Not all laptops are designed equal

Over time it is common for fans in laptops to become clogged with dust, fluff and even hair. The symptoms are usually a hotter laptop and a noisier fan that runs more frequently. The solution is to open up the laptop’s body in order to get at the fan and remove the crud with tweezers and by blowing. However, dismantling many laptops to access the fan makes the Mission Impossible break-in look simple, and this seems to be getting worse as laptop prices continue to decrease. If you are not confident you can unblock the fan yourself, you’ll have to find a local computer repair shop and you may find it’s not cheap. For some models the dismantling procedure can be so complicated that people post videos on YouTube. Often it is necessary to remove numerous screws, ribbon cables, jumper leads, plastic strips and the keyboard. In some cases you have to disassemble the laptop almost entirely. Fortunately, in the case of RAM modules there is often a hatch in the laptop’s base to facilitate access, but even adding or replacing RAM modules can sometimes be a major task (I used to own an Acer laptop that required the laptop base and keyboard to be removed in order to access the RAM modules).

Not long ago I had the misfortune to have to dismantle an Acer Aspire 5536-643G25Mn and a Toshiba Satellite C660-1J2 to remove accumulated fluff from the fans. I had to study YouTube videos carefully and could not believe how difficult it was to get access to the fan in the Acer Aspire. Dismantling the Toshiba Satellite to access the fan was not quite as bad as the Acer Aspire but was still a major task and, despite being as careful as possible, I still managed to break a fragile plastic lug on one of the base panels.

Last week my main laptop, a Compal NBLB2, seemed to be running a little hotter than usual, so I decided it was time to check if its fan also needed cleaning. What a pleasure that was in comparison to the other manufacturers’ laptops. The NBLB2 has a large plate in the base that, by removing only three screws (see the first photograph below), allows easy access to the fan and RAM modules. In less than five minutes I was able to remove a wad of fluff from the fan, replace the plate and power up the laptop again. Hats off to Compal for thinking about maintenance when designing this laptop. I only wish other laptop manufacturers did the same.

So, next time you need to buy a new laptop, do some research on how easy it will be to access the fan in case it needs to be cleaned. Look at the laptop’s base and check on the Web for a service manual, a YouTube video of it being disassembled, and comments in laptop/notebook forums. At least then you’ll know whether you stand a chance of avoiding paying a repair shop just to remove crud that inevitably builds up over time in the fan.

Base of Compal NBLB2 showing screws removed from main base plate

Base of Compal NBLB2 showing the 3 screws removed from the main base plate.

Base of Compal NBLB2 with main plate removed

Base of Compal NBLB2 with main plate removed. Notice how easy it is to access the fan and RAM modules.

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About Fitzcarraldo
A Linux user with an interest in all things technical.

16 Responses to Not all laptops are designed equal

  1. irenicus09 says:

    Nice article, I also think it’s really important to know how to open up your laptop and clean it up…be self sufficient…instead of getting it to a local shop every once in a while. Btw Mr. Fitz, from what I can see in the second pic, it looks kinda hard to clean up that fan…how did you do it? Also can you point me to some useful resources related to that?

    Thanks.

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      Actually it was very easy to clean out that fan. I used tweezers to pull out the fluff, then blew hard through the grill on the side of the laptop which dislodged more crud, which blew out of the top of the fan shown in the photograph. Finally I blew down into the top of the fan and more dust came out of the vent on the side of the laptop. I used cotton buds (a.k.a. ear buds or cotton swabs) to remove dust coated on the blade surfaces and internal base of the fan. In this particular case the result was a clean fan so I did not bother to use a can of compressed gas, such as 5 Star Air Duster, but I’ve used that in the past as that can blow crud out that cannot be reached with tweezers.

  2. I regularly use a industrial blower to blow my laptop’s fans, that way there is no stubborn build up. I have five dogs so hair is always an issue but I have a six year old VAIO still running good as well as few ASUS laptops and netbooks, all running cool due to this procedure. I would rather not open up a laptop unless required, its a veritable Pandora’s box. I have opened up my netbook to see if my method works and found there was relative no dust around the fan.

  3. To be fair, there’s an almost inevitable tradeoff between thinness and maintainability, and a lot of people want thin laptops these days. It’s much easier to make a brick maintainable than it is to make a wedge maintainable.

    I mostly favour the ‘blow on it really hard from the outside’ school of fan maintenance :)

    • Very true, I would rather trade a so called ultrabook to a Thinkpad any day or even better the ASUS ROG series which come with the best cooling system in the industry.

  4. Over the past year I’ve received two laptops, both Toshibas, in non-working condition. If I could fix them I could have them for development and testing. I am decidedly hardware chalenged and yet I was able to get both of them going again. One needed an internal cleaning, some connections reseated and a new battery. The other needed a fan to be cleaned so that it would turn again and a shorted battery pack that needed to be replaced. I’ve been inside a number of laptops over the years and I have had the best luck at being able to service the Toshiba products. Of course, your mileage may vary.

  5. Toshiba are truly well built laptops and with little care they run forever. I a industry survey done on laptop repair issues, the best rated laptops were ASUS, Toshiba and SONY, I have owned all three of them as well as other brands so my experience reflects the survey, all three proved to be most reliable in my experience.

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      Back in 2008 a work colleague of mine bought a SONY VAIO (unfortunately I can’t remember the precise model, but I do remember it had an Intel GPU and the screen resolution was 1440 x 900) and, within weeks, the fan started to make a loud noise. He had to take it to an authorised SONY repair centre where the fan was replaced and he was told that the problem was common for that model. So I think it is useful to research the model as well as the manufacturer.

      In September 2011 I bought for a family member the Toshiba model mentioned in my blog post, and, so far it has functioned well.

      Personally I intend to never again buy an Acer laptop: since 2003 I bought four in total (two for me and two for my family) and they all ended up having hardware problems. Ironically the two more expensive models were unrepairable after about five years of use and had to be scrapped. The other two, purchased in 2008 and 2009, work well with Sabayon Linux for home use but I don’t know how long they will last as the Aspire 5536 runs hot and the Aspire 5920 has an intermittent problem with a flickering screen. A relative of mine bought three Acer laptops for his family at around the same time, and has also had trouble with them, again due to their design.

      I have had very reliable performance from my current Compal NBLB2 which gets very heavy use. When it is time to replace it, I shall again be looking for an OEM/ODM model rather one of the brand names that are more expensive for the same specification. I’ll probably buy either another Compal or a Clevo. And I will be able to buy it without Windows installed.

      • I have had extremely good experience with all the ASUS products I have from their Transformer tablet to their netbook to their laptops, most of them run whole day in non airconditioned rooms and work for years.

  6. anonymous says:

    These are odd views of purchasing laptops. Cleaning the fan is a breeze with a toothpick and an air compressor. Just hold the fan still with the tooth pick so it doesn’t generate electricity, and blow the crud out at 60 PSI.

    When I shop for reliable laptops, I am more concerned about the GPU, and the hinge. Beyond that I look at the CPU and the HDD.

    Until recently, Nvidia GPUs were notorious for overheating. I have just bought my first Nvidia in half a decade (last one 9800gt, new one Geforce 635M) after owning five AMD graphics only machines (ending in a Sapphire 7850 PCIe for a desktop).

    The hinge is critical because it is where the wires from the laptop bend every time that the lid is opened and closed. IBM developed a cool spiral which bends 90 degrees, but like a spring, each bit barely moves. Asus hinges were so tight that they used to crack the plastic case on a regular basis. Compaq and HP used to have a simple bundle of wires which just wear out. Oddly enough, I have never opened a Dell to replace the hinge wiring, so they must be doing something right.

    At the moment, Intel CPUs, such as the i5 have more bang for the buck than AMD. I own both types and use phoronix and CPU benchmarks to help me figure out which I will purchase next. My two top end machines are a Intel Corei5 and an AMD FX 8 Core Black. To be honest though, I could not tell the difference without a benchmark program.

    Lastly, the HDD. On a laptop purchase an SSD. Don’t worry about the lower capacity. If you need two terabytes, get an external drive. The SSD produces no sound, little heat, and uses very little electricity. Your battery life will be greatly extended, and the computer will boot insanely fast.

    Two of my colleagues approached me within the last month looking for a new laptop. I guided them to a Lenovo G780 metal. Deterred by the price, they went with HP’s from Best Buy. Within a week, each was complaining, and wanted to bring their machines in for servicing. Outside of installing Classic Shell, I had to tell them that they got what they paid for. Keep that in mind.

    • I agree about hinges and GPU, however I have learned to stay away from any discrete cards once Sandybridge matured into an excellent cooler running GPU alternative. Intel drivers are among the best and easy to install. In Linux they come pre-install minus all the proprietary headaches with Nvidia and AMD. Also AMD’s proprietary drivers have been quite lackluster as compared to their Windows offerings. Discrete cards no matter what consume more battery and tend to run hotter and only the ASUS ROG series has proper cooling for them.

  7. nonys says:

    My IBM T43 laptop seems not to accumulate much dust etc…All I have to do is take out 3 screws to remove the keyboard, a very simple procedure. The fan is accesible with the keyboard removed. I check it every few months, and as it runs Linux, I use a widget to moniter CPU temps.

    I have found over the years that I have owned computers that how much dust/fuzz etc…accumulates in/near fans, heat sinks etc… depends greatly on your location (near gravel roads/alley ways that are heacily traveled is the worst), number of pets (if any) etc. I have seen a friend’s new computer power supply fan become so clogged with dust in only a year that it was not able to run.

    All in all the IBM/Lenovo computers that I have owned have been easy to take apart and maintain, and very reliable.

  8. Bob Robertson says:

    I bought a used SONY laptop on Ebay, which was so clogged with hair that I was surprised the fan could turn at all.

    When I wrote back to the seller to tell him that it had arrived in working order, I asked how his white dog was doing. He was surprised that I knew, until he saw the photograph of the felt pad that had built up on the cooling fins.

    I am very thankful for the various sites over the years which have published disassembly instructions for laptops.

    This is not rocket science. Maintenance seems to be lacking in so much technical hardware engineering. Is the throw-away attitude really so prevalent that they can expect to sell units that cannot be _cleaned_???

    For as the Master Programmer said, “Be your program only one line long, some day it will have to be maintained.”

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      Your statement about the throw-away culture these days is spot on. It seems from the convoluted designs that most laptop designers don’t consider the need to clean the fan. OK, manufacturers are trying to cram as much as possible into the smallest space possible at the lowest possible cost, but we should still be highlighting to manufacturers that fans tend to get clogged up with all sorts of crud and there should be at least some thought given to enabling the end user and computer repair shop to access the fan without having to go through a very complex dismantling process.

  9. John says:

    Ugh, I’m having a bit of an existential crisis with my HP dv7 laptop fan right now. It’s been buzzing and burring for a while now and I assume that it’s getting hot easily as my laptop slows down considerably just browsing the web, and that’s with it sitting on a laptop cooler (sans extra fans). Please take a moment to feel my pain and look up on Youtube what needs to be done in order to clean a dv7 laptop fan, it is so completely and utterly ridiculous. It’s the stuff of nightmares. I’m actually kind of into projects like this and I’m scared to death to even try to undertake the project due to how the entire laptop needs to be completely disassembled in order to clean the fan. It’s severely aggravating and I don’t think I’ll be buying an HP laptop again, that’s for sure. I mean give me a break, basically the one and only thing on a laptop that even needs routine maintenance (beyond cleaning the screen with a little alcohol and wiping off fingerprints?) and you have to completely disassemble the entire laptop in order to do something that should take a couple minutes tops? Totally jelly of your three screws and it’s done fan cleaning laptop.

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      I just watched a YouTube video ‘HP Pavilion dv7 Cleaning CPU FAN’ and you have my sympathy. It’s insane to have to completely disassemble a laptop just to clean the fan. I gave up with a couple of Acer laptops because getting access to the fan involved something similar. My advice: if it’s overheating badly and making a noise, take it to a computer repair shop — one that deals regularly with HP equipment, if possible — and get them to clean the fan and vents. These guys have to disassemble laptops all the time, so they should be quick and less likely to break something inadvertently. If they can’t do it while you wait, you could ask them to show you ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of the fan “out of curiosity”. While they’re at it, you could get them to apply new thermal paste on the CPU and GPU, as that can dry out if the laptop is running very hot due to a blocked fan.

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