Gaming laptops might be portable and convenient, but cramming high-powered components into impossibly-tight spaces is a recipe for disaster. Anyone who’s owned one a few months past the end of warranty can immediately encounter the laptop overheating issue.
While there are plenty of fixes, from undervolting the processor to changing the way it runs the operating system (like reinstalling Windows to turning the laptop off and on again), nothing seems to work permanently.
The Problem Lies Deeper (Internally)
A gaming laptop with a thermal throttling processor and GPU needs a more hands-on approach. There are two primary reasons why these devices usually suffer from severe thermal throttling around the two-year mark.
Heatsink blockage: Laptop cooling systems may be miniaturised, but their underlying technology is quite similar to aftermarket CPU air coolers. These involve two cold plates drawing heat from the processor and GPU, which is carried over by two or more copper heat pipes to (typically) a pair of tiny radiators terminating at the exhaust vents. The radiators dissipate heat drawn from the processor and GPU efficiently by maximizing their surface area with the help of several tiny fins. Two or more fans draw cold air from the bottom and blow it over the fins and out through the exhaust vents to achieve optimal heat exchange.
This is an efficient system that does its job well. That is, until the tiny fins on the radiator get completely clogged by dust bunnies. A thick layer of dust not only blocks cooling airflow over the heatsinks but also acts like the perfect insulator inhibiting heat exchange. This renders the laptop cooling system nearly useless, which leads to significantly elevated system temperatures. That’s how the processor and GPU begin to thermal throttle and the laptop performs poorly in all demanding applications.
Thermal compound failure: The aforementioned cold plates are mounted on the processor as well as GPU with a thin layer thermal compound. This is a thermally conductive grease consisting of microscopic conductive particles designed to fill tiny air gaps between the matting surfaces of the copper cold plate and the processor/GPU substrates. Doing so allows the cold plate to draw heat away from the hot components effectively.
Unfortunately, the cheap thermal compound used by laptop makers tends to dry up and crack over time and many heating and cooling cycles. Dry and cracked matter begins to act like an insulator and also leads to the formation of tiny air gaps within the cold plate and the components. Thermal compound failure therefore adversely affects the efficiency of the laptop cooling system.
Time to Break Out the Screwdriver
The main takeaway here is that none of these issues can be fixed without opening up the laptop. Using a vacuum or blower on the vents will only cause the cooling fans to spin beyond their rated RPM specifications and fail prematurely. The dust buildup blocking the radiator fin stack is too stubborn and remote to be sucked out or blown away. External laptop coolers are also an exercise in futility. There’s no point cooling the laptop externally when the internal cooling system is unable to draw heat away from the overheating components.
Note: Disassembling a typical gaming laptop for servicing isn’t rocket science, but you can still cause some serious damage if you aren’t careful. This guide expects a basic level of competence with the screwdriver. Make sure you’re using an antistatic wrist strap that is grounded to prevent damage from electrostatic discharge (ESD). Avoid standing on a rug and work barefoot, if possible, to prevent buildup of static electricity.
The laptop being disassembled in this guide is the HP Omen series gaming laptop, but the good news is that virtually all gaming laptops share the same basic means of construction. Your laptop may be different, but the general steps of opening the chassis and disassembling the cooling mechanism are more or less similar.
Important Note: it goes without saying that doing this will void your warranty. But that’s moot considering the fact that you can simply choose to send the laptop back to the manufacturer for free repairs under warranty anyway.
What You Need to Get Started
Appropriate Screwdriver: Servicing a laptop is largely uncomplicated when it comes to the tools required. Most laptops can be opened with Phillips head screwdrivers bearing tips/bits of PH0 and PH00 sizes. If your laptop has fancy Torx or machine screws, buying a good screwdriver set becomes essential.
Plastic Pry Tool: Most laptops have the chassis secured with plastic retention tabs that must be pried off with softer materials such as a credit card or a dedicated plastic spudger prying tool. The latter is strictly optional, because an old credit card or Costco/Walmart membership card works just as well. Just don’t try to use a flathead screwdriver or any other hard metal object for that purpose.
ESD Safe Cleaning Tools: Once you disassemble the laptop, you will have access to thoroughly clean the dust-clogged fans and radiators. A household vacuum cleaner can destroy your laptop, but you will be fine as long as you physically separate the fans and radiator/cold plate cooling assembly from the laptop motherboard prior to cleaning.
However, the sensitive laptop PCB components can only be safely cleaned with the help of an ESD safe electric duster such as the brilliant DataVac Electric Duster. However, if you can’t spare $80 for a dedicated electric duster, you should at least invest in a good ESD safe nylon brush kit.
Thermal Compound: Apart from dust, poor quality thermal compound is another reason for your overheating woes. There are a number of good alternatives, but make it a point to stay away from the liquid metal variety. Gallium tends to destroy aluminium while also reacting adversely with copper, these being the primary materials used in the construction of cold plates. Almost every laptop cooling system I have encountered employs bare copper (or, in very rare cases, aluminum) for the cold plate. Liquid metals are only recommended for use with nickel-plated copper cold plates.
Unless you fancy disassembling your laptop often, I would recommend choosing a thermal compound that is guaranteed to last longer (without hardening or cracking) over raw cooling performance. Not many thermal compound manufacturers rate the endurance of their products, but both the Noctua NT-H1 and NT-H2 thermal pastes are said to last a good five years after installation. The Arctic Cooling MX-4 thermal paste, however, is advertised to last a whopping eight years. I have used both brands to great effect over the years.
Alcohol wipes or Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA): You’ll need alcohol wipes to thoroughly clean old thermal compound. IPA also works, provided you stick to a minimum purity of 70 percent. It is preferable to rely on 90 and 99 percent pure IPA, but either way you will also need a lint-free material to wipe off thermal compound. Micro fibre cloths and coffee filter papers are ideal for this purpose.
Prepare for Deep Cleaning!
Clear the workspace of all clutter and dedicate a separate area large enough for storing loose/disassembled components.
It is extremely important to photograph each step of disassembly, or you might forget how to reassemble the laptop correctly. If you come across tricky details such as the need to ensure specific cables’ routing paths, carefully note them down in detail on a piece of paper and photograph that part accordingly.
Keep aside separate containers to hold screws and label each container. For example, the long screws holding the chassis together can go into one container so that you don’t accidentally mix them up and screw them into shallower screw posts meant for another component. Even within the same component such as the fan assembly, you can have some screws that are long or short. Take enough photographs and make a note of where each screw goes.
Step off the carpet, remove footwear, and wear an antistatic wrist strap while making sure to ground it correctly.
1. Switch off the laptop, disconnect the power adapter, and remove the battery. If your laptop has an internal battery, do that in the next step.
2. Flip the laptop over to reveal the bottom side. Before we get to the internals, we must remove all screws holding the two halves of the bottom chassis (the part sans the display/lid) together. In this particular laptop, all eight screws are visible in plain sight.
Some laptop manufacturers, however, love to make your job harder and hide some or all screws behind compliance labels and rubber feet. Screws hidden behind labels can be located by probing the label surface with the tip of the screwdriver or simply peeling off the entire label. Ditto for screws hidden by the rubber feet.
3. Removing all screws isn’t nearly enough to take the two halves of the laptop chassis apart. If you look around the edges of the chassis, the telltale seam indicating where the chassis will come apart should be visible. However, these two halves are held together by plastic retention tabs. These need a bit of prying before they can come apart.
Inspect every square inch of the seam, and you should notice that almost all the seams are too tight to insert a prying tool, except for a small portion of the seam that is spaced wide enough to get the job done. In most laptops, this portion of the seam will be located on the rear side and usually between the vents. This is the case in this HP Omen laptop as well.
Use the opening in the seam to insert a credit card or plastic prying tool. Once inside, gently twist the credit card upwards until you hear a click. That click indicates the lifting of the retention tabs securing the two halves of the bottom chassis. Thereafter, it is a matter of moving across the laptop perimeter along the seam, while progressively prying open the retention tabs one by one. The first tab is (relatively) the hardest, whereas the rest of the tabs will pop off quite easily.
4. This is where you must put on your thinking cap and take a close look at the topology of the internal construction of your laptop. Our objective is to get to the processor and GPU dies in order to replace the thermal compound.
However, that can only be done after removing several components such as cooling assembly (consisting of cold plates, heat pipes, and radiators), cooling fans, SSD, fan brackets, and exhaust vents. These components have been listed in the order in which they are installed in this particular laptop. That’s essentially what I mean when I refer to this laptop’s internal construction topology.
In this example, we must remove the exhaust vent brackets (green), followed by the fan brackets (white), then the SSD (yellow), cooling fans (blue), and finally the cooling assembly (red) consisting of the cold plates and radiators before we can replace the thermal compound.
The good news is that virtually all gaming laptops exhibit similar basic internal construction. However, it still pays to take a close look at the component topology of your particular laptop. For example, some laptops will have fixed exhaust vents moulded into the chassis, which don’t need to be removed. Others may not even have the SSD obstructing the cooling fan assembly, so that won’t need removal either.
In a nutshell, figuring out the component topology of your laptop makes it easy to remove the aforementioned components in the correct order and expose the processor and GPU dies for repasting. It takes a quick visual inspection to double-check which of these components are installed on top of others. Disassembly is a breeze once you have that figured out.
5. Remove both exhaust vent brackets.
6. Next up are the cooling fan brackets. Don’t overlook cables and wires while making a note of component topology. The left-side bracket on this HP Omen gaming laptop cannot be removed without disconnecting the six-pin JST XH connector mating the power cable with the laptop motherboard (pictured below).
This might seem counterintuitive to safe wire-handling practices, but tugging at the cable is the correct way to disconnect crimped JST connectors. Remove the internal power cable and unscrew the fan bracket. Be sure to make a note of how the internal power cable is routed through the bracket and the point at which it mates with the motherboard. Take plenty of photos.
Repeat the process to remove the right-side fan bracket.
7. Don’t unscrew the cooling fans before disconnecting the power cable from the laptop motherboard. These usually have 4-pin JST PH 2.0 power-cum-PWM signal connectors. Gently tug them out by the cable.
8. The left-side cooling fan comes out easily, but the other one is a bit more complicated.
This cooling fan assembly also includes an m.2 SSD mounting bracket. That makes it mandatory to remove the SSD. This involves removing the SSD mounting screw, which should cause the spring-loaded m.2 slot to make the SSD rise off the motherboard by approximately 30 degrees. The SSD should now slide off effortlessly.
Disconnect the fan power cable, but you can’t unscrew and remove the cooling fan off the motherboard just yet.
9. If you pay attention to the image alongside, you can spot a Molex flexible flat cable (FFC) attached to the fan assembly through the cable management channels.
The hybrid Molex FFC cannot be yanked off the connector without releasing the “flip actuator” retention mechanism first. That’s the small black tab which must be lifted/rotated off the cable to release it. It can be pried off easily with your fingernail. The FFC can then slide effortlessly out of the socket.
Release the hybrid FFC from the routing channels on the fan assembly. Now you are free to unscrew and remove the last remaining cooling fan assembly.
10. Only one obstacle remains between the processor and GPU dies: the cooling assembly. This is usually mounted using four sets of screws (each) to secure the cold plates meant for the processor and GPU onto the laptop motherboard. Unscrew these four fasteners, and the entire assembly replete with cold plates, heat pipes, and radiators should come off the laptop with ease.
Hardened thermal compound can make removal difficult in rare circumstances. Don’t use excessive force in that case. Use a hair dryer on the max setting (80 degrees centigrade) or a heat gun at the lowest setting (roughly 150 degrees centigrade) to heat up the thermal paste. Focus the hot air on the cold plate to make the thermal paste compliant and easier to remove.
The cooling assembly should come off after applying a bit of twisting motion to free it off the processor and GPU. Avoid burning your fingers in the process.
11. Now is a good time to use an ESD-safe electric duster to clean up the laptop motherboard and other internals. Please don’t use a regular vacuum, as it can generate enough ESD to either outright fry or inconspicuously reduce the lifespan of sensitive electronic components. Use an ESD-safe nylon brush instead. If you don’t have any ESD-safe cleaning tool at hand, it’s best to leave the laptop motherboard alone.
12. Once separated from the laptop, the cooling fans, brackets, and cooling assembly do not contain any ESD-sensitive electronics. You can therefore use any reasonable means to clean these components.
However, it is smart to protect the thermal pads from the dust that is about to fly everywhere. These thermal pads will either be stuck to the components (such as VRAM modules, MOSFETs, and inductors) on the motherboard or directly onto the cold plate, as is the case in this laptop. Cutting up plastic cling wrap film to an appropriate size and applying to the thermal pads will prevent it from getting caked with a layer of thermally-insulating dust.
With that out of the way, use a vacuum cleaner/electric duster to thoroughly clean the fin stacks on all radiators. The cooling fans can also use thorough brushing and blowing of the impellers and vents. Just make sure the impellers aren’t allowed to spin freely from the draft from the blower. This can spin the impellers past the rated RPM of their internal bearings and fail prematurely.
Be sure to remove the plastic cling wrap from the thermal pads after you are done cleaning. Failure to do so will cause overheating of these components.
13. Clean the old thermal compound off either with alcohol wipes or a combination of isopropyl alcohol and lint-free wipes (microfibre cloths or coffee filter papers). This process should be done for both processor and GPU dies and also repeated for the cold plates as well. Make sure these surfaces are cleaned thoroughly and free of all contaminants. Allow a few minutes for the alcohol to evaporate before reapplying fresh thermal compound.
14. Apply a small rice grain-sized drop of thermal compound on the processor as well as GPU dies. The application shown below is the absolute maximum that can be allowed. Any more and an excessive amount of thermal paste will be squeezed out of the processor/GPU die. This is potentially dangerous if you use conductive thermal compounds.
Do not apply thermal compound to the cold plates.
15. Secure the cooling assembly onto the dies. Don’t tighten the mounting screws all the way. Slot them in place first and move diagonally from one screw to the next while tightening each screw gradually. The idea is to avoid applying an unequal amount of torque across the four mounting screws per die. This ensures that the cold plate exerts uniform pressure on the die for optimal thermal contact.
16. Assembly is exactly the reverse of the disassembly process demonstrated here.
Be sure to double check all cables and connectors before sealing up the laptop. Your laptop should exhibit much lower idle and load temperatures for both the processor as well as the GPU. The cooling performance will improve further once the fresh thermal paste application has cured completely.