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How Do I Choose the Best Laptop Heatsink?

Computer parts fail when they become overheated, and a heatsink is one way to extend the useful life of a laptop computer.
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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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A common complaint among laptop computer users is how quickly their laptops seem to fail, compared to desktop personal computers (PCs). This is due largely to the fact that they are portable and receive more wear and tear than their larger, more stationary counterparts. In addition, many laptops are used in bed or on the couch, placed on blankets and pillows, that are not effective at distributing air. Computer parts fail much faster when they are overheated, so making sure they stay as cool as possible is key to extending a laptop's useful life. While users may consider upgrading or replacing their laptop heatsink to improve cooling, this is, in fact, rarely necessary or worthwhile.

With so little space in a laptop chassis, there is not much room for innovation among heatsink designs. More important to helping a laptop stay cool and ensuring its longevity is keeping the stock heatsink well-maintained and dust-free. Ultimately, accepting the limitations of laptop cooling systems and learning to work within them is the best way to have a trouble-free user experience.

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A laptop heatsink is basically a piece of aluminum that is designed to promote the expulsion of heat from sensitive computer parts, like the central processing unit (CPU) and hard drive. Typically, it has a series of very small fins that act to dissipate heat generated by those parts. In addition to the passive function of a heatsink, a laptop's cooling system usually also includes one or more small fans that actively push air across the motherboard.

Ideally, the inside of a laptop should rarely get above 95°F (35°C). Above this point, parts begin to overheat and operate poorly. Continued use at high temperatures will often cause them to fail prematurely. In most cases, a laptop's cooling system will sense when the temperature is reaching dangerous levels, and begin a series of steps to correct the problem. Processor speed may be scaled back, the screen dimmed, and the fans make kick in at a very high speed.

This kind of active management should not happen constantly, however. If a laptop's fans and other safeguards are continually being called into service, there are several steps that may need to be taken. First of all, the user should consider the way in which the laptop is being handled. If it is sitting directly on a blanket or pillow, there is no way cool air is being circulated properly. Specialized miniature laptop desks exist that prop the laptop up slightly to maintain adequate airflow, while still making it comfortable to use in bed or on the couch.

In addition, the laptop heatsink itself should be visually inspected periodically to ensure excessive dust is not compromising its effectiveness. Due to the electromagnetic properties of a working computer, dust is naturally attracted to the motherboard. The fins of a laptop heatsink are a natural haven for it to settle, and, if not kept in check, it can accumulate and block air from moving past. Avoid using a vacuum to get rid of dust on computer parts, as vacuums generate static electricity which can be harmful. Instead compressed air should be used to gently blow dust away.

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