VynZ Modern Life

All things modern.

How to service your laptop’s cooling system

Riaz (not his real name) has had his Dell Studio 1558 for three years. It was very powerfully configured and has given him good service. Recently however, his laptop began to freeze apparently randomly, not a good thing when assignments are due. He tried to troubleshoot the system himself by running hardware tests and swapping out the RAM all of which checked out. He then thought that his CPU may be bad and found a second hand one on eBay for £40. This was when he called me to ask if I thought he should buy it. He described the problem to me and I thought it sounded like an overheating issue. CPUs have built in thermal protection and shut themselves down to prevent damage if they get too hot. I asked him to download a CPU temperature monitor and keep an eye on the temperature while using the machine.

Sure enough, doing any processor intensive work made the temperatures shoot up to 90C and the computer froze. Since the fan was spinning, this could only mean a fault somewhere in the cooling system. On a three year old machine, I suspected dust.

Looking at the main intake at the bottom of the laptop and a bit of gathered dust could be seen.

I won’t go through the whole process of opening up as these instructions can be easily found online. However I will take the opportunity to list the major steps and rules. Tools you would need are: a good set of micro screwdrivers, a pair of tweezers, several paint brushes, replacement thermal paste and another laptop or tablet with the disassembly instructions. Don’t print it out, save a tree.

As you remove parts, line them up on the floor along with the screws removed at each step. This will help with reassembly as you can then simply work backwards ensuring that all the screw are accounted for.

Be careful when removing components as there may be hidden ribbon cables which are very fragile. These are behind the keyboard, a common hiding place.

Usually pretty much everything has to come out of a laptop to get at the motherboard. At last the motherboard with attached heat sink and fan came out and it is obvious now that there is a dust problem.

Let’s remove the black cover plate and have a look inside. This exposes the real horror. Three years of accumulated dirt totally obscuring the CPU heat sink.

Here is a close up.

The first step is to remove as much as possible with a pair of tweezers.

Then the rest can be washed out using a stiff brush and dish washing liquid. Water will not harm this component, but best practice is to get only the parts that need to be washed wet. Note I have removed the fan for this, which will need to be brushed with a dry brush only. When finished, dry with a hair dryer.

There we are, big improvement. Air can actually flow through that now.

Now we need to get all that old hardened thermal paste off the CPU and heat sink which is easily done with a plastic scraper and finished with a paper towel. Notice the pink and black pads for the GPU, don’t touch those. If those are damaged you aren’t going to get a replacement easily. Have you ever wondered how a heat pipe works?


It should all look clean like this.

Now reapply a thin layer of thermal paste to the CPU and GPU. This is the trickiest part as you need to apply just the right amount. Too little and there will be insufficient contact. Too much and there will be an unnecessarily large distance between the CPU and the copper heat sink making heat transfer inefficient. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of the newly applied thermal paste.

The only thing left to do now it so put it all back together using the assembly instructions. Run the temperature monitor again and stress out the CPU using something like a PI calculator program. As you can see the computer can once again control its temperature.

So if you have a laptop that is a couple of years old and is not performing like it should, chances are it just needs a good clean out.


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This entry was posted on 29 September, 2013 by in Technology.
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