The Explorer: None Like It Hot - InformationWeek

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Hardware & Infrastructure
11:18 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

The Explorer: None Like It Hot

Excessive heat is a CPU's worst enemy. Here are software utilities that can help.

Problem Areas
While there are exceptions, most PCs from major vendors start their lives reasonably well-ventilated and are able to keep the CPU chip and other components within thermal specs -- as long as the fans keep turning and the airflow remains unobstructed.

But many vendors use cheap fans with relatively short lives: If a fan dies on you, your first warning might be a general and seemingly-inexplicable system failure.

Or, if you don't clean the inside of your PC from time to time, the air intakes may become clogged with dust, dirt and pet hair, leading to overheating and trouble. (This will only sound weird to you if you've never opened the case of a PC that has been allowed to run undisturbed and uncleaned for a long time. The amount of crud that accumulates inside a PC case can be truly amazing -- and disgusting!)

Some system vendors also have been known to cut corners, producing PCs that are technically within thermal specs, but running far hotter than they need to. This puts unnecessary stress on the system and all but ensures a shorter system life.

And if you modified your system by adding a new component (say, a new CD drive), your placement of cables and connectors could interfere with the airflow, possibly causing localized overheating.

A bit further afield, if you built your own system from scratch or replaced the CPU, it could be hard to know if you chose the right combination of fans and heatsinks.

So the question is this: How can you tell if your system is properly cooled? How can you tell if the airflow is right for your PC? How can you tell (without opening the case) that all the fans are turning? How can you tell that your PC isn't susceptible to erratic operation or even premature death caused by too-high or barely in-spec temperatures?

Learning From The Overclockers
"Overclockers" are people who push their CPUs to speeds way beyond their rated capacity. In fact, overclockers often compete among themselves to see who can run a given chip the fastest -- the PC hardware equivalent of automotive hot rodding.

In running their chips far out of spec, overclockers face major thermal problems: The loss of CPU cooling for even a second or two (!) can totally fry a highly-overclocked chip beyond recovery. As a result, the overclocker community has developed many heat monitoring and management tools and techniques. 

With today's hot-running standard chips, many major-brand system vendors have adopted some of the overclockers' tools and techniques to help cope with thermal issues in their off-the-shelf, higher-end systems.

For example, many of today's motherboards (maybe yours!) now come with built-in sensors to keep track of things like fan speed, and system and CPU temperatures. Sometimes, the sensors are tied to a basic alarm: If the system gets too hot, an alarm sounds. Other more sophisticated systems allow direct reading of this information through either the BIOS setup program, or via special software. But this software is almost never included as part of the base system. Even if your system has these advanced sensors built in, you may not know that they're there, or be able to access the information they can provide.

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