In addition to processing words and crunching numbers your desktop computer does a pretty good impression of a vacuum cleaner and rubbish bin. Cooling fans inside the power supply module, and attached to the main processor chip, suck air in through and around the disc-drives, loudspeaker grilles and gaps in the cabinet. After just a few weeks use everything inside the case is coated with a thin layer of dust particles and airborne contaminants. It gets everywhere and could eventually cause your PC to operate erratically, or worse!

Dust and pollutants can interfere with the pickup heads and other moving parts inside the floppy disc and CD-ROM drives. Intermittent contacts may develop on switches, plugs, sockets, expansion cards plugged into the motherboard, even the microchips can be affected. The biggest accumulation of dust is in and around the main cooling fan and in extreme cases it can cause the power supply to fail by blocking the path of cooling air to critical components.

The keyboard uses gravity to collect your detritus. A noxious mixture, made up of biscuit crumbs, cigarette ash (even if you don’t smoke), nail clippings, hairs, tea and coffee spillage finds its way past the keys and into the inside of the keyboard case. The keys themselves also suffer a build up of sticky surface grime made up of skin oil, sweat, makeup and other substances. Most PC users seem to favour leaving it, until it gets full up, the keys stop moving or it starts to smell…

Then there’s the mouse. They’re especially good at keeping the mouse pad clean, Hoovering up crumbs, dirt and liquid spills. Debris is transferred from the ball underneath onto the rollers that move optical or mechanical switches. After a while pointer movement becomes jerky, or stops altogether. 

It’s worth mucking out your system at least once a year, more often if you work in a particularly dusty or smoky atmosphere, or if you regularly eat lunch at your desk.

There’s really only one way to clean out the system unit, and that’s to take off the lid, but remember to disconnect it from the mains before you reach for the screwdriver, and dissipate any static charges that may have built up on your body, by touching the case metalwork. Don’t be tempted to suck out the dust using the hose on your vacuum cleaner, that’s just asking for trouble as you might dislodge cables, plugs or expansion cards. Instead, get hold of a can of compressed air -- the sort used to clean cameras -- and blow the dust out of the case. They are also better at getting into nooks and crannies. Most of them have extension tubes, so you can also blast dust out of the power supply and off of the cooling fan blades. Don’t poke the tube inside the disc drive slot you could damage the delicate innards; use proper disc-drive cleaning kits, available from your local computer store or branches of Tandy.

Before you put the lid back on you can do a spot of preventative maintenance. If your machine has been in regular use for more than a couple of years it may become prone to a condition known as ‘chip creep’, which can lead to intermittency or failure. As the motherboard heats up and cools down it flexes slightly, slowly pushing microchips out of their sockets. Identify the socket-mounted chips and apply gentle finger pressure to re-seat them.

It’s no good trying to shake the dirt out of your keyboard; it just gets trapped underneath the keys. The only solution is to take it apart, but make sure the PC is switched off. Designs vary but most keyboards are held together by half a dozen (or more), crosshead screws on the underside. Once removed the top and bottom halves should come apart. You may have to prise some small lugs with the tip of a screwdriver but if it doesn’t separate easily don’t force it! Tip out all of the loose dirt and using a new soft paintbrush remove all the crud from underneath the keys. A soft cloth dampened with water and a drop of washing up liquid will remove the grime coating the keys and exterior surfaces of the case. Dry it off and reassemble, making sure there are no wires trapped between the case sections.

The best way to clean your mouse is to take it apart. If you don’t fancy tinkering around inside it’s still worth removing and cleaning the ball, but only when the PC is switched off. The ball is usually held in place by the ring surrounding it. It should drop off when turned a few degrees. Give the ball a wipe over and blow into the hole, to shift any loose dust. Most mice are held together by one or two crosshead screws on the base. Separate the two halves and clean it out using the paintbrush. Handle with care as the rotary sensors may only be clipped lightly into place and could fall out if the circuit board is turned upside down. Check the condition of the rollers that come into contact with the ball. If there’s a coating of gunge it can be scraped off with a matchstick.  

If you’re feeling diligent then sort out the rats-nest of cables on the back of your PC. Untangle the leads, unplugging them one at a time if necessary and making sure the retaining screws on the large multi-pin connectors are tightened up. Plugs working loose cause a lot of problems. 

Finally the monitor, do not on any account it apart, this is a no-go area; very high voltages are present, that remain even when it is switched off! Use the can of compressed air to blow dust out of the ventilation slots on the top, bottom and sides. Make sure they’re not covered as this could lead to overheating. Keep the screen clean using purpose-designed anti-static foam cleaner or wipes. Remember that a clean PC is a happy PC!




Most of the microchips used in a PC are soldered directly to the circuit boards but some, including the main processor and some memory components are mounted in sockets, so they can be easily replaced or upgraded


Most PCs contain a set of small circuit boards, plugged into the main motherboard for controlling the video output, processing sounds or communicating with the outside world (modems and network cards)


The main printed circuit board inside a PC, containing the main processor chip (486, Pentium etc.), memory chips (RAM), all the other circuits needed to control the disc drives, keyboard etc, and communicate with plug-in expansion cards


The power supply module converts mains electricity into a low voltage DC, needed by the motherboard and disc drives. It’s normally housed inside a metal box, fitted with a cooling fan, attached to the back of the case or system unit



You can make your life a lot easier by putting Windows utilities and frequently used programs onto the Start menu. The most useful ones are Windows Explorer, My Computer, Control Panel and CD Player. Start with My Computer and hold on the desktop icon and drag it onto the Start button. Next, open Explorer and double click on the Windows 95 folder, to open it up. Follow the same procedure, by clicking and holding on the CD Player, Explorer and Control Panel icons or folders and dragging them to the Start Button.

For other the routine is the same, open the folder, find the icon and move it on to the Start button. If you make a mistake and choose the wrong icon or folder, or you want to remove something from the Start Menu, click on Start, then Settings, Taskbar and choose the Start Menu Programs tab. Select the Remove button and scroll through the directory tree until you find the offending item. Highlight it and click the remove button.

If your Start menu becomes overcrowded and icons disappear, check the ‘Show small icons in Start Menu’ box on the Taskbar Options dialogue box.

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