Computer Corner

The Computer Corner
March 2013

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

I've written in previous columns about cleaning the innards of a PC, but what about the exterior parts: sticky keyboards and troublesome mice?

Keyboards and mice take a beating from food and drink spills, skin oils, and all manner of dirt and debris. But don't toss them out; they can be cleaned.

The simplest cleaning is purely mechanical — unplug the keyboard, turn it over, and shake it. You'll probably see a surprising amount of, um, crud fall out. A can of compressed air (purchased at an office-supply, hardware, or computer store) can also help dislodge debris from beneath the keys.

You can chemically clean exterior surfaces inexpensively by making a solution of diluted rubbing alcohol (typically, 70 percent isopropyl alcohol and 30 percent distilled water), available at any drug store. Moisten (don't soak) cotton swabs or lint-free cloths with the solution and then clean every place you can reach on the device's exterior.

For regular maintenance I love a little product called "Cyber-clean." It's kind of cool green goo in a plastic jar.  You turn off your computer and roll the ball of goo over your keyboard (or phone keypad, or remote control!) and it squishes between the keys and picks up all the finger oils, dist and debris.  You use it until it changes color and then get a new jar.  I got mine here from Amazon, but it's available in stores too.

If that's insufficient: yes, you can wash keyboards, mice, circuit boards, and similar non-motorized electronics. Repair shops do this all the time! While some advocate putting them dishwasher or even taking the device into the shower with you (really!) I recommend a gentle manual washing — actually, more of a soak — just in lukewarm, distilled water (with the device unplugged and any batteries removed, of course). Be sure to let the device dry thoroughly before use.

(In case you're wondering, distilled water is almost completely nonconductive and noncorrosive.)

Repeatedly submerge the device — the water gets in (and out) via the same cracks and openings that dirt and debris do. With the device submerged, exercise all the keys or buttons multiple times. Keep dunking and swirling the device in the lukewarm water, right side up and upside down. The water will dissolve drink spills and other dried-on gunk and also wash out the tiny solid particles that may be causing trouble.

When you're done with washing, shake the device gently, rotating it through all angles and positions to let as much water escape as possible. Pat the surface dry with a lint-free towel, and then let the device air-dry for several days to be certain it's completely dry before plugging it back in. Here in New Mexico, leaving it out in the sun for a day or two is sufficient.

And use common sense. I wouldn't try to save a $2 mouse or a $10 keyboard by washing it and then plugging it into a $1,000 PC. It would make far more sense to just buy a new mouse or keyboard. That said, I've successfully used the distilled water–wash method to salvage expensive, high-quality keyboards that had developed stuck keys or other dirt-related issues.

What keyboard and mouse do I use?  Well, since I spend most of my day using them, I’m very particular. I use the Logitech K800 Wireless Illuminated Keyboard. It’s so cool. The keys light up, but only when your hand is near the keyboard. And I use the Logitech Wireless Performance Mouse MX which fits my hand beautifully and works on any surface, even glass. I’m a righty – if you’re a left-handed mouser, get a universal of left handed mouse.

Clean Inside and Out

But what about cleaning your computer “softwarily?”  To keep my system lean and free of bogus Registry entries, junk files, useless cookies, and such, I run either Piriform's CCleaner (free and paid versions; site) I also run Macecraft's jv16 PowerTools ($30; site) at least monthly and when I want a deeper, more controlled cleaning (such as when some software won't install or uninstall properly). There’s a “lite” version called PowerTools' Lite (site) which is free. For general Registry cleaning, I use these tools in their safe, default modes because too-aggressive Registry cleaning can cause instabilities and other problems. All three tools are generally considered safe and effective by expert PC users.

I also use Windows own free “Disk Cleanup” tool.  It’s been included with every version of Windows since XP. Disk Cleanup helps free up space on your hard drive Disk Cleanup searches your drive, and then shows you temporary files, Internet cache files, and unnecessary program files that you can safely delete. You can direct Disk Cleanup to delete some or all of those files. To open Disk Cleanup, click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, point to System Tools, and then click Disk Cleanup. You can safely delete every item it finds in order to free up disk space and unclutter your hard drive.  Just select all the checkboxes and click OK.

clean up


Cleanup JAVA

With nearly every news outlet — along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — calling for its removal from PCs, who wouldn't worry about running Java on their computer?

Fortunately, there are steps every Windows user can take to lessen the chances of being bitten by a Java exploit.

Why everyone should be concerned about Java

In the computing world, Java is very nearly ubiquitous. As noted on Oracle's Java FAQ site, it runs on lots of PCs, but it also runs on "billions of devices worldwide, including mobile and TV devices." Java is not JavaScript! It’s completely different as Susan Bradley notes in her recent column, "Java: More than the usual cup of coding coffee," about what Java is and isn't.

Here’s how to disable Java in your Web browser(s). It's the most effective way to protect yourself from most Java-based threats. Yes, some PC users still need Java in their browsers to work with specific websites, but that’s quite rare. Most of us, including me, have little to lose and much security to gain by keeping our browsers Java-free. (And yes, Mac users should block Java, too.) Java in browsers has been a malware magnet for years — it's unlikely that fact will change anytime soon.

I'm not going to review the most recent round of Java exploits, their patches, or new exploits built onto the backs of Java fixes. Suffice it to say that hackers love Java in browsers and use malicious applets to take over your PC.

Remove Java from all browsers

These days, it's common for PC users to use multiple browsers. Most versions of Windows have Internet Explorer installed, and many — if not most PC users — are running Firefox or Chrome — or both. On any PC with multiple browsers, the most effective security policy is to disable Java in all browsers; then see what, if anything, breaks. Most likely, you'll never miss it.

Websites requiring Java are on the decline, but if you hit one, you can just move on to a different site. On the other hand, if your bank, brokerage company, or some other critical site requires Java, then you need to limit your Java exposure. (I've been running Java-free for about six months now, and I haven't missed it one bit.)

Here's how to disable Java in all your browsers simultaneously.

Step 1. Make sure you have the latest version of Java. My personal preference is to run the wonderful FREE  Secunia PSI and automatically keep up to date on all sorts of software, including Java. I’ve recommended it before and I’ll recommend it again. I never run a PC without it!

If you don't have PSI installed, go to the main Java page and, under the bright-red "Free Java Download" button, click the Do I have Java? link. Now click the Verify Java Version button. You should be running Java 7 Update 11 (or later, depending on when you read this column and whether Oracle has its act together). If you don't have Java 7 Update 11, go back to the main Java page and click the Java download button.

  • Step 2. Crank up the Java Control Panel. It's typically found in the Windows Control Panel. If you don't see it, try typing "Java" into the Control Panel's search box (upper-right corner of the CP window). In some unusual circumstances, you might have to go directly to the Java Control Panel applet by navigating to it — C:\Program Files (x86)\Java\jre7\bin or C:\Program Files\Java\jre7\bin (or something similar) — and clicking javacpl.exe.
  • Step 3. Disable Java in all browsers. In the Java Control Panel, click the Security tab and uncheck the Enable Java Content in the Browser box (see Figure 1).

Note that there's a small problem with this setting's labeling: The checkbox should say "Enable Java Content in all browsers." Once unchecked, this setting should disable Java in every browser installed on your system.

block java

Figure 1. Unchecking the Enable Java content in the browser box
disables Java in all installed browsers, simultaneously.

  • Step 4. Click OK and close the Java Control Panel. A couple of important notes on this process. Java is still installed on your PC; it's just disabled in browsers. With Java disabled, the Java site will no longer be able to verify the installed version of Java.

You're ready to start surfing the Web safely with Java reliably turned off in all your browsers.

Do you like these ‘tips and tricks’ type columns? If so, take the time to let me know if this column was useful to you. Please keep sending me your suggestions for column topics, along with your own tips and tricks or cool downloads, so I can share them with the Sangat. Just email them to me at [email protected]

Thanks!  - Guruka Singh