One aspect to consider when shopping for a new laptop is the device's thermal and noise performance, as a hot and loud laptop can significantly impact the overall user experience. It's particularly important for those working in a noise-sensitive environment or using the laptop's keyboard and touchpad. We designed our thermal and noise performance tests to show you the laptop's temperature and fan noise while idle and under load, as well as the location of the hot spots on the keyboard deck. This article details how we perform these tests.
A laptop's thermal and noise performance matters because it can make a particular laptop near unusable. Extreme heat on the keyboard deck can be uncomfortable to the touch, forcing you to purchase a dedicated keyboard, mouse, or touchpad just so that you can use your laptop. The heat can be an issue when using the device on your lap, especially with those with exhaust vents on the bottom. As for loud fan noise, not only can it be bothersome to yourself, but also to those around you. As such, it's essential to choose a laptop with good thermal and noise performance so that you can use it for extended periods without any discomfort. That said, it might not matter to you if you mainly use your laptop docked with a separate keyboard or if noise isn't a concern to you because you always have a headset on.
We perform the thermal and noise tests at the same time because they require the same setup for the most part.
We use the following equipment:
We perform the tests in a temperature-controlled room set to 22°C (71.6°F), with a tolerance of ±0.5°C. We ensure that the laptop we're testing is fully charged and plugged in with its own power adapter, along with the Kill A Watt meter, to verify that the laptop is pulling the maximum amount of power from the wall when under load.
For Windows devices, we set the resolution scaling to 100%, the refresh rate to the display's native refresh rate, and Windows' power setting to 'Better Performance'. We disable Stream HDR Video, Night Light, Battery Saver, and all sleep settings.
For MacBooks, we enable Automatic Graphics Switching and all settings under the Power Adapter tab (under Energy Saver), with Turn Display Off set to 'Never'. The resolution scaling is set to 'Default for this display'.
For Chromebooks, we set the resolution scaling to 100% and change the While Charging and While on Battery settings to 'Keep Display On'. We disable any auto picture or brightness modes, including the Auto Screen Brightness Model setting found in the Chrome experimental features (accessible by typing chrome://flags in the address bar).
Before we begin the benchmarks, we place the wooden board on the floor with the device on top. We let the laptop sit idle for fifteen minutes and ensure that no applications are running in the background and that it's disconnected from the Wi-Fi.
We perform the noise tests in the same temperature-controlled room as the thermal tests, but with the laptop inside a sound-treated box (with a noise floor of ~25dBA) and the microphone placed 25 cm from the laptop's display.
The first step in our thermal and noise performance tests is to take a temperature reading of the keyboard deck. It's done with the FLIR temperature camera after the laptop has been idle for 15 minutes. We don't post the photo; we only post the highest recorded temperature. This test indicates the temperature you'll likely get when doing light tasks like web browsing and video playback.
To record the keyboard deck's temperature under load, we run the Cinebench R23 and UNIGINE Heaven benchmarks simultaneously to stress both the CPU and GPU. We run them for twenty minutes, at which point we verify that the laptop is pulling the maximum amount of power (usually around the same wattage as the laptop's power adapter). We take another thermal photo of the keyboard deck, then post both the picture and the maximum temperature under load in the review. The thermal photo shows the hottest area on the keyboard deck so you can determine whether it might be a problem for your use.
We take the noise at idle reading as we take the photo for the temperature at idle test. The result should always be near or identical to the noise floor, as most laptop fans are inactive when the CPU and GPU are in an idle state.
We measure the laptop's fan noise while it's under load as we take the thermal photo after the benchmarks have been running for twenty minutes. We also include a subjective description of the fan noise.
The Power & Fan Control App test is a simple check to see whether the laptop offers any way to control or customize the fan profile other than the power settings built into the operating system.
For most laptops, the keyboard deck's temperature and the fan noise aren't problematic when the laptop is idle. However, they can be when the CPU and/or GPU are under a heavy load, especially on power-hungry devices like gaming laptops. If you already own a laptop with a high temperature on the keyboard deck and loud fan noise, there are steps that you can take to improve the performance.
There are many things to consider when purchasing a laptop. For most people, the decision depends on their use, as well as their tolerance for heat and noise. There's usually some compromise to be made because better CPU and GPU performance usually results in higher temperatures and louder fans. If you choose to buy a fanless device that doesn't make any noise, you can expect thermal throttling to happen sooner, reducing your CPU and GPU's performance; you can read more about thermal throttling in our Performance Over Time article. The best option is to find a laptop with heat and noise levels that you can tolerate for extended periods or one that allows for power and fan profile customization.