Something that really bugs me about the design of personal computers that circulate air internally for cooling is that none of them seem to include any kind of filtering on the airflow entering the machine. It's a basic design flaw that contributes to a significant amount of computer malfunction.
About a year back I wrote "Your Scanner Needs Cleaning!" Here I am, back with a related refrain: clean your computer!
Here's the problem. That circulating air carries dust. The dust settles out on the electrical components inside your computer. Some of those components are insulators, some conductors. Doesn't really matter. They're all designed to operate in open air, not under a layer of dust.
The dust creates problems for two reasons. The first is the dust doesn't have the electrical characteristics of air. It affects electrical signals that pass through it differently. Your computer is just one big radio frequency generator. It doesn't take a lot to distort all those high-frequency signals moving around on those circuit traces. There's a certain safety margin built into the design so that some signal distortion and degradation can be tolerated. There's not a lot. A layer of dust can distort the signals enough that occasionally they will be misread at the other end of the circuit. Programs will abort for no apparent reason, files will get saved with occasional small bits of corruption, and if things get extreme your computer will start crashing unexpectedly...well, more than it does usually.
Basically, the machines aren't designed to run under dust anymore than they are under water. If anyone doubts that and is brave enough to try it, fill up a tank with distilled water, stick your computer in it, and tell us how well it works. Distilled water is an excellent insulator, but you'll find it isn't all that great at supporting computer signals.
The narcoleptic CPU
What's the second reason? Well, that's why am writing this column. I have my MacBook Pro opened up pretty frequently, installing upgrades and new components such as the hybrid hard drive last winter. I always blow out the accumulation of dust when I do that. Apparently I did not do as good a job as I thought I did last winter. A month or so ago, my MacBook Pro started shutting itself off spontaneously. It would simply go into sleep mode with no warning. I wasn't losing any data, but computer narcolepsy is really annoying. It shuts down. I wake it up. It shuts down. I wake it up. Repeat until finally it stays awake...and I'm ready to throw it across the room. (Remember my motto: never use a computer too big to throw out a window.)
After a little experimentation I deduced that it had to be a heat buildup problem. The thermal protection built into the system was intentionally putting it to sleep. That's why I wasn't losing any data, being an entirely controlled shutdown so far as the computer was concerned. It just didn't accord with my wishes.
I took the machine apart and used the better part of an entire can of compressed gas to blast every nook and cranny I could get at, paying special attention to getting the little nozzle underneath circuit boards and in corners where I might normally not. (And being very careful not to spray liquid, just gas, into the computer!)
Violating nonexistent warranties
While I was at it I pulled the DVD burner. It's the third one I've had in this machine and it had moved far beyond being merely flaky. It not only usually failed to reliably burn new discs, it often failed to read previously-burnt ones. This happens regularly on my computers. DVD burners are not trustworthy beasts. That's why I always double-verify my disks.
The system was out of warranty, so I had nothing to lose. I took a half dozen screws out of the cover on the drive, sliced through the little stickers that told me how I was violating my nonexistent warranty, and popped off the cover. There was a thin layer of dust inside the drive, not a lot, probably not enough to matter. I was able to get rid of some of it with the remainder of my can of compressed air.
Then I took a PEC Pad, wet a corner of it with optical cleaner, and gently wiped it over the lens in the read/write head in the drive. The lens looked slightly more transparent after I did that. A good sign.
Popped the cover back on the drive, put everything back together. Total time consumed, just over an hour.
It's been two months now, and my laptop hasn't shut down spontaneously once. The internal cooling fans are also cycling off more frequently.
And, wonder of wonders, my DVD burner seems to work perfectly and be completely reliable again. I've burned a good dozen discs with it, they all read perfectly fine on it and other drives I own, and the drive didn't balk once the whole time. Wouldn't have done that two months ago.
Just regained some significant functionality at very little expense. I am happy.
Too bad my iMac isn't user serviceable; its DVD drive has been getting crankier than the one in the MacBook Pro. It'll be back to the Apple Store for a warranty exchange when I can find the spare time.
Friggin' ^%#@!@$*!! unfiltered circulating air.
Ctein's regular weekly column on TOP appears on Wednesdays.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Paul Ewins: "I used to work for a bank doing IT support work and often had to deal with quite filthy PCs. The worst were a set of branch servers that had been kept under desks. There were dust-bunnies inside that would have shamed the worst bachelor housekeeper. I would take them down to the loading dock, pop the sides off and blow everything out with a household vacuum cleaner. We used to joke that PCs were designed to draw dirty air in through one side, filter it carefully over all of the components then expel clean air out the other side."
Featured Comment by Dave Stewart: "I regularly fix desk/portable PCs for folk. Even if they're not having any hardware issues, I make a point of cleaning their machines out, as most are wary of looking inside. It can also be a useful exercise to educate the owners. Shoving the box on the floor wasn't a good idea—dust tends to collect down there, and for one owner, so did lots of pet hairs. Looked like half a cat was inside before it blew up!
"A vacuum cleaner and an anti-static brush are useful, though go easy—make sure the computer power is switched off at the wall, and best to avoid super powerful Dyson and similar vacuums!
"Laptops/notebooks—remove the power sources, i.e. power supply and the battery, prior to working on them. Dust sometimes forms a felt-like barrier across some of the cooling fins at extracts, and getting to such areas can be 'challenging' —not for the faint-hearted. It may be possible to suck or blow some of this out from outside, but again, go easy.
"There can be numerous fans inside that will clog up, and/or seize. Be wary of poking carelessly at them as you can affect their balance. Check they're working okay after any cleaning. Do not put on any lubricant, as it will just gum up with dust.
"Kids laptops are entertaining...gloves may be required. Sticky (as in yuck!) keys, along with all manner of crumbs and other foreign objects are the norm.
"Optical drives—as a first line of defence, there have been cleaning disks available for years. These have with tiny brushes that may resolve some dust problems. Careful how you store them—don't flatten the brushes. Failing that, the old cotton bud with some optical cleaner, as outlined by Ctein above. And note the 'gently' bit; otherwise the alignment may be affected. Optical cleaner doesn't remove jam; water's best for that!"