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Everytime I run my laptop for a while, my laptop becomes very hot and it responds very slowly, even with only one program active. Is it a hardward problem? if so, which one should I replace to fix the issue? Is it the battery or hard disk or what else? It's running Windows XP but I don't think OS is the problem here.

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That's the thermal protection of the CPU going into action: when the CPU gets too hot, it automatically reduces its speed so it doesn't burn out.

More information here:

With the introduction of Pentium 4 and Intel Xeon processors, a new thermal protection mechanism was introduced, allowing for the processor to automatically control the processor temperature before reaching the catastrophic shutdown temperature but at the expense of temporarily reducing processor performance.

You should check for the reasons of the high temperature: broken fan, clogged airvents, fan set to a too low speed, ...

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There are several solutions to heating that are quick and almost costless.

The article Laptop cooler from wikipedia is very short but contains some interesting pointers. It makes the remark:

Studies conducted by California Polytechnic University show that heat build-up in notebooks is reduced by 15 to 20 percent, when a laptop is situated at an angle compared to a laptop in a horizontal position. Free air cooling which is a passive method and requires no additional power has been proven as an effective method of laptop cooling.

The following articles contain some good ideas:

Guide to Cooling Down Your Notebook Computer
Laptop Stands with Cooling Fans
Cool Your Laptop with 99-Cent Cooling Balls

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these are great tips for keeping a new (or recently cleaned) laptop from overheating to begin with, but if the system is older it probably needs a thorough cleaning for these tips to be really effective. "thorough cleaning" in this situation is, at minimum, clearing dust & such out of the cooling system as DaveM suggests, and might include replacing a worn-out system fan or reapplying thermal paste. – quack quixote Jan 21 '10 at 15:58

Just to add to what Snark mentions... Many laptops come with a built in diagnostic or have a diagnostic tool availble for download. Dell has it on a diagnostic partition and IBM has one that you run in Windows (PC Doctor). These tools usually will test stuff like the fan(s) and can pinpoint issues. All I have seen can run the tests multiple times to allow for the heat to build up. On several Dells we have, the fan sucks up all kinds of dust and who knows what and partially clogs the fan area and around the pricessor on the MB. On the Dell, a removal of the keyboard allows the fan and surrounding area to be blown OUT with compressed air. You don't want to blow the crap in.

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