This is a very unscientific, and most-likely poorly phrased question (due to my complete lack of expertise) to be sure, but any responses will be greatly appreciated.


My dad told me that walking around with my laptop in my bag, or leaving it in a moving car, without suspending it or shutting it off totally, for long periods of time, regularly over many days, can eventually cause gradual and progressive damage to the hardware. I think it was the hard disk, or the memory he mentioned.

However, out of convenience I'd like to not turn it off or suspend it when travelling between places, as this causes some issues with my os.

Is there a real risk that over time, transporting it from place to place without powering it off can mess with the hardware? Or would it be the same if it were on anyway?

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    When the laptop is suspended, doesn't the power shut off completely? The fans & hard drive all stop? Why wouldn't the drive should be as safe as anytime it's powered off? If the drive stayed powered on, the battery wouldn't last more than a few hours. – Xen2050 Sep 18 at 4:48
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    Read your laptop's manual about maximum acceleration values or contact the manufacturer. – Ipor Sircer Sep 18 at 4:56
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    Many laptops today have SSDs which don't care about movement at all. - That leaves the potential for overheating (as discussed in the answer by another poster). Side note: IT has happened multiple time to me that Windows with its excellent reliability ( ... ) did not go into standby when it should have and the laptop remained on. It never caused any harm - BUT I also wasn't running anything on the computer at the time. On idle, most laptops (especially small portable ones) are fairly cool-running nowadays. – DetlevCM Sep 18 at 8:30
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    You probably close the display lid, and that's enough to put it into sleep, anyway. Laptops are designed to tolerate much more than that, so no worries. Unless it's a sturdy business laptop, it'll probably die in a few years time no matter what, but not because of that. The two most usual death reasons are poor soldering on the mainboard [since we have to put up with lead-free solder, it's a constant problem in the whole electronic industry, aggravated by the unavoidable internal stresses of plastic houses) and mechanical failure of the display hinges. – Gábor Sep 18 at 13:09
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    @R.. You're being a bit quickly on declaring hard disk drives obsolete. Even if not a Mac since 2012 has had one, many if not most PCs, especially at the lower end of the market, still use HDDs. – jcaron Sep 18 at 22:04
up vote 98 down vote accepted

Yes, there is a risk in leaving the computer on. But that doesn't mean you need to turn it off – it is enough to suspend (often by just closing the lid).

However, out of convenience I'd like to not turn it off when travelling between places.

Suspending is not the same thing as turning it off!

In suspend mode, most of the hardware is unpowered (CPU not generating heat, HDD heads safely parked), but the RAM contents still remain as they were – the OS is "frozen in time".

This means that the suspended laptop is safe to carry, but you can instantly resume working (even old laptops resume in 2–5 secs) – there is no inconvenient waiting for the OS to boot up again.

(You could say that the suspend function is specifically made for carrying laptops around.)


Note: If you leave the laptop suspended for a long time (several hours), Windows will eventually decide to hibernate to disk instead – to avoid running out of battery. (A suspended laptop still needs minimal power; depending on battery, it can remain suspended for several days or even weeks, but not forever.) Resuming from hibernate still retains all your programs, but is noticeably slower. So for convenience, you'll likely want to increase the hibernation timer to a few days.

I think it was the hard disk, or the memory he mentioned.

Possibly both. There are two primary sources of damage:

Electronic components (especially CPU, GPU, SSD flash) can be damaged by overheating. That's why computers have fans in the first place – but in a small bag/backpack there really isn't much airflow to cool anything down at all.

So if the computer in your bag is still running, in the best case it'll waste battery on fans. Worst case, the main CPU will soon reach its "emergency shutoff" temperature of 100–120°C and the whole computer will turn off anyway (to prevent further damage).

Meanwhile, devices with moving parts – especially the hard disk (if it's a magnetic HDD) – may be damaged physically due to sudden shocks causing the heads to crash into the platter, which in normal operation is a few nm away.

(Some laptops have motion sensors which try to detect when the device is falling and about to smack into the ground, but that doesn't provide anywhere close to total safety. They're not going to help much if the device is being constantly thrown around in the trunk...)

The suspend mode avoids all of these problems, because it does power off the CPU and HDD.

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    Fall sensors are usually in laptop HDDs. The reaction to detecting fall is to park heads (which takes milliseconds), because HDD is pretty resilient when heads are not over platters. Unlike when reading/writing, even falling 5cm can incur permanent damage (I won't make this mistake again). Things without moving parts are pretty much invulnerable to being tossed around. – Agent_L Sep 18 at 7:57
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    I would still think, that moving a laptop with a spinning drive is a bad idea. Lifting it carefully from the table is okay because of such safety mechanisms, but for moving it more than a few meters or rotating it I would suspend it. On the other hand, when your laptop has a SSD you can do almost everything with it. – allo Sep 18 at 9:23
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    Your dad most likely mentioned this because a few years back hard disks were really very sensitive to knocks (and they were all spinning disk types..) - the heads could end up touching the platters and scratching them up, they also wouldn't automatically park themselves, – John Hunt Sep 18 at 9:34
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    @allo: No, the safety mechanisms are mostly to protect from shocks – the internals of a modern HDD are themselves sufficiently stable to be unaffected by smooth movement. You usually won't hear the disk suddenly spinning down just because the laptop was lifted. – grawity Sep 18 at 10:46
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    Every motion is something the drive needs to compensate and the compensation may fail. Harddrives fail from time to time even in stationary PCs. Of course the manufacturer tries to minimize the risk, but you do not need to test the limits. Be careful with running hard drives and consider buying a SSD for your laptop. In fact, even a not running hard drive is in a laptop way more at risk than a SSD, because hard shocks may damage the drive even when the heads are parked. – allo Sep 18 at 12:35

There are several different modes of operation for your laptop:

  • ON: the CPU is running, RAM is powered, the hard disk is running, the screen is on.

    As the CPU is running, it generates heat (from a little to a significant amount depending on what you actually do), and this needs to be evacuated, usually with fans and vents. You don't want to have your laptop doing video encoding or 3D rendering while enclosed in a bag: it'll quickly overheat. But even when the CPU is "idling" it will generate heat and won't like very much being in a small enclosed space.

    The hard disk (but see below) has a magnetic disk spinning at 5400 RPM with a tiny read/write head hovering just above the surface. You don't want that to take a shock while it's doing so, as it could damage the disk.

    This is the state that draws most power, and is the most susceptible to issues.

    Note that even in this state:

    • the screen may be turned off while the CPU keeps running, usually after a period of inactivity. It'll turn back on as soon as you use the keyboard, trackpad or mouse.
    • the hard disk may "spin down" (park heads, stop rotation) when unused for a period of time, and spin back up when needed. On some laptops you can definitely hear it stop and start.
    • most hard disks are quite resistant to shocks, include fall detection (parking heads as soon as they detect free fall). Better not to tempt the devil, but we're not talking about eggshells.
    • if you have an SSD (flash drive) rather than an HDD (magnetic disk drive with a spinning platter), then there's nothing to spin up or down, no moving mechanical parts, so no problem at all.
  • Sleep: The CPU and hard disk are not running, the screen is off, but RAM is still powered and keeping its contents.

    In this state, there is just a little bit of power used to refresh RAM so it keeps its contents. That generates very little heat. There are no moving parts.

    It is safe to put your laptop in your bag and carry it around. As there is still a bit of power used, the laptop can stay in this state for a while, but not forever. Some laptops will spontaneously switch from sleep to hibernation after a while to avoid running down the battery (either after a set time, or based on the battery level).

  • Hibernation: The contents of the RAM have been saved to disk, and then everything is turned off.

    The only difference with the "OFF" state is that the state has been saved so it can resume relatively quickly afterwards (yawn).

    Nearly no power at all is used (just enough to detect a press on a button and/or lid opening). It can stay in this state for as long as you like. It is safe to put in a bag or carry around.

  • OFF: everything is off. Same consequences as hibernation.

Depending on who you ask, "suspend" may mean sleep or hibernate, so you need to be more explicit to make the difference. But it doesn't change the fact that whether sleeping, hibernating, or off, a laptop is safe to put in a bag or carry around. That's the whole point of a laptop!

Final note: there are sometimes cases of laptops not actually going to sleep when you ask them to, or waking up during sleep and not going back to sleep. You can then find your laptop being quite warm when you take it out of your bag. Not good. But this is a specific issue, not a general rule.

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    you may want to add "hybrid sleep" to your answer as another possibility. – Baldrickk Sep 18 at 15:51
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    @Baldrickk: Hybrid sleep is not usually recommended for laptops, because you want the laptop safe to move very soon after you close the lid. Hybrid sleep has to write out the RAM image and churn the disk, right when you're about to throw the whole thing in your bag. – Kevin Sep 18 at 16:23
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    @Kevin true, you do need to leave it a couple of seconds, but if you are going far enough to be putting it in a bag, what are a couple of seconds? Put lid down, stand up, put peripherals (if any) in bag, put laptop in bag. How does that differ really in time taken to: stand, peripherals in bag, lid down, laptop in bag? – Baldrickk Sep 18 at 17:20
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    @Baldrickk it you have an HDD (rather than an SSD) and a bit of RAM, it can take quite a while to suspend to disk. Several minutes is quite possible. In many cases (especially when travelling), I get my laptop out without any of the other accessories. So really when I put the lid down, it should be ready to pack. – jcaron Sep 18 at 22:17
  • ON: the CPU is running, RAM is powered, the hard disk is running, the screen is on. <-- how about a pc without a screen? Or with the screen turned off (intentionally or not)? – Ismael Miguel Sep 22 at 20:48

To be completely fair, moving your laptop around when it's off does damage, too.

Manufacturers know this and it's why they try for stiffer frames, rubberized everything, tougher LCD screens, strain relief on internal cables, and so much more.

When I was a computer tech, we would tell customers that a desktop generally has an expected lifetime of 4-5 years and a laptop 3-4 years. I've gotten well over that with both, but generally it's true.

A laptop will see a bunch of abuse, no matter if you have the most plush carry case in the world. The bumps, jolts, moving the monitor, setting it on a table, picking it up, everything you do to move it damages it in some slight (or not so slight) way. Plugging in cables is much more often in a laptop than a desktop and can cause loose sockets.

Being on top of a desk, in a bag, in a vehicle, or wherever is much more likely to see an accident, too.

This is why I would caution people against buying a laptop. It's more expensive and more prone to damage than a desktop, so do you really need a laptop? If you need the mobility, then yes, you need a laptop. Just be sure you understand and accept the risks first.

Moving it while it's on is just more potential damage than when it's off. Even solid state drives aren't 100% guaranteed against all damage.

Edit:
I've been asked how simply picking up and setting down a laptop can damage a laptop. Well, there's the strain on any plastic pieces as well as the hinges. Depending on how people pick up or set down the laptop, there's torque put on the case and/or mobo. I've seen instances where a laptop quit working simply because it was picked up. I've destroyed my laptop by putting it in my cars passenger seat too hard, and I didn't even drop it very far. (It was the first time I had done anything like that, but it was old enough that any jarring was probably going to break something.)

The reason behind this is because integrated circuits (aka: ICs, or chips) soldered on the board don't stretch and bend at the same rate the fiberglass circuit board does, so eventually you can separate the solder points by these stresses. Heat cycles can do the same thing (ICs and fiberglass expand and contract differently, too), and in fact the heat of running the laptop can weaken the solder joints to make it more likely to happen if you are moving it while it's running. Surface mount electronics are just barely attached to each other at the best of times.

The plastic in the case can eventually break, leading to the stress being picked up going to the mobo or other electronics, instead of the case. The hinges can fail, causing the LCD to fall and crack, or simply wear the wiring/cables going between the screen and mobo, eventually causing a short or a break.

You can find lots of examples of all this usually irreparable* damage by doing a basic Google search. Parts can be replaced, if you can find them, are willing to pay for them, and willing to replace them yourself or pay someone to do it for you. I've seen it happen quite a bit over the several years I was a computer tech, and several times since I became a programmer.

(*) People try to repair circuit board damage by reflowing the solder with an oven, hair dryer, or heat gun to varying success. Usually the repair is temporary, even if it's successful at first.

  • Picking up your laptop or placing it on a table damages it? What definition of "damage" is this? I can see, the risk of it being damaged might grow for each hotel it visits and each flight it travels on, but I don't think its eventual failure comes down to the cumulative effect of it being placed on tables. – Calchas Sep 23 at 21:58
  • @Calchas, I've made an edit to address your question. – computercarguy Sep 24 at 13:43

Yes, not powering down to an un-powered state can cause heat damage to all electronic components including the hard disk (regardless whether it's SSD or magnetic). Getting rid of the heat is one of the main problems laptop designers face; it's important that it's not on a soft surface (as on a blanket in bed), that the vents are unobstructed and that the fan is working properly. A bag doesn't allow the heat to dissipate and thus can lead to overheating. It's probably wise to leave the laptop sit for a minute or two even after properly powering it off, before bagging it.

Moving a computer with a magnetic disc — spinning or not — can cause mechanical damage to the disk. When the disk is spinning it's very volatile because the disk's heads hover only a few nanometers above the disk's surface; the laptop should best not be moved at all. I know that we all have done it many times without apparent problems; but there will be one at some point, believe me (and make backups). Magnetic hard disks are the weak spots on computers.

When the disk is not spinning it's less volatile. But even then I'd recommend to handle a laptop very carefully to avoid hard disk damage. It's simply by far the mechanically most delicate part of the computer — everything else is casing or circuits. SSDs are a big step towards more robust laptops.

With respect to powering down I'd recommend to not rely on "Suspend to RAM" (technically the S3 state in the ACPI specification, the state often triggered by closing the lid). This is for two reasons:

  • I have seen my laptop power back on without apparent reason (perhaps a spurious key press?). That would be bad in the bag.
  • There is still some power consumption producing heat.

Better power it down; whether you suspend to disk (ACPI state S4) or shut it down doesn't matter electrically; both states do not consume power.

Last not least I'd unplug all external connectors (mouse, phones, power) in order to reduce mechanical stress on the sockets.

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    -1 This is kind of “truthy” and filled with generic “tips” that are not reality helpful. Laptops are designed to be moved around. And modern hardware is far more reliable in the cases explained here nowadays than they were 15+ years ago. – JakeGould Sep 18 at 14:00
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    @JakeGould The question was somewhat unspecific; all factual statements in my post are correct (afaics); all the tips in my post are valid (most from personal experience); my impression and hope is that they are helpful to the OP. – Peter A. Schneider Sep 18 at 14:04

Heat

In a bag a running laptop can definitely get too hot, even while idle. I will carry a machine around for brief periods of time in a bag while running (think using the restroom) but would never do so for a long time or if it were not somewhat attended. Modern hardware will protect itself from thermal damage pretty well though.

Moving Parts

The only really fragile moving part in a laptop is the hard disk drive. This is mostly because the heads can strike the platters, and there are many anecdotes of this sort of damage. Some laptops have freefall protection that will park the heads during a fall, but this is software mediated and can be disable/not work.

Solid State Drives

Many modern machines do not have magnetic hard drives at all, but instead have an SSD. These have no moving parts and present zero risk to move while running. Does your laptop have an SSD? If not, and portability while running is important (or performance in general) this would be an excellent upgrade.

I regularly run around with my laptop awake, sometimes even when it's crunching somewhat intensive physics simulations. My current laptop (a cheap Asus R301L) has survived this without any problems for more than three years. The SSD certainly makes me more confident about this (IMO, an SSD is the only sensible internal storage medium for a laptop anyway nowadays). Of course, I still try to be as gentle as feasibly possible, and I don't put it in a bag that covers the fan openings.

With my old laptop, I also used to keep it on. That one failed me after 2 ½ years. I suspect this was in part because I sometimes did pack it in the bag; a couple of times this caused thermal shutdown. The hard disk, interestingly, never failed, even after I once dropped the laptop whilst running (onto a carpet). I put the HD in an external casing after the laptop died, and I still use it.

So, from my experience I'd say moving-whilst-running is no problem (or at least enough to warrant avoiding it), but wrapping it is a no-go.

Independent of all this, of course always make sure you have good backups of all data, because both hard disks and flash memory can fail spontaneously without any environment reason.

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    The answer mentions the SSD sort of like an aside. It's the key thing that allows you to move the laptop while it's running. You might want to make clear that the SSD is the "because". In general, though, an answer that states "I've gotten away with XYZ unrecommended practice for X years without an incident", is anecdotal evidence that may be mostly luck or the undescribed manner in which the practice is done. That's not a good basis for recommending a practice to others. It's better to describe how to safely do it, or document why it really isn't a problem in general. – fixer1234 Sep 18 at 21:44
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    @fixer1234 the SSD is not “the because”, I've also handled quite a few 2.5" external HDDs similarly and actually never had a crash in one of them. Sure an SSD can be expected to heed mechanical abuse less (as I said), but the point is that even a 2.5" HDD isn't far away the most fragile thing in a laptop. Laptops break as a fact of life (whether HDD, main board, battery, screen backlight...), and always turning them off or suspend is not an effective strategy against this if it interferes with your workflow. The only effective strategy is to expect that things can always go wrong. – leftaroundabout Sep 18 at 22:41
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    I agree that this answer is anecdotal and as such somewhat unsatisfying compared with a reference with larger-sample statistics, but I don't know of any such survey. So at least my answer is a data point, whereas the other answers just list stuff that could theoretically happen, without quantifying at all how much of an issue these things actually turn out to be in practice. – leftaroundabout Sep 18 at 22:41
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    Laptop mechanical drives are super fragile. When I needed to destroy a hard drive, instead of taking it apart like a desktop drive, I would simply stab the laptop drive repeatedly with the nearest screw driver. The tiny platters would shatter, even without puncturing the thin metal case. – computercarguy Sep 19 at 1:31
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    Can confirm from personal experience that running to the train station with my laptop (an Asus Netbook with 2.5" HDD) still running in the backpack worked fine for years. Eventually the fan broke which might be related. – Michael Sep 20 at 17:59

Thermal stress would be the biggest fear here personally. That's whats likely to kill a motherboard, high heat followed by high cooling. High heat can damage components too, especially memory, capacitors and resistors, so leaving it running where it can't "breathe" is pretty stupid, not only that but hard drives are basically a gyroscope, and shocks off axis would also potentially brick it (though just the harddrive, a pretty cheap fix). The other more cumulative big killer will be thermal and mechanical shock while its cooling down from high heator plugging things in/out constantly. With laptops being designed to passively cool more than ever, the chance of thermal shock is actually a lot higher as once it starts moving around after "heating up" (some new laptops idle at around 70C internally) and you're getting fresh airflow over/in it while it isn't generating heat.

You're much, much better off travelling with it on standby AFTER it has cooled for a few minutes.

1) it won't cool down quite as quickly in the notebook preventing thermal shock mixed with mechanical shock.

2) if it isn't too hot the solder joints will be strong and semiflexible, so being in the bag at a stable "warm" temperature will reduce the impact of moving it around everywhere.

3) if its too COLD the opposite problem can occur, solder joints will be brittle and contract a lot, causing microcracks, a good mechanical bump or two can easily then break a piece off the PCB.

Source: I have a laptop that died due to this effect, I reballed the solder for the GPU and followed these rules and its been trucking for 12 years.

In the past, I've had experiences where my Windows laptop would wake itself up out of sleep mode - sometimes to apply updates, sometimes because of badly coded hardware drivers.

It would be boiling hot when I took it out of the bag. Although it would have shut itself down had the heat been too much, it obviously isn't good for the hardware.

I wouldn't expect such erratic behavior from modern hardware, except maybe on some low-end devices. Windows is also probably a lot better at staying alseep when it should.

I've had two dead hard disks: one from a running laptop dropping on the floor (after tripping over a cable), one from setting a running laptop down on the floor. The latter could be considered relevant for your question. My current laptop has an SSD disk which more or less obviates this danger.

It's probably worth figuring out which kind of laptop is not likely to cause trouble when suspending or hibernating either way. If your OS is Linux, that more or less means to avoid Nvidia graphics like the plague. Older ATI hardware is not really better. I've had very good experience with Intel graphics though their 3D performance is apparently quite mediocre compared to similarly aged competition with proprietary drivers. For work laptops (unless you work in 3D visualization) it's much more important for me that stuff works reliably (and continues being supported for a long time) rather than at top speed. Probably something to keep in mind come next purchase.

A running system while being transported is not just a bad idea because of the danger of an active rotating hard disk getting head crashed. It's also bad for the bearings of both hard disk and fan to get rotated around axes differently from their principal rotation axis (carrying a laptop someplace else is mostly unproblematic in its nominal working orientation, but if you tuck it under your arm and turn around a corner, this is different). The laptop might react to ghost key presses or touchpad movements, and the cooling might become completely ineffective because of air not being able to properly escape.

So figuring out what it takes to have a laptop that will properly suspend is likely a good investment. Switching free drivers for proprietary ones (and vice versa) can make a difference depending on your GPU. If only one of hibernation and suspend can be made to work reliably, I'd opt for the setup allowing suspend.

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