Additional Maintenance for Laptops
John's earlier article on periodic PC maintenance

Laptops reliability article

Wikipedia's thermal paste article

Core Temp download link

BatteryCare download link

What to do about laptop dust buildup

BatteryCare web site Guide page

NY Times article on keeping your laptop cool

Long article on lithium-based batteries and how to prolong them

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Thomas Computer Services Web Site
Laptops use the same software as desktop computers do, for the most part, and need periodic maintenance as outlined in my earlier article on this subject (see link at left.)  But laptop hardware operates on batteries and in much more confined spaces.  Early in 2008, Consumer Reports reported data that seem to suggest that one in five laptops will have a serious problem requiring repair.  One problem that occurs too frequently is spontaneous shutting down-- without warning.  One of the two causes most often cited for this is overheating.  Laptops have a fan or a group of fans that draw in air and blow it past the hottest component of any computer: its processor or “CPU.”  Air around humans can be full of dust, and so the dust winds up in the cramped innards of the laptop, fouling and blocking the cooling effect of the air.  It's also possible that the thermal paste that joins the CPU and its heat sink (a radiator-like metallic structure) has dried out and needs replacing.  The CPU monitors its own temperature sensor as the temperature creeps up and approaches a level called junction temperature max (a.k.a “Tj. Max”), and abruptly shuts the system down to avoid damage from the heat.

While it should be noted that some laptops will try to start, and then exit with a “get a new battery” message, it's not uncommon that they sometimes also just spontaneously shut down because of battery failure.  Laptop systems include software that monitors the current charge level so it can warn the user to save his work and recharge the battery.  But a battery can only be charged a finite number of times before it fails and won't hold any charge.  Even when plugged in, the system can start up and then, after a while, just shut down.  Laptop systems don't typically include software to monitor the life cycle of the battery.

There are two free, small, Windows utilities that help you keep an eye on these aspects of your laptop: Core Temp for CPU heat and BatteryCare for the battery.  Download and install both programs from their respective home pages, which are available from the links at the left.  Monitor the installs carefully and deny any piggybacked Yahoo or Google apps (for example) that try to fall in with the two.

Core Temp 1.0 screen shot
Using  Core Temp

The Core Temp main window has 2 sections and a menu bar.  In the top section you see processor information including number of cores, processor manufacturer and model, and the frequency (speed) of the processor given in megahertz
(though gigahertz is the more commonly-used unit.)  At the bottom are the Tj. Max and current temperature readings, given in degrees Celsius, but also available in Fahrenheit, if you care to go into the Options menu and change this setting.  Watch and note these numbers as you use the computer from time to time or any time the thing seems warmer than usual.  Overheating problems develop gradually, and dust will clump up gradually around the processor heat sink if left to do so.  Consider taking your vacuum cleaner or a can of compressed air to the vents at the bottom and side of the laptop to clear out any accumulated dust.  There's a link at the left to a web site where it's explained just how to do this most effectively.  John will not open up a laptop to replace the thermal paste or poke out dust clumps, but he knows a very good tech who will.

Using BatteryCare

BatteryCare has a tool bar and two main windows.  The first, called Basic Information, shows the status of the current charge, a count and graph of discharge cycles, and the current temperature of both the CPU and the hard disk. The current charge info is or should be a mirror of that provided by Windows.
A definition of the charge and discharge cycle is available if you hover your mouse over the little blue info icon, and it is explained more fully in the Guide page of the BatteryCare web site, which is what you get if you click the question mark icon next to “More Info.”  Every laptop owner is encouraged to print out and keep this Guide page with your laptop, as it has lots of tips and explanations about caring for and extending the life of your battery.  The current temperature information listed at the bottom of the Basic Information window is there because heat decreases the lifetime of the battery.

BatteryCare's second window gives various Detailed Information about the battery.  Hover your mouse over the blue info icons for the author's definition of each item.  Listed first is the model of the battery, which is useful when it comes to shopping for a new one. The next three items express its energy content as
designed, total and current capacity given in milliwatt hours, and you can expect the current capacity to dwindle as the battery itself ages.  The charge/discharge rate is an expression of the battery's actual ability to deliver, and you can expect this number to dwindle also over its life cycle.  Tension (voltage) expresses the force of the electrons flowing from the battery, which you can expect to dwindle over the duration of the current charge.  Wear level expresses where the battery is in its life cycle: 0% when it's new and near 100% when you should think about getting a replacement to avoid the spontaneous shutdown problem, so watch and note this number, too, from time to time.  After 30 discharge cycles, the author of BatteryCare advises the user to calibrate the battery.  Again, refer to his guide for details.

Please email John with any questions you may have about laptops, Core Temp or BatteryCare.
February 10, 2012

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