Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Case for a Quiet, Cooler Running, Low Powered MacBook

Charles Moore - 2007.11.12 - Tip Jar

The heat-generating capacity of Apple's Core Duo powered portables is legendary, and even the middling to faster G4s like my 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 generate plenty of heat. This seems to bother some folks more than others, likely due to varying tolerance levels for fan noise and hot control surfaces. Personally, I don't mind the heat itself so much (at least for most of the year here in Canada), but I hate noise.

My 17" PowerBook serves mostly as a desktop substitute machine, a job it does very well, but for actual portable laptop use, I still much prefer my two old Pismos and 12" iBook, which are quiet (I can't remember the cooling fans cutting in on any of them since some hot days in the summer of '06) and cool-running, which makes them a lot more pleasant to live with hands-on (or thighs-on).

All of which inclines me to think there is a case to be made for a relatively low-powered (in today's context) but up-to-date, cool, and quiet-running notebook computer to be used as notebook computers were originally conceived - as a portable ancillary to one's main computer. Some folks still do use their portables as "electronic notebooks", and few of us ever do high-end graphics work or video editing or other really processor-intensive stuff on the road, so in that context, Core 2 Duo power is extreme overkill most of the time, and a G4 PowerBook or iBook - or even an aging G3 machine - makes a more pleasant road warrioring tool than a hot-running, noisy, MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Another aspect of this is battery runtime. With extended life batteries and a few power conservation strategies, I can get five or six hours out of a battery charge with my upgraded G4/550 MHz Pismos.

The perceived need for desktop power in a notebook package is to a degree part of the megahertz myth, and trying to squeeze more and faster into a smaller box is in many respects counterproductive for notebook users. It's high time manufacturers took a step back and paid heed what the average notebook buyer really needs.

So what do we really need (or want)?

Cool Running

My first PowerBook, a 5300, would barely get warm to the touch - just enough to be a comfort to your left hand on chilly Nova Scotia days. With its anemic 100 MHz Motorola 603e processor, the old 5300 just didn't have much heat-generating capacity or any necessity for a noisy cooling fan. Unfortunately, it didn't have a whole lot of computing power either, and my son's 25 MHz 68LC040 PowerBook 520 could outperform and in certain contexts. The 520 didn't get very warm either.

The first Mac laptop with a thermostatically activated internal cooling fan was the PowerBook 3400c, which also had a 603e chip, but a hotter one both literally and figuratively. The 3400's fan didn't cut him very often, but it was there on standby if required.

The PowerBook G3 Series 233 MHz that replaced my 5300 had a fan, but it never spun up during my first three-and-one-half years of ownership - until just a few days before the G3 processor burned out on a hot midsummer day in 2002. Ever since I replaced the processor by simply swapping in a scrounged daughtercard, the fan has stayed resolutely silent, summer and winter, and the big old WallStreet barely gets warmer to the touch then the older 5300 did.

The same went for my 500 MHz G3 PowerBook Pismo as well, which ran cooler with its original CPU than the WallStreet, thanks in part to a more sophisticated internal cooling system. The Pismo's fan also remained silent until I had a 550 MHz G4 processor upgrade and a 5400 rpm hard drive in situ, after which the fan would cycle on hotter days during processor-intensive computing tasks. That is, until I installed Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger", after which fan activity became much more frequent. Interestingly, the Pismo's fan has not cut in even once since I "downgraded" to OS X 10.3.9 "Panther" last February, and its palm rests barely get warm, not even after a couple of hours operation in July temperatures. It seems that Tiger imposes more intensive processor demands than Panther does. With OS X 10.3 (or else 9.2.2) the Pismo's fan remains silent almost all the time, even with the 550 MHz G4 processor.

My 700 MHz iBook G3 runs significantly hotter than any of my older PowerBooks. Its case feels noticeably warm - even borderline hot sometimes - although it's internal fan never spun up during the first two-and-one-half years I owned it, again until I installed OS X 10.4, after which the fan does cut in during hotter weather, albeit not very often.

Unfortunately, not so with my 1.33 GHz 17" PowerBook G4. Running OS X 10.4.6, the BigAl's fan runs perhaps half of the time when the weather is warm up here in Nova Scotia, even with the PowerBook sitting on a Road Tools Podium CoolPad. And interestingly, the surface of its aluminum case doesn't feel hot, or even more than lukewarm most of the time, not nearly as warm as the little iBook's tactile surfaces get, which indicates that the large expanse of metal case surface does an efficient job of dissipating heat through passive radiation.

However, the processor itself gets quite torrid. According to the Temperature Monitor utility, the fan cuts in when the processor bottomside reaches about 58°C, and I've never seen it register more than 58.5°, which is more than hot enough by my likes, but relatively tepid compared with temperatures being reported with the Intel Core Duo MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Going Intel - or Not

I've been holding out on buying an Intel-powered 'Book, partly because I'm getting excellent service from my present fleet of PowerPC 'Books, although Leopard may prove the catalyst that gets me moving toward buying my first Macintel.

In the meantime, as noted, my present PowerBook runs plenty hot for my liking, indeed hotter than I find satisfactory, even sitting on a Road Tools CoolPad, the processor reads out at 54-59° C during normal use (the fan kicks in at 58.5°), which is 15-20° cooler than some MacBook owners have reported. The PowerBook's fan usually brings the CPU temperature down quickly, but it cycles on and off pretty regularly through the summer months, which is the only thing I really dislike about this computer.

By contrast, the 550 MHz G4 Pismo PowerBooks and 700 MHz G3 iBook remain a pleasure to use, getting only moderately warm (none of them supports a temperature readout, so I can't provide hard figures).

For word processing, email, web surfing, working with images in Photoshop Elements 4.0 and other graphics programs, and scanning using VueScan, as well as other light to medium-duty tasks, and especially on my literal lap top or lying down with the 'Book on my Laptop Laidback stand, these older machines are comfortable, delightfully quiet, and only get mildly warm to the touch.

I also love the big 17-incher, although the heat and fan noise are aggravating - ants at an otherwise pleasant picnic. The incessant fan cycling and tactile heat sensation, not to mention mediocre battery runtime, make this machine feel "compromised" in mobile mode compared with my cool-running and quiet older 'Books. It's such a beautiful machine in most other aspects, but I find the heat and noise enervating.

Nevertheless, the time will come - and is probably not that far off - when Intel compatibility will become a practical necessity, and at this point there is no Intel-based true laptop Mac computer. Apple long ago stopped referring to its 'Books as laptops and explicitly warns against using them on one's lap. Not a satisfactory state of affairs, and it is to be hoped that Intel will be able to produce a modern CPU for portables that runs relatively cool and doesn't require batteries with the potency of nuclear fission to power it. That all seems at least thinkable.

On the other hand, for those of us who use notebooks as our primary computers, largely as desktop substitutes, and demanding desktop-equivalent performance, the prospects of cool and quiet computing look pretty dim for the near-term future at least.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that there will be some breakthrough on the heat issue. If none is forthcoming, one has to wonder if portable computers are not encountering a "glass ceiling" of sorts in terms of performance advancement.

Apprehensions that were widely voiced back in 1988 when the G3 Series PowerBooks debuted about potentially shortened service life due to the G3 processor's higher operating temperatures seem a bit quaint now, since the WallStreets were cool runners compared with the Macintels and faster G4s, and the G3 Series turned out to be one of the more long-lived and dependable PowerBook models ever.

Nevertheless, one must presume that there are physics limits that obtain at some point, and excessive heat can't be good for electronic components. You have to wonder how long these blistering hot Intel-powered 'Books are going to last, running at Internal temperatures high enough to fry eggs. Intel rates the Core Duo for service up to 100° C, so the MacBooks' processors are well within tolerance, but what about the other internal components?

It seems that processor performance is running up against the laws of physics that dictate that if you put a heat-generating object inside a small, inefficiently ventilated space, it's going to get hotter. The heat problem with today's portable computers is a combination of faster processor speeds, fashion, demand for thin form factors, more RAM, faster, higher capacity hard drives, and operating systems and other software that place ever greater demand on processor power.

Apple struggled for several years trying to make the G5 PowerPC chip work tolerably well in a notebook form factor and failed. The switch to Intel was purported to be the answer to the laptop advancement roadblock, and so it has been to a considerable degree, but not really a panacea.

Can this dilemma be overcome? We'll have to wait and see.

It seems that the Core Duo MacBooks typically run in the low-to-mid 70s C. Low End Mac's Andrew J. Fishkin reports that his hit 85°C and typically hovers around 77°C, while the highest temperature he ever noted with his 12" G4 PowerBook was 68°C. This is a lot hotter than any of my 'Books has ever gotten, but Andrew lives in California. I guess owners of recent Apple laptops who reside in warm climates are obliged to live with a serenade of howling cooling fans most of the time, a prospect which does not enchant me in the slightest. I guess there is an upside after all to the sort of chilly whether we get here in Atlantic Canada ten months of the year.

Quiet, Please

I absolutely detest fan racket, and being afflicted with multiple chemical sensitivity is, the fact that hot plastics off-gas chemical vapors more profusely is problematical well.

One of the aspects of using laptop computers that has traditionally appealed to me has been their relative silence. During the first ten months I owned the PowerBook 5300, I used to run most of the time from a RAM disk, which allowed me to keep the hard drive spun down and eliminate even that noise distraction. One of the things that would theoretically appeal to me about flash-memory-based laptops is the absence of hard drives grinding away in the background, but with the contemporaneous reality of cooling fan running most of the time anyway in order to keep the CPU from self-immolating, the peace of flash memory would be largely canceled out.

It certainly gives one pause. The relentless fan cycling is just about the only thing I really dislike about my 17-inch PowerBook, but I dislike that a lot. Doesn't augur well for my level of content with a MacBook, and I have to say that it's a great relief to sit down with the Pismo or iBook knowing that I'm not going to be subjected to fan cacophony with a few minutes of running time, and these machines can be still used as actual, literal laptop computers.

Something's Burning

However, curmudgeonly impatience with noise pollution aside, there is a more do objective and potentially hazardous issue in play here as well. In recent years there have been a few highly publicized incidents of laptop computers spontaneously catching fire, notably an Apple iBook in the US Midwest and a Dell laptop at a trade show in Japan. There were no injuries in either case, but there was some property damage (aside from the computers themselves), and one shudders at the thought of something like that occurring aboard an aircraft in flight.

Last year, the Toronto Globe and Mail's Alex Dobrota reported that there had been as many as 43 laptop fires reported in the United States since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Not a happy thought. A commentary piece in response from John Bowman of the rival CBC pooh-poohs the Globe story as borderline sensationalism, noting: "given that there are an estimated 60 million laptops in the US, that's a pretty good ratio of non-exploding units to exploding units." However, I don't think the average laptop user has up until recently apprehended that there is a statistical risk of fire inherent, however small.

There is always the potential for blowing this sort of thing out of proportion, especially, it seems, when Apple Computer is involved. One of the most enduring urban myths in laptop computer folklore is that of the spontaneously combusting PowerBook 5300, which probably did more to brand that computer as a "failure" than any of its actual shortcomings. The facts are that one very early production 5300 caught fire in an Apple test lab after its Lithium Ion battery overheated. Apple immediately recalled the 5300s that had been released into the distribution pipeline and replaced the LiIon battery units with Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, which proved completely dependable. As far as I have been able to determine, no PowerBook 5300 ever caught fire in the hands of a consumer.

Fast and Simple

Over the OS X era, I have daydreamed from time to time about how much more speedy and efficient OS X might be with a bare-bones simple GUI like System 6 had. Personally, I would happily live without the eye candy and gimmicky stuff if that would mean snappy performance with more modest power that didn't require fan-forced cooling, and I could be content with thicker case profiles as well.

Or perhaps there will be a technology breakthrough that will result in quiet laptops than can officially be called "laptops" again without courting litigation from someone whose thighs get roasted. Here's hoping.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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