How-To: Give Your Laptop a Cooling Overhaul

Alan Fackler

Laptop Cooling 101

Modern day laptops are loaded with powerful, heat producing components that can often lead to over heating, especially if you’re asking your laptop to do some heavy lifting. If your laptop ever feels particularly hot in certain spots, or sometimes randomly shuts off, there's a good chance that overheating is to blame.

And if your laptop is no longer covered under warranty, fear not.  We’ve put together a step-by-step guide for both computer novices and hardware enthusiasts that’ll show you exactly how to deal with overheating problems on your own.

Method One: Non-Invasive Cleaning

This method is intended for those who are uncomfortable handling or unfamiliar with computer components. Even if you've never tinkered with computer hardware before, following these instructions should be simple and effective enough to repair an overheating laptop.

Necessary Tools:

Small Sized Screwdriver (to remove the back plate)
Compressed Air Duster
Anti-Static Wrist Strap (Optional but recommended)
Clean, Organized Work Environment

Step One: Removing the Back Plate

Only two screws (circled in red) needed to be removed for this particular model.

Before starting, be sure to completely shut down your laptop; you don't want it to be in sleep mode or hibernating. Also make sure you both unplug the charger from the laptop as well as remove the battery. If you're using an anti-static wrist strap, now is the time to attach it to a ground of some sort.

The exact process of removing the back plate varies from model to model, but most will have a set of screws on the underside of the laptop. Some models may have a couple screws on the sides or rear of the laptop.  Few (like some models of the MacBook) don't allow any easy access into the system at all, in which case you may be out of luck. Also, keep in mind that not necessarily all of the screws on the underside of the laptop are for the back plate. Try to follow the outline of the back plate in order to see exactly which screws need to be removed.

Once all the necessary screws are removed, you can pull off the back plate. Most models will have a small lip to lift from. Apply gentle, even pressure until the plate pops off. If it feels like it doesn't want to come off, check for any screws you may have missed. On rare occasions, some screws may be hidden under stickers.

*Note: Be sure to review your warrantee information and check for any "Warrantee Void If Removed" stickers before opening up your laptop. Some companies do not allow you to open up the system. If your laptop is still under warrantee and overheating, it is best to contact the manufacturer.

Step Two: Locating and Cleaning the Fan and Heatsink

Most modern laptops will use a cooling setup similar to the one shown in the photo above, using copper "heat pipes" connecting the CPU and GPU to a copper heatsink near the fan. You'll want to carefully remove any dust, lint, or gunk that may be stuck in the heatsink. Often times, this gunk will collect between the fan and the heatsink. It's easiest to try to remove the larger bunches of dust with your fingers and then blow out the rest using the compressed air duster. Just be sure not to bend any of the copper tubing or fins on the heatsink.

You can clean out the fan with the compressed air as well. Use short, gentle bursts as not to spin the fan blades too fast. Also, be careful not to insert anything to obstruct the fan blades or put any pressure on them.

Some laptop models may have multiple fans and multiple heatsinks. If this is the case, simply repeat the same procedure with each fan and heatsink.

*Note: Always hold the compressed air duster upright when using it. Spraying while on its side or upside-down will expel the compressed air in liquid form which will be extremely cold and can damage electrical components.

Step Three: Additional Cleanup and Closing the System

Once you've finished cleaning out the fans and heatsinks, it's good practice to use the compressed air duster to clear any rogue dust particles from the system. Simply blow air gently throughout the system, checking all the vents, nooks, and crannies for dust that may impede airflow.

Check to make sure you haven't bumped any connections loose and replace the back plate and screws. Insert your battery, plug in your charger, and enjoy the improved cooling.

Method Two: Complete Cooling Overhaul

This method is for more experienced computer enthusiasts, involving the removal of heatsinks and application of new thermal paste. If you have experience building desktop computers, you should feel perfectly comfortable following these instructions.

Necessary Tools:

Small Sized Screwdriver (to remove the back plate and heatsink)
Compressed Air Duster
Thermal Paste (We Recommend Arctic Silver 5)
Lint Free Cleaning Cloth
Pure Isopropyl or Denatured Alcohol*
Flat Plastic Edge (Such as an old credit card)
Anti-Static Wrist Strap (Optional but recommended)
Clean, Organized Work Environment

*Note: The Isopropyl must be 100% pure, meaning no added water, minerals, or oils.

Step One: Removing the Back Plate

This step is identical to step one of the first Method. See above.

Step Two: Removing the Heatsink

Most modern laptop models will use a GPU/CPU combo heatsink, running heat pipes from the GPU block to the CPU block and connecting both to the heatsink fins near the fan. Generally, there will be several screws surrounding both the CPU and GPU blocks, and occasionally, screws securing the heatsink to the fan. Remove all of these screws and gently lift up on the heatsink with even pressure from all sides. You can wiggle it slightly from side to side in order to loosen the old thermal material. For models with multiple heatsinks, simply follow the same process for each one.

The remnants of old thermal compound can sometimes make it difficult to remove the heatsink, especially when cooled. It is sometimes a good idea to open up the laptop shortly after having used it, so the components are still warm. This will make the old thermal compound less sticky.

Step Three: Cleaning the Heatsink

While you have the heatsink out, use the compressed air to clear out the fins of any dust. It's also a good idea to check the fan for any dust as well. Use a plastic edge (old credit card or ID card) and scrape the old thermal material off of the heatsink. Remove as much of it as possible. Do NOT use any sort of metal edge to do this. Heatsinks have tiny micro grooves to optimize cooling, so even a small scratch can compromise the effectiveness of the heatsink.

Once the excess thermal paste has been removed, use your lint-free cloth dampened with isopropyl or denatured alcohol to rub the remaining thermal paste clean from the heatsink. This will probably take several passes to get it as clean as possible.

After you've cleaned the heatsink with isopropyl, make sure you do not touch the contact surfaces with anything--even the slightest contaminate, like a fingerprint, can impede cooling performance.

Step Four: Cleaning the CPU and GPU

Cleaning the old thermal paste from the CPU and GPU is a similar process, though you’ll have to be much gentler. You will rely more on your lint-free cloth than your plastic edge for this part. Make sure the cloth is not over-dampened with isopropyl, as you’ll want to avoid renegade drops pooling around your CPU or GPU.
Just like with the heatsink, you don't want anything to come in contact with the surface of the CPU or GPU after you've cleaned it, so it is wise to use your compressed air to clear out the chassis of the laptop before cleaning off the CPU and GPU.

Step Five: Applying New Thermal Paste

There are many generally accepted methods for applying thermal paste. For laptop components, the most common method is to use a small drop of thermal paste in the middle of the chip, and using a clean plastic edge (yes, clean it off with the isopropyl and lint-free cloth first) spread the paste over the top of the chip evenly. Use the photo above as reference. Once spread out, your new layer of thermal paste should be about the thickness of a sheet of paper.

It may be tempting to use extra thermal paste, but you actually want to use as little as possible while still covering the entire chip and filling all the micro grooves. Most high-end thermal pastes rely on silver particles to transfer heat. When the layer of paste is only a few microns between the heatsink and computer chip, these particles align nicely and provide optimized heat transfer.

(Optional) You can also prep the heatsink with thermal paste to reduce burn-in time. To do this, just take a small amount of thermal paste and rub it into the heatsink with a clan plastic edge. This will be a tiny amount of paste, just enough to give a translucent layer on the heatsink.

Step Six: Reattaching the Heatsink

When replacing the heatsink, you will want to align it before lowering it down completely. If you miss the proper sitting place and disrupt the newly applied thermal paste, you'll need to remove the heatsink and go through the entire thermal paste application process again. Once you have the heatsink in place though, apply very gentle downward pressure and wiggle from side to side slightly, once or twice. This will help the thermal paste permeate the micro grooves.

After that, you'll want to insert the screws. Tighten them in a crossing pattern, but do NOT over tighten the screws. You can use a gentle, steady pressure while to make sure all the screws are tight. Make sure to check each screw twice, going in a crossing pattern.

Step Seven: Closing the System

That's pretty much it. Now just check to make sure all of your fans and various connectors are still plugged in, use the compressed air to clean out any vents or dusty components, and close up the back plate. If you were having cooling problems before, you'll likely see a significant difference.

Additional Cooling Tips

Many laptops draw air in from underneath the chassis. Because of this using your laptop in your lap or on a couch or other upholstered surface can greatly reduce airflow. Using it on surfaces like this also increase the amount of dust and lint the cooling system takes in. To avoid this, try to use your laptop on flat, smooth surfaces, like tables or desks.

Pets also contribute considerably to the amount of gunk your laptop pulls in. If you have any pets, try to keeps them away from your laptop, especially during the summer time when they are most likely to be shedding. Try not to pet near your laptop when it is on.

Most importantly, turn your laptop off when you aren't using it. As long as the fan is on, it's pulling in air, and with that air comes dust. Just turning your laptop off while you sleep is enough to reduce the amount of dust it takes in by as much as 30%.

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