Help your PC come clean for new year; Dirt: Dust, hair and smudges are more than cosmetic nuisances to your computer, monitor and peripherals

With the arrival of a new year, it's a good time to catch up on the tasks you've been putting off.

Maybe you won't really start working out regularly at the gym or get all that junk out of the garage. But at least you can clean up your personal computer.

I don't mean high-tech cleaning, as in removing old and redundant files or defragmenting the hard disk into a more efficient organization. I mean old-fashioned dirt and grime.

If you've owned your PC for any time at all, there is probably dust on the screen, and some fingerprints, too. There are probably smudges on the monitor case and around the disk-drive slots. The keyboard may have scallops of finger grease on the frequently used keys.

The fan vent on the back of the case could be choked with dust. Your CD-ROMs might be little pizzas of dust and dirt and oil. And the mouse may be thoroughly infiltrated by debris.

All this grime is more than cosmetic concern.

Dust on the screen can obscure your view. Dust or oil on a disc surface can cause reading and writing mistakes or even crash the drive. Oil and debris inside a keyboard or mouse can interrupt connections. Dust inside the computer can promote static electricity that can damage components or cause intermittent faults.

Dust inside the computer and on the fan vent can also retain heat, causing short-term or intermittent failure or possibly even permanently damage.

That's why companies such as Stoner (, Fellowes (, 3M ( and Sara Lee (, which sells Endust as well as cheesecake, now make computer-cleaning products.

Kensington (, my favorite maker of computer peripherals such as mice, sells a cleaning system that includes sprays and wipes, with a suggested schedule for cleaning. This ranges from two to three times a week for some static-prone surfaces, to weekly or "when dirty" for keyboard or mouse, to every other week for printer elements.

My take: A dirty computer is more of an inconvenience than a danger, and you can handle cleaning chores without any of these special products.

After decades of daily computer jockeying, I've found seven kinds of required cleaning. And all can be handled with free or cheap supplies you probably already have on hand:

1. Screen dust. This collects all the time. I simply wipe it off with a tissue. Sure, that leaves a few dust motes, and I could be more thorough with an anti-static cleaning spray and lint-free cloths. But I don't like having to spend on special stuff, and I don't like the ozone-eating ability of most cleaning sprays.

2. Screen fingerprints and smudges. On my desktop, with its glass screen, I use standard window cleaner. Works great. On my portables I don't bother. I haven't found any cleaning fluid, including the special ones, that doesn't leave a smudge or streak of its own.

3. Dirty mouse trackball. As the ball on the underside of your mouse or the ball on the topside of your trackball runs around, it picks up grease and hairs from your hands and the desk. Eventually these can prevent it from moving the cursor, or make the movements jumpy. You can unscrew the mouse, pull out the ball, wash it with soap and water and let it dry. While it's drying use a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol to clean the fouled sensors inside the ball's socket. There should be one sensor for vertical motion and one for horizontal motion. I do this once every couple of years. Don't try to lubricate the ball - that will only stop it from working.

4. Dirty CD-ROMs. Sometimes I'm smart enough to protect these from scratches and smudges by returning them to a cabinet or sleeve. Often I'm not that smart. Then I find I occasionally have to wash the CDs with soap and water, and then let them dry, to assure efficient and complete data reading.

5. Dusty fan. When I have a house that's too dusty and full of pet hair - but thankfully not tobacco smoke, which can really foul computer elements such as disk drives - I make sure that my computer isn't tucked into too small an area. I want it to have room around the fan vent and any other air holes in the case. That's the only way to keep it sufficiently cool. If the fan vent is clotted with dust, I brush it off.

6. Printer jets. Inkjet printers can get clogged jets. The result can be missing lines or missing colors. The only good way to clean these is to use built-in self-cleaning routines; check the control panel or the manual. If that doesn't work, buy a new cartridge or head. Don't try to wipe the heads. It often makes things worse. I clean the printer jets only when I see problems with printouts.

7. Case smudges. This is purely aesthetic, but when the computer is ugly with smudges, I attack with a cloth and water, rubbing alcohol or window cleaner.

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