Do Mac laptops get hotter than PC laptops?

Mac laptops are known to be little powerhouses, but do they really get hotter than PC laptops?
Image courtesy of Apple

Toasted-skin syndrome has nothing to do with pork rinds and everything to do with technology. Heat from the bottom of a laptop computer can average 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 to 32.2 degrees Celsius) and as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51.6 degrees Celsius), even causing minor burn patterns on the legs and laps of users. This condition prompted PC Magazine to advise users to "put some pants on," or perhaps use something other than their laps as the spot for computing. What Pediatrics Journal found in researching toasted-skin syndrome is that prolonged use of a laptop on the lap can burn the skin. What they didn't conclude is whether it's more likely to happen with a Mac or a PC [source: Cheng].

If you're reading this from a MacBook or a PC laptop or a desktop, all of these machines have something in common: They need to keep cool. Maybe you're a fan of the power and simplicity of an Apple computer, or maybe you're a diehard PC user; either way, your computers are only as superior as their fans, air vents and users are at helping keep the insides working without overheating. And with laptops, there is a lot less space for the heat-generating guts of the computer to crowd in together compared to the space in a larger desktop tower.

Laptops are so lightweight that it's easy to forget how much hardware is inside. All of the processors, memory and functionality come together at lightning-fast speeds in a portable, work-anywhere design. A computer is like a brain in that it receives, repurposes and outputs vast amounts of information in countless formats. If you've ever worked through something involving lots of brainpower and concentration, you might have experienced the sensation that your head might explode if you didn't get a break. Computers have the same response to too much internal working; they need to vent and breathe and have some space to do so.

Mac laptops are known to be little powerhouses, especially for those who do more than just word processing or research and surfing. They are genius with graphics and design. PCs can be as powerful, too, and handle most anything a desktop workstation boasts. Both Mac and PC laptops, however, can be too hot to handle without their built-in cooling systems and some outside help.

Advertisers compete to show both Mac and PC users as being the coolest, but which laptop is better at keeping its cool? We'll answer that burning question, next.

Hot Books

Many users of Mac laptops, and even the most devoted fans of the Apple brand, would contend that MacBooks can be really hot books. Designed to cool in a very similar fashion as most high-powered PC laptops and often with similar components too, Macs tend to be faster than PCs in head-to-head or lap-to-lap testing. A 2009 Popular Mechanics user and performance test found that functionality wasn't much different in either desktop or laptop usage, but Mac came out strong in speed, with an average startup of 28.7 seconds to the PC's 1 minute, 13 second average [source: Derene]. Some PCs are faster than some Macs, and vice versa, but Macs do typically have a reputation for speed and multitasking plus great design.

If you picture tiny mice running on wheels, it's easy to imagine that they get hotter the faster they run and it's not hard to imagine the inside of a laptop as filled with little wheels and oscillating fans and machine parts being taxed to the limit by the amount of work or play you're doing. While there is a fan operating in much the same way as any rotating fan would work, heat in a laptop has more to do with how close everything works together, with parts configured to fit and each part working hard to draw on power and perform. Parts aren't so much whizzing and moving as they are sucking in and shooting out energy and information.

Faster-performing machines will pull lots of energy into their components, and as each part does its jobs next to another part doing its job, a great deal of heat energy is produced with nowhere to go but out into a person's lap or work surface. Keyboards might get warm through friction with the fingers, but because the raised touch pads have at least a little give up and down and the flat ones have a layer of circuitry underneath, much of the heat in a thin laptop has nowhere to go but out through its vents and down into a person's lap or work surface, where it's absorbed or reflected.

Is the heat in the speed? Yes and no. Many in Mac forums online would say it's the size of the processor that enables the high speeds, but that also can kick the fan into high gear, making it loud and draining the battery. Others complain about the computer casing and even hot keyboards. Sometimes the aluminum casing on MacBook Pros takes the heat in discussions and even screen brightness or high resolution seem to up the temps for other users.

Some owners of Mac laptops report no problems while others experience overheating during simple tasks like surfing the Web and creating documents. So is the computer or the user the problem? Maybe a bit both.

Cool Laps

Macs have a shut down feature to prevent overheating -- and it could indicate a potential problem with the computer's hard drive and/or fan and cooling system.
Macs have a shut down feature to prevent overheating -- and it could indicate a potential problem with the computer's hard drive and/or fan and cooling system.
Tim Graham/Getty Images

A Mac can perform a lot of functions simultaneously, and generally, it can take the heat. Making the heat manageable for users, however, is largely in the hands of the user. If it's shutting down on its own, there is likely a problem that needs to be diagnosed by a professional at an Apple Store or Mac Genius Bar. The shut down feature in Macs is for actual overheating and is not a cooling feature -- it could indicate a potential problem with the computer's hard drive and/or fan and cooling system [source: Mac Forums].

If your Mac laptop is getting really, really hot but isn't shutting down, there are some user "controls" to consider:

Give it clearance -- If the bottoms and sides of a laptop can't breathe, say they're smushed into soft surfaces like pillows, legs or couch cushions, fans are blocked and heat goes nowhere but back through the thin computer casing itself. Keeping the bottom slightly raised or on a surface like a rubberized lap tray and making sure the vents are actually venting and not blocked allows heat to circulate outside the machine, keeping it cooler. Using an external lap desk fan or even room fan can also keep air moving through and around.

Give it air -- Gently puffing (not blasting) compressed air and softly wiping the vents keeps them clean and clear. Much as an air conditioner stops working well when its filter is dirty and it can't push as much hot air out of a room, a dusty or hair clogged laptop vent works less efficiently.

Give it a break -- Technically, Macs can churn through all the work you give them, but running or opening a lot of complex programs at the same time can tax the CPU, the central processing unit, and heat things up. Taking breaks for shutting down or just keeping an eye on what tasks are running and then uncluttering the workload helps. Just as refocusing your eyes from the computer screen to a point in the distance can refresh your vision and focus, sleeping or blinking laptop operations pulls everything back to a cool center.

And if your feet are planted firmly in the PC camp, these same tips work for non-Mac laptops too.

Even the best, brightest and highest end laptops will get hot when pushed to their limits, and it's the highest performing machines that tend to create the most heat. Those studies of toasted-skin syndrome mentioned earlier were completed by observing the computer habits of a 12-year-old boy who played computer games for eight hours a sitting, and a college student who propped her laptop on her lap for six-hour stretches. If you're feeling the burn and getting lizard legs, it might just be time to cool it.

Keep reading for links to more hot computer-related topics.

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Sources

  • Cheng, Cisco. "Toasted Skin Syndrome Caused by Hot Laptops." PCMag.com. Oct. 14, 2010. (Aug. 5, 2011) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2370773,00.asp
  • Derene, Glenn. "Mac vs. PC: The Ultimate Lab Test for New Desktops and Laptops." PopularMechanics.com. Dec. 18, 2009. (Aug. 5, 2011) http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/tests/4258725
  • Mac Forums. "The Official "My MacBook/Air/Pro Is Overheating What Do I Do" Guide." http://www.mac-forums.com/forums/apple-notebooks/194862-official-my-macbook-air-pro-overheating-what-do-i-do-guide.html
  • Martin, James A. "Mac vs. Windows Laptops." PCWorld.com. July 9, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2011) http://www.pcworld.com/article/148032/mac_vs_windows_laptops.html