As photographers and videographers, we tend to push our computers much harder than the average user. However, overlooking something as innocuous as household dust brought my computer to a halt.
Let me preface this by saying I already feel really silly for having overlooked this for so long, so please don't rub it in too much more (though I deserve it). My Mac Mini is a late 2012 model with a 2.6 GHz quad core i7, 16 GGB DDR3 RAM, and a 1 TB Fusion drive. It's an older machine, but it was decked out for its time. After almost six years, it's getting older, but not excessively so, and in the first five years or so, it really had no problem keeping up with any of the photo or music work I threw at it. So, imagine my dismay when in the last six months, my Mac slowed down. I chalked it up to the fact that it's a half-decade old and software was probably beginning to outpace it. But then things got really slow, to the point where my browser would hang after I opened eight tabs or so. Lightroom would work for about 30 minutes as long as I didn't open any other apps, then I would have to restart my computer to get it working at a usable level again. Even though I've been careful in which apps I update, not being able to afford something not functioning the way I need it to at the moment, things were slowing to a crawl. On top of that, the fan was almost constantly audible, but again, I figured this was the plight of owning an aging computer. All my attempts to find a culprit seemed to yield little to no improvement. Dismayed, I began pricing out new computers: I had hoped to wait for the next iteration of the Mac Pro, but my work had ground to a halt.
Then, one recent weekend, my Mac Mini started randomly going to sleep while I was editing client shots, only to wake up after a few minutes, then repeat the process again 10 minutes later. That's when it finally clicked. If the computer was shutting itself off while the fan was blowing at full hurricane strength, it was probably overheating. I put my hand on the case, and sure enough, it was uncomfortably hot. I had only been in Photoshop for a few minutes, so I grabbed the computer out of frustration and looked it over as if I would suddenly see the key, except I did suddenly see the key: a bit of dust on the USB cables in the back. It suddenly occurred to me that in almost six years of owning this computer, I had never thought to clean out the dust that was constantly accumulating on the internals. Dust is the enemy of any computer, as it kills the thermal efficiency of the machine and inhibits the exhaust fan's ability to move air through the system, which in turn decreases system performance as the components get hotter sooner and have to be slowed down or even shut down to prevent them from overheating.
The Mac Mini has a convenient cover on the bottom that pops right off, so pop it off I did, and I was promptly coated in a fine gray powder that removing the cover shook loose. I immediately hacked up a lung, but as soon as the initial cloud dissipated, I peered inside, only to be greeted by what can only be described as clumps upon clumps of gray fuzz. If your couch has dust bunnies underneath it, my Mac had mutant dust rabbits inside. The components weren't coated in dust; they were completely hidden under mountains of it. The air intake was totally clogged, and a particularly nasty pile of bigger dust particles had collected against the antenna plate where they had been sucked in and become stuck when they were too big to pass through the grating.
Put simply: it's a good thing Apple programmed the computer to shut down at a certain temperature, because I would have completely fried it. I didn't even blow it out at first; I just shook the computer over my sink and held my breath as clouds and clods of dust came tumbling out. A can of compressed air and five minutes later, I could actually see a computer inside the case again! I hooked my cables back up and my Mac has been running as smooth as liquid nitrogen ice cream (if you've never tried that, go find a store). The fan is totally silent once again, even as I sit here with 25 tabs open, Photoshop and Lightroom running, and a concert video playing on YouTube in the background. The case is cool to the touch. I don't even think I'll need to upgrade for a few more years.
The point of all this, of course, is to not neglect taking care of your computer. We push our computers quite hard compared to the average user, and that means they're sucking in all the more dust while at the same time, they need to stay clean ever more so than the normal computer. It can be easy to forget: we're not computer professionals, but we still put high demands on our machines. Set a reminder every 6-12 months to clean yours out. To do so, do the following:
- Shut down your computer and unplug it from the wall, then unplug all the cables.
- Move it to a suitable area (I wasn't kidding about the clouds of dust cleaning mine threw into the air). You may also want to wear goggles and/or a mask. Try to avoid a situation that generates static, like wearing socks and shuffling across a carpet while on your way to the computer.
- Open the case.
- Using compressed air (never use a vacuum) and always keeping the can upright, spray the internals from top to bottom from a bit of a distance (compressed air is cold when it leaves the can). Never touch the internals (static discharge). If you want to be extra safe, purchase a static strap; they're super cheap.
- Once you've finished dusting, put the case back on and hook your computer up again.
It's a bit of maintenance that's easy to overlook, but it made a huge difference in my experience. Take the time to occasionally clean out your computer's internals. You'll be glad you did.