PC hardware maintenance secrets
It’s your pride-and-joy, so maintenance is important. Darren Yates gives you his hit-list of things to watch out for.
Nothing robs your PC of speed like an overheating CPU. I managed to even surprise myself recently when I noticed dust gathering underneath the CPU fan above the heatsink fins on my CPU cooler — surprising because the PC is a good metre off the floor. No matter how much you vacuum carpeted floors, dust will eventually clog up the heatsink or filters on your PC case — naturally dusty environments don’t help either. With no airflow, you get no cooling, CPU temps rise and performance drops off a cliff. Do a six-monthly check just to make sure your PC thermally stays in good condition.
I had to learn this one the hard way recently. Having added a new external peripheral to a PC, I didn’t notice that I’d bumped the AC mains cable. A few days later, the acrid smell of burning electronics revealed the PSU had popped and the AC mains cable plug was damn warm! We’ve found that the fit of some IEC mains cables isn’t great and they dc not grab as well as they should. Any time you muck around behind your PC, make sure the AC mains cable is firmly in place — even if you think you haven’t touched it. Otherwise, it might cost you a small fortune.We shouldn’t have to mention this one, but if you haven’t performed a system backup lately, consider this a timely kick up the bum! We’re all overloaded with things to do, so it’s easy to put off. Personally, I use but don’t rely on cloud storage — I want to make sure I can get to all of my files without needing a web connection. Even if you just use external hard drives, that’s better than nothing at all. But more importantly, make sure that you can restore your backups, whatever system you use — a backup you haven’t tested is almost worse than no backup at all.
If you run your PC via an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), it’s a good idea to just check it every six months or so to ensure that the internal SLA (sealed-lead-acid) battery is still in good working order. Australia generally has dependable AC power, so it’s only freak weather conditions or accidents that will likely take it out — that means the UPS is unlikely to be used often. Just turn the AC mains switch off, check that your PC continues running and time it out occasionally. SLA batteries don’t suffer memory-effect issues, but better to know of problems before you need your UPS to do its thing.It shouldn’t happen, but if your Windows 8.1 install goes pear-shaped, it may be difficult to get into recovery mode, particularly if you don’t have access to Windows on physical media. Head to Microsoft’s web site (tinyurl.com/pwb9gmh) and learn how to create a recovery disk on a USB flash drive. It’ll give you essential repair tools that might just get your system back up and running without too many dramas. Better still, keep your Windows OS ISO image installer on a USB flash drive so that it’s ready to use at a moment’s notice (you’ll find recovery tools built into the installer).
Knowing your UPS still works is important — but so is knowing how long it’ll run. Don’t trust the marketer’s time ratings — every PC setup is different and you should test your UPS so that you know within a minute or two how long you’ve got in your setup before it gives out.It’s also a good idea to occasionally refresh the thermal paste between your CPU and cooler. Over time, the paste can dry out and lose its transfer properties, reducing cooling efficiency. Cleaning the CPU heat spreader and replacing the paste, especially after a hot summer or prolonged overclocking, will ensure it maintains peak cooling.
Screens don’t need help getting dirty, let alone touchscreens. GorillaGlass is great for portable devices but few LCD monitors get this stuff. Gently use a dry microfibre cloth like the ones used for cleaning your specs for best results. Avoid using liquids of any kind — they can damage the panel surface but more importantly, liquids and electricity don’t mix.It’s all too easy to run hard drives into the ground. That’s why I never run a hard drive more than two years — even if it’s working perfectly. Better to rebuild a system when it’s convenient than try to solve a failure in a panic. It’s also why I prefer 1TB drives — large enough to be useful, cheap enough to replace.
In a hurry, it’s tempting to roll up your notebook power brick cables like winding a ball of string, but that’s the best way to strain the connectors and cause faults. I’ve seen this numerous times. Fold the cable using its natural kinks and some Velcro/hook and loop tape to keep things under control.Notebook internal ports such as USB and Ethernet connectors are soldered straight to the motherboard — that means they won’t take much rough treatment before they crack, either. Be careful not to strain the ports laterally or longitudinally and give cables as much slack as you can. Notebook port repairs don’t come cheap.
None of the device driver software I use comes on physical media, so it’s important to keep track of installer files in case I need to reinstall the software. It’s also why I always look for full-download files, rather than download-managed installers. Keeping your device driver files secure will make it far easier to get your system back up and running.
This one comes under ‘preventative maintenance’, but it’s always a good idea wherever possible to unplug your PC during a thunderstorm. Personally, I prefer not to rely on surge-protected powerboards — they may well work but I don’t want to have to find out. Power surges can’t hit a PC that’s not plugged into the mains.Just as you should be checking the CPU cooler for dust, the same holds for the power supply unit (PSU). If the PSU overheats, it’ll likely pop without warning, taking much of your PC with it (which is why I keep a spare). Ensure you remove the AC power first and don’t poke anything inside it there could still be nasty high-voltages floating around.We’ve all done it — thrown the notebook on the bed on a lazy Sunday afternoon to watch Netflix — but it’s not a good idea. If you accidentally cover up the notebook’s air in-take vents, you reduce its cooling ability. That increases heat, reduces performance and battery life. Grab a hard-covered book at least and rest it on that.