Zen and the Art of Laptop Maintenance
Keep a motorcycle in good condition, and it will last longer and serve you better. The same goes for computers—especially laptops, which suffer a lot of wear and tear during travel and daily use. To keep your laptop looking shiny and running well as long as possible, you should clean the chassis and perform some basic maintenance periodically. In this guide, you’ll discover how to clean your laptop, keep the components tight and secure, evaluate the battery, and tidy up the operating system and hard drive to help increase performance.
Cleaning the Exterior, Screen, and Keyboard
Every three months or so, you should clean off the dirt, dust, fingerprints, residue, food particles, and other detritus that your laptop has accumulated during its travels. Concentrate on the outer case, the LCD screen, the keyboard (and touchpad, if one exists), the ports, and the cooling vents.
First, gather your cleaning supplies. Ideally you want a lint-free cloth (no rough or lint-harboring materials such as paper towels or washcloths), a can of compressed air, and a cleaning solution. If you have a few bucks to spare, you can buy cleaning solutions specially formulated for tech products and LCD screens at most electronics and general-merchandise stores. To save some cash, you can homebrew your own cleaning solution by mixing distilled water and white vinegar, fifty-fifty. Instead of distilled water you could use tap or bottled water, but some people say that it can leave mineral spots (though I haven’t had a problem with it).
If you’ve just knocked a full coffee cup or soda can onto your laptop, refer to our guide to cleaning a spill on a laptop for the emergency steps you should take.
A few words of caution before you start: Never use harsh chemicals such as bleach or even a general household cleaner on your laptop, as that could damage the case finish or LCD screen. Never spray any cleaning solution directly onto the laptop, either; instead, dampen a cloth with the cleaning solution and gently apply it to the case. Also, never use a can of compressed air after shaking it, and never hold it in any position other than upright when spraying, or else the chemicals in the can could burst out and cause damage. Finally, shut down the laptop and remove the battery from the bottom before cleaning.
For best results, start by spraying the compressed air to clean out the ports, vents, keyboard, and other cracks; dirt, grime, and food particles tend to be easier to dislodge when dry. Again, when blowing the air, keep the can straight and upright. For best results, sit down at a table and carefully hold your laptop while slowly turning it around. That way you should blow air at the laptop surface or into cracks and openings at an angle so that the particles blow out instead of into your laptop.
Next, apply the cleaning solution. Start with the LCD screen and the touchpad (if your laptop has one), since they are the most sensitive areas of your laptop's chassis. Lightly dampen the lint-free cloth with your homebrewed or store-bought cleaning solution, and gently wipe the screen and touchpad. For the remainder of the laptop, you could dampen the cloth a bit more and give it a little elbow grease, but be sure not to get liquid inside the case. Also, try to avoid wetting or wiping the manufacturer or Windows stickers, so that they stay readable (you never know when you might need to redeem the serial codes to obtain technical support or to reactivate Windows).
If you have a few sticky keys on the keyboard, you can try to remove and clean them (as well as the surface underneath) to get them working smoothly again. Use a small flat-head screwdriver or a butter knife to pry them up carefully. Though most laptop keyboards are designed for this kind of disassembly, don’t apply excessive pressure to the keys in case they aren’t meant to be removed. If you encounter undue resistance, check your laptop's documentation to verify whether the keys can be removed, and whether the manufacturer suggests a better way to do so.
To thoroughly clean removed keys, you can douse them in the cleaning solution, but make sure they're completely dry before reinserting them. For the surface beneath the keys on the laptop, and under the removed keys, you may have to use a toothpick or a similar pointy object to scrape off any sticky mess.
If you’re missing keys, or if too many are sticky or damaged, consider replacing the entire keyboard. Usually you can find them online priced from $10 to $30; if you're ready to try swapping keyboards yourself, read through our guide to learn how to replace your laptop keyboard.
Now that the laptop's case is clean, ensure that the machine is completely dry and assembled before reinserting the battery and turning the system back on.
Next Page: Tightening the Screws, Replacing the Battery, and Checking the System
Tightening the Screws
It’s a good idea to periodically check all the screws holding your laptop together—especially those for the screen hinges—to make sure they’re tight and secure. Grab a very small Phillips screwdriver (it needs to be small enough to fit inside screw holes if the screws aren’t set flush with the case bottom), flip the laptop over on a table, and then methodically check the tightness of each screw.
The screws holding the screen hinges usually sit directly under the hinges, exposed on the bottom of the laptop. If you’ve noticed some “play” in the hinge movement when opening and closing the lid, open the lid to the position when it feels loose, set the laptop on its side so that you can access the bottom, and then tighten the screws. If the lid still feels wobbly, the laptop might have more loose screws on top of the hinge, usually underneath a hinge cover or the main case. If the hinge itself is worn out or broken, you can find replacements fairly cheap online (for $20 or less), but replacing laptop hinges can require significant disassembly; you may want to have a local repair shop do the replacement.
Replacing the Battery
Laptop batteries tend to lose their charging capacity, and need replacement at least every two to three years. If yours is getting that old and you notice that it isn’t keeping a charge for as long as it was in the past, consider ordering a new one. Online prices can vary dramatically, anywhere from $20 to $100 (sometimes even more), depending on your particular laptop model and on the capacity of the battery.
When shopping for a battery, be sure to compare the MAh (milliampere-hour) rating of those you find with that of your current battery, which you should see printed on the back of the battery. The MAh number is the measure of how much electricity the battery can hold—the larger the number, the longer you’ll be able to use your laptop before plugging it in or recharging it. For instance, a 7800-mAh battery will power your laptop 77 percent longer than a 4400-mAh battery will.
Looking for ways to conserve battery power? See our tips on how to extend laptop battery life.
Checking and Cleaning the System
In addition to performing a physical cleaning, you should occasionally clean up Windows and the hard drive to help your laptop run as well as possible, just as you should be doing with your desktop computers. Here are some of the basic tasks that you should perform every month or two.
Empty the Recycle Bin and remove temporary files: You can use the Disk Cleanup utility that comes with Windows. Click Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Cleanup and run the Disk Cleanup utility on your hard drive. If that's not good enough, try a third-party utility such as CCleaner for a more thorough cleaning.
Stop unnecessary startup programs: Many programs set themselves to open automatically when you log in to Windows, but often this arrangement isn’t necessary since you can manually open them when you need them. Removing startup programs can help Windows load faster and typically increases your laptop's overall performance since they aren’t operating in the background; usually the only program that really needs to start up when you log in is your antivirus software. You can use a built-in Windows utility to review and remove startup programs. Simply open the Start menu, type msconfig in the box, and press Enter. Navigate to the System Configuration window, select the Startup tab, and uncheck any programs you don’t want to start automatically.
Run a Check Disk on the hard drive to scan for and fix any errors: Disk errors and bad sectors can cause slowness and random strange behavior, but you can use the Check Disk tool that came with your computer to schedule a scan and repair problems the next time you restart your laptop. Open Windows Explorer and navigate to Computer (or My Computer in XP), right-click on the system drive (usually the C: drive), and select Properties. Then select the Tools tab, and click the Check Now button. On the Check Disk window, check both options and click Start.
Defragment the hard drive to ensure optimum performance: Installing and removing programs and files will fragment your drive over time. Defragging it can help increase overall performance and speed. Just use the utility that comes with Windows: Open the Start menu, and navigate to All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter.
Verify that an antivirus tool is installed and updated: Open your antivirus program and confirm that your subscription hasn’t expired (usually only for paid products), and then ensure that you have performed a scan for viruses in the past day or two.
Run a full malware scan with another virus scanner: No single antivirus utility can catch all of the viruses and malware out there, so on occasion you should consider running scans with other scanners. Since you probably have a real-time scanner already installed, use an on-demand scanner (such as Malwarebytes, BitDefender Free Edition, or SuperAntiSpyware) that won’t interfere with the real-time scanner.