grounded, remove any huge stockpiles of dust that may be in your computer with your fingers. Do this gently as to avoid damaging any chips or wiring in your computer. Now you can use your can of compressed air. Before use, be sure to read the warning labels and such so you don’t injure yourself or others. Also, make sure to ALWAYS hold the can upright. DO NOT tilt or hold upside down while spraying, as this can allow moisture to spray out of the nozzle and damage components of your computer. Just to be safe, before you spray the inside of your computer give your can a little test spray to make sure you are not spraying moisture. Spray compressed air into fans, power supply unit, motherboard and any other places it may have built up. Pay special attention to your fans if you haven’t cleaned for a while because there could just be enough dust in there to stop their normal operation.

Note: Do not use any household dusting spray or liquid to dust out your computer. Liquids and computers DO NOT mix. Also, I would not recommend you vacuum out dust unless you use a static free vacuum cleaner. Regular vacuums create static from the suction and static shocks can fry some of your electronics.

2. Add / Upgrade Fans

Airflow to computer internals is what carries the heat away from the components. If you add more fans, heat can be carried away at a faster rate and cool down the inside of your computer. If there are fans that are failing or have already stopped working you should replace those as soon as possible.

Adding or replacing fans to a desktop is relatively easy. To replace a fan, you need to find a suitable replacement either online or at a computer store. Disconnect the old fan from the power supply and reconnect the new fan, then mount into place where the old fan was mounted. To add fans, you will need to either find an existing fan mount in your computer and attach the fan to that or, if you desperately need to add a fan, make your own. Making your own area suitable for fan use requires cutting and drilling, so I will not cover that in this article.

Some people think that if you take the side off the tower case it will help the airflow to the computer, but sometimes this can disrupt the circulation pattern and make the problem worse. Dust and dirt will accumulate faster than ever if the outer shell is not there to keep them out. Also, spilling a drink (even the smallest drop) on any component can be fatal to your computer. As a rule I would not recommend removing the protective layers just to solve overheating.

Laptops usually don’t have extra mounts for adding fans, so I would recommend buying a laptop cooling pad such as the one shows here:Laptop Cooling Pad

Laptop cooling pads increase airflow under your laptop and add an extra fan or two to help with the cooling process. If you do not have a cooling pad, creating airflow under your laptop will still help. Tape stacks of coins together and put them under the four corners of your laptop to create some lift.

Also, using your laptop on your lap can block the fans and vents that allow airflow. If you absolutely have to use your laptop on your lap, make some room underneath with a cooling pad to help your fans out.

3. Make Space for Your Computer

The job of a computer fan is to take in cool air to replace the hot air, which exits through the vents. When your computer is in a cramped space, however, the hot air coming out the vents is being forced to stay in the same area. This means the fans are just sucking in the same hot air that is being blown out. Keeping a clear space around your computer is important to keep cool air available.

This is a picture of my desk space in my dorm and as you can see it is not a very good example of how to keep space around your laptop.Cluttered Desk I do have a laptop cooler pad to raise my laptop up and get some airflow underneath, but the sides and back are pretty closed in.

Try to keep your computer out of direct sunlight and away from fireplaces/heaters as well, as these can also increase the internal temperature.

4. Stop Overclocking

If you have no idea what “Overclocking” is, then you are probably not doing it so there is little reason to worry about this. Overclocking means pushing components past their normal operating speed, such as increasing CPU speed from 2.8GHz to 3.0GHz. For those of you who know what this is and/or how to do it, know that overclocking increases heat production as well. If you are overclocking and have heat problems, try setting your components back to normal speed and see if the problem is fixed.

5. Turn Off or Sleep When Not in Use

With older computers (early 90’s) it was considered safer to leave computers on 24/7 to avoid component stress related issues. This is not the case today. Computers today are built to withstand the normal on/off daily cycle that we put them through. This being said, I would take advantage of turning off your computer when it won’t be used for a little while (overnight for example). Turning off your computer not only saves energy, it gives your computers internals a rest from the minimal (but still present) wear and tear of simply being on. If you find it inconvenient to have to boot up your computer every time after you shut it off, hibernate or sleep mode can offer options for keeping your computer “off” while saving the state it is in. I use sleep mode every time I leave my laptop and when I come back to it all I have to do is wake it up and log into my user.

If you are using a laptop never, I repeat NEVER, keep it on while traveling with it in a case (even on sleep or hibernate, as these use a small amount of power). The case will act as an insulator and make the laptop hotter by the second until it is forced to shut off due to either overheating or component failure. This has happened to me once because I did not shut off my laptop properly before putting it in its traveling case. When I opened the case my computer had the blue screen of death and was searing to the touch. Luckily nothing was melted and after a day of cooling down it worked properly, but the lesson was learned to make sure the laptop is off before travel.

These steps are all simple things you can do to prevent and fix overheating issues in any computer. If none of these things fix the problems you are having, more advanced measures will have to be taken. If you are a novice user, I would recommend you take your computer in to be looked at because trying anything beyond these steps (toying with the internals) can have an unwanted effect on the computer or void a warranty.

Good luck and happy computing!

About the author

Kevin

Kevin is the Founder and Senior Editor of Tech Heavy. When he isn't writing about the latest tech tools he spends his days working in an IT department in Dubuque, IA. @kevincray

8 Comments

  • Shawn, excellent advice here. Probably the most timely and practical post I have read in awhile. This answers all my questions on PC temp’s!

  • My friend who was an international student from Singapore told me that at National Service (basically a year of forced military service), they kept the servers and everything in a secure room which was icy cold all the time. Makes me wonder how our troops keep the electronics cool over in war zones – surely there’s not enough power for icy cold air-conditioned buildings in the middle of nowhere!

  • I once lost a laptop due to overheating. It was used by a friend who forgot to let it rest after using it for more than 15 hours. When a technician, checked it up he find out that the fan was bridled by human hairs…

  • Terrific review! This is exactly the type of post that needs to be shared around the web. Sad on the search engines for not positioning this blog post higher!

  • Thank you for all the positive feedback! I hope this helps at least a few people who are having problems. As for our troops in war zones, I can only imagine the problems they must face keeping electronics from overheating.

  • Great post! Hopefully implementing this advise will help with my overheating problem. Thanks!