Technology can be a hazardous to your health, and gadget-related dangers come in all shapes and sizes, from BlackBerry thumb to mouse elbow. One of the most common complaints we hear is from laptop users literally burned by overheated systems. While desktop PC hot-rodders have all kinds of elaborate water-cooling contraptions at their disposal, laptop owners are stuck with decidedly more low-tech solutions.
Many users would never dream of resting a laptop directly on their legs without a pillow, magazine, or some other improvised shield in place. After all, with faster processors, smaller cases, and increased workloads, the modern laptop burns the candle at both ends, so to speak. Even moving the laptop from your lap to a desk won't cure heat-related problems, especially if you're working in a cramped environment with lots of clutter to block fans and air vents.
Naturally, for any problem, there's always someone willing to sell you a solution, and there are literally dozens of laptop cooling devices available. Some are simple, passive, plastic trays designed to keep the laptop from touching your legs, at best providing some additional air channels. Others are complex, powered devices with one or more built-in fans, running off power provided by a laptop's USB port. The right solution for you depends on whether you primarily use your laptop on a desk or on your lap, whether you want a powered or passive device, and how much extra space can be spared in your laptop bag.
We looked at a total of eight cooling options, rating each for its design, utility, and capability to keep laptop temperatures down. To test the thermal properties, we ran our grueling Multimedia multitasking test on a sample laptop--the popular Lenovo T60p--recorded the CPU temperature for each product, and compared it to the laptop's CPU temperature without any cooling assistance.
Among the passive, or unpowered, devices we tested, we were surprisingly impressed by the Xpad Laptop Desk, basically a massive chunk of plastic that looked like a cutting board with a big "X" on it. A more inelegant computer accessory would be hard to find, but the Xpad was inexpensive, could handle large laptops, and was as effective as our fan-equipped laptop coolers. The two LapWorks laptop desks--one for mid-size laptops, one for smaller systems--weren't particularly effective at cooling, but have a textured surface on each end for use with a mouse. For the aesthetic minimalist, BlueLounge's Cool Feet are four simple rubber feet that attach to the bottom of your laptop, but are better for giving your system a more ergonomic angle than for cooling.
If you're interested in a powered laptop cooler, there are several essentially similar devices out there. Each plugs into a USB port on your laptop, which powers one or two fans designed to suck hot air away from the system. They can all be a bit noisy, and only one--the Antec NoteBook Cooler S--is especially portable.
All four powered coolers we looked at worked reasonably well. The Antec NoteBook Cooler's twin fans were slightly better than the single fan in the Belkin Laptop Cooling Stand and the LapWorks Ergo Fan Riser. The smaller Antec NoteBook Cooler S (hence the "S") was the only one that operated a little differently, placing the fans behind the lid rather than under the system.
Honestly, none of these laptop coolers radically outperformed the others, as evidenced by the chart below. Personal preference plays a big role here. One of our co-workers swears by the LapWorks Laptop Desk 2.0, for its portability and built-in mouse pad, while I find the subtle sloping grade of a laptop sitting on the Belkin Laptop Cooling Stand to be easier on the wrists.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)