Here’s how you can fix an overheating computer or laptop

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Is your computer overheating? Sometimes it can be hard to tell, but if it gets bad enough, there’s some serious signs that can indicate something is wrong. For instance, you might experience sluggishness or maybe even frequent reboots or shutdowns. As you might already know, heat is just as dangerous to computer as dust or lint is. If you’re computer gets too hot, you might start to experience strange symptoms, such as some of the aforementioned situations. All computers have a cooling system to keep things at an optimal temperature, but if that cooling system is failing or a component is going bad, you could start seeing the symptoms of overheating components.

In this article, we’re going to show you the signs of an overheating computer as well as your options for troubleshooting and hopefully fixing the problem.

Warnings

Not sure if you’re computer is overheating or not? There are actually quite a few signs that can indicate that you’re computer is actually suffering from too much heat. We’ve listed most of them below.

  1. Abnormal fan sounds: In most computers, fans are the primary cooling system for keeping components from overheating. Usually you’ll have a fan for your power supply and one for the processor, two components that produce the most heat. Sometimes a graphics card will have it’s own dedicated fan, too. If any of these fans fail (either stop working completely, aren’t operating properly), it can allow a component to get too hot, and thus, start overheating your computer, ultimately causing some frustrating problems.
  2. BSOD: If your computer is suffering from a overheating problem, sometimes it’ll blue screen. We’re all familiar with that nerving blue screen of death. For example, if you turn the computer on, it may start to boot up fine, but eventually it’ll blue screen from getting too hot. In most cases, this usually coincides with a failing cooling fan.
  3. Frequent reboots or shutdowns: This follows along with some of the above sentiments. If you’re computer is overheating, you’ll see frequent automatic reboots. Sometimes, your computer will shutdown altogether and not turn on until it cools off.
  4. High temperatures: The most obvious of all the warning signs is high component temperatures. You can usually monitor and measure how hot components are with reliable third-party software (we’ll get into this more in the Troubleshooting section).
  5. Computer case is hot: A properly cooled computer will almost never feel hot to the touch. If your computer or laptop is like this, there’s a good sign your processor is overheating.

Troubleshooting

Troubleshooting an overheating component is a little more involved than troubleshooting specific components. This is because there are a lot parts that can overheat. The majors ones are the processor, graphics card and power supply. It’s worth noting that hard drives can overheat as well, but that’s a lot less common than those three major components.

With that in mind, below you’ll find a section to troubleshoot specific components: the CPU, power supply, video card and hard drive. By following all of the steps listed below, you should quickly and easily be able to find the source of your overheating problem.

Processor overheating

To find out if it’s your processor overheating, generally obvious signs are constant rebooting, shutdowns and sometimes even crash or error messages. The most obvious sign of an overheating processor is to see if it’s actually overheating. You should find out what the recommended “normal” temperatures are for your processor. Then, download a tool like CPU-Z or Speccy that can monitor your processor’s temperature. There are, of course, plenty of other temperature monitoring tools out there at your disposal, too.

chrontel-processorFinally, vet the manufacturer’s recommended temperatures against what you’re seeing with Speccy or CPU-Z. If you’re not seeing good results, you may need to reapply thermal paste, as it can can break down and become ineffective, so it may need reapplying at some points. If that doesn’t work, you may need a new processor to fix the overheating problem. If you don’t have the option of using Speccy or CPU-Z, you can usually find processor temps in your computer’s BIOS settings, too. It’s worth noting that an overheating processor can result in reduced efficiency and operating speeds. In the absolute worst case scenario, overheating could damage the processor, though that would require some seriously out-of-the-norm high temperatures.

The last thing you can do to look for a problem in the processor are POST tests. If you boot up your computer and hear 5 short beeps, this indicates a problem with your processor, meaning it’s gone and needs replacing.

Power supply overheating

A power supply can overheat for any number of reasons. First, you could be not getting enough air circulation (see the air circulation problem to try and fix this). It’s also possible that the fan/heat sink on your power supply is clogged. If you haven’t cleaned it out in awhile, it’s best to do it thoroughly now. Depending on how many years of dust, particles and even pet hair it’s collected, this could take some time. However, unless you know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t try and open the power supply up to thoroughly clean the fan, as you may risk electric shock or worse. Instead, use a compressed air can to clean it out as best as possible. Be sure that you have your computer turned off prior to cleaning it out.

power-supplyIf that does not work, another reason your power supply might be overheating is because your computer needs more wattage than the power supply can, well, supply. Not only that, but off-brand power supplies (and even some reputable brands) can be rated for fairly low temperatures. With that in mind, if your PSU starts operating at anything much higher than what it’s rated for, it can be damaging.

Many power supplies simply reach their end-of-life and need replacing. Cheaper units often need replacing quicker than the reputable brands. With that in mind, do your research and buy a power supply from a good OEM with an excellent reputation — you’ll thank us later.

Video card overheating

A video card can overheat quite easily if something has gone faulty or it’s not properly being cooled. If a GPU is overheating, usually you’ll experience reduce performance and stability. Sometimes the computer will blue screen or do a forced restart. Other times, the PC will lock up entirely requiring a manual reset.

video-card-with-fanGenerally, if your computer is freezing up on boot up, this would be a problem with the processor overheating instead of the GPU. Now, if your computer is only restarting or locking up when you launch something with intense visual effects (e.g. a video game, movie or any kind of media), this could indicate the GPU is the problem.

In some cases, the fan will stop working entirely. That, or it may be clogged with dust and needs cleaning out. If it’s not operating properly and you can’t fix it by removing dust or lint (with a compressed air can), it’s almost always best to replace the fan, if possible. Repairing isn’t always the best way to go, as it’s likely to fail quicker than just replacing it.

gpu-z-interfaceYou can check specific video card temperatures by downloading third-party software like GPU-Z. Head to your manufacturer’s documentation for your card to find out what proper temperatures are for the video card. If they’re exorbitantly high, and you can’t fix it by replacing the fan or reapplying thermal paste, you’ll need to replace your video card. Be sure to check out our guide on video card failure for other possibly systems of a failing graphics card.

Before going ahead and replacing the video card, ensure that you’re not facing a system-wide cooling issue. For example, see what temperatures your CPU gets to in comparison to the video card before crashing.

Hard drive overheating

Did you know that your hard drive can overheat? Yes! It’s totally possible. This can happen quite often if your computer is in a room where there’s a high temperature. The best way to prevent it is to move your PC to a cooler room or take advantage of ceiling fans, oscillating fans, and other options for that specific room. Other than that, see the ventilation problems section below to fix any specific problems with dust, lint and improper ventilation.

In some cases, hard drives simply reach their end-of-life and need a replacement.

However, many hard drive overheating problems are related to improper ventilation. So, by following the steps below, that should fix the issue. If not, you may have another hard drive problem going on. Check out our hard drive failure guide for complete steps to diagnosis the component.

Ventilation problems

Ventilation problems are the most common issue for overheating. If a computer isn’t properly ventilated, heat can’t escape properly, ultimately keeping it trapped inside the case, thus causing components to get hotter than normal. In this case, you generally won’t need to replace any components, unless you find that some of your fans have stopped working properly.

That in mind, fixing ventilation are as simple as cleaning out all the dust and lint in your case. Don’t use the vacuum to clean out your PC, though. It can generate static electricity and ultimately fry your system. To clean out your PC, use compressed air — you can generally find cans of these for cheap at your local office store. This is the best way to go about it. If you find that you need to get a closer clean on some components and fans, use a cloth and a tad bit of 99% isopropyl alcohol.

You’ll also want to see if there’s anything else you can do to create better ventilation, such as organizing wires better or creating positive or negative air pressure.

Positive and Negative air pressure

group-of-fansThere aren’t a whole lot of ways out there to prevent dust from getting into your PC. Dust, the enemy of electronic equipment like this, always seems to end up where it’s not wanted. That said, regularly cleaning out your PC with compressed air or another method is almost required to keep your components functioning properly. If you smoke or have pets, I’d recommend that you clean that case out a whole lot more frequently, since that just makes the mess worse.

You do have one option of keeping a good amount of dust out, though. And that’s with positive air pressure. Positive air pressure is for people who want to keep their cases as clean as can be. In a nutshell, it means that more intake air is being forced into the computer case than what is being exhausted. If you have more air entering the case than what is leaving the case, you have created a positive air pressure environment.

So, what does this mean exactly? In layman’s terms, with a positive air pressure environment, you’re going to have little to no dust in every area except the fans. This is because all of the extra air in the case is being pushed out through all of the little holes and cracks in the case. The fans will still need to be cleaned out occasionally, of course. But, you can expect to have an all-around less dusty environment. You also might have the benefit of getting some extra cooling effects, since you have more cool air in the case itself. But, there are some arguments that say the density of the air isn’t enough to provide a big turnout, as it’s just a minuscule change in actual temperatures.

Negative air pressure is, obviously, the exact opposite of positive air pressure. So, if you have more air pressure that is being exhausted than taken in, you have negative air pressure. This is going to cause a larger dust build-up, since the fans are sucking air in from every small opening. This also means that dust is coming in from any opening possible, and ultimately, creates a larger dust build-up.

It’s been heavily debated as to whether positive or negative air pressure is better. But, it seems that you are better off with a slightly positive air pressure environment, keeping things a little cooler and having to deal with less dust.

How do I know if I have positive or negative air pressure?

It’s quite easy to tell, actually. For a positive air pressure environment, you’ll need a few more intake fans than you have exhaust fans. So, if you had two intake fans and one exhaust fan, you’d be creating a positive air pressure environment (this is assuming that both types of fans are the same size). Likewise, for a negative air pressure environment, you’d need more exhaust fans that intake fans.

large-pc-fanIt’s important to note that all of your intake fans should have good dust filters, too. Having a filter often depends on the environment your PC is in, but it’s a safe bet to just have those dust filters no matter what. And, if you have a decent fan, it’s not going to cut down on your airflow too much, either.

As far as proper placement for your computer fans go, there’s a lot of different theories. The most common way to go (because physics) is to have your intake fans at the front, and then your exhaust fan at the back. If you have two intake fans and one exhaust, this not only gives you a slight positive pressure in the case, but with the intake fans on the front and the exhaust fan on the rear, it’s sort of a natural air flow, too.

Ultimately, every case is different, so figuring out how to setup your fans might be a little different. But, the general rule applies: intake fans in the front, exhaust in the rear. In some cases, intakes in the front and rear are a nice setup, and then you’d have a exhaust fan at the top of your case, as hot air rises.

Closing

Tracking down an overheating problem can be a little tricky, since so many components produce heat. But, with a little know-how and some software programs at your fingertips, you can usually track it down quite easily. Just remember: don’t overlook anything. It’s worth it to take the extra time, look at the big picture and then look at all of your individual components, including the power supply. Remember, things like this are always a process of elimination, so the more you cross off your list, the closer you get to finding the actual problem (e.g. you might see that the hard drive and CPU are all at normal operating temperatures, but the video card is completely out of the norm. This would indicate that there’s something wrong with the graphics card itself or its ventilation).

Lastly, it’s always worth it to make sure your drivers are all up to date. Or, if you recently updated a driver and are only experiencing the overheating problem after that, it could be a driver problem where you need to roll back to the previous version and wait for the quirks to get worked out of the new one before reapplying the update.

We hope this troubleshooting guide helped you get to the bottom of your problem. But if you’re still stuck, be sure to head on over to the PCMech forum and post your problem to get some additional help from the PCMech community!

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