The Hot Topic of Computers
The Long Hot Summer
Summer is fast approaching and with it the weather is getting noticeably warmer. You will probably notice it even more in a room that has one or more computers running in it.
There was a time when computers were relegated to mainframes and computer labs that were kept in highly air conditioned rooms. However when the desktop PC arrived many of them only needed a fan for the power supply to keep them running fine at room temperature.
Global Warming on a PC Scale
Competition it would seem has brought the heat back up in computers. Personally I blame it on the MHz war between Intel & AMD. There was a common misconception among the public that the higher the clock speed of a CPU the faster it was (ignoring any other design of the CPU). So building on this misconception AMD & Intel started rapidly ramping up their clock speeds from just a few hundred MHz to over three thousand MHz. As any overclocker can tell you, this increase in clock speed not only increased the power draw of the CPU but vastly increased the heat output. Processors went from using a simple and small heat sink, to using a huge heat sink with a relatively powerful fan attached to it.
To make things worse, the performance battle between NVIDIA and ATI had begun to mirror the Intel and AMD rivalry. So not only did your CPU and power supply need a fan but your video card had one to. Now it's very common for a high end computer to have a fan on the CPU, 2 fans on the power supply, at least 2 fans for the case, a fan on the motherboard chipset and a fan so big on the video card that it takes up another slot. I won't even get into hard drive coolers or bay and slot coolers.
The MHz war reached its height (at least as far as heat) with the release of the "Palomino" core from AMD and later the "Prescott" core from Intel. Both cores were known for their unusually high heat output. It was now common for people wanting either less heat and or more performance out of their processor to not even use the heat sink and fan that came with the processor. Instead people would buy an aftermarket heat sink and fan that was bigger with a more powerful fan or in extreme cases a whole water cooling setup. You can look on any enthusiast forum and find computers with more fans than Elvis. Of course more fans require more power, which means you need a bigger hotter power supply. I know form experience that these kinds of computers can easily heat a room.
486DX CPU & Heatsink - Pentium 4 Heatsink & Fan
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The MHz war is over. Neither Intel or AMD refer to their CPU by the clock speed anymore. Now they use a "perfomance rating", which serves more to compare the CPU speed of their own products and not the relative performance versus the competition. The 64-bit revision that AMD did to its processor line has brough heat down a bit and the upcoming Conroe processor from Intel is also looking to be more efficient.
The popularity of "Small Form Factor" computers has also increased demand for cooler running parts. While the high end video card market is still wrapped in a performance battle, a recent refresh by NVIDIA of its 7xxx series has brought down power consumption and heat in it's video cards. ATI is rumored to be working on a similar refresh.
Even though the MHz war is over, it would seem that large CPU heat sinks and fans are here to stay. High end systems will also require numerous case fans and a robust video card cooler.
One thing that has slowed the heat rise a bit is the problems that are associated with heat. Electrical components don't always operate well at these higher tempeartures and the computer forums are filled with complaints of heat related issues. I have dedicated an entire expanded edition of Tech Forum Watch to highlighting these issues to compliment this article.
As I started this article with a seasonal analogy, I will end it with one. Spring cleaing. Even though your PC may not have any heat problems now, the build up of dust and dirt that all computers gather over time can and will cause your computer to overheat. So spend the 10 minutes or so to open up the case and shove a vacuum in there. Get rid of all those dust bunnies that can act like a sweater keeping all your computer parts warm.
Tech Forum Watch: Heat Edition
Anandtech: How Hot Is Prescott?
Tiger Direct: Protecting Your PC From Excessive Heat Tom's Hardware: How Modern Processors Cope With Heat Emergencies Silent PC Review: CPUs Ranked by Noise / Heat BBSpot: Signs You've Gone Too Far Cooling Your Computer