Help Your PC Beat the Heat

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - Who needs a campfire when you can roast marshmallows over your PC? I'm only half joking. I recently checked the temperature inside my PC's case and was shocked to discover it was nearly 110 degrees. That kind of heat can kill some PC components.

I'll bet your PC is running hot, too, especially if you've souped it up with add-ons. But I've found two nifty tools for monitoring your PC's temperature and a few tricks to cool your CPU.

A buddy of mine who repairs PCs for a living says heat shortens the life of a PC faster than Intel Corp. releases new processors. If your PC freezes up suddenly, or you get sporadic write errors to the hard drive, you may have heat damage.

The ideal temperature inside your PC is roughly 5 degrees higher than the ambient room temperature. If the temperature in your case exceeds a toasty 110 degrees Fahrenheit, then your PC could be in trouble. That's because for each 18-degree increase above 110 degrees, the component life of your PC is reduced by half.

So how do you know when it's too hot?

I tested a dozen obscure utilities (hey, that's why I'm here) that measure your PC's body heat, and I found two that I liked. Both programs monitor the temperature of your CPU (which may get hot before the inside of your case does) and make sure that the fans are functioning.

The first utility is Hmonitor Lite, a lean, no-frills tool that costs US$20 and monitors your system's essential components. It sets off an alarm if any part starts to swelter. (My alarm is set to play a WAV of taps.) The second one is MotherBoard Monitor (see July's Hardware Tips at www.pcworld.com/jul00/hardware), a freebie that monitors everything Hmonitor does, with one neat extra: It also e-mails you an alert when the alarm goes off ("Help! I'm getting hot under the collar"--Signed, Your PC). You can find MotherBoard Monitor at FileWorld. For these utilities to work, though, your PC must have a modern motherboard. To find out if it does, load either utility and see if its gauge (which you can put in the system tray) shows temperature levels.

Once you've installed these utilities, you can run a fire drill to test them:

Go to Windows Find (Start*Find), launch two search sessions, and insert a word into the Containing Text box. Temperatures will inch up, and alarms will sing.

(To put out the controlled burn, cancel the search.)Sizzling Add-OnsAny hard-drive-intensive activity will heat up your drive. But if you add components to your PC, expect it to sizzle: That's because peripherals produce lots of heat. I fitted my PC with a second SCSI drive, running at 10,000 rpm.

With both drives going, the surface temperature got high enough to blister my finger. When I added a 3D video card, the inside of my PC rose to 109 degrees in no time at all, and during periods of intensive disk activity, it approached Saharan levels.

A cheap, simple solution? I added a $29 Bus-Cool fan to a vacant slot on my motherboard. The temp fell to a tropical 101 degrees. Then I popped in a $49 Bay-Cool, a gizmo that blows cool air on my hard drive. The temperature sank to a milder 98 degrees.

Look, I don't mean to scare you. If you have a system with no fancy video cards and just one hard drive, you're probably okay. But even an unadorned PC can overheat if the cooling fan is blocked.

Another heat culprit? Dust. Check the grate on your PC's power supply fan.

Dirty, no? I found lots of schmutz--layers of grit, dust, and dog hair--on mine.

I disconnected all the cables, took the PC outside, and blasted it with a can of ozone-free compressed air. For good measure, I vacuumed the inside of the case, all the components, and the floor. My PC breathed a sigh of relief.

I still have moments when I push my PC too hard and it overheats, but at least now I know when it's happening and can act accordingly--like unplugging my hot plate and multitasking with my PC.

Speaking of which: Do you want milk with that s'more?

Bay-Cool, Bus-Cool

Bay-Cool $49, Bus-Cool $29; PC Power & Cooling, 800/722-6555, www.pcpowercooling.comHmonitor Lite$20; Alexander Berezkin, hmonitor.comMotherBoard MonitorFree; Alex Van Kaam, members.brabant.chello. nl/~a.vankaam/mbmDownload programs noted here at www.fileworld.com. Contributing Editor Steve Bass is president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group. Write him at steve_bass@pcworld.com.

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