How to diagnose overheating problems in a laptop

Written by m.l. browne
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There are several things that can cause a laptop to overheat. Improper or clogged fans or air vents, accumulated dust, failing hardware components, incorrect electrical voltage, sustained disk use or even wrong BIOS temperature settings can create excessive heat. Continued operation of a laptop that is overheating may cause the computer to completely fail or even catch fire. If you are experiencing overheating symptoms in your laptop (sudden shutdowns, odd electrical smells, hotness to the touch), you should try to narrow your diagnosis to the problem's probable cause before attempting any fixes.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Computer tool kit
  • Anti-static wrist-strap
  • Compressed air
  • Thermal grease
  • Temperature-monitoring utility
  • Laptop hardware service manual
  • Laptop user's guide

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  1. 1

    Check that nothing is blocking the air vents. Different configurations exist for different laptop makes and models, so check the sides, back and bottom of the casing to be sure that air can flow freely and that dust or foreign matter has not clogged the vents.

  2. 2

    Look to see if the laptop's bottom is in direct contact with a heat-enhancing surface (for example, cloth, particle board, plywood or plastic). If it is, prop the back edge of the laptop up so that the casing is no longer in contact with the surface.

  3. 3

    Refer to the laptop user's guide to confirm that the ambient temperature and humidity are within normal range for the laptop's operation. It is possible for excessive heat or humidity in the immediate area to cause a laptop to overheat. You can download the user's guide directly from the manufacturer's website or contact their technical support department to have one sent to you.

  1. 1

    Check the power supply and electrical socket for incorrect voltage or power fluctuations while the laptop is powered on. Inconsistent or incorrect power levels supplied to the laptop can cause overheating. Test again using a surge protector or choose a different outlet.

  2. 2

    Check the laptop case near the power plug for excessive warmth while the laptop is on. Replace any frayed, cracked cables or chipped, broken power bricks and test again.

  3. 3

    Power on the laptop using only the battery. Touch the battery, while the laptop is running, to test for excessive heat, particularly at the location of the battery contact plates. If the battery feels hot, replace it with another battery and test again.

  1. 1

    Disconnect the battery and power and follow the instructions in your laptop's hardware service manual to open the casing. If you do not have the manual, you can download a copy of it directly from the manufacturer's website or call the technical support number and ask them to send the manual to you.

  2. 2

    Check that the installed RAM is not hot to the touch. If it is, you can replace the RAM chips to prevent overheating.

  3. 3

    Inspect the internal fan blades for accumulated dust and grime and clean them with compressed air. Aim the canister so that any accumulated debris blows toward the laptop vents.

  4. 4

    Inspect the thermal grease between the heat sink and the CPU. If it is dried, scrape it away with your finger and apply a new thin layer of thermal grease.

  5. 5

    Check for unusual electrical smells and try to locate where they come from. If you see any obvious signs of burning or frays, you should take the laptop to an authorised dealer for servicing.

  6. 6

    Follow the service manual instructions to reassemble the laptop casing.

  1. 1

    Turn the power on, follow the manufacturer's instructions for entering the BIOS set-up program (on most laptops, you will strike the "F1," "Esc" or "Del" key after the first beep) and note the BIOS firmware version when it appears.

  2. 2

    Navigate to the "Power" options screen and select the hardware monitor item. The settings for the laptop temperature will display in Fahrenheit and Centigrade. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations in the service manual for correct temperature settings.

  3. 3

    Follow the menu prompts to save any changes or exit without saving and restart the laptop.

  4. 4

    Check with the manufacturer to confirm that the BIOS firmware version installed on your laptop is the most current that is available. Upgrades to the firmware may solve the problem.

Tips and warnings

  • Installing monitoring utilities, such as Motherboard Monitor and SpeedFan, that measure the laptop's internal temperature and performance can provide you with useful information that prevents overheating and subsequent laptop damage.
  • Never remove a laptop casing without first unplugging it from the power source, removing the battery and discharging any static electricity.
  • Never use tools on a laptop that are not specifically designed for use with computers. Many small jeweller's tools have magnetic properties that can ruin delicate laptop components.

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