Sometimes in the course of using your laptop computer it can turn into a miniature heating pad in your lap. Not only can it get uncomfortably hot against your skin, but it’s also not a good thing for your laptop.
The Santa Fe Times reported on a recent user survey of laptops and the heat they can produce:
Laptop users reported that they consistently face issues with the heat generated from their computer. In fact, nearly half (47 percent) of laptop users surveyed have had to temporarily quit using their laptop because the heat became unbearable. Surprisingly, a majority (62 percent) agree that the bottom of their laptop gets so hot that they could fry an egg on it. Desperate solutions that people have tried including a pillow (27 percent), towel (19 percent) and magazine (15 percent)–don’t adequately address the problem.
Computers in general produce a lot of heat, especially when they are hard at work. In the business world, companies that have a lot of computers usually have a “server room” which is full of more computers that the others are connected to. This room is kept very cool–50 degrees Fahrenheit or below–because computers like it much better when the surrounding temperature is approaching freezing. Even for personal use they are better able to meet the high processing demands of watching video or playing graphically-intensive games, for example, even simply writing an email–when they are kept cooler. They run more efficiently and produce faster results.
There are many types of laptop “cooling pads” available that not only keep the laptop’s heat away from your skin, but many also have USB-powered cooling fans built into them to cool down the underside of your computer.
Recently while at a Starbucks I became concerned because my MacBook Pro’s (MBP’s) cooling fans both revved up to 6000 rpm (which is the highest I’ve ever seen them go) with no good reason to do so, other than a slower-than-normal Wifi connection with the store.
I decided to explore which laptop cooling pads were available in the marketplace and what features each offered. I purchased and tested seven of them for suitability. This is what I was looking for:
- It should be of sturdy construction, but not overly heavy. Plastic is okay, as long as it’s good quality. (All of the ones tested were made of plastic.)
- It should be comfortable on one’s lap. Isn’t that the whole point?
- It should not only keep my legs and lap cool by distancing them from the bottom of the laptop, but it must also have a cooling fan or fans to cool it down as well.
- It should be ergonomic in design–i.e., it should angle the laptop forward (higher in the back than in the front) to help aid in typing/accessing the touchpad.
- The MBP’s CPU and graphics chip are located just below the 4-5-6-7-8-9 keys on the keyboard. Therefore, a fan that doesn’t properly cool that area–for example, one located in the center of the pad–would not be suitable, unless the pad was contoured in such a way to direct air over that area. Fans at or near the top would probably be better, at least for my needs.
- It would be great if it offered a pass-through USB port so you aren’t forced to give one up (although small external USB buses offering four more ports are often less than $10, should that become an issue later on.)
- It should, ideally, offer another power source besides USB. (None of the ones I tested offered this feature, though.)
- It should offer several fan speeds and even a turnoff switch, for use when your battery starts to get low. (I came to this realization at the end of the testing…and admittedly, just pulling out the USB plug could also function as an OFF switch.)
All of the following were purchased at either my local Fry’s Electronics or a nearby Target store. Why only those two choices? Simply put, Best Buy, Walmart and Office Max each offered a good selection, but most everything was only available online. Considering that I ended up returning all but one of these, buying something online that I could not examine or “test drive”–then possibly return–was not a viable option. I like buying online as much as anyone else, but I still consider it a better option only when you’ve bought the item before and already know what you’ll be getting.
I researched all the models online and found that those two locations had most of what I was looking for in stock. I expected that Fry’s would offer a good in-store selection…but was surprised to see that Target did as well.
I looked at almost every cooling pad available in each location. Many were dismissed immediately…some were given consideration for a few minutes but ultimately returned to the shelf. The list below is made up of the only ones I thought worthy of bringing home and testing.
With that said, here are my cooling pad choices…with pictures, a link to more information, purchase location and the selling price. These are arranged from the least to most suitable. Following that I provide a breakdown of each unit’s good and bad points.
GearHead 2 Fan Black Notebook Cooler CF3200U Fry’s / $14.99
CoolMax NB-410 Fry’s / $14.99
Belkin Laptop Cooling Stand F5L001- White (w/compartment) Fry’s / $19.99
Belkin “CoolSpot” F5L055 Target / $29.99
CoolerMaster LapAir Notebook Cooler R9-NBC-LPAR-GP Fry’s / $29.99
Belkin Cooling Lounge – White F5L041 Target / $37.49
Logitech N200 Laptop Cooling Pad (Target’s online price = $33.49) In-store / $29.69
Let’s dismiss the first entry right away–the GearHead 2Fan Black Notebook Cooler CF3200U. I had second thoughts about buying it, and I was right. Its plasticky feel makes it seem cheap and flimsy–it reminded me of a child’s toy. The fans were louder than most of the others, and were positioned too far below the MBP’s processors to be of much help. The notebook slid around fairly easily on it…and it also didn’t have good ergonomics–i.e., it didn’t have enough of the elevation from front to back that I was looking for.
The CoolMax NB-410 was a step up–the fans were positioned higher, it was made of a medium-grade plastic so it didn’t feel as unsubstantial as the GearHead unit. Its problem is that it’s completely flat on the bottom, there’s no elevation of the notebook’s keyboard at all. This was a tougher choice to eliminate, but compared to the others it didn’t make the cut.
Belkin‘s Laptop Cooling Pad F5L001 (white) was the first one I liked right away. Belkin has a solid reputation as a maker of quality products, and for the most part this one did not disappoint. The overall construction was sturdy, the design is such that the four corners are elevated above the plane of the rest of the unit, with the area between the top and bottom surfaces dipping into a valley about an inch or two deep. The region between the upper two and lower two corners also dips a bit, so if your notebook can sit on all four corners there’s lots of room underneath for air circulation, no matter where the processors on your computer sits.
As with all the Belkin cooling pads reviewed here, there is just one single fan in the middle of the pad. This particular model was especially noisy, although it did put out more air than most of the others. Sadly I could not test another unit, as this was the only one that Fry’s Electronics had in stock throughout my ten-day testing period.
Which brings me to the sole problem that I found with this cooling pad. The USB cable is stored in a compartment near the uppermost edge of the bottom of the unit. When opened, the compartment’s door is supposed to fold down and serve as a support to elevate the keyboard. This doesn’t work very well. First, the door doesn’t lock into place, so if you push the cooling pad away from you even a few inches the door collapses, so then does your notebook. Now, if the door opened toward the front edge of the unit instead of toward the rear edge (If you can visualize that), then pushing it away from yourself would keep that door open. Instead, the opposite happens, and I’m far more likely to push the notebook away than pull it toward me.
Also, it tended to close when I was trying to use the notebook on my lap–it also felt flimsy, and gave me the impression that it wouldn’t take much to break it off.
The collapsing door is enough for me to say “no” to this choice.
The next offering, Belkin‘s F5L055 (black), is a much better choice in that it doesn’t have the faulty door and compartment. A molded channel serves as a guide to store the USB cable (this feature is used in several other models as well). In place of the door to raise the back section, there’s a flattened arch support made of sturdy plastic, and resembles the wing or fin found on the rear of many sports cars (see photo).
The fan on this model was much quieter than the F5L001, despite its nearly-identical construction. There didn’t seem to be a lesser amount of air despite the quieter fan, however.
The problem comes with that bottom-mounted support. While it’s suitable to use on a table or desktop, it doesn’t work so well on your lap. And, since there’s a good possibility that you’ll be using the cooling pad away from a flat surfaced and on your lap, it should be comfortable and make it easy to use your notebook. The support, while a vast improvement over the hinged door, gets in the way when you are sitting on a chair on sofa. If you sit with your legs together it invariably pushes them apart…if you sit with one leg under the other in a semi-squat position (one foot propped behind the opposing knee), the support kind of pushes its way down into the center of your lap.
This turned out to be a feature I could not live with, especially when I was considering the other options in our list.
Next we have the CoolerMaster LapAir Notebook Cooler R9-NBC-LPAR-GP. I really wanted to keep this one. It’s got a soft foam pad that spans the uppermost third of the base (see photo), which makes using it both on a flat surface and your lap equally pleasant. It fits nicely in or on your lap, depending on how you sit, cross-legged or legs together. This foam pad feature is found on the remaining three models–it was one of the things I was drawn to after my first exposure here.
Another plus was Its removable fan cover, which when detached exposed the fan blades for easy cleaning. And, it had a pass-through USB plug, handy so you don’t lose a port (but I think I said that already).
Its biggest failing was that it was too big. It’s designed for a 17 inch laptop, and I have a 15 inch model. Normally that wouldn’t make a difference, and the MBP had no problem perched atop the pad. But it was too big for my computer bag…in fact, all my computer bags going back 20 years! I couldn’t get it to fit inside either horizontally or vertically. I tried a backpack I used before when my job involved a lot of air travel, but even it couldn’t handle the excess width–I couldn’t zipper it shut.
So, as much as I liked it, and even though I seriously contemplated it, I wasn’t going to go out and purchase a new bigger bag just to accommodate it. I rejected the CoolerMaster LapAir.
The Belkin Cooling Lounge F5L041 (white) is basically just a larger CoolPad. Its top surface doesn’t have the more exaggerated slopes that the F5L001 had, so it didn’t do as good of a job cooling my notebook. And while not as big as the CoolerMaster above, it’s still good-sized and can accommodate a 17 inch laptop.
It too has a large foam pad on its bottom, which was comfortable enough, but its top surface could use more nonslip material. In fact, while all of the Belkins have nonslip rubber pads that span the upper and lower sections of the top surface, there is still nothing to hold the computer on the pad. All the others have some sort of lip–or recessed areas–that would catch the rubber feet of the notebook and help prevent it from possibly slipping off the front.
This wasn’t a bad choice, but I wished I could put the CoolPad and the Cooling Lounge into some sort of a machine and combine them somehow. The CoolPad is nicely sized, but has that annoying support at the bottom. The Cooling Lounge has a nice padded area underneath, but it’s too big and doesn’t have enough nonslip rubber on top to secure the notebook better so it doesn’t slide around when you shift sitting positions.
Finally, we have the Logitech N200 Laptop Cooling Pad. This has most of the features I was looking for…and, some I didn’t realize at the time that I’d like. The only negative could be a question of availability, which I’ll get to in a minute.
It has a lip or front stop that the notebook fits nicely up against and into. The MBP has a front-loading optical drive, and I had some concern as to whether I’d be able to insert and remove CDs and DVDs with the computer on the pad. Much credit must be given to the Logitech engineers for making the front stop low enough so that the slot would not be blocked.
It has a very quiet cooling fan, located in the center of the grill area…in fact, the MBP fans on highest rpm are much louder than this one. The grill covers almost the entire top surface, and has removable rectangular rubber “feet” (see photo) that you can position most anywhere.
And, this fan is controlled by a three-position slider inline with the USB cord. The choices are 0 (OFF), 1 (LOW) and 2 (HIGH). There is a red status indicator in the slider for OFF, but HIGH and LOW are both marked with the same green color. The switch has good tactile stops so selecting isn’t a problem. I personally have had no need for the middle (LOW) stop, as I keep the pad on HIGH all the time when the notebook is powered on.
The good news is that the fan doesn’t draw much power…the only way I’d turn it off is if I was running low on juice and needed all I could squeeze out of the battery. I’ve closed the MBP’s lid to put it to sleep with the fan on and off, and it hasn’t hampered the process in either case. I’ve even forgotten to turn it off during its sleep, and powering it down later hasn’t caused to computer to awaken.
The channel the USB cord fits into has both a left-hand and right-hand approach, so you can route the cord however you wish for what suits you best. I’ve got two USB ports, one on the right side halfway down and one on the left. I generally plug the external USB RAID enclosure that I use for backups in the right port. The pad’s USB cord can be routed around the back, where it emerges from underneath and can just make it to the left port. The switch is about two inches from the plug and faces down, and even though I can’t see it I can easily go by feel as to its position.
(Update: I’ve discovered that it is possible to remove the grill portion of this unit to access the fan’s blades, allowing both parts to be cleaned. It’s not immediately obvious, but by carefully prying along the top edge using a small blade such as a paring knife the grill portion can be easily pulled apart from the base.)
If you read the reviews on Logitech’s on website they’re almost all bad–complaints that the fan stopped working, the USB cord went bad, and so on. I’ve been using this daily for several hours a day every day and haven’t had any problems. I’ve even transported the computer a few times with no durability issues.
(Also: As of this writing–August 20, 2013–it’s still working fine with none of the apparent problems the other reviewers experienced.)
Target’s website says this isn’t available in stores…but when I went into my local Target there were two. I bought one, as well as the Belkin Comfort Lounge I’ve also reviewed here. When I returned the Belkin later on I went back to the electronics department and saw that there were now three on the shelf.
After careful consideration of the other choices I would recommend the Logitech N200. Despite its bad online reviews I’ve had no problems with it. It has many pluses–it’s made of a durable and sturdy plastic construction, the front lip acts as a stop to keep the computer more securely on its surface, a two-speed adjustable fan–with an “off” setting–is a nice touch, and the soft cushioned pad as a base–all combine to make this a great choice for me.
I hope that this review helps you make a better choice by giving you an idea of what’s available.
(UPDATE: Belkin’s site says that this model is no longer available. If you have an interest in taking a look at this, I’d recommend you go fairly quickly to your nearest Target store and see what’s there. Also, Best Buy’s site says it’s on sale [as of March 2013] for $24.99. Check availability locally at http://bit.ly/XYogmg .)