Hey, you, your gadgets are disgusting. And wiping them with your greasy shirt sleeve isn't making things any better. Here's how to clean your gadgets, the right way.
This is the number one cleaning question I get from friends and family, and it's one of the simplest to answer. HDTVs and monitors are the worst kind of dirt magnets, begging to be touched—by your boss who wants to show you something on your computer screen, by your greasy little cousin who's getting restless during his umpteenth viewing of Finding Nemo, by your drunk old buddy from college who somehow still thinks it's funny to grope actresses onscreen on his way to the bathroom—and sitting in total vulnerability: in the case of your LCD screen, within sneezing range; in the case of your flatscreen TV, in your dusty living room.
The tempting, nearly instinctual response to a oily, dusty, mucousy panel of glass or glasslike material is to reach under the sink, grab that bottle of Windex and the paper towels and spray that stuff down. Do not do this. There are some TVs and displays for which Windex will do the job—CRT televisions, for example, and some glass-paneled screens—and if you've been using Windex in the past without incident, don't worry too much. But also, stop.
Spraying any kind of cleaner onto a screen isn't a great idea. These panels aren't weatherproof, so if your sprayed solvent runs into the crack between the panel surface and the display bezel, there will be tragedy. Furthermore, Windex is a glass cleaner: a lot of your screens' outer layers aren't glass, or have some kind of delicate coating. Ammonia-based cleaners, for example, can microscopically abrade some plastic surfaces, causing your screen to become slightly foggy over time. And for your cleaning tool, paper towels aren't terrible, but they're also somewhat risky—screen coatings can be extremely delicate, and paper towels can sometimes be a little rough. Plus, they're prone to leaving streaks, no matter what liquid you're using.
So, what's the trick? Water. Water and a soft, lint-free (ideally microfiber, which is better at picking up greasy smudges) towel. To clean your panel, dampen your cloth and strain it out as best you can—you don't want any drippage here—then run it, folded, gently across your screen, repeating until the screen has been thoroughly covered and any sticky residue has been removed. (For larger displays, perform cleaning in sections, so as not to let the water dry or collect and run.) Now do the same with a dry cloth, applying slightly more pressure, to lift away the dirt and moisture. Repeat if there are still grease deposits. That's it! A few bucks for some soft cloths, a little bit of water, and your screen is as good as new.
And those specialty cleaning kits? They do work, for the most part, but they're not necessary.
By the time your TV is in need to a deep cleaning, your remote—or your videogame controller—is probably in even worse shape. The kind of dirt a remote gathers is an order of magnitude more disgusting (and more human) than your panel, so you're not just cleaning, you're disinfecting. Interestingly enough, the cleaning method isn't too far from the one above: A damp cloth, with some water. This time, though, you'll want to throw a little isopropyl alcohol in the mix—a 40/60 booze and water split works—to help disinfect the buttons, and remove the oily brown buildups you can get between buttons. Again, soft cloth is better than paper towels, this time it tends to be a bit better at reaching between buttons than stiff, thin paper. Use wooden toothpicks for reaching into cracks, but nothing harder.
These are unique in that they're shared gadgets. And shared gadgets are, almost without fail, fantastic vectors for germs. So what I'm saying is, clean them or die.
Body: Cleaning your camera body is like cleaning almost any other gadget—a very slightly damp towel will do the trick. (Though be gentle around openings, since point-and-shoot camera guts lurk awfully close to the surface, and any intruding water can wreak serious havoc.)
Lenses: Lenses are dirt magnets, and if they're dirty, you simply don't get good pictures. They're also delicate and expensive, so you can't just reach in there with a paper towel and be done with it. Lens cleaning kits are available at every camera store, and include a light cleaning solution and microfiber cloth. These are safe bets, but don't spend more than $15 bucks on them. Lens pens also work, but they're a riskier proposition—there's such a limited cleaning surface on those things, and I always get the sense that after a few uses, the cleaning element has been sort of tainted.
Again, though, stay safe with this one: Buy a microfiber cloth, and simply rub the lens with a circular motion until all visible smudges are gone. Never apply too much pressure—any dust or dirt on the lens can get picked up in your cloth and scratch your lens—and fold/refold your cloth to ensure you're using a fresh surface at least once during a lens cleaning.
Two small notes on lenses: Don't forget the clean the rear glass on any DSLR lens. There's a lot less surface area there, and since it spends most of its time inside the camera or a locking lens cover it probably won't be as dirty, so this should take much effort. And if you can, treat each of your DSLR lenses to a UV filter. While this is called a filter, it only block light that humans can't naturally see, meaning that in most photos, the effect will be generally unnoticeable. (More on that here) Point is, you don't have much to lose by buying one of the dirt-cheap filters, and it will provide a layer of transparent protection from dirt and scratches over your lenses at all times. And since they're flat and thin, they're easier to clean than convex lenses.
UPDATE: I've gotten a couple of emails from photo pros about this, and I think it bears mentioning: Before rubbing your lenses, it's good practice to blast them with a little air. Air pumps (like the one mentioned in the following subsection) and canned air will do the job, as will, in a bind, your lungs. The thinking here is that you should remove any potentially abrasive particles from the lens before rubbing it, so as not to drag them around, causing permanent damage. —Thanks, Jody and Ned!
Sensors: Point-and-shoot and bridge camera users don't have to worry about this, but DSLR users, who provide a chance for dirty to enter their camera bodies every time they change a lens, may need to clean a sensor one day. It's not as scary as it sounds!
First of all, you'll never have to actually clean a sensor, since DSLR sensors all have some manner of filter, either IR or UV, built in. But still, the surface is delicate, so you'll want to be cautious. Most cameras include some kind of sensor-cleaning function in their software; since most sensor taint is comprised of a stray speck of dust or two, a quick, severe vibration will usually do the trick.
If that doesn't work, and your photos are showing persistent, faded, unmoving spots in every photo, it's time for phase II: air. For this, I defer to Ken Rockwell:
After 17,000 shots I finally got a speck on my D70. Remember I also change lenses a lot. The Shop Vac wasn't enough. This time I used an ear syringe (blower bulb) from the drug store which you can get here. I put the D70 on BULB and pounded the bulb with my fist to create a jarring blast of air. That worked.
Rockwell advises to use an ear syringe; I'd say go with a purpose-design lens blower, since they're still only about $10, and you'll get better results without running the risk of pulverizing your DSLR's guts while trying to get muscle enough airflow through a hard rubber earwax remover.
Beyond built-in sensor cleaning and a few blasts of air, there are plenty more methods for cleaning a sensor, but they're all risky to varying degrees. Unless you're supremely confident (and careful) it may be best to leave this one to the guys are your local camera shop, assuming you still have one. A ruined sensor, in most cases, is a ruined camera, so tread carefully.
Screen grime is the most common cleaning problem with laptops, and with the display cleaning section of this guide, we've got that covered. That said, laptops collect filth in a variety of other ways, and they can get real microbial, real fast.
To clean a typical keyboard—that is, a non-chiclet design—you've got three steps to try. First, use a damp cloth with the aforementioned 40/60 alcohol/water mixture, turn off the laptop, and run it across the keys. Fold it a few times and use the edge to reach between the keys. You can use this same cloth to clean the rest of your laptop as well, excluding the screen, but including the touchpad. If that doesn't do the trick, and you can spot some dust or hair in between keys, it's time for some canned air. You can pick this stuff up at most big box electronics stores or online for $10 or less, and using it is as simple as tilting your laptop sideways, and blowing air in the cracks.
If this doesn't work, it's time to start popping off keys. Since you're disassembling a keyboard that really isn't meant to be taken apart, there's a definite inherent risk here, but the results are practically guaranteed to be good. Here's an extremely thorough guide, if you're game for it. To give you an idea of what this entails, there's a point in this tutorial at which all your laptop's keys are swirling in a cereal bowl full of soapy water. It's gruesome.
Another problem area for laptops is fans, air intake vents and heatsinks. These all stand in the pathway between outside air and your processor, which needs said air to keep cool. Any blockage can cause your laptop to run hot, your fans to run high, and consequently, your battery to run low. Disassembly instructions will vary from laptop to laptop, and typically will involve removing your entire keyboard. Once you've done this, though, removing the dust is a matter of blasting with air, scraping with a clean toothbrush or even just wiping with your finger. It's not about total cleanliness here, it's about clearing your computers' windpipe.
Another helpful trick: Those white, last-gen MacBooks have a disgusting tendency to accumulate a beige (then brown, then black) residue where users' palm touch the laptop. This discoloration is more of a stain than a buildup, so you can't fix it with water or alcohol. The fix? Acetone. Seriously, the best way to wipe that crap off is with nail polish remover.
We've covered how to clean most of the external pieces of a laptop already: any plastic surface gets a moist wipe-down; keyboards get compressed air. That's it! Your desktop is sparking clean! This feels so good! Now slide of your desktop's side panel, and weep. If you've had your desktop for more than a few months, and particularly if you keep it in a carpeted room, it's probably an absolute horror show.
The first thing to do is, you guess it, pull out that microfiber cloth. Wipe down every surface that's finished, which is to say covered in rubber (wires) painted (the inside of the case, and the plastic shell of an internal optical drive, or the decorated exterior of a video card) or inert (the blades of a fan, or the exterior of your heatsink). You can slightly dampen the cloth to help pick up dust from the corners of the case, but your probably don't need to, and it's best to keep this a dry operation, beginning to end. Next, whop out that can-o-air, and have at it. Pay special attention to dust buildup areas, like the heatsinks on your processor and video card, and the fan inside your power supply. This will likely cause some dust to resettle elsewhere, so you may need to repeat your wipedown/blow process once more. Again—cleaning the inside of your tower is less about maintaining a spotless appearance than it is making sure dirt, dust and hair buildup won't negatively affect your computer's performance, so don't get too anal about it, cosmetically speaking.
Cellphones, iPods and other media players are designed to be pocketed, so you can be a little rough on them during the cleaning process. A very slightly damp cloth or paper towel will remove whatever fingerprint or residue your shirt or jeans won't.
As much as these gadgets are intended to live in pockets, they have an irritatingly high number of places for dust to hide itself. Cellphones have keypads, or, increasingly, sets up buttons at the base of a touchscreen or on the sideof the handset, all of which give dirt a place to accumulate. The grilles over cellphones' mics and speakers is another refuge for sludge, and they're totally immune to simple wipedowns. For this, you've got to go one step further. Luckily, you've probably got all the supplies you need in your house already.
Wooden toothpicks and old toothbrushes help reach into cracks and crevices, like those around buttons or running around the perimeter of some display panels. (Samsung and HTC are particularly guilty of leaving spaces in places like that.)
Sometimes, as in the case of the tiny little mic/speaker grilles on some phones, you don't want to push dirt in, but rather pull it out. For those situations, lay a strip of scotch tape over the afflicted area, run your finger over it a few times, and pull it off. If that doesn't work, upgrade to duct tape—though you'll want to be a bit more gentle with that, since applying too much pressure can leave adhesive on your device, which is a pain to wipe off.
If you have more cleaning tips and tools to share, please drop some links in the comments-your feedback is hugely important to our Saturday How To guides.
And if you have any topics you'd like to see covered here, please let me know. Happy housekeeping, folks!