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Don't Get Steamed!

by Drew Dunn

If time is money, then heat is power. But worse than that, heat is the enemy of your computer. And your computer is a hot place. You know that your CPU gets toasty, so you plop a heat sink and fan on it. If you’re on the bleeding edge, you might have replaced the heat sink on your chipset with a fan. Maybe you’ve noticed that graphics chips now include some sort of heat sink and even built in fans.

An unintended corollary of Moore’s Law (computing power doubles every 18 months) is that the heat produced by those millions of transistors crammed into ever shrinking spaces also grows. Even components that you never thought of as a silicon furnace are driving up the temperatures in the box.

Got memory? Of course…and the latest high speed chips are giving your CPU a run for the high temperature trophy. Rambus RIMMs have heat sinks built in to overcome the problem. PC2700 SDRAMs are approaching the point. The industry standard for a DDR SDRAM module is for it to run at less than 100 degrees Celsius without air flow…that’s the boiling point of water! Have you looked at your motherboard lately? If you’ve got more than a couple of DIMMs in there, you can see just how much free space is between the modules.

What’s a person to do? You can fill the beige box with fans and live with the noise or you can opt for older technology and live with the performance degradation. Or you can consider a few simple ideas that will let you keep abreast of the latest gear without suffering a desktop China Syndrome.

Open up your computer and look inside. Is there any dust? Dirt? Cat hair? Cigarette ashes? All of that stuff insulates like you wouldn’t believe. You want to get the heat away from those delicate components, not hold it in! Clean that computer out! No, don’t jam the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner inside, unless you’re ready to suck up a jumper or two, break off a chip or zap a part. Get a couple of cans of compressed air, haul your system outside and start blowing. Do watch what you touch inside, of course.

And while the box is open, take a critical look at just how much free space there is. If your system is typical, there is a fan in the power supply that draws air from the inside of the case and exhausts it out the back. There are probably some vents near the bottom of the front panel. Check out the flow of air in the case. Are there a ton of messy cables blocking the way? You can fold ribbon cables and zip tie them together. Tuck the excess power cables away. And make sure that there is as much free space as possible around any heat sink.

Do take a close look at your CPU’s heat sink. You can probably do better than the el-cheapo model that it came with. A number of very good aftermarket models are available that can work wonders in carrying off excess BTUs.

My computer has four hard drives and three CD-ROM drives in it. That’s a bucket load of IDE cables running from the motherboard to the drives, all through prime air moving real estate. I replaced the bundles of flat ribbon cables with “rounded” IDE cables, then routed the cables with zip ties so that they ran well out of the way of the air flow in the case. The cables work very well with the ATA100 drives and the air temperature in the computer dropped dramatically.

Also, those mechanical components produce plenty of their own energy that ends up warming your system. You may be asking for trouble if you jam two or three high speed hard drives right together in the same cage. The chips get hot, the spindles get hot and if there is no room for ventilation, they can burn themselves up. Keep some air between the components. Just because the case has room inside for four hard drives doesn’t mean that you should use all of it.

If your motherboard allows it, separate your memory modules. A three-slot memory board with DIMMs in slots one and three will allow more airflow over the module chips, pulling more heat away from them. Try doing the same sort of thing with expansion cards. If at all possible, keep the PCI slot next to your AGP video card clear. It’s bad enough that most video cards are designed with the graphics processor facing down (in a tower case), but if you snug another card right up next to it, you’ve just created an excellent furnace.

Speaking of cases, bigger is generally better. Not everyone wants a giant tower case sitting on their desk, but if you have the choice between a mini tower and a slightly larger “mid” tower, go bigger. The extra few inches of real estate that you give up will be worth the benefit in a greater volume of air to absorb the heat of your system.

Fans don’t hurt. And they’re getting very quiet. Just remember that you need air blowing in as well as out…and in some sort of reasonable balance. You can install a dozen fans blowing out, but if nothing is forcing fresh air in, they’re not as efficient as they could be.

Do you overclock? Is something in your system running faster than its rating? Then you already know about heat. If you’re stressing your system to the limit by running its components just as fast as they can go, you need to be extremely mindful of the potential for damage that the extra heat can produce. Oversized, well designed heat sinks and fans are de rigueur for your computer. And a very big case with lots of free air flow is a necessity.

To a computer, heat really is the enemy. But some with some simple precautions, you can keep from getting steamed!


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