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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Spring clean your PC: Part 3 - Hardware

The third and final part of our guide to sprucing up your computer looks at ways of making your hardware more presentable.

Tim Nott & Kelvyn Taylor, Personal Computer World, 27 Feb 2004

It's amazing how quickly the inside of a PC can become clogged up with dust. The 'before' photos on the next page are of a system that was cleaned only about six months ago. Dirt reduces the airflow through the case, leading to heat build-up and possible premature failure of components. In extreme cases it can also be a fire hazard.

PC cleaning toolkit
Before you start ripping your PC apart, make sure you've got the right tools for the job. While basic cleaning can be done using some common household items, if you want to do a really good job it's worth investing a couple of pounds on some kit that will make your life a lot easier. We'd suggest you stay clear of low priced 'all-in-one' PC cleaning kits, as they don't normally contain very many really useful items.

Mini vacuum cleaner
Small handheld battery-powered vacuum cleaners cost around £5 but don't have much suction power - those designed for car use are better. And don't forget a dust mask as there'll be a lot of unpleasant dust inside your system.
Brushes
A small oil-painting brush is great for loosening dirt, as are 12mm or 25mm emulsion brushes from your local DIY store. A flat pastry brush is also very useful for cleaning keyboards.
Cleaning cloths
Old cotton tea towels are ideal - avoid man-made fibres as they can generate too much static electricity.
Air duster
Probably the most useful purchase you can make. These are simply cans of compressed air that you can use to blow away dirt. They come in several sizes and normally have a tube extension for getting into inaccessible areas.
Cleaning fluids
Avoid solvents, foam cleaners and the like wherever possible - they're expensive and don't really offer many advantages. For cleaning plastic and metal cases, a cloth damped in warm water and a small amount of soap powder or mild detergent is preferable.
Disk cleaning kits
A floppy disk drive cleaner and a CD lens cleaner are all you need - these devices shouldn't be cleaned any other way apart from an external wipe with a dry cloth.
Other tools
You'll need a selection of crosshead screwdrivers and possibly a set of jeweller's screwdrivers. Needle-nose pliers and miniature sidecutters (for cable ties) will also come in handy. Don't use magnetised screwdrivers if possible. Finally, don't forget containers for all the screws and clips - get several plastic beakers and label them. You might also need an assortment of small cable ties to replace any you have to remove.
System unit and motherboard

Although you shouldn't need to be reminded, completely disconnect your PC from the mains before starting, and unplug all ancillary cables. Give the system an hour or so to cool down if it's been running.

Organise a clean workspace on the kitchen table or wherever you prefer - and don't use a heavily patterned tablecloth or you may never find half the screws that drop out! And if you've never seen the insides of your PC before, spend time to get familiar with everything before starting work. If you haven't a clue what any of the bits are, put the lid back on and find a more knowledgeable friend to help you.

It's best to start from the outside in, so before you disassemble the case, give it a good vacuum and wipe it down externally with a damp cloth.

Don't use abrasives or solvents. Remove the relevant panels (plus the fascia if it's obvious how to remove it) and put them to one side for cleaning individually.

Although you can do a lot of useful cleaning without removing any components, to do a proper job it's best to strip down the whole system. It's a very wise idea to draw a diagram of the location of all internal components, cables and connectors, particularly if it's not a self-built PC or you haven't looked inside it for some time.

With an air duster, get rid of as much loose dirt as you can before disassembling anything. Don't be tempted to use a damp cloth or any liquids inside the PC - you'll regret it. With loose dirt removed, inspect all the components to see where to start.

First pay particular attention to cooling fans and heatsinks on the system chassis, CPU, graphics card and power supply. The best way to clean fans is with a coarse bristle pastry brush or small emulsion brush - poke the brush into the blades and gently turn the blades round with the brush.

Alternatively, an air duster will make short work of this task. Don't be tempted to try and take any fans apart, it won't do you any good. If fan bearings appear to be sticking or worn, buy a replacement fan as trying to service them is a waste of time.

Cleaning chassis fans is easiest if you unscrew them from the chassis, but CPU and graphics cards fans are not usually removable from the underlying heatsink - you'll need to clean these in situ. Remember the orientation of any fans you remove - there are usually arrows on the casing to indicate rotation and airflow directions.

We don't recommend taking power supplies apart, but the fans in these do get very dirty. Clean the fan from the outside using a brush (there's sometimes a fan guard you can remove to get better access), then blow through the entire PSU from the air intake side with an air duster to remove dust from the interior - dust and fluff in a PSU is a real fire risk.

Heatsinks are best cleaned with the air duster or a long soft brush. If you remove the CPU heatsink/fan combination, remember to put a smear of new thermal grease on the base of the heatsink before you replace it.

Don't try and remove heatsinks from graphics cards or chipsets (and some CPUs) - they're usually bonded in place and you could irrevocably damage your card or motherboard. If it doesn't lift off with gentle pressure, leave it.

Add-in cards should be removed and air-dusted clean - if there's any sign of corrosion or dirt on the gold contact edges, use a clean white eraser to gently rub them clean. The same applies to memory modules. Also, don't forget to clean out the external I/O ports on the cards with an air duster.

Don't be tempted to use anything apart from an air duster on the motherboard - even wiping it could bend or damage components. DVD/CD and floppy drives are worth removing for an external wipe down, but that's all apart from a clean with suitable proprietary cleaning disks - these are inexpensive, but avoid the ones that use cleaning liquids. While you've got the drives out, get rid of dust in and around the drive bays.

And consider replacing your standard EIDE ribbon cables with rounded ones, which help improve airflow in the PC and are a lot tidier. Once you've done all this, give the inside of the case a good wipe down and vacuum before you reassemble everything according to the diagram you drew at the start.

Keyboard and mouse
Your keyboard is directly in the firing line of some of the worst grime you can throw at a PC - coffee, biscuits, chocolate, sandwiches, soft drinks and worse. Sticking or dead keys are usually the first symptom that something's amiss.

Fortunately keyboards are fairly simple, if fiddly, to clean. There are many different types of construction, so we'll stick to general rules. First, remember that a keyboard is an electronic component and hates liquids.

Forget the stories you've seen about soaking it in a bath and drying it out - it won't work. If you've spilled coffee or other liquid into it, you're better off buying a new one - and think yourself lucky if it hasn't already fried your motherboard.

Thankfully, surface grime is easily removed. First, use a stiff narrow brush to remove loose dirt from between the keys - a mini vacuum or air duster will take care of loose debris. Wipe the keycaps gently with a barely damp cloth. Usually these two procedures will take care of most problems.

For basket cases, be prepared to sacrifice your keyboard before you go any further. Take out all the screws in the base and gently prise apart the two halves. It should be fairly apparent how it's constructed at this stage: one type is a dimpled rubber membrane sheet under the keys that sits on a plastic circuit board, an alternative is rubber caps fixed under each key.

However, there are many variations ranging from the simple to the impossibly complicated. Generally speaking, the older the keyboard, the more complicated it will be.

The only real advantage to taking the keyboard apart is that you can clean the keys with less danger of getting damp into the electronics (as long as you dry out the top thoroughly). However, unless you're feeling particularly brave, don't take off all the keycaps; they're extremely fiddly to replace, particularly the larger keys with support hinges underneath, and you stand a good chance of breaking some.

With a small stiff brush and some damp cotton swabs you can achieve a pretty good result, it just takes time.

For ball mice, remove the ball, wash it and clean the small rollers inside the empty cavity - a damp cotton swab will normally do the trick. Also clean the plastic friction surfaces on the mouse base with a damp cloth - these rapidly accumulate dirt. For optical mice, restrict yourself to cleaning the friction pads - there's nothing else to maintain.

Final touches
We're not going to go into cleaning peripherals here as monitors and printers usually have specific cleaning instructions in the user manual and you should strictly adhere to their guidelines. In particular, monitor screens may be coated with a variety of anti-static or anti-reflective coatings and under no circumstances should be cleaned with domestic glass-cleaning products. Normally a damp clean cloth is all that's recommended.

Similarly with the exterior of such devices, clean, dry cloths are your friends. By now your PC should be much cleaner, quieter and cooler. As an example, the PC shown in the photos here was running with a CPU temperature at idle of 46-48 degC, and a system temperature of 30 deg. After cleaning these dropped to 40-42 deg and 26-27 deg respectively. Regular inspection and cleaning every two or three months will prolong your PC's life and save you money in the long run.

Cleaning supplies
www.mrpcclean.co.uk - A great range of cleaning materials
www.kleanit.co.uk - Limited range, but some useful items including scented air dusters

General PC maintenance and troubleshooting
www.pcguide.com - A little old, but still very useful
www.pcw.co.uk/Features/1145405 - Gordon Laing's guide to building a PC
www.buildyourown.org.uk - Multimedia guide to building your own PC

PC cooling accessories
www.overclock.co.uk - Good selection of replacement fans, heatsinks, cables
www.coolcasemods.com - Lots of accessories for customising and repair

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