Archive for April, 2014

It’s time for some hardware spring cleaning!

Spring is in the air and it’s time to do some spring cleaning. This means cleaning your house, room, and most importantly, your PC! Of course, keeping your PC clean isn’t just a matter of aesthetics; it also helps keep your system from overheating. 

As a computer runs, it generates static electricity, which attracts dust and hairs. These nasty bits clump together and gunk up the heatsink, case fans, and other computer components. It’s not only gross but also ends up blocking airflow, which causes overheating. So beyond annual spring-cleanings, it’s important to routinely clear out any messy buildups in your rig. Without further ado, let’s start scrubbing down our PCs!

PC cleaning tools

PC cleaning tools

Tools of the trade

Compressed air can

Isopropyl rubbing alcohol or Vodka in a pinch

White vinegar

Distilled water

Microfiber cloths

Q-tips

Scotch tape

PC cases

We’ll go ahead and start with the biggest and most important item that needs cleaning, your gaming rig. If your PC has been sitting around all winter, it’s probably packed with dust even with filters in front of every intake fan.

PC Outside

PC Outside

1) Take it outside

The first step will be to take it outside because it’s a bit pointless to blow out all that dust indoors just to have it all settle back down in the same room. But before we do that, disconnect the computer entirely. This includes Power cable, USB peripherals, and whatever audio equipment you have hooked up. Don’t forget to discharge the remaining power in the computer by grounding yourself while touching the power supply and pressing the power button.

Wipe it down

Wipe it down

2) Wipe it down

The next step is giving the outside of the case a good once over, wiping down the entire exterior and even cleaning its dirty feet. 

Clean those dust filters

Clean those dust filters

3) Clean those dust filters

Next up detach any dust filters on the case and wipe off the accumulated dust bunnies. Doing this by hand is fine but give it a quick blast with your compressed air can for good measure. Meanwhile, for foam filters give them a quick rinse under the sink. In both cases make sure to clear the dust out so that it blows out away from the clean side, otherwise you’ll end up dirtying both sides.

Prepping the patient

Prepping the patient

4) Prepping the patient

Before you go dual wielding air cans on the inside of your case, you should know that will just cause a big mess. So it’s important to first wipe down the inside manually—yes, by hand. It’s an opportune time to disconnect big components like the graphics card, RAM modules, and even the heatsink if you have some replacement thermal paste lying around. 

Clean the graphics card

Clean the graphics card

There’s always bound to be dust hidden between the cracks and removing these components will make it easier to clean off the motherboard. Before you go blowing off the GPU and other case fans, use a pen to hold the fan in place as it prevents it from spinning too fast and potentially damaging the motor.

Cleaning

Cleaning

5) Cleaning 

Additionally, if there are any big clumps of dust it would be best to grab them up and wipe them away with a damp (not wet!) isopropyl rubbing alcohol-laden cloth first. After that, go ahead and pull the air can trigger on any nooks and crannies you might have missed as well as the motherboard itself. For any truly stubborn dust particles hanging around the case’s expansion slots, use dampen Q-tips with alcohol to rub it out.

Packing it up

Packing it up

6) Packing it all up

Once you’re all done inside, put everything back where it belongs. You might also want to check over your wiring. Just in case you’re still using the old pack-your-wires-at-the-bottom-of-the-case strategy, check out our guide on how to wire like a pro.

Click the next page to get tips on how to clean up accessories like keyboards, mice, and more!


 

Keyboards and Mice

Dirty Mouse

Dirty Mouse

After you’re all done with cleaning out your tower you should polish up your peripherals too. These can be especially gross since you end up touching them all the time. Plus there are so many tiny spaces for dust, Cheetos cheese, and other gunk to get into. 

Cleaning the Keyboard

Cleaning the Keyboard

First we’ll start with wiping the keyboard down with a damp cloth. Since regular old plastic is a less sensitive than microchips we can use anything from a micro fiber cloth, to a rag, and even a (clean) old sock. After you’ve wiped all the greased and dust off the top, flip the keyboards over and give it a good shake to get rid of any loose bits of material in between the keys. Follow up with a blast of air to clear out hair, dust, and food particles.

Removing the keys

Removing the keys

This should take care of at least 80-percent of the problems but for a truly deep clean, you can also pop off the keys to get to the keyboards backboard. Most mechanical keyboards come with a key puller. If you lost it or are using a membrane switch keyboard, gently wedging a flathead screwdriver or letter opener underneath the keys works in a pinch. Just remember to take a picture of the keyboard beforehand for reference when putting it back together.

Cleaning the Mouse

Cleaning the Mouse

Cleaning your mouse is largely the same as a keyboard in that the whole thing needs a good wipe down. Pay particular attention to the non-stick pads on the bottom as a lot of gunk can accumulate on and around the edge of the mouse’s feet. 

Cleaning the sensor

Cleaning the sensor

If there’s anything caught in the scroll wheel, simply turn the whole clicker over and turn the wheel or hit it with a blast of air to dislodge anything caught inside. Finally for the optical sensor, we suggest wiping the area with a damp cloth and a Q-tip to finely remove any leftover crud.

Monitor

Monitor

Monitor

Cleaning monitors, and screens in general, are extremely sensitive and require some of the gentlest cleaning methods. Windex is completely NOT okay to use. Ammonia- or alcohol-based cleaners should also be avoided because they can strip the anti-reflective coating applied to screens, cause clouding, and otherwise damage the display.

While it may seem like there are but a few solutions worth wiping your screen with, it’s actually easier to just make your own cleaning solution. All it requires is equal parts white vinegar and distilled water.

cleaning solution

cleaning solution

But before we start damping anything, we’re going to wipe down the surface to get rid of any dust or grit that might scratch the screen later on. Another ground rule is to never pour or spray liquid directly onto the screen because drops can seep into the panel through gaps around the bezel. Instead drip a little bit of the solution into the cloth and then wipe the display in a circular motion to prevent streaks.

Headsets

wipe headset

wipe headset

Moving onto potentially the grosses part of our gadget cleanup, headsets. Mmmm sweat and earwax. One good general rule about cleaning headset is liquid cleansers are a big no-no. Instead, for leather, pleather, and vinyl cups, use a simple microfiber cloth.

Tape headset

Tape headset

Alternatively, for headset with cloth and foam ear cups scotch tape works wonders on pulling off dust and lint without tearing fabric. 

Smartphones and tablets

Dirty Smartphone

Dirty Smartphone

Tablets, and especially smartphones can be a complete biohazard nightmare of bacteria and germs. All the loose food and dust that accumulates on your keyboard pales in comparison to the smartphone you touch with your hands all day. Given that this device also touches your face, it’s probably the most important thing you’ll want to sanitize.

 Wipe Smartphone

Wipe Smartphone

While we wish we could use bleach or use acid to scour phones clean, touchscreens are the finickiest thing to clean because of their sensitive oleophobic (oil phobic) coating. These coatings can be easily damaged by alcohol and ammonia solutions. Instead just like your monitor, it’s best to clean it with distilled water and white vinegar. Although technically vinegar is still an acid that will degrade the oil repelling coating on smartphones, it’s much weaker than alcohol.

For a truly sanitizing clean, you can buy a cleanser like iKlear, which is actually recommended by Apple. Alternatively for a completely liquid-free solution there are UV sterilizers specifically designed for smartphones—think of it as an UV-powered Easy Bake oven for technology—that run around $40.

Done

Done


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The Federal Communications Commission’s proposed new rules for net neutrality touched off a firestorm across broad sections of the Internet this week, as critics charge that the FCC has effectively gutted the entire concept.

Operation Mineral-Oil Submersion

Lately, we’ve been tossing around the idea of doing a Build It story that uses a custom liquid-cooling loop just because they are fun to play with, and when properly designed, have many tangible performance benefits. But since this is Maximum PC, we asked ourselves, “Why not take it one step further and submerge everything in liquid?” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

You’ve probably seen aquarium-style case mods like this before, but this time we’re taking advantage of a pre-fabbed kit from Puget Systems. It incorporates items that will be familiar to liquid-cooling aficionados, such as a Swiftech pump, compression fittings, and a 240mm radiator. However, what’s different is that this kit combines familiar bits with more exotic items, like an acrylic frame/container, an integrated temperature gauge, and the star of the show—several gallons of mineral oil.

Click play on the video above to see how we finalized the fish tank PC.

Water would kill everything it touches, but mineral oil doesn’t conduct electricity and is nonreactive—you can dunk a running power supply into a bucket of the stuff and it will keep running. We’ll walk you through the build, detail our mistakes, and show you how it all works. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it certainly makes a great conversation piece.

Exploratory Drilling

This actually isn’t the biggest mineral-oil system Puget offers, as the one we used is designed for microATX motherboards ($445, www.pugetsystems.com). There’s a bigger kit that allows an E-ATX board ($690), but we like the fact that this kit requires “only” eight gallons of oil. A single one-gallon jug of the stuff weighs 7.3 pounds, so even this little build will be pushing more than 50 pounds once we’re up and running. As you can imagine, this makes the system quite difficult to move around safely. Since our needs included being able to move the system to the photography studio, shuffle it to different ambient temperature ranges for thermal testing, and dangle it over a misbehaving intern’s head, we opted for Puget’s more manageable mATX option.

Puget does not sell mineral oil directly, but the company is affiliated with STE Oil, which sold us the eight gallons for $160, plus another $180 for three-day shipping (what can we say, we’re not the best planners). UPS Ground would have still cost $52, since shipping fees scale according to weight, and shipping 58.4 pounds of anything isn’t cheap. So, we recommend you get it locally to save yourself some cheddar.

Since this is the first time we’ve attempted a mineral-oil submersion Build It, we’re being conservative with our hardware. We’d rather not destroy expensive gear, and almost all of it is on loan from vendors anyway, so it’s not even ours to destroy. Since our build is mediocre, we won’t be testing for performance, but instead just seeing how it all fits together, what pitfalls exist, and reporting on temps and whether or not we’d ever do it again. We also hope to produce a PC that looks seriously cool.

1. The Kit and Kaboodle

Puget’s microATX kit is made of custom-shaped Plexiglas machined in small batches. It also includes some premium parts, such as a $57 240mm Swiftech radiator, a $100 Swiftech MCP35X pump, several nickel-plated compression fittings, pre-cut tubing, and a thermometer with an LCD readout. Storage devices are mounted on the outside of the thing in order to keep them dry, and the kit includes extension cables and brackets to accommodate that setup. The included documentation is meticulous, and the bags of screws are even color-coded to avoid confusion. The radiator does not come with fans, but you can buy a pack from Puget or bring your own. We chose the latter, pulling some Scythe Gentle Typhoons from our basket of Dream Machine parts.

2. Making a Case

When you see all the separate components of the case laid out, it looks like it would take days to assemble. In practice, however, the interior rack that holds all the components comes together like Lego pieces, except with screws. The instruction manual has very clear diagrams for every step, leaving little question about what to do next. The case itself is one piece, and the parts you assemble end up with a pair of handles, so when it’s all finished, you can carry the assembly via the handles and lift it in and out of the case.

Click the next page to read about installing the graphics card in the system and more.


 

3. Getting Graphic

Since we intended to test how well mineral oil can dissipate heat compared to air or conventional liquid-cooling systems, we wanted to use some reasonably hot hardware to put the system to the test, and we had exactly that with the triple-slot Asus Radeon HD 7970 DirectCU II GPU. It’s as hot as it is huge, measuring 2.25 inches thick and 11 inches long, but Puget’s case had no trouble accommodating its length. This GPU gets so hot Asus had to stick a condo-size cooler on it, so we wondered if the oil would be able to handle all the heat this card gives off.

It should, because, in theory, even though the fans will spin more slowly since oil is more viscous than air, the lack of fan movement shouldn’t matter since the oil is sucking up the heat given off by the card, and the fans don’t play a major role in the cooling loop. Once the oil gets warm, it’s pulled out of the case by the pump and sent to the external radiator.

The only thing we didn’t like about the GPU setup is that it’s across from where the PSU is mounted, so we had to drape the cables through the acrylic case.

4. Pumping Up the Volume

The Swiftech MCP35X pump included with this kit is not the standard unit that we used in this year’s Dream Machine. It’s PWM-controlled, so it can adjust its speeds dynamically according to instructions given by the motherboard that it’s plugged into. When the system is idle, the pump operates very quietly. When needed, it can crank up to 4,500rpm, so it’s very powerful for its size (and you’ll need that extra horsepower to offset the thickness of mineral oil). It also takes standard G1/4 fittings and can directly integrate specific reservoirs, which saves on space. At $100 when purchased separately, it’s one of the more expensive pumps you’ll find. But our oil-based setup benefits from a pump that has premium features.

5. Taking a Dip

Our oil came in one five-gallon jug and three one-gallon jugs. The big jug needed a pipe wrench to get the cap off, and it did not have a built-in tube like a gas can. So there was some spillage there. Mineral oil has the clarity and consistency of corn syrup. It also has no odor, thankfully. We began by emptying the large jug into the tank, which filled a little more than half its capacity. Then we inserted our rack of parts, and topped off the tank with one of the gallon jugs of oil. We ended up needing just six gallons since the rest of the container’s capacity was displaced by the hardware and the pebbles. It got pretty heavy after everything was poured in, but there are silicone feet underneath the aquarium, so you can at least get your hands underneath to lift it.

The instruction manual recommends using bubble bars to simulate an aquarium, which requires a second set of pumps, valves, and tubing. We thought that was just a bit too complicated for our first time with mineral oil. But rocks and other typical fishy decorations are an easy add, as long as it’s all clean. Any dust will cloud the oil and potentially clog the circulation system, or at least reduce its effectiveness.

6. The Heat of Battle

The pump is just one part of the oil circulation system, of course. The Swiftech MCRx20-XP radiator uses brass tubes and copper fins, and a self-purging plenum, which is a chamber that helps maintain equal pressure throughout the loop and can suppress noise. The radiator is hung outside the case on a bracket. It’s big enough to fit three fans if you wanted to; one up top and two down below. But the bracket is a bit too bulky to fit four fans, thus eliminating the possibility of a full “push-pull” configuration. The Scythe fans are 120mm units that spin at a fixed 1,850rpm, but they’re surprisingly quiet and good at forcing air through a radiator. The fan cables aren’t braided, so they’re not very pretty. We also needed to add a power distribution block because the motherboard has just one case fan header, and we wanted to minimize the number of cables leading out of the case.

Striking Oil

Trying something truly novel in Build It is exciting, but that excitement was tempered by several “oh, crap” moments and hardware failures. For example, it wasn’t until all the hardware was dipped into the oil for the first time that we realized we probably should have made sure it at least booted first. Luck was not on our side, and on our first try the machine would not POST. We hoped the issue was related to the monitor, or the monitor cable, or some small thing, but no combination of parts outside the machine had any impact. We did have some luck, in that there was a plastic tub available in the Lab that was large enough to place the oil-soaked rack in temporarily. So we hauled it out and proceeded to methodically replace one part at a time until we got the machine to boot. The problem appeared to be a motherboard fried at some earlier point by static, or physically damaged in a way that’s difficult to detect with the naked eye. Once we swapped the board, the system booted right up and remained stable.

The pump was initially a little noisy as it filled up and started circulating oil through the radiator, but the overall acoustics eventually settled down to a gentle whir, even when spinning at a reasonably high 4,500rpm. The loudest element was actually the oil pouring back into the case from the radiator, which was like a pleasantly babbling brook.

Overall temps seemed fine, so we ran FurMark’s thermal test for a little while to get some heat into the oil, and the case temperature eventually leveled off at 37 degrees Celsius, comfortably below its rated maximum of 50 C. The Asus HD 7970 stayed around 60 C, though we did have to manually increase fan speed to compensate for the thickness of mineral oil. We found that temps are highly dependent on the fans you use on the radiator; random $5 case fans won’t get the kind of result that you will get with $20 Gentle Typhoons (or Corsair SP120s, or Noctua CPU fans), because the higher-end units have a combination of high pressure, high durability, and relatively low noise. We didn’t try overclocking the AMD chip, since it was using a stock cooler, and Puget warns against overclocking systems in the oil due to heat concerns.

The radiator fan wires were not long enough to reach the motherboard headers, so we used a power distribution block, which is like a power strip for case fans. You can power them up with Molex, SATA, or PCI Express power cables. The Gentle Typhoons we used spin at a constant RPM, but the noise is low enough that we don’t need variable speed PWM control.

Aside from human error, the system itself was a great success. People around the office who aren’t even into computers stopped to admire our aquarium PC, with its bubbling liquid and eerie blue glow (provided by a 30cm BitFenix Alchemy Connect LED Strip). It’s obviously not for everyone, but if you’re looking for a fun DIY project that’s “different,” it doesn’t get much better than this.


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