Got a new laptop. Great – if you’re lucky, the laptop survives for years to come, maybe 2 years or more. Here’s the real kicker though, as the laptop ages, we get the illusion the machine slowing down.
Assuming that there are no hardware failures at all, that’s not caused by age!! It’s actually is due to two main things – super-bloated operating system or the system is thermal throttled due to dust clogging up.
Why cleaning it up?
To put it as simple as possible, most probably there’s a fan coupled to a heat sink (a.k.a. the radiator) inside. After some time, dust gets clogged on the heat sink and eventually, the air just can’t get out. Heat will then obviously can’t escape the internals of the laptop and you’ll have a bad time with your laptop.
Cleaning up your laptop in the inside will prolong your hardware’s lifespan – especially the battery! Don’t be lazy, clean your laptop! Let’s not forget that a unclogged vent means a more silent fan for a more efficient cooling performance.
I’ve done this on several laptops, and I’ve seen temperatures decreases varying depending on the amount of junk built up inside the laptop itself, and I saw a significant ~15ºC drop on all of the machines’ CPU, GPU, and motherboard that I’ve dealt with before. These temperature drops can prolong your hardware longevity indeed, and that’s well documented. Make Use Of did a pretty good article on this issue.
In some cases, a more efficient heat escape path for these components means better thermal performance for other components in the machine too, like the hard disk and SSD.
How to clean the laptop?
There are a few things to take note, and although this is in no way a specific guide on how to clean your machine, we’ll try to guide you through our experience, from start to finish.
First of all, I recommend everyone to clean your machine(s) after the warranty has expired. For someone who uses his laptop everyday (e.g. me), clean it after a year (my warranty was a year) of everyday use, and subsequently clean it every 6 months.
There are certain things that you’ll need to prepare beforehand though, and you might not have these things lying around. So, better be prepared for all the things that might come in your way.
- A large, brightly-lit workspace
- Alcohol swabs with at least 70% isopropyl alcohol (lots of them, about 50; better if you have a bottle of IPA)
- Thermal paste (get a decent one)
- Precision screwdrivers with the correct screw bits
- Any camera (smartphone works great)
- Hair dryer (optional, but recommended)
- Magnetic tray to hold screws (recommended)
- A second computer (smartphone works great too)
Now that you have all the things you need, make sure you do a thorough Google research on how to disassemble your specific laptop model. If you’d like to quantitatively see the improvement of this cleaning process, go on and download HWMonitor to see a baseline temperature for both idle and load scenarios, just for lolz.
… clean your machine(s) after the warranty has expired.
It goes without a saying that you should first ground yourself first before touching any components. Secondly, make sure that there are no magnets around your device. This includes the optional magnetic tray for screws.
I’ve opened a number of laptops, and the biggest tip I can offer is these two – firstly, do a thorough research on Google to really study and get the proper steps to disassemble your machine. Of course, you’ll need the proper screw bits and also the methods right. Secondly, take a lot of pictures to document the screw positions chronologically – from the backplate to the motherboard and onto the heatsink itself.
…do a thorough research on Google to really study and get the proper steps to disassemble your machine.
There is no one-guide-for-all disassembly process, so you’re pretty much on your own, although you can have some makeshift disassembly guidance from other posts on how to remove the optical disk drive or hard disk or keyboard – you get the idea.
If you’re in luck, maybe iFixIt has a guide for your device.
You’ll have to be extra careful in each step, be gentle, and please take your time, especially with your first disassembly. It’ll be scary as you’re venturing into the unknown, so take your time and don’t take unnecessary risk. Make sure all screws are removed before prying open the parts. Also, be mindful and delicate around those cables and its headers! Different types of cables have different types of headers, and sometimes even the ribbon cables have different types of connectors!
… be gentle, and please take your time.
Once you get to all the guts – especially the motherboard, you’re done – for now.
Cleansing gunk away
Each time I’m opening a laptop myself, I’m really afraid, particularly at the thickness of dust built inside the device itself. Whenever I accidentally touched any of these layers of dust, my finger becomes black and ashy, and strings of dust might potentially follow.
First, let’s whip out some of our alcohol swabs to wipe away the (potentially dried) thermal paste that’s on both the heat sink, then the CPU and GPU die, and we’ll reapply later after cleaning the heat sink. Don’t worry about the solution leaking onto the PCB or components – alcohol swab solution is made out of mostly isopropyl alcohol and it is electronically inert. You can even clean the PCB using alcohol swabs – just be sure that no components are yanked out of the PCB while doing so.
With that said though, my laptop, in particular, has quite a thin layer of dust built on it, but the heatsink itself has layers of dust compressed over time, and thus it became a dust cake. Yes, literal dust cake.
Light can’t pass through the layer of dust, and that’s quite severe. Let’s get all of them out of the way by the method I know best – by gushing water through the heat sink and the fan at varying angles and direction, and lightly scrub on it with my fingers wherever I can, just to ensure a thorough cleansing. Don’t worry about the cables getting wet though, it’ll work after drying it completely.
Here’s where the hair dryer comes in play. Wipe a majority of the water away, and then blow hot air (~50ºC maybe??) on the radiator to dry most of the droplets. Remember to do this on both sides of the radiator! If you think and feel that the radiator is completely dry, leave it be and clean the motherboard first. Also, clean the chassis of the laptop in the meantime, especially at the hinges of the laptop. Dust just gathers there like a neodymium magnet.
Reapplying thermal paste
First of all, you should only apply a small bit. Usually, a small circle at about 1cm in diameter is more than enough, and try to drag it along by just a little bit if the GPU die is laterally longer. You have to make the decision yourself, as again, there is no one-size-fits-all for this matter.
In my case, I applied a small dot at the center for my Nvidia GTX660M die since it’s a square, and I applied a tiny line of thermal paste for my Intel i7 CPU die since it’s rectangular in shape. Here’s a small little guide on how to apply thermal paste to your CPU and GPU, and yes, it applies to laptops too.
After that, align the radiator properly before setting it in, then screw the heat sink onto the GPU and CPU die in a cross pattern. In layman’s terms, don’t screw in one screw completely before screwing the others. Balance in all screws is the key here.
Don’t think about the thermal paste after screwing in the radiator, as the thermal paste will get squished outwards and will look like the pattern when you first remove the radiator before cleaning. It’s a completely desirable effect, actually.
Just backtrace everything and assemble back. Make sure you got all the screws and connectors right! Connect your laptop battery last, and boot up. It should work just fine, and if it doesn’t, check the boot priority.
After booting right into your system, try running HWMonitor again and redo what you’ve been doing when you recorded the temperatures earlier. You should see a significant improvement!
Obviously, at the end of the whole process, I got myself a really clean laptop, to the point that the fan is more silent than ever and blows out colder air with higher airflow, compared to the warm and loud fan before it was cleaned.
Let’s stop talking, let’s talk about the results. See the temperature comparison of stress test temperatures for yourself. One note though, please only take note of the minimum and maximum temperatures. The “value” category shows the current temperature, and I take it at different times after different cooldown periods.
The only thing I can say is OMG!!! This entire process managed to decrease an entire freaking 14ºC on the CPU package die, and another freaking 27ºC from the GPU itself!!
The only result I can’t present here is the sound it produces and the temperature of air that it blows out since I don’t have the appropriate tools to do that.
Cleaning a laptop yourself might sound scary at first, and it did to me too. After doing it just once, I was pretty confident into cleaning more laptops, where I even convince everyone around me to clean. Obviously, it didn’t work out well, as these devices are just way too delicate for some to even touch a screw on it. Actually ever since I started doing these things, I felt jealous of laptops using Intel Core-M processors since I don’t have to clean it at all.
When you have nothing to lose or just want to get your laptop in tip-top shape, follow this guide and clean it all up!