Why the Future of Laptops Depends on Thermal Engineering

Thermal Engineering Unlocks Better Laptop Experiences

  • Thermal engineering is essential for what people want most from laptops: powerful performance in a thin, light, portable device. Intel engineers and our ecosystem partners are exploring breakthrough cooling technologies that will enable even thinner designs with even better performance.

  • Today’s high-performance laptops are reaching the limits of traditional cooling technologies, which still rely on decades-old tools like fans and finned surfaces.

  • Intel and our industry partners are developing ultra-thin vapor chambers, new graphite components, quieter fans and fanless technologies and architecture-level optimizations, as we co-engineer the next generation of laptops.


By Mark Gallina, System Thermal and Mechanical Architect, Intel.

The future of laptop design depends on advances in thermal engineering. People want attractive, innovative form factors with better performance than ever before, and they won’t accept loud fan noise or hot surfaces. For thermal engineers, our challenge is to design laptop cooling solutions that can deliver the best experiences for the form factor, while avoiding these pain points.

It’s time to find new solutions. While laptops have gotten thinner and more powerful, the basic thermal solution architecture hasn’t changed significantly since its inception. Most laptop designs still rely on fans, heat sinks and heat pipes to guide heat away from the System on a Chip (SoC) and other components and then out of the system. These are important tools, but they add bulk and sometimes struggle to keep up with today’s more adaptive laptop performance, which uses bursts of power that lead to more intense cooling demands.

Enter Intel’s thermal engineering innovation. Our team is working with our partners to co-engineer laptops that employ new cooling technologies, like ultra-thin vapor chambers and graphite components. We believe systems that implement these technologies—some of which have no fans at all—hold the future of what’s next for laptops.

Finding the Right Laptop Cooling Solutions

There’s no one right answer to the cooling challenge. Instead, we are developing many different solutions: new cooling technologies, more advanced materials and SoC approaches. Then, for each design, our team works with OEM partners to match the right technologies to solve the right problems for the right experiences.

Vapor chambers are one of the most promising new tools. This component uses a closed loop evaporation/condensation cycle to efficiently spread the heat from the SoC. While vapor chambers have been around for decades, recent advances have driven their thickness down by an order of magnitude, with current offerings just a few hundredths of a millimeter tall. The Intel Reference Design Program is investigating new vapor chambers that can significantly reduce the cost for our partners and improve the performance capability of new system designs.

We’re also exploring how incredibly thin graphite sheets can replace copper as a heat transfer material. By using graphite, laptops can stay light while distributing heat more uniformly. This helps reduce the “hot spots” that are a growing pain point for thin, high-performance laptops.

By bringing all of these technologies together, Intel and our partners are leading the industry with solutions that can reduce or even end cooling compromises, like fan noise. Intel® Evo™-verified designs showcase show how laptops can continue to get thinner and more powerful, without generating new challenges or undermining people’s experiences.

Exploring the Future of Thermals

The future of laptop cooling will include all of the technologies discussed above, but also new advances that are still in the conceptual stages—like modeling thermal responses and interactions at an SoC level.

We now have the compute power to evaluate use cases in real-world conditions, years before a product would go to market. This enables us to thermally optimize our SoC to deliver maximum performance within the thin-and-light system design by tailoring the physical design of the chip to the form factor’s cooling solution. Essentially, we can place power-intensive IP blocks in ways that make it easier to manage waste heat. Another important opportunity is using a single laptop component to perform multiple tasks—saving space on the board and creating more room for other types of cooling systems.

Of course, we’re partnering closely with the ecosystem, but we’re also looking to outside perspectives. We’re constantly talking to leaders in academia who are investigating deep questions around theoretical physics, energy transfer and energy storage applications.

These questions aren’t easy. True innovation never is. But that’s the only way to find thermal solutions that keep laptops cool, support high performance and stay commercially viable. All of this is only possible because of Intel’s deep commitment to solving for real-world performance and through the unstoppable power of our ecosystem partners.

Real-world thermal performance requires real-world testing. Learn more about some of the designs that have been verified to meet rigorous testing requirements for Intel® Evo™ platform.

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