The Art of Computer Maintenance

What is the Art of Computer Maintenance ? It’s the difference between you and me. It’s what makes my PC fast, reliable and long lasting (graphics cards excepted) . It’s an oil change for your PC, a set of good habits and practices that are cheap, quick and easy. Some of the most important things are:

  1. Defragmenting your hard disks
  2. Cleaning your PC of dust buildup
  3. Replacing system fans

Defragmenting your hard disks

Everyone knows to run a defrag every once in a while, but few people understand what this does and why it’s important. For sake of example, think of your refrigerator. You access it often, taking some items out, putting fresh items in, and it’s usually quite crowded in there. What happens when you want to put your large casserole of leftovers in the fridge ? You have to push smaller things around to make room for the large dish, or alternately you can split up the leftovers into several smaller containers and stuff them wherever they fit.

A Windows-based PC does the same kind of thing, it splits large files into smaller chunks and spreads them all over your hard drive, wherever there is free space. Then when you reopen the file, it has to gather all the little pieces to put the file back together. This all happens automatically, fully transparent to the user. Over time, the files get read and written so often that they can end up in hundreds of pieces, all scattered about. This means your hard drive has to work harder and jump all over the surface of the disk to read all the little chunks, that’s usually when you hear it buzz or chatter as the magnetic head jumps back and forth hundreds of times per second.

A little fragmentation is nothing to worry about, and with today’s modern operating systems you usually don’t notice at all. The problems arise when you have excessive fragmentation, with hundreds or thousands of files, each with hundreds of messy chunks. Your PC has to work extra hard to find all the pieces, and this not only makes your PC slow, it really beats the crap out of your hard drive and can cause it to wear out prematurely.

All versions of Windows since 95 come with a built-in defragging software, and it does an OK job in most cases. There are also commercial products that do a better job and offer finer control over the process, which can be handy if you’re a power user or deal with lots of frequently-changing files like myself. Whichever solution you choose, they all work pretty much the same way. The most important thing is to run the defrag frequently, at least once a month or more. If you find it takes too long, just start it when you leave the office and let it run overnight. The more often you run it, the quicker it will be.

Just running this simple defrag once a month will greatly extend the life of your hard drive, protecting your valuable data.

Cleaning your PC of dust buildup

Have you ever seen a PC that had two inches of caked dust inside ? That’s a bad thing! Dust is awful for any computer, as it makes your PC run hotter and can even cause short-circuits. Having even just a half-inch blanket of dust in the bottom of your PC can cause the system temperature to rise 5 ‘C. This may not seem like much, but that small difference can hack 15-20% off the life expectancy of your hardware, especially the hard drive and processor.

You’ll have to find out for yourself how quickly the dust builds up inside your PC, but a good baseline is to clean it out once every 3 months. Just buy those cans of compressed air, one can should be under $5.00 and will be good for 4-5 cleanings or more. I don’t recommend using an electric or gas-powered air compressor, as the high pressure can damage the sensitive electronic components in your computer. Just use the cans!

Make sure you shut your computer off before cleaning it… and be careful not to spin the fans with the compressed air, as this can ruin the motors.

Replacing system fans

This one goes hand-in-hand with dust cleaning. The fans inside your computer’s chassis have a limited lifespan because their ball-bearings wear out. This can cause the fans to get very noisy or even stop spinning entirely. This will cause heat to build up inside your PC, and heat is an computer’s worst enemy. The hotter it runs, the quicker it dies.

The best thing to do is to have a quick look at the fans every time you clean the dust out of your PC. After you’ve blown out the dust, switch on the computer while the cover’s still off and make sure all your fans are spinning. Make sure they’re properly plugged in and that no cables or foreign objects are touching the fan blades. If any fans are noisy or they just don’t spin, replace them immediately with new ones of the same type. Good brands I can recommend are Vantec Stealth, Thermaltake, and Antec. Cheap fans will often work, but like any cheap product they may tend to wear out sooner, and are almost universally noisy. Seriously, spend the extra five or ten bucks, it’s worth it!

One thing to keep an eye on is the orientation of the fans. Every chassis is different, so some experimentation is in order, but normally you’ll want to have the front fans sucking fresh air in, and the rear fans blowing hot air out. Also, if you have more air coming into the case, you’ll have what is called positive pressure, e.g. the air pressure inside the case is slightly higher than the air outside. This is important because it will help keep the dust out, and it ensures proper airflow inside the case.

Note that having more fans does not necessarily help. I’ve seen some “gamer” systems with eight fans, this is overkill! Not only is this terribly loud but too many fans can actually make a computer run hotter, as they often push against each other and disturb the natural airflow. In some extreme cases, having too many fans can overload the power supply, then you’re in BIG trouble! I’ve always built my systems with only two large 12cm fans: one in the front near the hard drives, and one at the rear next to the processor. That’s it! This keeps the system cool and quiet.

Well that’s it for the easy stuff. Doing these three things regularly only takes 5-10 minutes per month, and will keep your PC running in top shape for a very long time. I have computers from over 10 years ago that run 24/7 without problems, and I overclock all my machines! Now if only I could say the same about my Ford 😛

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3 Responses to “The Art of Computer Maintenance”

  1. BitBurn says:

    Fragmentation? Here’s one for ya: GET A MAC. Problem solved.

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