Many of us know all about the importance of keeping our software up to date, but how many of us really look inside our computers to make sure that they are breathing properly? Not many, most likely.
Heat is the biggest cause of electronics failure. A computer that is starved for air flow will not only work harder and hotter, but will also slow down because of the heat. Many of today's modern computer components will sense temperature spikes and throttle back the speed of your computer in an attempt to keep the temperature within specifications. If it is unable to keep the temperature within check, your computer might shut down frequently to prevent damage. Such is especially true in laptop computers, which are some of the most difficult computers to clean as they usually require extensive disassembly of of unit.
The easiest thing for most consumers is to take a small vacuum attachment and suck the dust out of the computer case and from the fans and heat sink assemblies. Whenever working inside a computer, we recommend using an electrostatic device, such as a wristband. Static electricity can damage the sensitive components of your computer and make them unusable. Try not to touch any boards while sucking the dust out. If you choose to use a can of compressed air, use short duration bursts kept a safe distance from the components. Using compressed air for too long or too close to the components can damage them with the cold air. The compressed air would be best saved until after you vacuum the dust away as it can blow the dust all over the place. Most power supplies on a computer can't be opened, so compressed air might be your only option to clean them.
Most fans attached to the computer case can be easily removed. These fans are usually the largest on the computer and are mounted in the rear. There may be additional fans in the front of the case that are just as easy. Often these fans are held in place by a plastic retainer and simply pop out. They are connected to the main board via a small wire that can easily be removed by gripping the connector and pulling. Reinstall in the same location.
It's important to clean the fan blades, too. Just like a ceiling fan, a computer fan blade that has accumulated dust and dirt with have disrupted airflow and will not be able to move as much air due to the decrease aerodynamics. Less air means less cooling.
With the fan removed from the case, a small cloth dipped in a mild rubbing alcohol solution works wonders to clean the blade. There's no need to rub and scrub. And simple wiping will suffice. Try to gently turn the fan. There will be a very slight amount of resistance, which is normal. There should be absolutely no binding. Any binding fan should be replaced and can be replaced for under $20.
Most computers have a small fan on the processor heat sink, which is a radiator-like device located somewhere on the middle of the main board. Some computers funnel incoming air from the case fan via a plastic shroud leading directly to the heat sink instead. The heat sink and processor fan area is notorious for dust buildup as the air must pass through very narrow passages and can easily clog. Make sure that dust and hair are removed from the heat sink. You may be able to easily remove the processor fan with a simple clip, retainer or screw. If you feel comfortable in doing so, you can remove the fan and clean the fan blades in much the same way as the case fan. You might find q tips dipped in rubbing alcohol to be more effective than a large cloth. These blades, do note, as often very brittle so exercise great care.
If you decide to remove the aluminum heat sink to give it a good bath, simply remove the clips or screws, release the pressure lever and remove. But be sure to have a small tube of thermal compound ready. You can buy it at any electronics store as a small tube of paste for about a dollar which you then apply to the processor before reinstalling the heat sink. The compound will solidify shortly after making contact with the two components and facilitates heat transfer between the processor and heat sink assembly.
If you have a separate video card, you may consider cleaning it, as well. Many of the high performance video cards have integrated fans that can also become dirty. Use great care when cleaning one of these components as the static electricity can easily damage these several hundred dollar components. These fans, just as all the others, are removable and can be cleaned. Usually, a small screwdriver is needed.
How often you clean your computer is a matter of debate. Some clean it yearly while others clean it monthly. We think three-four months is a good range. If the computer is always on, you have pets, you smoke, you have a lot of carpet or the computer is kept on the floor, you will probably need to clean it more regularly.
If you have any doubts as to your abilities to clean your computer, consider taking it to a mom and pop computer store. They'll be willing to help you clean it out for a small fee.