My laptop has been giving me problems for a while… it would shut off all of a sudden as I was using it and I had no idea why. It is a Dell SmartStep 200N, and I’ve had it for about 2.5 years.

After a while, I began to realize that it was shutting off because it was getting too hot. The primary indication of this was that these shutdowns only happened when the fan was running at full speed. Secondary indications were that the shutdowns would happen when the machine was under heavy load, and that the shutdowns happened more frequently when my room was hot. But I didn’t think I could do anything about it… obviously, Dell had done their best to ensure that my laptop had a good cooling system.

That was until I read This site describes a chronic overheating problem in this kind of laptop. The laptop is from the era of “desktop replacements” and embodies the particular idea of using a desktop processor instead of a mobile processor. I bought it knowing full well that this was the case, because I wanted the performance of a desktop processor without having to pay for a mobile processor. From what I’ve read, it sounds like this design didn’t have sufficient cooling. Also, a number of manufacturers used the same internals as Dell used in its SmartStep, so this problem appears in a number of other models from other manufacturers.

However, the problem can be fixed! It turns out that the thermal compound between the CPU and the heatsink was poorly applied, and in some cases missing altogether. After disassembling my computer, I discovered that there was thermal compound in my system, but there was actually a piece of aluminum foild sandwiched between the processor and the heatsink, with thermal compound on either side. Apparently this isn’t the best situation, so with a fair amount of effort I managed to remove the thermal compound and clean off the processor and heatsink, apply some fresh thermal compound, and reattach the heatsink.

While it was open, I also dusted off the fins on the heatsink (to increase heat transfer) and dusted off the rest of the computer (because I’m a clean freak). The computer was a bit difficult to open up… Flipping out the keyboard was difficult because there are plastic tabs holding it down, and you just have to pull it up, past those tabs, and hope that nothing breaks. And getting the processor off the heatsink when it is glued on by thermal compound was challenging, also. I used 70% rubbing alcohol to soften some of the compound, and then I slid a razor blade between the processor and the heatsink and managed to pry them apart. I cleaned thermal compound from the heatsink using 99% isopropanol (strong rubbing alcohol). To my surprise, the 99%-strength stuff was actually available on the shelf in the drug store–I have never been able to find it this easily in the past.

Now my computer doesn’t shut itself off anymore, unless I tell it to.