America is awash in connected devices.
A Pew Research Center survey revealed that 84% of all American households have at least one smartphone. 80% have at least one desktop computer or laptop. 33% of all Americans live in households with three or more smartphones, and 18% are “hyper-connected,” with 10 or more electronic devices in the home.
In real terms, desktops and laptops are actually less costly to replace today than in 2010, but they’re not exactly cheap. According to PC Magazine’s analysis of the market for new PCs, you can expect to pay anywhere from about $410 to $2,899 for a quality replacement machine. At full price, a top-of-the-line smartphone can easily cost $700 out of the box. Refurbished electronics aren’t as costly, but they lack the cachet of truly new products.
Well-Maintained Devices Live Longer
Maintenance offers the best of both worlds. It’s far cheaper than swapping burnt-out devices for new or used replacements, and it puts off the disruptive transition from one machine to the next. Well-maintained devices last years longer than maltreated equivalents, supporting smooth personal and professional use patterns and keeping more of your hard-earned money in your wallet along the way.
These electronic device maintenance tips are all well within the capabilities of the typical non-expert computer user. Some are tailored to desktops and laptops. Others apply to a broader range of devices. Most are best done on a recurring basis. And none require excessive investments of time, effort, or money.
Computer Maintenance Tips – Physical and Environmental
These tips cover your devices’ physical housing and accessories, and the environments in which you store and operate them.
1. Keep the Keyboard, Mouse, and Openings Clean
Start with the easy stuff: keeping your device’s accessories and openings clean.
A dirty keyboard will eventually stop working properly. Ditto for a dirty mouse. A replacement keyboard costs roughly $20 new, so replacing yours won’t ruin you, but that money could absolutely be spent on better things.
To clean your keyboard’s more accessible surfaces, use a damp, lint-free cloth. Don’t spray water directly onto the keyboard or allow water to pool anywhere on it – this will only make things worse. Use the same approach to clean your mouse’s accessible surfaces.
To clean harder-to-reach parts of your keyboard and mouse, such as the mouse’s optical opening and the spaces underneath the keys, use a compressed air canister. You can get one for $5 or $6 online or in your local hardware store.
Don’t neglect laptop and desktop ports and crevices either. Dusty or particle-clogged ports reduce airflow into and out of the device, increasing the risk of overheating. If you’re prone to forgetting small tasks like this, set a recurring calendar reminder every month.
2. Gently Clean Your Monitor
Your monitor might seem solid enough, but it’s just as vulnerable to dust and debris as your keyboard and ports. Dust it periodically with a microfiber cloth. Remove tougher stains with LCD screen cleaner, which should cost you no more than $6 to $10 per can.
3. Keep Food and Beverages Away From Desktops and Laptops
Repeat after me: Don’t eat or drink over your desktop or laptop!
Easier said than done when you’re working through your lunch break or binge-watching your favorite show with a bowl of ice cream, of course. But think of the consequences: A single spill is enough to destroy a keyboard, and a high-volume dump could penetrate the device’s casing and wreak havoc on its internal components.
After prematurely KOing two keyboards in rapid succession, I instituted a new rule in my household: nothing but water on the same surface as my laptop. It’s not easy, but so far I’ve managed to hold fast. I highly recommend you do the same.
4. Organize Cords and Other e-Debris
If you have an active home office setup, it probably features a mess of cords, power strips, and random accessories on the floors and working surfaces.
This mess is unsightly and unwieldy at minimum. If you have small children or pets, it may well present an electrocution risk. Depending on how loaded-up your power strips and outlets are, you could have a fire hazard on your hands. And jumbled cords are more vulnerable to damage, meaning higher long-term ownership costs.
Fixing this is easy. First, buy an extra power strip or two – you can get a 2-pack of 6-outlet strips for less than $12 on Amazon. Then, procure some twist-ties (negligible cost) or cable organizers ($6 to $14, depending on the type) to hold everything together in intentional fashion. Unplug, detangle, and reorient your cords in your handy new organization system. Then plug everything back in. That’s it.
Pro Tip: Seeking more home office hacks? Check out our post on the IRS home office tax deduction, then check with your tax advisor to determine whether you qualify.
5. Don’t Overcharge Your Batteries
Resist the temptation to keep your portable devices plugged in at all times. Not only is this a needless drain on your local power grid, which means preventable bloat for your utility bill, but it’s also actively bad for your devices’ batteries.
Unnecessary charging actually retards batteries’ regenerative capabilities. A year or so on, or maybe sooner, you’ll notice a drop-off in your device’s ability to hold a charge. It’ll eventually worsen to the point that you’ll need to have your charging cord handy – meaning you won’t be able to work or play online without an outlet nearby.
Don’t charge until your device is good and ready. I wait until my laptop gets down below 20%, for instance.
6. Don’t Block the Vents
Like people, desktop and laptop computers need to breathe.
The operative rule here is “don’t block the vents.” Just like people, machines need to breathe – though, in their case, it’s to ensure their insides remain cool enough to function properly. This is especially important when you’re asking a lot of a high-performance machine, such as a gaming laptop. (Even if you’re not a gamer, gaming laptops have significant benefits – this article from Walmart Canada explains why you might want to use one for classroom assignments, for instance.)
If you have a desktop, keep the tower clear of any obstructions, like cabinets or walls. If it’s possible to do so securely, elevate it to ensure good airflow on both sides. For laptops, maintain a clear workspace free from clutter that could obstruct airflow – for instance, papers or books. Periodically check that the fans are working as well.
No matter what kind of device you have, maintain adequate ventilation and reasonable climate control. You don’t have to blast the AC or leave the windows open in the winter, but setting the thermostat to 80 probably isn’t a great idea either.
7. Have Desiccant on Hand
You dropped your phone in the toilet. Oops! What’s your next move?
With little hesitation, most people confidently answer: “Put it in a jar of rice!”
That’s not the worst thing you could do for your waterlogged phone, but it’s not the ideal fix either. Rice is merely the best desiccant, or drying agent, that most people have lying around the home. It’s not made for clearing water from sensitive devices – it’s made for eating.
As it turns out, there are products made specifically to mop moisture out of electronics. They’re commonly known as desiccant bags, and they’re cheap – $7 for four 10.5 ounce bags on Amazon, each more than sufficient to dry out a waterlogged phone.
An even cheaper alternative: the little silica gel bags that come in many shipping boxes. Rather than throwing them out, collect them as they come in, taking care to store them somewhere child- and pet-proof. You’ll need several to dry out a dripping phone.
8. Keep Magnets Away
Keep your home office – and your devices themselves – away from magnets, even the weak refrigerator kinds. Your hard drive is incredibly sensitive to magnetic fields of any strength.
If you need to remember websites or phone numbers, use Post-it notes or digital files instead. Keep magnets where they belong – in the kitchen.
9. Be Careful With Unfamiliar WiFi Networks
Be wary of unsecured WiFi networks in coffee shops, airports, hotel lobbies, and other public places. Without basic network security, your computer is a sitting duck – out there in the open for any hacker or cyber criminal who feels like sending a malware package your way. When in doubt, use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your connection and repel attacks.
Pro Tip: If you’re not sure you’re doing enough to safeguard your computer – or the personal information stored within – check out our roundup of tips to protect your privacy online.
10. Get a Phone Case and Screen Protector
I have a confession to make: I’ve never cracked a phone screen. Whether that’s down to luck, exceptional care, or a mixture of the two, I’m not sure.
I’m probably in the minority on this one. My wife cracked her last three screens, all under relatively mundane circumstances. Phones are resilient, but not indestructible. Drop them the wrong way and you’ll be living with the consequences.
The choice between purchasing a brand new phone or buying a protective enclosure to deflect kinetic energy is no choice at all. Quality cases cost as little as $30 new on Amazon, and cheaper still at discount websites and on the secondary market.
Ditto for screen protectors. They’re even cheaper – as little as $5 to $6 apiece, depending on screen size and width. While they won’t protect against violent impacts, they’ll resist scratching indefinitely under normal circumstances.
Software and System Maintenance Tips
These tips cover devices’ hardware components, operating systems, memory, software, and vulnerability to external threats.
11. Shut It Down Properly Every Night
Bake this into your nightly routine. It only takes a minute each day, and it could prolong your devices’ life for months or years. It’s especially important for Windows machines, since Microsoft only patches systems in shutdown mode.
Also, how you shut down matters. Avoid “cold booting” your machine: holding down the power button until the system shuts itself off. That’s for emergencies only – otherwise, it just stresses your hardware and software. Take the extra minute or two to shut down the machine properly, using your operating system’s shutdown button.
It’s your call whether you want to apply this tip to your mobile devices. I personally only shut down my smartphone for updates, since I like to be available for emergency calls and alerts through the night.
12. Always Have Your Firewall Running
Your operating system’s firewall is your device’s first line of defense against malware. With rare exceptions, it should always be up and running.
This is especially important when you’re installing new programs, and doubly so when you’ve downloaded the program files from a source other than the developer or manufacturer. (Generally, you should avoid downloading any files from an unverified source.)
Turning on your firewall is easy. If you have a PC desktop or laptop, read Microsoft’s primer here. Mac OSX v10.5.1 and later have application firewalls that provide protection for specific apps; you can read more about those here.
Under some circumstances, your operating system’s firewall can interfere with specific programs. This is an issue with certain multiplayer games and older versions of Apple iTunes, for instance. If you suspect your firewall is fouling up your computing experience, check with the applicable program’s developer for troubleshooting tips.
13. Regularly Delete Unwanted Programs
Periodically canvass your system for unwanted programs that aren’t overtly malicious. Experts term such programs “bloatware,” and they can adversely impact your device’s performance when allowed to accumulate over time.
To detect bloatware, close as many open applications as you can, then open your operating system’s task manager and see how many applications they actually recognize. You’ll be shocked at how many programs still run in the background, eating up system resources. Though some such programs are essential system processes, many are trivial and can safely be deleted.
You can address some bloatware-related issues by running a free system cleaner like CCleaner. (Don’t bother paying for a system cleaner – quality varies widely and some sketchy cleaners are actually vehicles for adware and spyware.) For best results, you need to manually uninstall bloatware – and you need to do it right.
14. Uninstall Programs Completely
Deleting program icons is not the proper way to remove unnecessary programs from your computer. You need to execute a formal uninstall process for every single application you want to get rid of. Tossing things in the Trash or Recycle Bin doesn’t cut it.
Use the application’s own uninstaller, if one exists. Generally speaking, uninstalling Windows programs is more complicated than uninstalling Mac equivalents, but you should still check with experts on your system to make sure you’re doing things correctly. Cult of Mac has a good overview of trickier Mac uninstalls, for instance.
15. Use an External Hard Drive for Backup & Extra File Storage
Your job or hobby might require you to download or create and store large multimedia files. Sure as day follows night, these files will affect your system’s speed and overall performance. But you can’t simply delete them, can you?
Yes and no. You can delete them from your computer’s hard drive – as long as you have another home for them. An external hard drive is your best, and cheapest, bet.
Moore’s Law has been good to the external hard drive market. Drive cost has moved in near-inverse proportion to drive capacity. These days, you can find a 2-terabyte model for $60 to $70 at major retailers. If it means keeping your $800 PC running strong for another two years, that’s a worthy investment for sure.
16. Run a Full Malware Scan
Anti-malware software (see below) isn’t foolproof. Malware developers and their “white hat” nemeses are perennially locked in mortal, globe-spanning struggle for advantage. Novel malware crops up just as fast as white hats neutralize it.
Enter the system-wide malware scan. You should periodically run malware scans, ideally with more frequency than bloatware checks. I won’t go through all the steps here – check out PC World’s comprehensive guide to finding and removing malware from Windows computers here. (PC World recommends using Malwarebytes to scan your system, but there are other options.)
17. Get Anti-Malware Software (But Choose Carefully)
The best way to protect your computer from malware in the first place is to use a high-quality anti-malware program. This is especially important for PCs, which are more vulnerable to viruses, worms, and other malware.
New laptops and PCs generally come with anti-malware software preinstalled or at least included in the package, but be wary of accepting it at face value. Some anti-malware software may cause more problems than it solves. In 2017, for instance, Best Buy stopped selling Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab’s antivirus products under intense public pressure as concerns mounted that the company’s software could function as a backdoor for covert monitoring and data extraction by the FSB and other Russian intelligence agencies.
There’s no replacement for due diligence. Refer to an authoritative source for recommendations on the ideal anti-malware program for your specific system and needs: PC Magazine has a good roundup here, for instance. And Malwarebytes, recommended by PC World above, isn’t a bad choice for frugal users.
18. Always Be On the Hunt for Program Updates and Patches
Don’t put off updating and patching your system. This routine exercise requires minimal buy-in on your end – patches and updates generally install themselves when your computer is off or asleep.
One way to make sure you stay on schedule is to shut off your computer regularly. And when your operating system alerts you to a necessary update, don’t keep snoozing it – just bite the bullet and get it done, even if it interrupts your workflow.
19. Reinstall Your Operating System Periodically
Updates only go so far, and too many layered updates can actually be counterproductive. The most thorough way to clear unwanted files and reset your machine’s “bones” is to reinstall your operating system every so often.
Reinstalling your operating system is a time-consuming affair, but it doesn’t require any advanced technical skills. Microsoft has more about its Windows reinstaller tool here.
Just make sure you reinstall any necessary applications too. Always keep original install media handy, or at least know where to find them.
20. Free Up Space With Cloud Storage Solutions
External hard drives aren’t the last word on backup storage. They have drawbacks:
- They’re easy to misplace
- They can fall into the wrong hands
- They have finite capacity
- They have to be present to be useful
The list goes on.
If you’re looking for a redundant storage solution, consider a secure cloud storage service like Dropbox or Box. Pricing is usually annualized, and your net cost is likely to be higher than an external hard drive – for instance, Dropbox’s 1-terabyte Plus plan costs $99 per year when paid annually. The added convenience might be worth the cost. Just know that cloud storage isn’t ideal for extremely sensitive data, as periodic breaches have made clear.
When the time finally does come to rid yourself of an old electronic device, please do so responsibly.
If you live in a city of any significant size, you’re almost certainly served by a public or nonprofit e-waste recycling service licensed to recycle old desktops, laptops, tablets, e-readers, smartphones, and like devices.
In my hometown of Minneapolis, a fantastic organization called Tech Dump has rescued tens of thousands of old devices from landfills since its founding – including about a dozen from my household alone.
Donating broken-down old devices isn’t a purely selfless act. For those eligible to itemize deductions on their state and federal income tax returns, it’s a budget-friendly move. My e-waste donations have reduced my tax burden by $300 to $400, with more to come this year. Consult your tax advisor to determine whether itemizing makes sense for you.
Are you using any of these tips to prolong your computer’s useful lifespan?