Keeping a laptop cool
August 5, 2012 8:57 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop my laptop from shutting down unexpectedly while I disinfect it?

Dell Inspiron N4010 running Windows 7. About 2 years old.

I think my laptop is infected with malware and I am trying to remove it. But it shuts down (I believe from overheating) and can't complete a scan (it shut down during a Malwarebytes scan) or can't complete an installation (it shut down during an installation of Combofix). It's generally good for between 45 minutes and an hour.

I have had the hardware checked out by a local computer repair shop -- it seems okay. The fan is working. So they concluded (without actually looking for any) that it must be malware (since they eliminated all the hardware possibilities). I suspect it might be dusty and am going to pursue deep-cleaning if nothing else works.

Main Question: Is there a way I can keep the laptop cool and up long enough to actually disinfect it?

There's a 2008 question about an infected laptop and many answers involve BartPE. I worked with BartPE a long time ago, but I can't quite get what the responders are getting at, how to use it for disinfecting, and how BartPE would actually get around the overheating problem. Could anyone explain?

I've also though of removing the drive and attaching it to my desktop, but I'm not exactly a hardware person. Without getting into the details, on a scale of 1-10, how difficult would that be?

This particular laptop seems to need almost a complete disassembly to get at the fan and heat sink. Dell provides an online service manual. Again, on a 1-10 scale, how difficult?

I suspect that the ultimate solution -- reinstalling Windows -- would also fail with an unexpected shutdown and that really scares me.

If I haven't given enough information, please ask. Thanks.
posted by feelinggood to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
You could try using a LiveCD to boot it, and you can check if their are any problems with the fan using that as well. I know that you can use Avast! to check and clean viruses on a Windows partition will in Ubuntu, if you're feeling that technically inclined. Link here.

Otherwise, possibly try safe mode for Windows? I don't know much else you can do on that side since the virus would be running, but hopefully someone else will chime in with more ideas.
posted by trogdole at 9:36 AM on August 5, 2012

If it's really a heat problem, you should be able to use an external fan of some sort. There are lots of laptop stands that have built-in fans; just search for "laptop cooler" on Amazon or Newegg or wherever you like to buy gadgets.

Also, cleaning out dust never hurts, although often it's difficult to open laptops up enough to blow it all out.
posted by number9dream at 9:46 AM on August 5, 2012

It could be the Windows power saving shutdown.

The strange thing about that is that the shutdown timer is reset by user activity. If a background job runs for a long time without any user interaction, the power saver timeout may still shut the computer off.

Go into the control panel and click "Power options". Mess around in there and find the currently active one, and then tell it to never shut down.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:50 AM on August 5, 2012

How about putting it in a refrigerator or freezer during the scan? Or directly in front of an air conditioner vent?

In the long term, if overheating proves to be the issue, it's a good idea to take it apart to clean it. I have an older Dell Inspiron and did this and I was kind of mortified by how filthy it was. I found a manual that led me through a complete teardown on the Dell site.
posted by XMLicious at 10:23 AM on August 5, 2012

I've had pretty good luck thwarting laptop-overheating by sitting the computer on top of an ice pack (the rectangulat kind) along with strategically placed blocks of wood or books or what-have-you to make it sit evenly.
posted by aecorwin at 10:34 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

The idea that malware is making your computer overheat is...somewhat implausible. How do they think that's happening exactly? They didn't even turn it on and see what happens to the CPU temperature and fan speeds while it's operating? Find another repair shop.

You say you think it's overheating but don't say why. What reason do you have for thinking that it's overheating? Overheating tends to be very obvious and hard to misdiagnose, it should be clear whether it's overheating or not. Key symptoms of overheating related shutdowns are:

1) Computer won't turn on immediately after shutting down, but after waiting 15 minutes or so it will.

2) A CPU temperature monitoring program like this one records very high CPU temperatures (75+ degrees C) shortly before shutdown

3) Message from BIOS on the screen when you turn computer back on saying it overheated

If it is overheating, what kind of activity do you see in the task manager during that time? If a particular malware process is going crazy, maybe focus on removing it. I'm guessing though that you won't see anything interesting. Do you hear the fans kick on when it heats up?

There isn't really much reason to be worried it will shut down during a reformat. If you're reformatting you're kind of by definition wiping everything clean from your drive so there's nothing to lose. Just reformat it again. (This is different from a repair installation or system restore--if you mean one of those, then yes, you're right to be worried about that.)

Based on the service manual, the fan removal looks like a PITA, but not really difficult, just obnoxious and requiring the removal of a ton of screws.

Removing the hard drive on that thing seems to be comically involved, actually harder than replacing the fan...again, not really difficult per se, but definitely an undertaking and far harder than on any normal laptop. I wouldn't do that unless you were really sure it was necessary.
posted by phoenixy at 11:21 AM on August 5, 2012

I'd normally go with pulling the hard drive, sticking it in a USB enclosure and attaching it to your desktop. That way, you're running the malware scanner from a known clean environment and none of the malware's inbuilt anti-scanner nonsense ever gets a chance to do its thing.

But phoenixy is right about the degree of difficulty for this particular laptop. Any sane laptop design has a dedicated access panel to make swapping out a hard drive really easy - but not the Inspiron N4010, which apparently requires you to take out the whole system board first. What a pain.

You might want to do it anyway if you're going to take the thing apart in pursuit of dust. Personally I'd just blow super-hard into the air vent, or phoof it with a compressed air handpiece and call it done, but if you're feeling thorough and/or curious enough to take the whole thing apart then you might as well extract the drive while you're at it.

If you do go that way, you should disable autorun on the desktop computer before connecting the USB enclosure to it - you don't want Windows helpfully installing the very malware you're about to remove from the external drive. Provided your desktop has Windows XP SP3 or any later version, the easiest way to do that is download disable-all-autoruns.reg, double-click it to merge it into the Registry, then log off and log on again.
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 AM on August 6, 2012

By the way, MalwareBytes will successfully update itself in Safe Mode With Networking, and it will scan in Safe Mode. If there really is something running in the laptop that shuts it down when a scanner touches it, there's at least some chance that whatever it is won't be started in Safe Mode.
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 AM on August 6, 2012

My wife and kids have nearly identical models, same age - same problems - my daughter dropped hers hard - so, I found the service manual online, took it apart - and blew out all the dust - put it together and it was nearly like new... (must have loostened a connection when she dropped it) - my wife was complaining about hers shutting down and random slowness - so, I took it apart, blew out the dust and... it was perfect...
posted by jkaczor at 2:27 PM on August 7, 2012

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