Dirty secrets on keyboards, dishwashers

April 09, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Because I write a technology column, people figure I know everything about computers. Unfortunately, I don't - I'm more like a shade tree mechanic than an automotive engineer, which disappoints folks who expect that I've memorized the effect of all 44,397 possible Windows settings on each of the 2,943,724 possible combinations of PC hardware and software. But I try to help when I can, and occasionally I get a call that really makes my day.

This one was waiting in my voice mailbox from a fellow whose sister has a couple of kids who had managed to completely gunk up the keyboard of the family computer with combination of soda spills, cookie crumbs and Big Mac grease. It would barely work at all.

When she called the manufacturer's help line, she got a shock. "The guy told her to run the keyboard through the dishwasher and then let it dry for a couple of days. If it didn't work after that, they'd send her a new one," my caller said. "She thought the guy was crazy or jerking her around, and I have to say, it sounds pretty strange to me. Was the guy serious, or just pulling her leg?"

I had to laugh. Most of us have been taught from birth that it's not a good idea to mix water with electrical devices, and for the most part, that's sound advice. But there are occasions when bizarre suggestions like this have some merit. So I checked around, and the dishwasher suggestion wasn't as farfetched as it sounded, although it might have been a little drastic.

First things first: a keyboard, by its very nature, is the computer component that takes the worst beating. It comprises more than 100 moving parts, each of which has to function perfectly under millions of tiny blows imposed by none-to-gentle fingers. Your keyboard is also more exposed to the elements than any other component. It comes into contact with a host of contaminants, including dust, dirt, hair and the normal perspiration and grease from your hands, not to mention the stuff you eat, drink and spill at your desk.

Each key is actually a switch embedded in a complex wiring system. When you press a key, it completes a circuit that sends a coded electrical signal to your computer. How the computer reacts depends on the software you're running. For example, if you press the "F" key while you're writing a letter using Microsoft Word, the software makes the letter "F" appear on your screen. If you press "F" while you're running a flight simulator, the software may lower flaps on your virtual airplane.

Any matter that keeps the switch underneath the keycap from closing can cause aggravation. At first, you may have to press the key several times to make it work. After a while, the key may not work at all. Sometimes a short circuit can send the wrong code to your computer, or several codes at once.

In the early days of PCs, computer keys were individual, spring-loaded mechanical switches. If a spring went bad or foreign matter kept the switch from completing the circuit, it was relatively easy to remove the keycap, disassemble that switch and fix the problem. But those keyboards were too expensive to manufacture. Underneath today's keycaps, you'll find a single plastic membrane with pressure sensitive humps that serve as switches. If the "F" key really goes bad, there's no way to replace it individually - you'll either have to learn to write compositions that don't use words with the letter "F" or get a new keyboard.

Fortunately, keyboards are relatively cheap - you can buy a perfectly decent model for $20 and a great one for $50. But they're still worth cleaning - first for reasons of aesthetics and hygiene, and second because if you don't take care of a keyboard, it will go south on you at the worst possible time.

It doesn't take much to keep a keyboard clean to the eye. A soft cloth and some Windex will do the job. Just don't soak the cloth too heavily or spray right into the keyboard. If you don't have Windex, some say toothpaste will whiten up those pearly-gray keys. I'd consult my dentist before I tried that trick, though.

If grime at the base of the keycaps is too hard to reach with a cloth, use a small screwdriver to gently pry off each key. That will also give you the opportunity to vacuum underneath. Just remember to put the keys back in the right places - typing can get confusing if you don't.

To get rid of dust, crumbs and other small detritus without taking anything apart, flip the keyboard up 90 degrees, rap the top edge of the keyboard on a flat surface a couple of times, then turn the keyboard upside down and shake it out over a wastebasket. You'll be amazed at the gunk that comes out. This treatment will often free up one or two sticky keys if there isn't a more serious problem.

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