BOOT CAMP 554 (10/12/08) – Make Do and Mend, part 6


If your PC is more than three years old and you use it every day then it has probably been switched on and off more than 1000 times. That’s a lot of heating up and cooling down, which as you know makes metals and other materials expand and contract. There’s a lot of metal inside your PC, much of it used to conduct microscopically small and fantastically fast bursts of electricity representing digital data; anything that interferes with its progress, such as a poor or intermittent connection between two metal contacts will stop your computer from working or make it misbehave, in fact it’s a wonder that they work at all...


In the very early days of computing it was a huge problem and it was found that the best way to counter the strains and stresses of thermal shock was to leave them switched on all the time and keep them in temperature-controlled rooms. As computers became smaller and ventured out into the world problems began and until very recently it was not unusual for PCs to develop hard to find intermittent faults after 3 or 4 years of constant use. These were often caused by microchips and poorly designed plugs and sockets working their way loose, so-called contact creep. It has got a lot better and these days most of the components on a computer motherboard are securely soldered in place, though two absolutely critical items, the CPU and memory modules are still mounted in potentially untrustworthy sockets.


Plugs and sockets have also improved enormously yet the problem hasn’t gone away. However, in common with most other potential failure points in a PC it tends not to be a major concern within a computer’s normal working life of between 3 and 5 years, but with many owners hanging onto their machines for longer it’s a problem waiting to happen.


There’s a lot you can do to stop it, though, and all you need is a screwdriver an air duster, a can of contact cleaner and some cotton buds (see this week’s Top Tip). It’s not difficult or dangerous but I seriously suggest that you only attempt it if you have a modicum of DIY skills, your computer is more than 4 years old and it has begun to show signs of cranky behaviour. You should also back up all of your important data, and it really helps if you are patient and methodical -- this is not a job for the short-tempered or accident-prone... We are now ready to begin but before you go any further make sure you have familiarised yourself with the anti-static procedures outlined in part 3


The first step is to disconnect the computer from the mains, unplug all peripherals, remove the lid and take some pictures. That’s right, put your digital camera to good use and take a few photographs of the insides of your machine so that if you get into a muddle – which, incidentally, is quite difficult – you will have a record of where everything goes. If this is the first time you’ve opened up the case it’s probably very dusty inside so spend a few minutes with the Air Duster and blast away the dust and fluff from around the CPU, sockets and all the nooks and crannies. By the way, you might want to do this outside…


There’s no need to interfere with the CPU and I recommend that you leave it alone as modern ZIF sockets are pretty reliable. On the other hand the sockets holding RAM memory modules can be a source of trouble and iffy contacts cause all sorts of strange problems. I would make this your first port of call and all you have to do is release the module (or modules) one at a time by flipping the latches at either end of the boards. Make a note of its position and orientation – it only fits one way around, as there’s a notch on the lower edge that engages with a ‘key’ in the socket.


Only handle the board by the edges; place it on a flat clean surface. Moisten a cotton bud with some contact cleaner and gently wipe along the row of contacts on both sides. Allow a few seconds for the cleaner fluid to evaporate the pop the module back into its socket. Gently press it into place and the latches will engage. Do not apply excessive pressure, if it doesn’t latch take it out, check the alignment and try again.


Contact cleaner is optional on the next step, which is re-seating the disc drive data and power cables. Removing and replacing the plugs is usually enough to remove any oxides or contaminants coating the contacts but if the PC has been used in a smoky, dusty or humid atmosphere it’s worth giving the plugs a short squirt of cleaner, again, wait for any excess fluid to evaporate before reseating. Only work on one cable at a time and double check it has been replaced in the correct socket and it is firmly seated before moving on to the next one. When you have finished triple check everything is back where it should be then fingers-crossed, replace the lid, plug in the peripherals, connect the mains lead and switch on.


Next Week – Installing XP on Mini Notebook PCs





Can of compressed air or gas, used to blast away dust and fluff



Random Access Memory, a computer's working memory, where programs store data and information when they are running



Zero Insertion Force – socket for microchips, designed to prevent damage with a simple lever mechanism to securely grip the connecting pins.



Most contact cleaners are based on a solvent called IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol), which effectively dissolves and dissipates grease and other residues on metal surfaces. It evaporates quickly and is not toxic, though it can be an irritant, so avoid getting it on your skin or in your eyes and it should only be used in well-ventilated areas as the vapour can make you drowsy. It’s also highly flammable, so no smoking!


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