How cold weather can affect electronics

Since we are approaching the fall/winter season, I felt it appropriate to discuss how the weather affects our electronics. When I say electronics, I am really referring to items like laptop/notebook computers, and cameras left in a cold or freezing vehicle overnight.

First let me just say that leaving your laptop/notebook computer in your vehicle overnight is not really a good idea at all if you value what is on it. You just never know what could happen, worst thing being that it gets stolen. Remember if it can go wrong it probably will.

Now with that out of the way I’m going to cut straight to it. Have you ever brought in a pair of sunglasses or a compact disc from your cold vehicle indoors and noticed how it fogged up? Well this is what happens to your laptop/notebook computer when you bring it in from the cold after it has been sitting in the car all night.

Your hard drive platters and circuit boards develop condensation when it goes from cold to warm or hot and this could cause for some nasty short circuiting of your precious item.

In general, laptop/notebook computers are remarkably resilient when it comes to dealing with low temperatures (down to around 0 degrees F or -17 C).

However, cold can and does affect the LCD screen and disk drive. LCD’s are liquid crystal devices which can freeze if the temperature goes low enough. In addition, the fluorescent tube that provides the backlight to the screen (called a CCFL) can be dimmer due to the cold.

Both the LCD and the CCFL generally recover as they warm up and will operate normally afterwards. It is not clear whether this shortens the life of either component as I do not have any data from comparison testing.

Disk drives can also be affected by the cold. First, there are two types of disk drives. One uses ball bearings and a race around the shaft of the drive. The other uses fluid dynamic bearings (FDB), rather than the ball bearings. FDB drives are almost always used in laptops and have the advantage of lower noise and the ability to spin at higher speeds.

Mechanical disk drives with bearings seem to survive extremely low temperatures better than the FDB drives. As the temperature approaches single digits Fahrenheit (around -12 C), the fluid in the bearings thickens and the drive platter cannot spin at the appropriate speed. This can cause a boot failure.

In almost all cases, FDB drives returned to normal operation after just a few minutes in a warm environment. If the drive is inside the computer case, the heat from the processor will often warm it up and a reboot can be accomplished. On the other hand, for those external USB drives, you may want to wait a while longer for it to warm up.

So with cooler temperatures approaching, just keep all this in mind the next time you take your portable office with you home, and decide you are too tired to take it inside where it’s nice and cozy.