Your Computer's Environment
Computers generate a huge amount of electricity. Take a pretty old processor like the Pentium 3. Versions of this chip dissipate 30 watts of heat energy! That's almost as much as a toasty hot incandescent bulb in your house. So where is all this heat going? On a good day, it is being sucked away by a heatsink, blown about by a fan, and eventually extracted by an exhaust fan or possibly natural airflow in the computer case. Unfotunately, a number of things can work to prevent this process from working correctly.
Sometimes the exhuast areas of the computer case are blocked. Sometimes the ambient temperature is too high, so the process of 'spreading' heat simply is not enough. In more extreme cases, the CPU fan can cease to function, or the heatsink can dislodge from its position on top of the chip, causing a heat transfer problem.
While less likely to be a problem than your CPU, which generates the vast majority of the heat in your computer, other items can have heat problems. These include hard drives, 'bridges' (these are high performance computing centers on your motherboard), video cards, sound cards in extreme cases, and other offboard coprocessing devices.
You do NOT want your computer or any of its components to overheat. At best it can cause system instability and crashes; at worst, permanent heat damage to your PC.
Preventing overheating problems
Luckily there are lots of ways you can work to avoid overheating your computer. You can make sure there is good airflow around the case. This will mean that exhausted hot air will have a place to go, and cooler air can come in to replace it. Additionally keeping the ambient temperature around the case reasonably low helps. A computer in the basement will do a lot better than a computer that has the sun beating down on it in your living room with its big bay window. Dust, as discussed later in the article, can provide issues for circulation, including damage to the fans circulating air in the computer. Finally, make sure you computer is running within the manufacturers specs. In some cases computers have been 'overclocked' by overzealous computer users or retailers looking to offload older hardware at newer prices. Overclocking is just a way to get the computer to perform above its rated abilities, always at a price though.
High acceleration damage
No, we are not talking about sticking your computer in a jet aircraft. That probably would not be a good idea either, but in this case we are talking about bumps and knocks. Often laptop components will be rated for a certain number of gs, or the measure of acceleration that will cause it to receive damage. If you consider, this is actually pretty sensible. If you drop a glass, it shatters because of the shearing forces on it. But what if you smack your head on the ground? It is not going to shatter, but it will certainly cause problems. Some of it is superficial external damage, but the majority is caused by the internal changes in velocity directly affecting your brain. Computer components work the same way. If you drop your computer five feet, it probably will look pretty much fine. You probably do not want to plug it in though. Internally the components could easily be damaged, especially hard drives, and particularly if they were running!
Just make sure that nobody is throwing a football near your computer, that you are not dropping it from height, and that it is not in a place that it could easily be bumped. With a little common sense, you should be able to keep your computer out of trouble in that department!
Water & electronics
Water itself is not a great conductor, but with just a tiny bit of contamination (and you can be assured that all the water you come in contact with that is not in a hospital is pretty much contaminated) it can become a pretty good one. This is very bad news for your electronic components - it will cause something called a 'short'. This is where the path of electricity has been given a shortcut by the conductive water, often frying very important and unbelievably tiny components which are difficult to troubleshoot and replace. Water is also a good corrosive, and can cause further damage. Just imagine what would happen if you soaked a nail in water for a week. Not good!
Keep water away from your PC, and while your at it, keep food away from it as well. Keyboards are often destroyed with food, so keep that in mind!
Your bookshelf is not the only thing that needs a good dusting every so often. Everything mentioned above, barring water damage, can be caused in one fashion or another by dust. Dust can restrict airflow, it can damage components, it can cause overheating, and, in the most extreme circumstances, it can cause fires.
You can easily prevent dust problems by carefully opening your computer and, without touching the components inside, running your vacuum around inside of it, letting the suction do all the work. A little dust is fine. A lot of dust is deadly. Get the worst of it, and do it regularly, and your computer should last much longer than the speed of the processor would warrant!
If you find that the vacuum is not cutting it for getting rid of the dust, you can also use a compressed air canister to help out by pushing the debris around, to be later retrieved with a vacuum. Be careful with these items though - they can decompress explosively and/or cause freeze burns if not handled with care. Be especially weary of turning the canister upside down! Read the instructions before use.
Keeping your computers environment decent is really not too difficult, but it cannot be completely overlooked. Make sure there is good airflow; make sure the air itself is not too hot; keep the worst of the dust out; do not spill liquids, organics, or food products on your computer.
With that in mind, you should be just fine! Thank you for reading this article, and good luck with your computer cleaning.
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