A computer has more or less has become a necessary part of our lives and surviving a day without a computer within our reach seems a little hard. Now this computer can either be in form of a desktop, a laptop or maybe a smart phone but the fact remains that with each passing day, our reliance on these devices increases. Even while going on vacations, people have started to prefer to bring their laptop along. I am myself among those people who would carry around their laptop everywhere and the only times I leave it leave it behind at home is when I am going for a motorcycle ride. While my reason for doing so mostly is to carry it as a backup drive to transfer pictures from my DSLR in case I run out of space on memory cards or to jot down travelogues, everyone have their own personal reasons for keeping their laptops handy everywhere. While carrying laptop to high altitude places like Ladakh or Spiti, there are certain precautions that must be observed or else your laptop too would suffer from high altitude sickness.
Believe it or not, a laptop too has a maximum operating altitude of 3,000 meters or 10,000 ft. Any higher than that and you run a risk of crashing the hard disk drive. The reason behind (in purely technical terms) is that a hard disk drive works on a mechanical arm with a read/write head. As you switch your laptop on, the disk would start spinning and the head would move around reading the information from the right location on the storage platter. While doing so, it remains fraction of a millimeter above the spinning disc in the air. At high altitudes, as the air pressure gets lower, the reading head would start to get too close to the disc and if it comes in contact with the it, result would be of a crashed hard disk drive. However, If your laptop however has a solid state drive, this risk is nominal because on a SSD, there is no moving disk or head and the information is stored in microchips, like it happens in the case of a USB drive.
However, no matter which laptop you are carrying, there are still a few precautions that I would recommend before you switch it on at a place higher than 10,000 ft.
1. Backup your data: This is probably the most critical part. Before you carry your laptop to a high altitude place like Ladakh or Spiti, you must backup all your data and on another drive and leave it behind. In case you end up crashing the hard disk over there, at least your existing data will be safe back home.
2. Do not work your laptop for long hours: Do not keep your laptop switched on for longer duration unnecessarily and by this I mean watching movies, listening music or surfing internet. Work it only for the bare minimum time required.
3. Shut down completely: After you are finished working, shut down your laptop. Do not leave it in “Sleep” or “Hibernate” mode.
4. Keep it warm: This helps in terms of extending battery life. High altitude places are also places of moderate to extremely cold weather and batteries tend to run out fast in cold environments. Keep your laptop warm to keep preserve the battery.
5. Better to keep it off: At places of 10,000 ft, it best to keep your laptop switched off, especially if it is running on HDD. Bring it to life only when you really need it to either complete some work or to back up data. Up to 10,000 feet, most of the laptops work fine but chances of failure increase with the altitude after that. Do keep in mind though that if you are switching on your HDD laptop at a place higher than 10,000 ft, there is a constant risk that your hard drive may crash any moment.
6. Avoid putting memory stress: While your laptop is on, do not run multiple applications at the same time.
7. Keep it dry: Your laptop is neither waterproof nor water resistant so a high quality waterproof bag is a must while traveling.
8. Save it from condensation: Earlier in the article, I suggested to keep your electronics warm in order to preserve battery life. But it actually gives birth to another complication called condensation. Any sudden change in temperature may cause condensation and fry up the circuits. In order to avoid that, do not pull your laptop out of the bag in the open. Do it in a closed environment like inside a room or in your car to ensure that there is no sudden temperature drop.
9. Avoid bumps & shocks: No matter which laptop you have, a hard bump, a fall or continuous shaking may just screw it up completely. Keep your laptop safe and firm in a place.
10. None of what I stated above applies to operating laptops in an airplane, it is only for high altitude regions. Aeroplane cabins are pressurized above 10,000 ft (newer aircraft models are pressurized as low as 5,000 feet) which makes it safe to use your laptop.
So how do you know if your laptop is showing signs of stress or at what height is it safe for you to use it? Well there is no predicting in terms of height really. Just follow the precautions that I stated above and look for signs of stress and you should be OK. If your laptop starts to freeze, starts to shut off immediately without any warning then you must stop using it until you are back home at a lower altitude.
I hope this information was helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below and I would be glad to answer.