Dust kills

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A few weeks ago, I finished up a big article on Mac maintenance for an upcoming issue of Macworld. One of the things I recommend in that article is to keep your Mac clean. Whether it’s avoiding getting crumbs stuck under your keyboard’s keys or making sure your air vents aren’t clogged, keeping your Mac gunk-free is just as important for its long-term survival as keeping an eye on its hard-drive health.

I bring this up because during the writing of that article, I realized that I hadn’t followed my own advice. I’m usually pretty good about keeping my Macs clean, but for various reasons I’d neglected to thoroughly clean the inside of my Mac Pro for quite some time. I’d noticed it gradually getting louder over the previous months, generally an indication that the fans were having to work harder to keep it cool, so I’d cleared away dust from the case's vents. But I kept putting off the necessary take-it-outside-and-blast-away-all-the-dust-that-had-settled-on-the-components cleaning.

Around the same time—about two months before I turned in the article—I started noticing something else: problematic video behavior. I’d occasionally see odd lines across the screen, as well as onscreen artifacts that looked as if someone had grabbed a corner of a window and peeled it back. And every once in a while I would do something that taxed the video card—for example, playing a video or manipulating an image—and the entire machine would lock up, forcing me to restart.

The issue gradually got worse, leading me to do some Web searches; I discovered many similar reports, focusing on the Mac Pro’s Radeon X1900XT video card. Many of these reports claimed the root of the problem was heat: The X1900XT simply didn’t cool itself well enough, and once it got too hot, it exhibited the behavior I just described.

That’s when I realized I hadn’t been thorough enough with my monthly cleaning. I opened up the Mac Pro to get a closer look at the video card, and, sure enough, it was in dire need of dusting:

dirty video card

In case you’ve never seen a clean X1900XT, that area behind the silver heat sinks should be an unobstructed metal screen. Instead, as you can see, it was so caked with dust that it looked like it was covered by thick fabric. In other words, the video card’s air-intake vent was almost completely blocked. The card’s cooling fan was desperately trying to create some airflow—thus the extremely loud fan noise I was hearing—but it couldn’t overcome the thick blanket of dust obstructing the opening.

I took the card out of the Mac Pro and carried it outside (after letting it cool off, that is; it was hot), where I used compressed air to blow the dust off the card and out of its ventilation system. (The process that took much longer than expected; you wouldn’t believe how much dust was stuck inside the vent and the fan assembly.) I then reinstalled the card, booted up the Mac Pro, and crossed my fingers.

My Mac Pro was suddenly whisper-quiet. And three weeks later, I have yet to see any of the visual artifacts and system freezes that plagued me B.C. (Before Cleaning).

Unfortunately, it’s likely the card’s life has been shortened considerably; all that excessive heat, and all the extra work the fan had to do, surely took its toll. And, in fact, some of the reports I’ve read from people with similar experiences have noted that the video problems eventually came back, even with regular dust-cleaning. But if nothing else, the situation has been instructional, reminding me that I need to follow my own advice. And for those of you out there with Macs you can open up—Mac Pros, Power Mac G5s, and the like—be sure to keep the inside as clean as the outside. You never know when dust, cat hair, and other gunk may be slowly killing your Mac.

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