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November 26, 2013

Clean Your PC Inside and Out

It's not just your home that needs a good spring cleaning. Your PC and peripherals accumulate dust and grime at a steady clip, and require ongoing attention just like any other frequently used appliance. You need to clean the keyboard, mouse, and screen, of course, but you shouldn't neglect the interior, as well. Dust buildup inside your PC's case can lead to overheating and component failure. Follow our simple cleaning schedule to keep your machine spick-and-span.

Step 1: Once a week: Clean your keyboard
Once a week, wipe down your keyboard and use a can of compressed air to blow out dust and crumbs.
Studies have shown that more bacteria live on each square inch of a typical office desk than on the same area of a typical office toilet seat. The reason: The bathroom gets cleaned with disinfectants fairly regularly, but most PC users dust their desks and keyboards only occasionally, at best. This neglect can turn your keyboard into a veritable Petri dish, especially if you often eat near your PC.
To help keep your desk area germ-free, clean your keyboard once a week. Start by holding it upside down and gently shaking it to dislodge any crumbs. Large particles like food debris can make keys unresponsive. Next, take a can of compressed air (available at most electronics retailers for around $7) and use the straw-like nozzle to blow out dust from between the keys. These steps should extend the life of your keyboard and keep it working like new.
The scarier detritus, of course, is what you can't see: germs thriving on your keytops and mouse surface. At least once a week—and certainly more often during cold and flu season—gently wipe the keys with a moist (but not dripping-wet) antibacterial towelette. (Do this when your PC is off, so you don't send the OS into fits as you press all the keys.) Don't forget to wipe down your mouse, too.
Clean your monitor once a week using a microfiber or eyeglass-cleaning cloth.
For PCs shared among several users, consider investing in a keyboard-and-mouse set with an antimicrobial coating.
In addition to your keyboard, it's also wise to clean your monitor once a week using a microfiber or eyeglass-cleaning cloth. If that doesn't do the job, use a slightly moistened, soft cloth. Avoid cleansers that aren't specially formulated for LCDs; stick to water.
If you're still using a CRT monitor, be sure to run the cloth over the monitor's air vents, too, to collect dust that has settled there.

Step 2: Once a month: Clear the fans
When it comes to your PC's case, dust and pet dander that make their way inside are more of a concern than surface dirt. Proper airflow within the chassis is critical to maintaining an optimal operating temperature, and dust can build up in the various fans (case, power supply, CPU, and, in some models, GPU), causing them to slow down or seize up altogether. If that happens, the resulting excess heat can cause the CPU to automatically throttle down its speed (to avoid overheating). Eventually, components might fail altogether.
Once a month, with your PC off, turn the case around and clear any dust you see around the air intakes. Use a Q-Tip or lint-free foam swab (available at craft and hobby stores) to clean the fan blades and other areas you can't reach with a cloth. You might be tempted to hit them with a blast of compressed air, but don't: This will only force the dust deeper into the fan mechanism and PC case, and could damage the fan. Instead, refer to our next step.


Step 3: Once a year: Air it out
A few blasts with a can of compressed air should dislodge most dust buildup and keep your machine running cool.
Even in the cleanest home or office, dust will inevitably collect inside your PC. Whenever it's on, your system is drawing air from the room to keep things cool. The tangle of cables and the texture of the various printed circuit boards make these items natural dust magnets. One hint: If your PC fan seems to be ratcheting up to high speed more often than you remember when the computer was new, you could have a dust-buildup problem. Some high-end boutique machines have easily accessible dust filters you can remove and replace from the outside, but most of us will need to open the case about once a year to clean it out.
First, disconnect all the cables and bring the PC outside or into your garage. (You don't want to unleash a dust cloud on the kitchen table.) Have your can of compressed air handy, as well as a dust mask. Making sure the PC is turned off and unplugged (never open a PC case with the power cord still attached), carefully remove the side panel.
Touch the metal chassis to ground yourself and dispel any built-up static charge you might be carrying; electrostatic discharge (ESD) can be lethal to the sensitive components inside your PC. Then, get to work with the compressed air, using it like a tiny leaf blower to herd the dust from crevices and out of the chassis.
No matter how dusty your PC may be, don't resort to your household vacuum cleaner. The static electricity generated by these appliances will do more harm than the dust itself. You can find inexpensive ($30 or so) battery-powered vacs for electronics that claim to be ideal for cleaning a PC, but we're hesitant about them, too. You'll want a machine that's rated ESD-safe, such as the 3M Electronics Vacuum. These units cost around $200, however, and are really worth the money only for IT and service departments that need to clean PCs all the time.

Step 4: Just once: Keep it neat
For IDE connections, use round-style cables to free up space, increase air circulation, and reduce dust inside your case.
Makers of high-end PCs carefully route and tie internal cables to enhance airflow, increase heat dissipation, and cut down on the areas dust can hide, and you can do the same for your machine. Using small cable ties, carefully bundle cables together, and, judging by the location of your PC's air intake (usually at the front of the case) and outlet (at the back), move the cables out of the way. Also be sure the CPU and GPU fans are unobstructed.
If your machine uses the old-style wide ribbon cables for IDE connections, you can swap those out for the newer round-style IDE cables (about $6 each). These cables take up far less space, let air circulate more freely, and reduce dust accumulation. Now that your PC is tidied up both inside and out, button up the case and cross one more spring-cleaning chore off your list.

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