Well, there can be no doubt that Winter is upon us in Toronto (Well, all of Canada).  With temperatures this low, it’s a good time to consider some of the effects of cold weather on your computers and other devices.  So, here are 5 Cold Weather Considerations. There’ll be some fact, some myth, and some history.  Should be a wild ride of a blog entry. When you’re done, feel free to comment.

1. Condensation

Cold Weather Considerations - Condensation
Image Source: DeviantArt.org (Artist: sonyrootkit)

Condensation happens when a cold environment and a warm environment come in contact with each other, in the presence of moisture.  And moisture is just about everywhere (except, perhaps Calgary).  We see this all the time when we get out of the shower, or when we get into our cold car in the winter. Condensation can happen inside your computer, causing water to form on sensitive electrical components.  This can cause a short circuit, which can lead to serious and expensive damage to your computer. This situation can occur if you expose your sleeping or turned off computer to cold weather for a long period of time (such as leaving it in your car overnight).  Every part of your computer becomes cold – inside and out.  Then, when you turn it on, the components inside the computer become hot in a matter of seconds.  (You can learn more about internal computer temperatures by watching this rather hilarious video, which you should most definitely not try at home). So now you’ve got a hot CPU that’s millimeters away from a cold slab of aluminum.  If the environment is considerably moist (as it often is in Toronto), you have serious potential for condensation to form, creating a short circuit. The components in your computer operate using very delicate electrical signals.  It doesn’t take much to create a short.  (Even dust has been known to be a problem, in this respect.  But that’s for another blog entry…).  So take care, and try to avoid internal condensation.

2. Corrosion

Cold Weather Tips - Corrosion
Image Source: Australian Transport Safety Bureau (http://www.atsb.gov.au/)

Oh, Codswallop!! “, you say.  “I leave my laptop in the snow overnight.  And I enjoy leaving my iPad in the freezer, so that it’s refreshing to the touch.  And I’ve never had a problem.”  Hey, you know what?  Good for you.  You’re taking your computer experience into your own hands, and really making it your own.  And I can’t help but salute that. Still, if condensation doesn’t get you, then corrosion might.  The cause of corrosion in this case would be the same as for condensation: moisture inside the device, resulting from hot and cold mixing.  The kicker with corrosion is that you won’t see any immediate symptoms.  Instead, your device will be the victim of a slow and steady assault on its insides until one day it just stops working.  Ew.

 3. Battery Life

Cold Weather Considerations - Battery Life Most modern devices (whether they be iPads, laptops, ultrabooks, or Andriod smartphones) use Lithium-ion batteries.  And these little guys are pretty awesome and impressive.  They outperform the older Nickel-Cadmium batteries of the past.  But, as the hard-workin’ folks at Lithium Pros put it, “All batteries will perform poorly in cold weather.” Don’t believe me?  Don’t believe Lithium Pros? Just ask NASA!  (‘The Limits of LowTemperature Performance of LiIon Cells‘, 2000). Also interesting is that the lithium-ion batteries found in most of today’s computers and devices cannot be charged if the battery is colder than 0 °C. Although the battery will appear to be charging healthily, plating of metallic lithium can occur on the anode during a subfreezing charge (Read more at Wikipedia).

 4. LCD Liquid Crystal Freezing

Cold Weather - LCD Liquid Crystal Freezing
Image Source: Purdue University image/Gamini Mendis

To be honest, I can’t say for sure if this is really a valid concern or not.  I’ve certainly heard colleagues say different things about this, and I’ve read articles which say very different things. The main warning that I hear is this: The liquid crystals can freeze and cause temporary performance problems or permanent damage.  Is this something worth worrying about?  You’ll really have to decide on your own.  There are lots of different articles to read.


5. Hinge Damage

Cold Weather Considerations - Hinges The idea here is that, since your laptop’s hinges, monitor and body may be made of different materials, they may contract in the cold weather at different rates.  If you attempt to open your screen when the laptop is very cold then you may put an unusual amount of physical stress on the contracted hinge, leading to its weakening and eventual destruction. Once again, this may or may not be something that you should lose sleep over.   It may be fact, and it may be fear mongering.  I don’t have enough data to give you a definitive answer on this issue.  (Hence ‘5 Cold Weather Considerations’, and not ‘5 Stressed-Out Cold Weather Exhortations!’). As I see it, the good news/bad news is that internal laptop components are generally pretty cheaply made these days.  It’s good news because you probably won’t have as many metallic pieces (which are especially prone to expansion & contraction from temperature changes).  The bad news is your “not-quite-so-metallic” pieces are nowhere near as sturdy as they could be. So, while cold weather could lead to hinge damage… You’re more likely to damage your hinges from a drop, or from opening your screen past its comfortable stopping point.

But What Can Be Done?  (Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?)

Two Key Ideas: 1. Insulate from the cold weather 2. Allow your device time to warm up from the cold   I was recently at my neighbourhood Second Cup, when I saw the following laptop sleeve being used at the table next to me:

Insufficient Laptop Case for Cold
Insufficient Laptop Case for Cold

This sleeve may be cute, but it is most certainly not sufficient to keep a laptop protected from Toronto’s cold winters.  A good laptop sleeve (or laptop case) should be thick, and should securely zip up.  Neoprene cases seem to be especially good at insulating laptops. Allow your cold device time to warm up.  If you accidentally leave your laptop or device in the cold overnight, then bring it indoors and allow it enough time to acclimate to room temperature slowly.  Be patient!  Make yourself a cup of tea, pet the dog, write a poem.  Just be sure to wait until every part of the computer you are able to touch no longer feels cold.

Final Thoughts

In more than a decade of computer support, I have yet to personally encounter a problem device that I could confidently blame solely on cold weather.  Most of the warnings above are taught to IT professionals during training and certification.  Whether they really happen very often in the real world is hard to say. So, what do you think?  Are these just overly cautious “textbook” warnings?  Is this fear mongering?  Are any of these tips surprising to you? Have you ever run across a situation where the cold has been blamed for device failure? Or do you always leave your laptop in your cold car trunk overnight and use it every morning, without any problems? Share your story.

5 Cold Weather Considerations for your Computers and Devices
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2 thoughts on “5 Cold Weather Considerations for your Computers and Devices

  • January 11, 2014 at 11:10 am



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