Most of us are more concerned about the tidiness of our directories and files than we are about our physical computer. A dirty computer is a failure-prone computer, so let's dig in with some cleaning tips.
Photo by Wm Chamberlain.
Your computer and peripherals love dust, dirt, grime and germs. Computers are dry, hot, have fans blowing through them all day, and lots of nooks and crannies to catch dust, hair and other tiny debris as it passes through. Peripherals fair a little better as most aren't dust-sucking wind tunnels, but they too suffer from being dust-attractants and having our greasy hands all over them — your mouse might not be dusty but it's slick with stuff.
The following roundup of tips and tricks will help you get your computer spanking clean, running cooler and less germ-laden than a public restroom. We'll start with the outermost peripherals and move in towards the guts of your machine.
Printers, USB Hubs, Scanner Exteriors and Other Infrequently Handled Peripherals
The outermost computer peripherals are the easiest to clean. Electrostatic dusting products like the Go Duster are a bit of wasteful hype for simple dusting — like your dining room table — but they really shine when it comes to cleaning peripherals. If you don't dust with a dry dusting tool like a Go Duster before using a slightly damp cloth on more stubborn scuffs or stains, you'll end up turning the dust into clumpy mud. It's way easier to swipe it away with an electrostatic cloth than it is to scoot all the rolled up balls of dust and lint all over — balls that inevitably fall inside the printer or get stuck in the crannies of the device.
For 95 per cent of the peripheral cleaning, all you'll need is a quick pass with a dust cloth. For any odd stains or residues, like a coffee drip or an inky finger smudge, you can usually squeeze by with using a damp cloth. For deeper stains, yellowing or scuffs and marks that just won't come up, a Magic Eraser is a fantastic tool. When I pulled an old laser printer out of storage it was a little yellowed with age and a lot scuffed up — apparently everything black and rubbery had spent the last few years in the closet beating the poor printer for lunch money.
No amount of light buffing with a damp cloth would do anything about the yellowing of the plastic or the dark scuff marks. Less than a minute with a Magic Eraser and it looked sparkling new. The Magic Eraser is a brand name of melamine foam marketed by Mr Clean but melamine foam is hardly a trade secret so you can save a bunch by buying the generic "dirt erasers" you see marketed right next to the brand names. The melamine pads are — no matter how microscopically — abrasive so make sure to test it out in an inconspicuous spot before going full bore on the front of your device.
Monitors, Web Cams, Scanner Interiors and Other Don't-Scratch-Me Peripherals
If you get a little overzealous cleaning your printer and scuff it a bit, you'll likely be the only one to notice. If you scratch the crap out of your monitor, not only will you have to stare it it every day, but you'll always be explaining to passersby how exactly your monitor lost a bloody gang fight with a Scotch Brite pad.
Start off giving your monitor the same electrostatic-cloth treatment you gave your peripherals. Unless you have the bad habit of poking your screen with your fingers — or a cat that enjoys putting their nose right against the mouse cursor — you should be able to skirt by for long periods with just a light dusting.
Remove fingerprints, smudges and the like with a very lightly dampened cloth. Don't use paper napkins or towels as paper products can scratch delicate LCD coatings. Stick to a 100 per cent cotton or microfibre dust cloth. Never dampen the monitor itself with any solution.
Always — always! — lightly dampen the cloth itself. LCD manufacturers recommend strongly against using cleaning products on your monitor including ammonia-based window cleaners, alcohol cleaning sprays or the like. If you run into a smudge that just won't come up and your efforts with just water and a dust cloth seem only to move it around the screen, you can try something a little stronger. Dilute white vinegar in water in a 50/50 mix — or even weaker, if you'd like — and use that to break up the oil. It's better to use a little bit of vinegar to lift a heavy smudge than it is to keep buffing away at it, applying unnecessary pressure to the screen.
Keyboards, Mice and Peripherals so Germtastic Scientists Can't Tell Them From Toilet Seats
Unless you've recently given your keyboard and mouse a good cleaning — I love the smell of alcohol in the morning, smells like sanitation? — it's dirtier than a toilet seat. All day long everything you touch between hand washings ends up on your keyboard. Germs from the office front door, that hygiene-challenged guy two cubes over that insists on shaking hands, the quarter you found in the grime in front of the vending machine, they all sneak their way onto the most touched things in your office. We're hardly germaphobic, but if you're going to be touching something all day, every day, it's worth making sure that a swab-sample taken off it wouldn't be potent enough to get the Department of Health in your business.
If you want to be extra cautious, you can boot down your machine and unplug your peripherals before cleaning them — I've never done this and have yet to harm a mouse or keyboard in anyway with a cursory cleaning and sanitising. It's easier to leave everything plugged in and just lock up the inputs while you're cleaning. Download BlockInput for Windows or Keyboard Cleaner for the Mac to lock down your keyboard for the next step.
Sanitising wipes are perfect for this job. After unplugging or locking down your keyboard, give it a good firm wipe down with the disinfecting cloth. You'll be amazed how much grime comes up, even the most benign looking stock-black keyboard can darken a couple of wipes with finger oil and dirt. Repeat the same process for your mouse, making sure to wipe it down all over — pay special attention to the trackball on trackball mice, you'll want to give it a good spin and wipe it all over. If you're using an old ball-based mouse or a track ball, remember to take the ball out and clean around the contact points; not an issue if you're using a laser mouse.
If you've gone so long without cleaning your keyboard that it's extra filthy — or you just enjoy eating lunch directly over the keyboard — you may want to get even more drastic. You can clean between the keys with an old mascara brush or even take the keyboard apart to get at the grime under the keys.
Deep Cleaning the Inside of Your Computer
While the above cleaning tricks are great, the biggest return on your cleaning-time investment is to clean out the inside of your computer. Heat is the enemy of electronic components, and compared to a solid-state device like a calculator your computer is exceptionally heat-sensitive and finicky. How finicky? Researchers examining the effect of server loads and heat on hard drive life write:
The reliability and durability of HDDs depend on operating temperatures. Increasing HDD temperature by 5°C has the same effect on reliability as switching from 10 percent to 100 percent HDD workload. Each Centigrade degree drop of HDD temperature is equivalent to a 10 percent increase of HDD service life.
Dust is an insulator. When you crack open the case of your computer and it looks like the photo above you're looking at a computer that's facing a radically reduced life span. Every inch of it is covered with a blanket of insulating dust that raises the temperature of components across the board. Your computer might not be that dusty but given how easy it is to clean out a computer it's ridiculous not to. Not taking the time to dust out your computer once or twice a year is like being too busy to get your oil changed.
Fortunately we have a guide to opening your computer up, vacating the dust and even giving your system fans a little boost. We're not going to recap the already awesome guide but we are going to stress that you need to do it sooner than later. The cake of dust inside your machine is a slow-working vampire, sucking away life from your graphics card, processor, and most importantly — as we emphasised above — your hard drives. Data is too precious to leave it smouldering in an insulated jacket.
The previous advice will make sure your printer looks showroom new, the coffee stain is gone off your scanner lid, your monitor is easy on your eyes, your keyboard isn't going to give you E. coli, and your hard drives are running cool. Repeat the surface cleaning on a weekly basis and the deep cleaning a few times a year and you'll enjoy a cleaner and happier computer. Have computer cleaning tip or trick to share? Let's hear about it in the comments.