If you don’t have money in the budget this year to buy a new computer, then it’s important you learn how to keep your current computer in top shape using our 10 tips and tricks for computer hardware maintenance. We always seem to mention computer maintenance but never maintenance on the computer hardware. We even have an entire computer maintenance checklist but computer hardware maintenance is only mentioned briefly.
Computer Hardware Maintenance Tips
Computer Tips #1: Clear Vents
Hot computers die quickly. You probably know from elementary school science class that most materials expand when they get hot. There are various ways to stop a computer from overheating. Computers are built to exacting measurements—your computer processor has parts that are measured in nanometers and other parts of the computer just as precisely built, so when your computer gets too hot, and things expand too much, your computer is likely to die.
The part of your computer that usually dies first is your hard drive. Inside your hard drive are tiny ball bearings that rotate thousands of times a minute in tiny tracks. When they expand from heat, they rub against their tracks and quickly wear down. Once a disk drive ball bearing wears down, there’s no replacing it—your disk drive is toast. You should also watch for dust build up in your power supply.
The easiest way to keep your computer cool is to make sure its vents are clear. First, check to see if anything is obstructing the vents—too often I find computers that are pushed all the ways back against a wall so that their vents are blocked. Second, check the vents for dust and clean them if necessary. Computer vents are usually large, so you only need to check for dust every year or two (more often if you smoke near your computer).
Computer Hardware Maintenance Tips #2: Clean Inside
The same advice that goes for cleaning vents applies to the inside of your computer too. I know opening a computer case is a pain—but if you don’t clear out the dust that accumulates under the computer processor and optional graphics card processor fans, these two vital components will eventually over heat. Replacing either will cost about $200, while cleaning them every year will cost you only a little time plus a $3 can of compressed air.
To clean inside your computer, turn off the computer and unplug its power cord, then open its computer case and use the compressed air to blow away any dust. Make sure you cover your eyes, and try not to inhale until the dust settles. If you’re really serious, use swimming goggles and a face mask.
Computer Tips #3: Store In Static Guard Bags
Computer electronics use almost imperceptibly small wires, many of them on printed circuit boards. Because they’re so small, these wires are very susceptible to electric shocks—like the static electric shock you sometimes feel when you touch a metal doorknob in winter.
Even a tiny electric shock can damage one of these wires and ruin the entire electronic device. Happily, you can easily protect against most static electric shocks by storing your electronics in a special bag. The bag has wires traveling through it, making it into what electrical scientists call a Faraday cage. (Many science museums have a great demonstration of a human-sized Faraday cage where the demonstrator stands inside a cage which deflects bolts of lighting right in front of the audience.)
All store bought electronics that go inside your computer come inside these bags. I usually save them for when I need them, but you can also buy static-proof bags for cheap on Amazon.
Computer Tips #4: Avoid Moisture
Everybody knows that water and electricity don’t mix, yet even I sometimes forget how sneaky water really is. When water gets in your computer, it can cause two wires to short out—to send their electricity across a path the designers didn’t intend—which will temporarily disable your computer. If the short lasts long enough, it can create enough heat to melt one or more of the tiny wires in your computer, breaking that component forever.
If it were possible, I’d suggest you only used your computer in a climate-controlled room with a no-beverages sign on the door, but here are some realistic ways you can avoid moisture damage:
- Keep your computer away from windows that open. Although rain falling in through the window is one threat, I once ruined a laptop by leaving it by an open window on a foggy morning.
- Be extra careful with drinks and laptops. With full-sized computers, you’re only likely to ruin the keyboard when your drink spills; with laptops, you’re likely to ruin the whole computer.
- Unplug the power and (for laptops) remove the battery of any computer that might get wet. It’s ok for electronics to get wet if there’s no electricity traveling through them. (When I go camping, I always store my netbook and its battery in separate zip-lock bags.)
- Don’t leave computers outdoors. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s too easy to go inside to fix a drink, get distracted, and forget about your laptop—until it starts raining.
Computer Hardware Maintenance Tips #5: Unplug During Storms
Did you know that before radio was invented, some people used to send wireless messages by creating giant sparks? If you create a giant spark, which scientists call an electromagnetic pulse, it makes conductive metal spark in other places up to several miles away.
The problem with electromagnetic pulses is that long wires—like the wires in your house—can catch a lot of energy, creating a really big spark, and the surge of electricity from that spark can easily fry your computer.
The good news is that it’s illegal, for just that reason, to create electromagnetic pulses in most places. The bad news is that nature has her own electromagnetic pulse generator—lightning. A lightning bolt doesn’t need to hit your house to create a power surge—it doesn’t even need to be close.
Unplugging your computer from the wall is the best way to help prevent a lighting strike from destroying your computer.
Computer Tips #6: Use A Surge Protector
Even if you always follow the above advice about unplugging your computer during a storm, you still need to worry about power surges frying your computer.
Power surges can happen for many reasons, including bad wiring, transformer explosions, squirrels or possums eating through power lines, and problems with other large electrical appliances in your house. You also have to worry about thunderstorms that happen when you aren’t home to unplug your computer.
To protect against unexpected power problems, buy a surge protector. Some of them even come with guarantees to replace hundreds of thousands of dollars of computer equipment if an electrical surge gets past the surge protector. This is an important part of computer hardware maintenance.
Computer Tips #7: Prepare For Failure
Some times the best computer hardware maintenance is preparing for failure. All of the expensive tools you use, from your car to your computer to your cell phone, will fail eventually, so you should start preparing to replace them—especially since they’ll probably fail at the least convenient time.
For computer hardware, the device most likely to fail is your disk drive. We’ve told you in other articles at Tips4PC how to make good backups, and I suggest you read one of those articles if you don’t have backups set up yet.
I used to keep a spare disk drive handy in case on of my disks failed, but with the rapidly dropping cost of hard disk drives, I think it’s better to accept the inconvenience of driving out to buy a new one every few years.
After your disk drive, the following devices are most likely to fail. You either want to have a spare handy or at least the money available to buy a replacement:
- Printer (they tend to stop printing correctly, rather than break entirely. It usually isn’t worth fixing a cheap printer.)
- Graphics card
- Computer power supply (often starts making noises a few weeks before dying)
- Power button (if you’re careful, you can hot-wire most computers to use your computer until you buy a new button)
Computer Tips #8: Turn Off Unused Devices
In theory, hardware with no moving parts should last forever, and it sure looks like most electronic devices don’t have any moving parts—but what you can’t see are the electrons moving down the wires at 60% or more the speed of light.
In some places, the electrons need to cross a small gap. In these places, the electrons will sometimes pick up a tiny bit of metal from one side of the gap and deposit it on the other side of the gap. As time goes on, there is less and less metal at the starting side of the gap, until there is too little metal for the electrons to use—at that point your device just stops working. (You may get flickering for a few weeks beforehand.)
Some electricity needs to travel through electronics for as long as they are turned on, and the longer they are turned on, the sooner they will fail. You can add years of use to a device’s life just by turning it off when you aren’t using it.
Computer Tips #9: Don’t Wait To Fix It
Computer hardware maintenance means taking small steps to prevent big problems later. Nowhere in computer maintenance is this more evident than when it comes to fixing small problems before they blossom into unfixable problems later.
For example, is your computer making a weird sound? A lot of the time when I get called in to fix a totally broken computer, I later discover the computer was making weird sounds for weeks before. If they had called me earlier, I could’ve pinpointed the problem by just listening to the computer, ordered the replacement part, and made the switch in about 5 minutes of downtime. But when I get called into to fix dead computers, it usually takes several days to identify the problem and replace the broken part.
Any inconstancy in your computer devices should be investigated. If your USB flash drive doesn’t always work, or your DVD burner sometimes burns bad disks, or your computer monitor flickers occasionally—these are all problems you should investigate with a quick search on Google.
If you can’t find an answer on Google, at least write down a comprehensive description of the problem, date it, and save it for any repair technician you later call. Knowing where and when the problem started can save hours of troubleshooting because to understand computer repairs can be difficult.
Computer Tips #10: Don’t Wear Down Connectors
Doesn’t it amaze you sometimes how so many things these days are covered in gold? Gold is $1,500 an ounce right now, but there’s gold on even the cheapest USB connectors—take a look at the connectors on your desk right now if you don’t believe me.
How is that possible? Simple, the gold on those connectors is only 1,000th of a centimeter thick. It’s 100 times thinner than a human hair. (It’s also not pure gold.)
The problem with something that thin is that its easy to wear away. Every time you insert or remove a cord or device, a little bit of that gold plating gets worn off. Tight connections wear down faster than lose connections. All of this means that the more frequently you plug in your devices, the sooner they will stop working.
If possible, avoid unnecessary plugging in and unplugging of your devices. It’s a computer hardware maintenance tip that will protect your parts’ tips.