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My employer needs me to do some field work that will take place outside in temperatures up to -20C. I will use 2 Dell laptops, 1 Acer netbook and 1 Samsung netbook.

The laptops will be started and running before they are taken outside and then will have to operate at this temperature for up to 4 hours before being taken back inside. They will be plugged in for the duration of their cold weather operation.

Would this work without problems?

My thought is that because they are operating at room temperature before going outside, there should not be too much of a problem with operating. I think the heat that the system creates will be enough to keep the system from "freezing up". Is this a good assumption?

What about the screen, will it operate at these temperatures? In my thoughts, that will be my biggest "problem", not the actual running of the system, just the ability of the screen to respond.

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this really depends on the operating temperature specs of the screen. I would call the OEM and ask them about this, cause the only other way to get operating temps would be to take the laptop apart, look for a part number on the LCD, and look up datasheets for that part number. – Nate Koppenhaver Jan 26 '12 at 20:22
Since this question has been reopened, I'd like to point out that answers should share experience or facts over opinion. Just guessing gets us nowhere ;) – slhck Jan 26 '12 at 20:26
In all likelihood the laptop will operate OK down to -10C or lower. The screen will tend to be dim and "sluggish" when cold, and the cold may reduce battery life some. And when really cold the lubricant in the disk drive will thicken, possibly preventing the drive from coming up to speed. But I'd personally not be too worried down to -10C or so. The bigger danger is bringing a laptop in from the cold, pulling it out and using it. Moisture will then condense all over the outside and inside, causing potential problem. Generally leave cold electronics boxed/bagged until near room temp. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 26 '12 at 23:16

The real issue will be humidity. So long as the components stay dry and there is insufficient air moisture to produce any buildup you'll be OK.

However, due to the temperature differential, any moisture in the air at all will cause problems. Even ice crystals, when run through your system airflow, will melt, condense, and then refreeze on your components.

You'll want some sort of weather bag to protect the systems, especially keeping the air around the devices very, very dry.

Or you can use a laptop warmer that will keep the air surrounding the laptop (and therefore the air going through the laptop) too warm to pose a freezing risk inside the laptop.

In a brief search I did not find anything like what I just described above, except one laptop warmer made by Kendrick, the Kendrick Dew Remover, but that doesn't look like what I'm envisioning.

So I'll just pop off to my lawyers and patent the Bedford Computer Warming Bag and the Bedford Anti-Moisture Bag. Production should start shortly and I'll get you a first edition.

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The problem with humidity is when you bring the unit inside. Then moisture in the warm inside air condenses on the cold surfaces. Condensation outside doesn't tend to be a problem because the laptop will be above ambient temp and hence above the dewpoint. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 26 '12 at 23:18

Yes, they will work. They are not designed to work at those temperature ranges (talking about regular low-cost laptops here, widely available) but they work.

If you're taking them from room temperature to outside, where it is significantly colder, turn them off and leave them for half an hour before taking them outside, ... when you take them back inside, do not turn them on for an hour or so. To account for the humidity and the temperature shock.

Laptops on Antarctica

enter image description here enter image description here

I've never used them in snow, but have used them in -10 to -30 temperature ranges. And still using them :)

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The important point is that when bringing them inside you should wait for them to warm up before unbagging. If you bring a cold, unbagged piece into the warm, immediately wrap it somehow until it can warm, to prevent condensation. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 27 '12 at 2:03
@DanH - My point exactly. We never actually bag it, just wait for an hour or two until it dries up completely. Put it near the central heating radiator or some other source of heat, but NOT TOO CLOSE. All humidity that is in it will evaporate, which is okey, just as long as it isn't there when you turn it on. – Rook Jan 27 '12 at 2:16
Well, maybe not the same point. The ABSOLUTE humidity (dewpoint) is generally higher in a warm, inhabited area (even in that tent, vs outside). This is true even though the RELATIVE humidity is usually higher outside. Breathing, bathing, cooking, and other human activities generate moisture, and at the higher temperature it doesn't condense. But bring a cold item into that warm area and a layer of dew/frost instantly forms (because the item is colder than the inside dewpoint), even though it wasn't present outside. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 27 '12 at 12:40
@DanH - Yeah, well ... I really don't want to make a science out of it. Just stated my experiences, ... only one laptop died so far (but that one fell from a jeep :/ – Rook Jan 27 '12 at 13:00
@WalterMaier-Murdnelch - Humans like heat too ... on those temperatures it is dangerous to be for a prolonged period of time, regarding breathing. – Rook Jan 29 '12 at 14:41

The typical harddrive and commercial-grade electronic components are specified for operation above the freezing point (with the additional stipulation that humidity is not condensing). Some ultra-rugged laptops have a HDD heater to workaround that limitation. Unless these laptops are constructed with industrial-grade (good for -40C) or MIL-SPEC electronic components, operation in below-freezing temps is ill-advised.

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surely solid state hard drives would avoid the HDD issue easily – Jeff Atwood Jan 26 '12 at 23:53

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