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Even computers can feel the heat

By Jean-Claude Elias - Aug 03,2017 - Last updated at Aug 03,2017

It is often said, although jokingly, that computers have a mind of their own. Apparently, they also can feel the heat. The current heatwave, that does not seem to end, is affecting the machines too, not just humans. 

Contrary to server computers and large or corporate data centres, personal computers of all kinds do not necessarily require an air conditioning environment to run. But they still have a threshold that should not be crossed. They are designed to be used at what is called room temperature.

Most manufacturers do not give clear figures but say that as long as the person using the device can withstand the temperature of the room or the place, the device will function safely. It is globally accepted that a low of 5°C and a high of 28°C are the extreme limits that are tolerated, for laptops as well as for desktops. Outside these limits, there is a clear risk of unexpected computer shutdown or even complete failure and breakdown.

It is worth remembering that server computers are operated in rooms that are kept at around 18oC and even 16°C in some cases, in order to prevent failures, and also to extend the useful life of the equipment.

Until now this summer, and in places where there is no A/C, room temperature is close to the 28°C high extreme and sometime gets even higher.

So what happens when computers overheat, and what can the consumer do to address the issue?

Most of the time the machine will automatically shut down, before actual damage to the components is done. The internal temperature of the hottest part can go up to about 70°C safely, while the built-in heat sinks and cooling fans do their jobs to evacuate the excessive heat outside the equipment’s casing. Above this temperature the computer becomes at risk. Applications that show the internal temperature are easy to find and install; they help the user to monitor what really is going inside.

In some cases of overheating the damage is irreversible and the computer is to repair before it can be used again. There are a certain number of precautions and even corrective actions one can take, however.

With some models of computers, the user can reduce the working speed of the processor; it is called the clock rate. Tech-savvy teen-agers and hardcore gamers are familiar with this trick. Reducing the clock rate when the room temperature is too high is a smart thing to do. It is like walking instead of running for a human being. Reducing the clock rate is done by accessing the BIOS when the computer starts. Once the hot period is over you can always get back there and restore the original clock rate.

Another precaution consists of making sure that the computer and all its internal components, mainly the cooling fans and the vents on the sides, are dust-free and no obstructed. This ensures optimum ventilation and often is enough to prevent disastrous overheating.

On some very hot days I have seen people placing a large, full-size desk fan before their laptop, directing the entire air flow steadily to the machine, as they would do it for themselves! Even if this is not the most elegant solution, it works and does the job perfectly, as it typically would reduce the machine temperature by at least 5°C or 6°C degrees, which typically is enough to prevent damage.

A more or less similar but much more elegant and efficient solution consists of buying one of these laptops cooler stands. You would place it under the laptop and its additional cooling fans would greatly help the laptop to evacuate the excessive heat. They are inexpensive, in the range of JD20, virtually silent, and they draw the necessary power very conveniently from one of the computer’s USB ports.

To confirm that hardware of all kinds can feel the heat, and not just laptops and desktops computer, my trusty Android tablet gave up on me the other day because of the heat, albeit temporarily. Because tablets do not have moving parts like real computers you don’t really expect them to overheat. And yet…

After playing Youtube videos non-stop for more than an hour in a room at 29°C, and upon trying to plug the power charger in the tablet, I got a message saying “Device too hot. Unable to charge now. Retry after a while.” I turned it off, gave it 15 minutes to cool off and everything worked fine after that.

 

The machines are asking for sympathy and understanding.

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