Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 29 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals
A filthy computer

Photo by Desktop PC Repairs Gaithersburg Maryland by Vinni Malek is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

19 comments

Fix Apple Hardware Problems with Deep Cleaning

Have you ever had something professionally repaired, only to feel like an idiot when you saw how simple the actual repair was? I had that experience recently when we took my wife’s iPhone 8 Plus to the Genius Bar. The problem was that the volume out of the earpiece was too quiet, even at full volume. We had tried adjusting various settings to no avail.

I felt like a dummy when the Apple support guy pulled out a lens brush, stabbed and brushed some crud out of the top speaker (the one that looks like a line above the screen), and handed the phone back to my wife. Calls were once again crystal clear! What made me feel even dumber is that I bought her the iPhone 8 Plus to replace an iPhone 6s that had suffered from a similar problem (on the plus side, that iPhone is now a great iOS 13 test device).

So I decided to see if I could fix that old iPhone 6s with a little spring cleaning, which led to a series of cleanings that fixed some long-standing hardware issues.

Assemble Your Gear

Before we get started, there are a few tools you’ll want to find from around the house or purchase. They include:

  • Lens brush
  • Lens blower
  • Cotton swabs
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Paper towels
  • Wooden toothpicks
  • Vacuum cleaner with brush and crevice attachments
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Compressed air

If you lack a lens brush, lens blower, and microfiber cloths, you can buy a lens cleaning kit for under $10.

Increase Call Volume by Cleaning Your iPhone’s Top Speaker

A dirty cotton swab

Thankfully, I happen to have a lens brush. If you don’t have one, they’re inexpensive and handy for electronics cleaning. In a pinch, you could use a soft-bristle toothbrush, but be very gentle with it.

I started by doing what I saw the Apple guy do: “stabbing” the ear speaker with the brush. That seemed to provide some improvement, but after several stabs and sweeps, it still wasn’t nearly as loud on a test call as I had hoped.

Next, I pulled out a cotton swab and used it to scrub the speaker. That resulted in black lines on the swab, which, along with some modest volume improvement, told me I was on the right track. I decided to pull out the big guns and add a little alcohol to the swab.

You always need to be careful when mixing liquids and electronics, even with rubbing alcohol, since it can be up to 30% water. The goal is to have the swab damp enough to clean, but not so wet that it could drip into whatever you’re cleaning. I dip the swab in the alcohol and then squeeze it out into a paper towel, leaving the swab just barely damp with alcohol.

Scrubbing with the damp cotton swab produced big black streaks on the swab. After that, I stabbed the speaker a bit more with the brush and finished by blowing the speaker out with a camera lens blower. Don’t use compressed air here, since it can leave moisture behind and damage delicate parts with its high pressure. That combination of techniques worked—the speaker once again put out full volume.

iMac: Fix Performance Issues with a Vacuum Cleaner

Ever since installing macOS 10.14 Mojave on my 27-inch iMac with Retina display, it had been suffering slowdowns and beachballs. I wondered if CPU temperatures had something to do with it. I installed iStat Menus, a great utility that’s included with MacPaw’s Setapp subscription service, and was alarmed to see idle CPU core temperatures between 90º and 100º C. I haven’t been checking to see what “normal” temperatures are in this iMac, but that seemed too high for idle. (Adam Engst’s identical iMac seems to idle around 70º C and may need some cleaning too.)

Over time, as fans and heatsinks accumulate dust, they don’t remove heat as well as when they were clean—the dust acts as an insulator. That heat buildup makes the CPU less stable and prone to damage, so the CPU will throttle itself in an attempt to bring the temperature down. In other words, something as simple and commonplace as dust can make your Mac slower and less stable.

In a traditional tower design like the old Mac Pro and Power Mac models, cleaning is easy: open it up and blow out the dust. In a sealed-up iMac, that isn’t so easy. Sure, you could take it apart and clean it out, and some techno-masochists do that, but I wouldn’t recommend going that far unless there was something seriously wrong, because it’s far from simple and you could easily cause new problems.

The standard advice here is to use compressed air to blow out the vents, but that’s a terrible idea since doing so doesn’t remove the dust but instead spreads it around the inside of the iMac. For a better approach, employ a vacuum cleaner.

I know what some of you are thinking: vacuum cleaners can produce a lot of static electricity, which can be dangerous for sensitive computer components. However, vacuuming should be safe as long as the case is on and you’re not touching bare circuit boards.

The iMac has two sets of vents. The first set, a series of slots along the bottom of the display, sucks in room-temperature air. The second set on the back of the display, just behind where the stand connects to the display, expels warm air. You might notice some dust inside those vents if you look closely.

iMac rear vents
The iMac’s rear vents.

iMac bottom vents
The iMac’s bottom vents.

Here’s how to clean those vents:

  1. Power down your Mac.
  2. Disconnect all peripherals and set them aside.
  3. Clear any extra junk off your desk.
  4. Lay a blanket or towel down on your desk, and carefully lay the iMac face down on it.
  5. Scoot the iMac so that the bottom vents hang over the edge of the desk so you can easily vacuum them.
  6. Vacuum the bottom intake vents, which extend the width of the display. A notched crevice tool is handy for this, or you can use a soft brush attachment.
  7. Vacuum the exhaust vents, again with either a soft brush attachment or the crevice attachment. It might be a little tricky because the stand hinge is in the way, but do what you can.
  8. Vacuum the ports on the back of the iMac, along with vents on any external hard drives, monitors, and other peripherals.
  9. While you have the vacuum out, clean the entire area on the desk and around the computer to reduce the amount of nearby dust that could be sucked into the iMac.
  10. Stand the iMac back up (you may need a helper to pull the towel or blanket out from under it), reconnect everything, and power it on.

Once I did that, iStat Menus reported CPU temperatures between 50Âş and 80Âş C during a normal workday.

If you have iStat Menus, here’s one last thing you can do after vacuuming to get even more dust out. Click the iStat Menus temperature in the menu bar, choose Fans, and click High. That runs the fans on their highest setting, which will help expel more dust. Let that run for a few minutes, and then you can set it back to System Controlled.

Controlling the system fan with iStat Menus.
iStat Menus lets you control your system fan speed, which can help expel more dust.

AirPods: Fix Charging and Connection Issues

AirPods are amazing. They’re also disgusting. In your pocket, they’re little dirt magnets, and in your ears, the speaker openings seem to double as wax scrapers. I had begun to have trouble charging my AirPods and getting them to connect after being removed from the case, but after a good cleaning, those problems went away.

First, you’ll want to clean the case. A microfiber cloth is fine for the outside and much of the inside. Use a wooden toothpick to scrape gunk out of crevices and a cotton swab for larger crevices, like where the AirPods fit into the lid.

Cleaning the AirPods case.

Pay special attention to the holes the AirPods fit in, since the charging connectors are at the bottom. I like to spray compressed air into those holes and then run a cotton swab down there to pick up any remaining debris.

Finally, there are the AirPods themselves. Start by wiping them all over with a microfiber cloth, especially the metal charging connectors on the bottom. Now here’s the crucial part: take your toothpick and scrape carefully around the edges of the speaker grills. Each AirPod has three sets, two on the inside and one on the outside, and they will almost certainly be caked with earwax and other gunk. Also, note the tiny microphone hole below the outside speaker grille. You can insert the tip of your toothpick into that to clear out any gunk. I also used a lens blower to blow the hole out.

Cleaning the AirPods.

Once that ugly business is done, use a lens brush to clear any debris from the speaker grilles and finish off with a lens blower to blow away debris that remains.

Other Problems You Can Fix with Cleaning

In addition to these problems above, there are a few others that you can often resolve with a little cleaning:

  • Bad Lightning connections can often be fixed by picking lint and other crud out of an iPhone’s or iPad’s Lightning port with a wooden toothpick. Follow it up with a blast of compressed air. Be careful to avoid the pins in the port, and avoid using a metal tool that could damage the pins.
  • If you have an old iPhone or iPad with a sticky Home button, try cleaning the rim with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab while depressing the Home button. That often fixes it. As noted above, blot the swab with a paper towel first to remove excess liquid.
  • If you have a MacBook with a troublesome butterfly keyboard, you can vacuum the keyboard with a soft brush attachment to reduce the chance of dust and crumbs from getting into the sensitive mechanisms.
  • I fixed a sticky Tab key on my 2016 MacBook Pro using the same method as with the Home button above, rubbing around the key with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab while pressing the key down. But if you’re having more significant problems, remember that Apple has a repair program for those models (see “Apple Announces Service Program for Butterfly-Switch Keyboards,” 25 June 2018).

How do you keep your Apple devices clean and performing their best? Have you had any great cleaning success stories? Let us know in the comments.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For 29 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

Comments About Fix Apple Hardware Problems with Deep Cleaning

Notable Replies

  1. Good article. Just knowing a spot can have problems is often helpful. I have used tootpicks, swabs, and rubbing alcohol as you suggested (90% is available BTW).

  2. That’s what I always buy, but someone bought a stockpile of 70% a couple of years ago that I’m still working through.

  3. This is all good stuff, but I feel like the lead image should have been at least a Mac! Not a Dell PC???

  4. We couldn’t find a Mac that dirty! :slight_smile:

  5. I had issues with my lighting port on my iPhone. I tried cleaning it with compressed air and even with a GUM Proxabrush, but to no avail.

    I ended up going to the local Apple store to see if one of the geniuses could fix the problem The greeter asked me what the issue was, took a look at it, then pulled out a bent paperclip and pulled out a dust ball that was clogging the works.

    Since then, I just use a bent paperclip to clean out the lighting port on my iPhone. Maybe the greeter was using a special Apple brand of bent paperclip.

  6. Josh, which sensor(s) did you use for the CPU temp? When I click on the iStat Temps in the menu bar, I get a whole list of which there are 7 CPU readings: CPU Cores 1, 2, 3, & 4 individual readings then just a CPU Cores reading (average of preceding 4 sensors?), a CPU Heatsink reading, and a CPU Proximity reading. Also, what was your incoming air reading?

  7. I always look at CPU Cores. I don’t know what the incoming air reading was, but my iMac is under an AC vent, so the air is generally pretty cold this time of year.

  8. OK. Unfortunately, the only A/C vent is right over the door leading out of the house at the other end of the room! Plus all the ducting is above the ceiling and any A/C air going through the ducts isn’t very cold by the time it reaches the vent

    Oh, I have my sensors set to display Fahrenheit and the CPU Cores reading is currently about 120 degrees

  9. Month or so ago I started having some flakiness. Around the time I was setting up a drive for win10. Long story short, it point me to overheating issues, something I have kinda ignored for the close to 10 years I have had my 2010 cMP. First, most of the foloks I communicate with ALL use ÂşC, so I have everything set up that way. There is an awful lot to know/learn about hse issues, my CPU seems to be in a very good range but the Northridge chip seems to run hotter than it should.

    The GOOD news is that my cMP has a separate “processor” tray that is not a part of the “motherboard.” Far as I know, there are no heat issues involved with the backplane (what may think of as a motherboard). These “processor trays” are definitely available for purchase and seemingly in good supply and not terribly expensive. I am awaiting one I purchased before I go to opening mine up to see if there are any correctable issues with my Northbridge.

    Dennis, I am sitting at ambient 86ºF, doing light duty my CPU is running 37.2ºC/99ºF. I DO have my fans spooled up over default (I use Macs Fan Control as it reads all of the sensors and allow for auto setting of the fan’s RPM based on user selectable criteria (meaning a range of temps I choose for any of the 5 major fans, PS, PCI, Intake, Exhaust and BOOST (the latter 3 are all aimed at the processor tray).

  10. Interesting. When I looked at the Fan Control on my iMac I have the following options: Default, Medium, High.Then there are 3 sliders: CPU, HDD, ODD with the following minimum settings respectively: 1200, 1100, 1000 but I don’t know what those numbers signify, maybe fan rpm?

  11. I know a LOT about the cMP and it’s fans and such, what machine do you have? I use something called Macs Fan Control, it lists the temps at all the sensors and the rpms of the fans. What I like about it is one can set a kind of threshold for the fans to kick in. When just doing web stuff, my fans are very quiet, not so much when I game because the fans up the roms to deal with the heat range I set for each one.

  12. I just fixed a stuck iPhone mute rocker switch by going at it with a toothbrush. Found the solution on Youtube. I had taken the phone apart already to try to fix it. No need. And it didn’t look even slightly dirty either on the inside or the outside.

  13. I’m regularly in that technician’s position, I have lost count on the number of times I have a fixed a “it won’t charge” problem on an iOS device by cleaning the lint out of a lightning port. So yes, often cleaning it, can fix it.

  14. Well and good to be sure the vents are clear, however, the electricity running through the board and the fan blades are dust magnets and the mother of dust bunnies. Blowing the system out with compressed air has been the time honored way to clean computers and great if you can open them up. However on a closed device like a laptop or modern iMac it is best to blow and vacuum at the same time or you will not break the dirt hardware bond. A screaming shop vac at the discharge port and 40 psi compressed air at the inlet. Don’t persist as you will be spinning the fan much faster than normal. That said, it is much better to open the device to clean it and if it is over heating order a new fan before opening the device and just change the fan while cleaning.

  15. Ahh, but let us not forget those classic magnets for dust and grime: mice, keyboards, and etc. When my screen pointer started acting weird just now I wasted a bunch of time quitting programs, restarting the Finder, re-plugging the USB… Nope, blow out the trackball!

  16. I have successfully cleaned the exposed contacts on a lighting cable with a simple pencil eraser (British rubber).

  17. The free FanControl (source code available) will help keep your Macs optimally cool and quiet as well as help prevent dust accumulation (because the fans normally run too slowly to do this).

    https://www.derman.com/Fan-Control

  18. I recently saw an Apple store tech cleaning someone’s iPhone and AirPods some sort of putty. I asked him about it and he said it’s called “cleaning putty” and that it’s readily available on Amazon. He couldn’t say enough about the great uses for it.

    I ordered some to try and I have to say that I’m very impressed. You just take a little ball of it and press it into the crevices then pull it out along with the gunk. It’s great for iPhone, AirPod, and MacBook speaker grilles. It also works well on keyboards the seams between parts that collect dust.

  19. I nearly bought a new Magic Mouse before I read that the optical eye can get dirty.

    Diane

Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum

Participants