Ask the Doctor: Overheating CPUs, Caseless Computing, and More!

Kaya Systems

The doctor tackles Overheating CPUs, Caseless Computing, SSD Free Space, and more

The Cooler Does Nothing!

I have a PC I built in 2011 with an Asus P8P67 motherboard, EVGA GTX 570 GPU, 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-2600K CPU, and Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo cooler. When playing BF3, I consistently get temps around 90 degrees Celsius. I'm pretty sure this is dangerous territory, though I've never had any problems—no crashes or anything.

Still, this morning I took my cooler off and reapplied the thermal paste. I added a pea-size drop of Arctic Silver 5 after thoroughly cleaning both the chip and the cooler. I plugged everything back up and got the same result. I have an older Lian Li case that has decent cooling. If I take the door off the machine it's very loud, but it does drop the temp by about 10 degrees. Still, 80 degrees seems too high. Friends who play with me who have the same basic setup see temps more like 50 C and 60 C at load. My idle temp is around 40 C.

What am I doing wrong? What should I try? Should I worry about it or is 90 C OK?

- Aaron Newton

The Doctor Responds:

Yikes, that is high. The Doc used to have the same problem: a high-powered cooler that just wasn't doing the job. The culprit? The PC's case. It had zero intake fans. It sounds like you're not getting enough airflow through your PC—or your CPU fan is fighting with your exhaust fan. Without a fresh supply of cool air and a quick way to exhaust the warm air, the ambient temp in your case is going to stay high, and even a great cooler isn't going to keep your rig cool. Check that your intakes are clean and free of dust, your fans are spinning, and you have clear airflow from your front intakes to your rear exhaust fans. If you have fan mounts that aren't occupied, consider getting some high-airflow fans to put in them. If that doesn't help, it may be time to invest in a new case—one that has ample cooling for today's components. Finally, make sure the utility you’re using is modern and reports the chip temps correctly. CPUID.com’s HW Monitor works very well and will let you log the temps. The Doc also recommends using Intel’s own Turbo Boost Monitor to see what your chip is spooling up to, as well. A chip that’s stable but excessively hot may not actually boost as high as it would if it were cooler.

Airplane Mode Shortcut

I loved the airplane mode tip for Windows 8 in the April 2013 issue of the magazine. It reminds me of the keyboard key on my mother's laptop, which will enable/disable network access with the press of a button. Can you set me up with a shortcut that I can place in my Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows XP system tray or desktop what will accomplish the same thing?

- Robert Cichon

The Doctor Responds:

You're not the only one asking for this, Robert—our research shows plenty of people around the web asking the same thing. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a simple way to do it other than the way we've already talked about. Microsoft declines to make that API call available to outside developers, and if someone has figured out how to do it, we don’t know of it. As for the alternative methods, those work by powering the radios on and off via hardware; Microsoft says the software airplane mode is the way to go, because it prevents other programs from turning those radios back on without your permission.

The Emperor Has No Case

What is your opinion on putting together a rig without a case? I think it’s rather cool to have a “visible” computer. However, I am concerned about heat dissipation. The system only has a CPU fan and nothing else. Is the natural convection adequate to cool the system?

- Bill Ryder

The Doctor Responds:

We run open-air test benches all the time in the Lab, Bill (ours are from HighSpeedPC.com ). We still recommend having some sort of framework to affix your components to, just so everything stays connected. There are plenty of PC "test bench" cases that provide the sort of look you seem to be going for. A closed case does provide focused airflow, as well as protection for your parts. But as long as the room your PC is in has decent climate control, natural convection ought to be enough, though you may want to add an additional fan to keep air flowing over the motherboard components. Just make sure you keep liquids, pets, small children, and airborne debris away. And don't come crying to the Doc if something happens.

HighSpeed PC's Tech Station gives you stylish open-air computing.

CPU Out of Gas?

I have an older laptop with a Pentium III 750 running Windows XP . I had been using it just for Internet browsing until it started to slow down. It was taking forever to boot and opening any application became excruciating. I thought it may have been a virus or just crapware that I might have installed inadvertently, so I wiped the drive and did a fresh install of Windows XP. It didn't make much difference in speed so it made me wonder about the hardware, specifically the CPU. Do CPUs slow down over time and eventually stop working? I was always under the assumption that they either work or they don't.

- Greg Whitlock

The Doctor Responds:

If you’re getting poor performance even after a clean install, it is more likely to be caused by a hardware problem than an OS issue. However, make sure that you’re not infecting the machine immediately after your clean install. The Doctor has seen a person perform a clean install on a box to eliminate a malware issue and then immediately get it infected upon connecting to the Internet. Despite its age, Windows XP continues to be a top target of malware and putting an unpatched XP box on the Internet without a firewall can result in nearly instantaneous infection. If your outbreak was severe enough, it may have infected any portable drives you use, so you could be getting re-infected that way.

But assuming that your issue is purely hardware, CPUs don’t get slower over time. They will execute the code as fast in 2013 as they did in 2001—it’s just that the code of 2013, written for more powerful hardware, may be far more taxing than the code of a decade ago. There are two problems the Doc thinks might be responsible. The first is possible CPU throttling due to heat. The PIII doesn’t have the advanced onboard thermal throttling of today’s Core i7 chips. Instead the chip counts on the chipset and motherboard to throttle back the clocks. If the laptop’s fan is filled with dust or failed, the CPU may be throttling back in speed. The other possible issue is a failing hard drive, which may be generating enough random errors to affect performance.

Don't Delete Your SSD?

In the April issue of the magazine the Doctor told us how to move items off an SSD to regain space. Doc, I know I read somewhere that deleting files from an SSD doesn't work the same as a delete from, well, the other type of hard drives, that the more files are deleted, the worse the SSD performs. Is that so? I have avoided performing a lot of deletes on that drive, but no doubt things happen just from running the system.

If the drive has been filled up that extensively, will a simple delete be much of an improvement?

- Leslie P.

The Doctor Responds:

It's true that deleting files from an SSD doesn't work in quite the same way as deleting them from a hard drive, but it's not true (anymore) that your SSD will perform worse the more files you delete.

The flash memory in an SSD consists of 4KB "pages" inside larger "blocks" (usually 512KB). Because of the way flash memory works, you can read individual pages, and write to them if they're empty, but you can only empty a page by deleting the whole block, then rewriting the pages of the block you aren't deleting. Deleting files in your OS only marks the pages they're on as able to be erased, but the data isn't actually gone until the next time the drive needs to write to that block. Then it's erased and overwritten with new data.

On older SSDs, that meant that, once the drive ran out of blocks that had never had data on them, it had to start putting files on blocks that contained data previously marked for deletion. Instead of just writing the data to the block, the SSD first had to copy the whole block to its cache, erase the information marked for deletion, replace it with the new information it needed to write, clear the entire block, then rewrite it with the old good data and the new data. This is a lot more work than just writing the information to a fresh block, so the SSD would slow down by a huge margin while doing all this extra work.

Fortunately for us, that's not something you really need to worry about anymore. All modern SSDs have garbage collection algorithms in their firmware, as well support for the Trim command (see our Holiday 2009 white paper at http://bit.ly/7GhVfo ). These nifty tools work while your PC is idle to clear away data marked for deletion and optimize data on those blocks. Windows 8 will even detect if you have an SSD and let you manually invoke the Trim command.

So while nearly full drives can still get clogged up in the manner described above, even after deleting a bunch of data, simply leaving your computer on and not doing anything for an hour or so is enough to get your SSD back up to speed.

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