How to Coddle Your Computer

Keep your silicon-based pet brain happy with these timely tips

Admit it: You’re dependent on your computer, and don’t want downtime. So follow these tips, and keep it happy! Most of this applies to desktop computers, but there are some laptop tips as well.

  • Ventilation. Excess heat shortens the life of components. Check that all vents are always unblocked, and leave plenty of room for air to circulate around the computer. This is especially true if you have your laptop on your lap, as in the image above.
  • Fan and filter. Check cooling fan filters (some hard drives have fans as well) for dirt. Run water through the filter and make sure it’s thoroughly dry before replacing. Also, the fan itself is often a dust magnet because it’s pulling air over those blades. Wipe the blades periodically with a damp cloth to keep dust from getting into the machine.
  • Dust and debris. Dust interferes with proper contact between moving parts, and forms a layer of thermal insulation that prevents heat from dissipating. Once a year, take the computer’s cover off, go outside, and carefully blow out the dust with a can of compressed air.
  • Connector jiggling. While the cover’s off, jiggle any connectors by gently rocking the male part of the connector. This helps prevent oxidation from building up on the contacts, and sometimes can even solve intermittent problems. If you have a computer with card slots, lift up any cards slightly, then re-seat them in the motherboard to clean the contacts.
  • Support your cables. With desktop computers, internal cables (e.g. to video cards) can weigh quite a bit, and pull downward on delicate connectors. Support your cables so that as little weight as possible pulls on the connectors.
  • Use a USB cable extender for dongles and USB memory sticks. With laptops, having a long object poking out of your computer’s motherboard is asking for trouble. But also remember that USB connectors are typically rated for 1,500 insertion/removal cycles. It’s better to wear out the extender cable’s connector than the one on your motherboard.
  • Use an uninterruptible power supply. These provide a clean voltage source that lets you power down elegantly in the event of power problems. This modest investment could end up saving you data and dollars.
  • Add a surge suppressor to your cable modem or other broadband line. Even if you use an uninterruptible power supply and turn off the computer when there’s a thunderstorm in the area, any line going from the outside world into your computer can provide a “back door” to electricity from nearby lightning strikes.
  • Quickie keyboard maintenance. Disconnect the keyboard, take it outside, hold it upside down, and shake gently. Then blow into the spaces between the keys. This will remove at least some of the dust.
  • If you put your laptop inside a computer bag, power it down first—standby isn’t good enough. If the computer gets turned on by accident, it will be sitting in a space with no ventilation.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoke does not make computers happy.
  • Make a special AC cord before working on your computer. You don’t want to leave your computer plugged in if you take the cover off, but you do want to keep the case grounded. Buy an IEC-type AC cord and cut off the two AC prongs flush with the plug (file them if necessary to make sure they don’t stick out)—but leave the ground plug.
  • Wear a grounding strap if you open up your computer. A grounding strap discharges any static electricity from your body. No grounding strap? At least touch something metal before doing anything inside your computer.
  • Battery problems. Most computers use batteries to back up functions such as date and time settings. Check the battery periodically for leakage, and replace it when it starts to reach the end of its useful life.
  • Never touch cable pins. Always handle a cable by the casing. Some pins might connect to sensitive parts of a device that could be damaged by static electricity charges. Also, turn off power before connecting or disconnecting cables.

Photo by Mimi Thian