Chances are, your computer keyboard is filthy, the keys a magnet for the dirt and oil on your fingertips, the crumbs from that afternoon snack you had at your desk, the gunk that floats through the air, whatever. Moreover, all of those little nooks and crannies are the perfect hiding place for dirt and grit. Given how dirty our hands and fingers can get during the course of an average day, it's no surprise that researchers say computer keyboards can be a haven for bacteria.
One way NOT to clean your keyboard is to grab a disinfecting wipe, saturated with cleaning fluid, and scrub the keys. You'll get those keys clean, but the excess fluid will drip into the keyboard's electronics and likely short out some or all the connections. We know that from firsthand experience.
So, how do you clean your computer keyboard the right -- and wrong -- way? Read on...
Put the keyboard in the dishwasher?
Do a web search for computer keyboard cleaning tips, and odds are you'll come across an article that recommends putting your keyboard in the dishwasher. Writers at CNET, BoingBoing.net, The Washington Post and National Public Radio have all tried this with success, which would seem to indicate that this works -- if done properly. But when we tried to do this a few years ago, the results were... well, let's just say we ended up buying a new keyboard. If you're willing to risk a $50 keyboard, go right ahead. If not, we'd recommend against this method.
What about USB keyboard vacuums?
If you've ever spent time lurking in the checkout aisle of an electronics store, you may have seen USB-powered keyboard vacuums, which resemble hair clippers. These gizmos are designed to plug into your computer's USB port and suction the dirt from between your keys; many of them come with brush and crevice tools. Although they seem like a good idea, the few user reviews we could find on Amazon were almost uniformly bad, with most owners complaining that the USB vacs were woefully underpowered.
ConsumerSearch received a USB vacuum as a stocking stuffer last Christmas, and in our experience, it was a piece of junk. The brush attachment was nice for plucking out bits of debris from between the keys, but canned air does just as good a job, if not better. Our recommendation: Save your money.
Is that Silly Putty? No, it's Cyber Clean
One of the more unusual products we've found for cleaning a computer keyboard is a substance called Cyber Clean. This stuff has the consistency of tacky Silly Putty and is the color of radioactive lemons (reviewers at Engadget.com describe it as looking like "an alien threw up in a bag."). It's available in tubs, cups and single-use packets. To use it, simply press it down on your keys, making sure it gets in the nooks and crannies, then pull it up. The tacky substance is supposed to pull away dirt and grit, leaving your keyboard clean and smelling fresh, according to the informercial.
The guys at Engadget were less than impressed with Cyber Clean in their irreverent video review, saying that it did little more than make an impression of their laptop's keys. However, they didn't try it on a desktop PC's keyboard (which is more likely to have deep nooks and crannies). Engadget also took issue with the "fresh" aroma that Cyber Clean has, saying it smelled too strong.
Reviewers at ComputerShopper.com went a step farther, testing Cyber Clean on a desktop PC keyboard, a laptop keyboard and a BlackBerry. While Cyber Clean did pick up some larger particles from the keyboard, editors say, it didn't remove dirt any better than if they'd wiped down their keys with a paper towel. As they conclude, "It's more of a novelty item than a truly useful cleaning product. At least it's fun to squish."
We also found a review at Consumer magazine, New Zealand's answer to Consumer Reports. They, too, reported mediocre results with Cyber Clean. Users posting comments at Amazon.com aren't much more enthused; just over a dozen users give it a middling score. Bottom line: Cyber Clean's tacky consistency will grab some bigger particles, but you will still need to wipe down your keys to get them truly clean.
Clean your keyboard the old-fashioned way
If your keyboard is lightly soiled -- a little dirt on the space bar and return key, for instance, or some dust or grit in between the keys -- cleaning is a relatively simple task, experts say. You'll need some canned air, a clean cloth or handful of cotton swabs, and a mild solvent such as 90 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol or a drop of dish soap diluted in water. If your keyboard is particularly dirty, you may also need a screwdriver to pry the keys off so you can clean them individually. A hand vac with a dust brush attachment can be useful, too, especially for sucking up the grit you loosen.
Once you've got your cleaning gear together, check out PCMag.com's excellent step-by-step guide to take you through the whole process. Mind you, this can be time-consuming (especially if your keyboard is very dirty) but nothing is likely to get it tidier than a careful cleaning.
Skip the USB vacs, the dishwasher and the Cyber Clean. Take some time to clean your computer keyboard the right way, following PCMag's instructions. You'll be assured that your keys are free of dirt and germs, and you won't risk ruining your equipment.