Buy a Mac and you know you're getting the state of the art when it comes to components (except for a Blu-ray optical drive — Steve Jobs hates Blu-ray). And that's a good thing, since you're probably paying a fortune for the privilege.
But as many an early adopter can tell you, when you push the envelope, unintended consequences can be the result.
Case in point: The 17-inch MacBook Pro uses the latest CPU from Intel, the Core i7-620M, an incredibly powerful chip already becoming prized by users for its performance. Those who buy a 17-inch laptop are the most performance-obsessed of the bunch, willing to sacrifice portability for something that will blow the benchmarks out of the water.
But with the i7-based MacBook, there's a bit of a snag: The i7 is a fast chip, but perhaps it's too fast for this chassis. The chip runs hot. So hot, in fact, that users report the whole laptop gets uncomfortably warm to the touch — with one source reporting it is "almost too hot" to touch.
PC Authority did some sleuthing to figure out exactly how hot the insides were when the machine was under heavy loads, and the results are alarming: One test showed the chip hitting 101 degrees Celsius, hot enough to boil water (but actually within Intel's spec).
Other computers using the same CPU don't get nearly this hot, so what's the problem? Chalk it up to the Mac's unique design and unconventional approach to cooling.
The all-aluminum design of the Mac isn't just for looks, it's also to help the interior of the notebook cool off. Rather than vent heat through a copper pipe and out a hole in the side or bottom of the machine, the entire body of a Mac is used to cool the machine as the heat radiates through the body and out into the air (although fans are also used to supplement this). This works most of the time, but when the machine gets really hot, it just can't keep up, and that's when the laptop gets uncomfortably hot — so much so that PC Authority had to run some of its tests with the machine on its side so that the base of the laptop would be exposed to cooling air instead of an insulating table.
When a machine overheats, several things can happen. Typically the chip will automatically start to run in a slower, "throttled" mode, so less heat is generated. But crashes and component failures can also occur as heat makes the system unstable.
There's no word from Apple on a fix — or even if one is possible — but power users should take note. Consider a cooling base or at least a stand to elevate your MacBook when you need all the power it has to offer.
UPDATE: It is worth noting that the i7 CPU is specified to run as hot as 105 degrees Celsius, and that the benchmarks undertaken were run using Windows, not MacOS, thus depriving the chip of the Mac's built-in heat management protocols. Your mileage will certainly vary.