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Cold Weather Effects on Computers

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by | Dec 6, 2013 | Networking

Since the weather lately has been so excruciatingly cold, it seemed fitting to write a post on the effects that excessive cold can have on computers- laptops in particular.  Computers generally fare well in low-temperature environments because they naturally produce a lot of heat when in operation.  It is when the environment is excessively cold or when they are quickly transferred from a frigid to warm environment that internal damage can occur.

Have you ever noticed the fog that develops on the surface of a CD or pair of sunglasses when you bring them indoors after they have been sitting outside in the cold all night?  The same concept happens to the internal mechanics of a laptop computer.  Condensation can develop on the hard drive surface or circuit board interface which may lead to some nasty short-circuiting when the device is booted up.  This is especially true for more environments with high humidity.

Disk drives can also be affected by extreme winter conditions.  Most laptops today utilize FDB (Fluid Dynamic Bearings) opposed to the traditional ball bearings in their disk drives.  The advantage of FDB is that they produce less noise and are able to rotate at a higher velocity.  However, the fluid in these drives can thicken as the temperature dips below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  This causes the platter to spin at a lower speed and may cause boot-up failure, further damaging the machine.

The laptop screen and display tube can also become compromised in the cold.  LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Device, and they follow suit with FDB’s when the temperature drops low enough – it can actually freeze the innards of the screen display and dim the fluorescent tube backlight in severe conditions.  These are only temporary effects, but should be avoided as it may shorten the life of the device’s display.

There are two simple options to avoid all of the above dilemmas.  The most obvious is to avoid exposing your laptop to these harsh conditions (i.e. leaving it in the car overnight).  If this has happened, do not worry.  Be sure to warm the laptop up before you try and reboot it from a long frosty night.  This can be done by sliding the machine into a laptop sleeve, or simply allowing it to warm in an acclimated environment for 10-20 minutes so that the internal components revert back to their normal state.  Chances are that if the laptop feels room temperature to the touch, then it should be OK to go ahead and boot up without damage.