Unsavory detritus lurks in the vents and crevices of your computer hardware: Hair, dust, cigarette smoke, and pet dander can accumulate in your PC and also in your peripherals, even down between the keys of your keyboard. Some of it's just gross. However, buildup on fans and other key components can increase the heat stress on your machine, potentially making it unstable and shortening the life of individual parts. That's no way to start a new year. With thanks to Marco Chiappetta's detailed rundown on how to clean a dirty PC, we're adding information on how to clean peripherals as well.
Tools of the trade
You need just a few readily available supplies to give your PC and its accessories a thorough cleaning. To start, gather a lint-free cleaning cloth (not paper towels), an alcohol-based or other electronics-safe cleaning solution, and cotton swabs. Finally, get the most powerful weapon against PC grime: a can of compressed air.
Make sure your PC is shut all the way off. Then unplug the power cord and peripherals, and move everything away. You'll need elbow room to get at the nooks and crannies that normally don't see the light of day.
Mouse and keyboard
The keyboard is a bastion of grime and filth--and to think you touch it nearly every day. Desk snackers, you've likely also dropped crumbs and little sticky patches of juice or soda beneath the keys.
Use a cloth dabbed with a cleaning solution (Lysol, Pledge, or most any other similar product that sprays out of a can) to wipe off the keys and remove the surface-level gunk. Next, use a pen cap, a closed pair of scissors, or a small flathead screwdriver to carefully pry off the keys. (Tip: Record each key's proper location with a diagram or photo.) Dispatch anything disgusting underneath with your compressed air and cloth, and softly scrub at anything sticky or stubborn.
The mouse can collect a thin layer of residue from the oils on your hand--you may notice a grainy feeling and a lack of sheen on the surface. Wipe it down with your dampened cloth. If your clicking buttons can be removed, do so to get anything that may be trapped underneath. If they don't look removable, use a cotton swab to get into the cracks and clean out anything that may prohibit smooth clicks. Turn the mouse over and use the cotton swab to clean the LED area.
Fans and filters
Fans are the lungs of a PC. If they fail or if their vents become clogged, a PC will choke and die--something that's easy to prevent.
Wipe down the offending vents with a cloth dampened in spray cleaner to remove the excess, easy-to-reach debris. Use a compressed air canister to blow out anything that can't be reached with the towel.
If you have removable filters, take them off and use a vacuum hose to get the big pieces of gunk. You can also clean the filters by rinsing them with water or wiping them down with a wet towel. I wouldn't advise using a vacuum around your sensitive components, however. Vacuums can cause static buildup that can discharge into your components--not good.
Belly of the beast
It's time to crack open the case and get down to the nitty-gritty. Place your PC in a well-ventilated, static-free area (outdoors on a dry, sunny day is perfect!) and wield your trusty can of compressed-air or a low-powered air compressor. Hold the canister upright and a comfortable distance away from sensitive components, then blow. Protect your eyes and mouth--the dust bunnies will be hopping.
Hold fans in place to avoid having them spin out of control and to make sure every blade is cleaned properly. Blow through the vents from the inside to remove the gunk you couldn't get when you originally wiped them down.
If you ever thought PC cleaning was for the faint of heart, get a load of Linus Tech Tips' video for the manliest way to get it done.
Once the beast has been cleared of dust, remove any add-in cards such as graphics cards, sound cards, or network adapters, as well as your power connectors. Give the open slots a good blast of compressed air and reseat everything to ensure a strong, stable connection. If the inside of your PC looks like a rat's nest, now would be a good time to grab a couple of zip ties and organize cables to help with airflow.
If your CPU runs hot, you can reapply thermal paste to the heat sink. Unlatch the motherboard fasteners, gently pull and twist the heat sink so that it comes loose from the CPU (it may be sticky from the old thermal paste), and clean off the copper surface of the heat sink and top of the CPU with the alcohol-based cleaner and a lint-free towel. Once the two surfaces are shiny again, add a little thermal paste and reseat the heat sink. Marco Chiappetta provides detailed instructions on how to install a CPU cooler.
By this point your PC, mouse, and keyboard should be pretty crud-free, inside and out. Run through the cracks and crevices one more time, including drive bays, exhaust fans, and vents. Tighten up any connectors you may have unplugged, and screw the case's shell back into place. Vacuum or wipe the area where your PC will be housed--otherwise it'll just suck all that gunk in and ruin your work. Finally, reconnect your peripherals so you can actually tell which wire goes where, avoiding tangles as much as possible.
You're all set! Power up your rig and revel in the way your newly cleaned PC performs better and runs cooler. Going forward, fend off dust and gunk with a monthly blast of compressed air.