Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Heat Management

By Mike Gould

August 2018

It’s too darn hot…
    Cole Porter, Kiss Me Kate 1948

Ah, August in Michigan: cherries, corn on the cob, burgers on the grill, and lots of baking BTU’s beaming our way from jolly old mister sun. Coming off of a truly brutal winter, we shouldn’t complain, but our laptops and iPads might be a tad uncomfortable – here’s how to keep them happy.

[Spoiler: I’m in a mood for Cole Porter, so here are some song titles masquerading as headers.]

Hot House Rose
Long story short, laptops, smart phones, and iPads, etc., can be sensitive to heat. Keep ’em cool, and they will keep you from getting too hot under the collar. Long story follows. (I keep saying iPads because that is what I use – the same applies to any tablet such as a Kindle, Surface Pro, Galaxy Tab, ZenPad, whatever. iPad is also easier to type…)

Like life on Earth and favorable extra-solar planets, our electronic helpers live best in the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. When it is too cold, battery life is drastically curtailed, mechanical parts like mouse buttons and key switches gum up, and your fingers get too stiff to type. Too hot, fans run overtime, electrical components get balky, and your laptop scorches your lap. Actually, manufacturers no longer recommend putting a laptop on your lap for this very reason, even in the best of conditions.

Battery issues aside, cold is better for electronics than heat. I have bitter experience with this as we did a laser show outdoors in downtown Ann Arbor April 4th of 2018 (FoolMoon), and we had 20º temps, 30mph winds, and snow. The laptop computers did just fine (although it is very hard to type in heavy gloves and you can’t use the trackpad) and the show went on. I have photos of my laptop covered with snow, ticking right along. The lasers, however, have more problems with cold, but that’s a story for another time.

The cold battery issue also affects any camera powered by batteries (i.e., all of them, these days) and smart phones. Generally speaking, keep them under your coat or in a shirt pocket and you will be fine.

Why Can't You Behave?
Enough of cold; it’s August, let’s talk about heat. Here’s a scenario: you leave your laptop in your car in the megamart parking lot on the seat in the sun. It has a black plastic case. You come back and it is a steaming puddle of plastic, melting into the seat cushion. Not really – you would have to put it into an oven to do that kind of damage, but your laptop will be uncomfortable to hold, and if you turn it on in that condition, the fan will whirr really, really loud, and the whole thing may turn off to keep its components alive. Worst case scenario is that you may have baked the battery enough to cause it to expand, ruining it and maybe your laptop.

Well, Did You Evah!
If that happens, all you have to do is put it on the floor where it is cooler to recover. Do not pack it in ice – water will cause more damage than heat, but you knew that, right? Once back to normal temps, your ‘top should be OK. Ditto for iPads and phones (but your phone is probably safe in your pocket or purse). Needless to say, atop the dashboard is the absolutely worst place to leave anything electronic in the summer. This also makes it more visible to thieves. So. Just. Don’t.

What a Charming Afternoon
Heat can also creep into things indoors, not so much for tablets, as they have no moving parts like fans to attract dust. Dust is the enemy for laptops: it acts as an insulator, keeping heat in components that desperately want to lose it via circulating air. Over time, your laptop fan(s) can become coated with dust, slowing them down while everything else is slowly acquiring a fur coat of dust bunnies.

The solution is a can of compressed air judiciously applied to the vents. If you are uncomfortable about doing this, and live/work in a dusty environment, consider an annual visit to the computer clinic in your area for a tune up and cyber-oil change.

Night and Day
Another way to keep your laptop’s fan from becoming annoyingly loud is to manage your over-all battery use. More current from the battery, more heat in the system, more RPM’s out of the fan. One way to do this is to turn down the brightness of your screen. Consider dimming the lights in your work room to compensate.

Some things you can’t do much about: if you are someone who does a lot of video or photography heavy lifting, you will be pushing your computer chips harder, and your fan speed should be increasing to compensate.

If that is the case, consider a custom base for your laptop. These increase the air circulation around the bottom of the case, which can heat up causing the thigh burns mentioned above. You can also get units with built-in fans of their own, which, not being confined to the narrow dimensions of your computer, can be larger and quieter.

Another major no-no: don’t put your laptop on a pillow, towel, or any other fabric. These act again as insulators, preventing your laptop from dumping heat properly. I do a fair amount of photo processing with my ancient 17” PowerMac, and I pasted felt furniture protectors on the bottom of it. This allows for better air flow and makes it easier to slide across the table for my clients to admire. If you do this, make sure you don’t cover up any air vents or the battery access.

Stay Cool!

Mike Gould is nice and cool in his basement office. He was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Macintosh Training/Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, directs the Illuminatus Lasers, and welcomes comments addressed to

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