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Am I freezing my computer? Will it break?
December 17, 2010 10:39 AM   Subscribe

How worried should I be about leaving a laptop in a car for a couple of hours at 35 below (F)?

I have a 2009 MacBookPro. Typically, when I'm coming home from work, I close it up (so it's asleep but not shut down), stick it in a padded sleeve, stick the sleeve in my backpack, and stick the backpack in the hatchback part of my station wagon.

But it's cold here---we haven't had temperatures above about -20F for a couple of weeks, and lately it's been more like -35 or so. How worried should I be about the computer freezing if I leave the computer in my car for an hour or two, to do some shopping or something? The car would be off, and let's assume that the car's been sitting out in the cold all day (so it's not starting off particularly warm). My husband's concerned about the LCD freezing, among other things.

As a data point, the computer seems to handle being walked in to work, which takes about 30 minutes, with no problem. It's cold when I take it out of the backpack, but it perks right up when I plug it in.
posted by leahwrenn to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
IANYAG (I am not your apple genius). I spent many a Wisconsin winter with temperatures almost that low walking 30 minutes to class with my ipod in an outer pocket. At a certain point it would get so cold that it would shut off but this never seemed to have lasting damage. It would turn back on after I stuck it down my pants for a few minutes to warm it back up. The thing still works and I bought it refurbished in 2007.
posted by kthxbi at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2010


Tech specs for MacBook ProFrom the Apple website:

Electrical and operating requirements

* Line voltage: 100V to 240V AC
* Frequency: 50Hz to 60Hz
* Operating temperature: 50° to 95° F
(10° to 35° C)
* Storage temperature: -13° to 113° F
(-24° to 45° C)

* Relative humidity: 0% to 90% noncondensing
* Maximum operating altitude: 10,000 feet
* Maximum storage altitude: 15,000 feet
* Maximum shipping altitude: 35,000 feet

You should probably be worried. I wouldn't leave it below recommended storage temperatures for extended periods of time. Maybe you could get away with it once or twice but I wouldn't risk it. That said, I know nothing about the technical details of what could actually go wrong.
posted by 3FLryan at 10:45 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


People cool their CPU's with liquid nitrogen so I'm not sure freezing temperatures are a huge problem, especially if the air is dry so you don't get condensation and icing. I'd still avoid doing it often, though.
posted by empath at 10:50 AM on December 17, 2010


If it is operating below the optimal temperature, I would make sure to constantly save your work. It might not damage the drive, but its behavior may become erratic which may lead to data corruption.

Also, do not take it from a very low temperature to a very high temperature (or the other way around) immediately. That puts a strain on the materials; considering millimeter-accuracy components must have, the expansion and contraction due to extreme temperature change may throw things off permanently.

Also, there is the risk of frost forming when you take it from a warm, humid environment to a very cold one. If the frost does not cause issues, the fact that it will melt when taken back into a warm environment may.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


very low temperature to a very high temperature

Er, what I mean is from a very low temperature to a relatively higher temperature.
posted by griphus at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


You'll likely be fine.

Pro tip: let the machine sit in room temperature for a at like an hour before powering it up. A hard drive operating while it's metal components warm up from -35 degrees will suffer "pop otw" (meaning the metal in the read/write head contorts and it writes to the wrong track, this can wipe out data.
posted by oblio_one at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


on preview griphus and I are getting at the same point.
posted by oblio_one at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2010


I do this all the time and my ipod and laptop have not suffered any ill effects. I don't have a MAC though.
posted by fshgrl at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2010


As others have mentioned, you won't have any problems.

Keep in mind that if your laptop is out in the cold and then brought inside, it will most likely get a bit of condensation on any metal parts. If you leave it until it warms up to room temperature before using it, you shouldn't have any problems.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:01 AM on December 17, 2010


I know of two problems with very cold computers: thermal expansion/contractions, and freezing. Thermal contraction is a problem because things shrink at different rates, and so wires / connections may break or short. The other problem is freezing. Water expands as it freezes, which may break the battery container or at least cause it not to fit inside the mac.

But here's the slightly good news: if your laptop is suspended, it'll be emitting a bit of heat. And I'm pretty sure the operational temperature is an ultra conservative, we-don't-have-to-pay-out-warranty-repairs-for-it number.
posted by pwnguin at 11:14 AM on December 17, 2010


The mechanical parts aren't the piece to be concerned about - it's the battery that will feel the ill effects of the cold. Your battery life will start suffering if you were to store your computer at such temperatures.
posted by drewski at 11:24 AM on December 17, 2010


People cool their CPU's with liquid nitrogen so I'm not sure freezing temperatures are a huge problem.

True, but that's the CPU itself not the whole system. The problem is that all parts are not designed to handle the extreme heat or cold that the CPU chip itself can take.

The storage temperatures that 3FLryan posted are what I'd follow. Those considerations are based on the weakest component in the laptop. And even at those temperatures be sure to *slowly* bring the laptop up to warmer temps (>10C) before booting it up.
posted by samsara at 11:37 AM on December 17, 2010


All of this is good advice, which you should follow.

However, if you're only leaving it in there for an hour or two, it likely isn't reaching the outdoor ambient temperature, or even coming close. A laptop sleeve in a backpack in a trunk is going to be a lot warmer than whatever the local weather station says the temperature is. Try putting some kind of thermometer in the backpack or sleeve and see what it actually gets down to.

When I converted my car to run on vegetable oil, I discovered I could save a ton of time and money by running the veggie oil line through the car's interior. Even in sub-freezing weather it keeps the line warm enough to not need to run hot coolant lines along it, as would be required if it ran outside the car.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:39 AM on December 17, 2010


I disagree with anyone who says you won't have a problem. You are running a risk of freezing and destroying your liquid components of your laptop, i.e. the expensive components. That component is your LCD. After -20F, the LCD will begin to freeze. Freezing will result in expansion, and that can shatter your LCD glass.

Expertise disclaimer: I am not an Apple genius, but I did work through HP channels handling problem laptop repair cases. Every winter we'd see laptops come in from states such as MN, ND, WI, MT, NH, VT, ME, MI, as well as the cold Canadian provinces (Manitoba in particular, go figure) with no external damage but a shattered LCD. We'd pull up the weather for the area on the day of the repair call and find temperatures of -25F or below on the previous night.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:54 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I work with hundreds of laptops in Minnesota, and I've definitely seen screen issues and condensation buildup as a result of students leaving their laptops in cars for extended period of times. The biggest issue has been the condensation issue- students leaving their laptops in their car overnight and turning it on as soon as they get to school. Bad news and AppleCare doesn't cover those damages. The breakage has been rather low so I wouldn't say it's likely to happen, but it's a possibility.
posted by jmd82 at 12:25 PM on December 17, 2010


This will cause you a problem eventually. On top of the condensation issue, the expansion/contraction damage mentioned earlier is cumulative. So things like your motherboard, or your hard drive case will start to develop stress fractures. I've seen hard drives lose their integrity because of it.

Probably when you're walking to school, you've got it in a case, in your bag, so it doesn't spend much time all the way down at ambient temperature.

It probably won't bite you in the short term, but it will shorten the life of it.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:02 PM on December 17, 2010


Probably when you're walking to school, you've got it in a case, in your bag, so it doesn't spend much time all the way down at ambient temperature.

In all the conditions that I'm discussing, it's in a sleeve, in a backpack. I'm not really talking about "if I have a computer that is actually at -35F, will it still work".

It's clear that leaving it in the car overnight is bad news. It also seems clear that taking it outside (in a case in a backpack) for short periods of time is not going to be disastrous, since it presumably takes a while for things to chill down, since air is a good insulator. The question is really, how long is "a short amount of time"?

The suggestion of a thermometer is a good one.

Also, do not take it from a very low temperature to a very high temperature (or the other way around) immediately.

Yeah, so...I have to go inside. The temp differential between outside and inside is pushing 100 degrees. But I hear you.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:23 PM on December 17, 2010


A friend's work laptop experienced a cracked screen from spending overnight in a car in subzero conditions. This was 15 years ago so an earlier generation, but still, I would adhere to official specs per 3FLryan or whatever those specs are for your machine.

In addition to the screen, the li-ion battery may also be an issue, not sure about that.
posted by Kevin S at 2:07 PM on December 17, 2010


You can install any of a number of temperature monitor widgets that will log the temperature of your computer.
posted by Wet Spot at 2:16 PM on December 17, 2010


If the battery gets frozen, it's ruined.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:33 PM on December 17, 2010


Or if it gets close to freezing temperature. LiIon batteries are very vulnerable to low temperature.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:34 PM on December 17, 2010


I'd be worried about the battery, and I'd be worried about condensation after you bring it in from the code. Condensation will eventually evaporate but you should not turn on the computer right after brining it indoors.
posted by chairface at 2:51 PM on December 17, 2010


Yeah, so...I have to go inside. The temp differential between outside and inside is pushing 100 degrees. But I hear you.

Just make sure it's off when you do that, and give it twenty minutes to a half hour before booting it.
posted by griphus at 3:15 PM on December 17, 2010


If you really have to leave it out there, get a cooler big enough to hold it (while it's in its case). The cooler's insulation should slow down the chilling/maybe keep it a little warmer. (If nothing else, the big bags at the grocery store meant to take home your frozen groceries are pretty cheap.)
posted by IndigoRain at 8:22 PM on December 17, 2010


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