20 steps to a lean, clean machine

If your legacy laptop is showing signs of age, it could simply need some basic maintenance. Here's a step-by-step guide to how to clean out your system.

1. Get ready

Like regular tune-ups for a car, business laptops require periodic maintenance to ensure a long life. For instance, the 2.5-year-old HP EliteBook 2560p that I use every day at work is showing its age. The fan runs continuously and squeaks, and the system overheats.

To revive it, I'm going to do a major cleaning and maintenance routine that includes everything from blowing out dust bunnies to swapping out the keyboard and fixing scratches. While these instructions apply to the EliteBook, they'll work with just about any laptop and can add years to a tired system.

So put aside an afternoon (it may actually take as little as half an hour), assemble your tools (see the next slide) and get ready to revive your legacy laptop.

2. Grab your toolkit

To perform the maintenance and cleanup routine properly, you'll need some supplies and tools. My guess is that you probably have many of these items already, but if you have to start from scratch, figure that it'll cost a total of about $75.

  • Screwdriver set
  • Can of compressed air
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Rubbing compound
  • Non-ammonia-based cleaner
  • Paper towels, cotton swabs
  • Synthetic cleaning cloth
  • New clock battery
  • Thermal paste
  • Tri-Flow spray lubricant (which contains Teflon)
  • CD cleaning disc
  • Replacement rubber feet
  • X-Acto knife
  • Small bowls to hold parts
  • Burn-in and battery health software
  • Fine-grit sandpaper (both 320- or 400-grit and 600-grit)
  • Fine steel wool
You may also want to haul out your owner's manual (or find it online) in case you need to consult it along the way.
3a. Opening it up: Single back panels

While laptops are designed differently -- with different ways to get to the components --it's usually easy to figure out. Start by taking out the battery and flipping the machine over [A].

In this case, my EliteBook has a single back panel. After I remove the locking screw and opened the latch [B], the whole panel slides right off [C].

Now every part, component and drive is out in the open. The next step is to take a good look around, checking for burn or scorch marks. For this, I use a lighted magnifying glass. 

Replace any scorched wires or wrap them individually in electrical tape or heat shrink tubing.  

3b. Opening it up: Multiple back panels

Some laptop designers are not as thoughtful, however. Instead of a single panel, they have put individual trap doors underneath the laptop for RAM, the hard drive and other parts. [A]

Start by looking for Phillips-head screws near where the case of the laptop has a square or rectangular cutout. It's probably a hatch that can provide access to its components. There might be two or three of these hatches and they often have small logos nearby to show what is held within.

After loosening the screws [B], try prying the panel off. Then do the same search for burn or scorch marks that was described in the previous slide.

3c. Opening it up: No panels

There are also systems that have been designed to allow little or no access to their internal components. These laptops are becoming increasingly popular these days because they can be made significantly thinner than traditional laptops. As a result, even if you know there's a problem with a component inside, there isn't much you can do about it.

About all you can do is spray some compressed air through the vents and ports to blow out the loose dust that has accumulated. Sorry!

4. Dust bunnies, beware!

Once you have access to the system's innards, it's time to actually do some cleaning.

Grab a can of compressed air and blow out all the accumulated lint, dust, dirt and other detritus. Use the tube that comes with the can of compressed air to aim the airflow into every place you can find.

Then remove the RAM chips by unsnapping them from the holder, and take out the hard drive and CD drive by unscrewing their brackets. This lets you get below and around them to get rid of any leftover dirt.

Finally, clean around the CPU's heat sink and the system's fan to get rid of any dust or grime that might reduce its cooling efficiency.

5. Airing out the ports

The next step is to go around the edge of the system with a can of compressed air and blow air through all of the ports, vents and openings for the audio, USB, networking, DisplayPort, modem, etc. This blow-out routine should include the SD card slot and even the system's PC- or smart-card slots if it has any.

Finally, pay particular attention to the system's cooling vents that bring in cool air and expel heat. Clean them out so that fresh air flows freely.

6. Keep the fan quiet

A squeaky fan is not only annoying, but it can cause the system to overheat and shut down. You can try to quiet it with some oil.

After taking the fan's label off, put it aside -- it contains the part number for finding a replacement. Then spray the tip of a cotton swab with lubricant and dab it around the fan's center axle while twirling the fan blade to work the lubricant in.

In this case, unfortunately, as I turned the fan blade, I felt it grinding. This meant that the fan wasn't long for this world. Time to replace it.

7. Changing the fan

Changing a laptop fan is easier than it looks. Before you do anything, go online and order a new fan so that you won't lose any time with your system; for my EliteBook, a new one costs about $15.

After removing the pair of Philips head screws from the fan's bracket [A] and unplugging its power cord, remove the fan [B]. This is a good time to blow out any remaining dust from the fan assembly and its surrounding area. After all, this is where all the dirt and dust gets sucked into the system in the first place.

8. The heat (sink) is on

With the fan out, it's an excellent opportunity to check the CPU's thermal paste, which transfers heat from the processor to the heat sink and can dry out over time.

After loosening the four heat sink bolts [A], carefully slip the heat sink and the copper heat pipe out [B]. If the paste is dry, remove it with an alcohol wipe. Squirt a little thermal paste onto the surface [C], spread it out and put the heat sink back on top of the processor.

After wiping off any excess paste with another alcohol wipe, slip the heat pipe back into its place near the side vent. It should align with the heat sink just over the processor. Tighten the screws, making sure that everything fits securely.

9. Making contact

With all these components out, it's a good time to wipe every place a component makes electrical contact. I use pre-moistened alcohol pads, but if you don't have any you can use a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol (or even a bottle of vodka if that's all you have at hand).

One by one go through the RAM, hard drive, battery and CD drive, and thoroughly clean all the contacts. If any are pitted or black, give them a light going over with fine steel wool, but remember to blow any dust away before putting the system back together.

10. Cleaning the keys

If all the system's keys are in good shape, all you need to do is to give it a good cleaning. Use the can of compressed air to blow out dirt and dust that's accumulated over the years. Using the can's air tube, get under the keys --particularly the space bar -- and blow out as much stuff as you can. Finish up by wiping all the keys and surrounding plastic parts with a synthetic cleaning cloth.

11. Installing a new keyboard

But after years of daily use, my EliteBook's keyboard hadn't only accumulated its share of dirt -- the "S" key was loose. Rather than just clean the keyboard, I decided to replace it with a new $40 keyboard.

It's not difficult: After removing the three Philips head screws in the back that hold the keyboard in place, pry the keyboard loose [A] and remove its ribbon cable connector. All you need to do now is connect the new keyboard, snap it in place [B] and tighten the screws.

But before you replace the keyboard, this is probably a good time to change the system clock battery (see next slide).

12. Replacing the clock battery

Before I replace the keyboard, I'm going to change the button battery that powers the system's internal clock.

With the keyboard out, I pull the yellow battery free of its adhesive and unplug its cable. I was able to find a replacement online for less than $11. If that's too much, you can make your own by cutting open the old battery case with an X-Acto knife, soldering the power cable's wires to a new standard CR2032 battery and sealing it up with clear silicon.

Finally, press the new battery pack onto the motherboard, plug its cable in and put the keyboard in place. You can now replace the system's bottom panel as well (but clean it first).

13. A sparkling screen

If you use your system the way I use mine, the screen and frame have gotten grimy and dirty. Coat the screen with a non-ammonia-based window cleaner and gently wipe the screen's surface with paper towel, trying to get into the seams and corners as best you can.

Next, give the webcam and any other visual part (my laptop has a pop-out LED night light) a similar cleaning. When everything looks clean, wipe the screen and bezel down with a synthetic cleaning cloth to remove any lint left behind by the paper towel.

14. A general clean-up

Now that the screen, lid and cam are clean and shiny, go over the rest of the system's case with the non-ammonia cleaner and a paper towel. If there's some filth, oil or grease that puts up a fight, try using a toothbrush to scrub it off.

At this point in the routine, it's a good idea to wipe down the touch pad and its rim with a cotton swab soaked with the cleaner. The touchpads are generally sealed and can take a little water, as long as you wipe it up right away.

When you clean the bottom panel of the unit, do it while the panel is off and away from the system to avoid spraying cleanser into the works.

15. Smoothing out scratches

If you're like me, your laptop has gotten quite a bit of use -- and may have been banged around a bit. While you can't do anything about actual dents in the case, you can, however, recondition the rest.

Start by gently working a mildly abrasive rubbing compound such as Turtle Wax into the scratches with a circular motion.

After wiping it clean, repeat the process with a less aggressively abrasive polishing compound.

16. Plastic scratched? No worries!

If the plastic parts of the case also have a few scratches, they can be removed with a little elbow grease.

Start with some 320- or 400-grit wet sandpaper. It's the kind of sandpaper that car body shops use to prepare a surface for painting and is available at any good hardware store. Have a small bowl of water handy to keep the paper wet, because if the paper dries out, the sanding will leave scratches.

Gently sand around and over the scratches, smoothing the depression until it disappears. Then, repeat the process with 600-grit paper to finish up.

17. Getting on a better footing

My laptop has -- or should I say had -- four rectangular rubber feet that kept it stable. One fell off about a month ago, though, and HP doesn't sell replacements. However, it's actually not hard to make one.

I started with generic rubber feet that I bought at a hardware store and cut one with an X-Acto knife to about the right size. [A] After two failed attempts, I got one good enough to glue in. [B]

If you've lost two or more feet, an alternative is to replace them all with the thick felt circles used on furniture. 

18. Checking your battery power

Before you replace the main battery, it's a good idea to evaluate its health. Batteries generally lasts between 500 and 1,000 recharge cycles, or two to three years of active use. Nirsoft's free BatteryInfoView software provides excellent information about the status of the cells. Its Battery Wear Level logs your battery status, including the full-charge capacity, so you can watch to see if the battery's capacity drops over time.

When my battery got to a 75% wear rating a few months ago, I bought a $40 replacement battery and it's been working fine ever since.

19. Lens cleaner for the optical drive

While many newer laptops lack an optical drive, my EliteBook 2560p has one. I used a CD lens cleaner to get rid of accumulated grime from the drive's sensitive lens.

While it looks like a plain DVD, the bottom of the drive has six carbon fiber brushes that wipe the lens clean as it spins. All you have to do is put the cleaner disc into the drive and click it to play as if it were an audio CD. The disc runs through its cleaning routine in 5 minutes, perfect timing for a coffee break.

20. Running a final check

Once everything is put back together, the last step is to make sure everything is running properly.

I use PassMark's BurnIn Test software, which can be set to exercise every major part of the computer and report on any faults the system encounters. The free version will do this for 15 minutes, which is a start, but I like to run the software overnight to make sure that everything can stand up to prolonged use. It costs $39 to purchase the full version of the software.

And you're finished! You'll wind up with a computer that may not be the latest and greatest, but will serve you well for another year or two, at least.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.