Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 4 / NOVEMBER 1988

Getting Started

Take Care of Your ST

by Andrew Reese
START Editor

For a number of years, I was responsible for maintenance and repair of some rather sophisticated electronic equipment owned by Uncle Sam. Every day, we performed "PMIs," or Preventive Maintenance Instructions. The sole purpose was to keep the equipment operating at peak efficiency. Well, your ST or Mega is more sophisticated than anything we had and it deserves some care, too.

There are three simple rules to follow to keep your ST functioning properly: keep it cool, keep it dry and keep it clean. Other than production flaws or physical abuse, most equipment failures can be traced to a violation of one of these rules. Let's take them one at a time.

Keep It Cool

Heat can harm any electronic equipment--just ask the owners of early Macs or Apple IIs loaded with cards. Heat-induced component breakdowns can affect any part of your computer and a failure in one component can trigger a chain-reaction that will destroy your computer.

The heat generated by any electronic equipment--even a low-power system like your ST--might be termed "electronic friction" and is unavoidable. Electronics manufacturers--Atari included--use one of two basic methods to eliminate this heat. The simplest is to let it radiate from the internal components and simply waft up through the cooling slots. When there's too much heat for this method to handle, fans become necessary.

Your ST is cooled by the gentle movement of air through the slots under the front edge of the keyboard, over the metal shield and electronic components and out through the slots at the top rear. If you use the rear of your computer as a monitor stand, be sure to leave clearance for the cooling air to exit. And don't leave hint books, command cards or other papers on top of your ST, blocking the slots.

If your ST has a memory upgrade, you must be especially careful with cooling; those additional RAM chips produce significant heat and adding 16 more under the RF shield increases the risk of heat-induced failures. Granted, the risk is not excessive, but it's there.

Let's not forget those external power supplies for external disk drives, early 520 STs and the PS3000 Monitor/Disk Drive. These supplies are usually stuck on the floor under the desk in a location chosen mostly for its convenience and inaccessibility to your feet. Make sure that these units are sitting upright, that the air vents are clear and that air can reach them.

If you have a Mega or hard disk drive, the cooling stakes are even higher. The fans in those units are there for a reason: more electronics are packed in less space. Obstructing the inlet or exhaust vents could destroy your Mega, your drive and your pocketbook. Don't, for instance, place a pile of books or magazines on top of the Mega to raise your monitor to a better eye level. Just place it directly on top of the Mega (leaving space for the vents on the sides) or put it on a monitor stand.

Finally, keep your computer away from the sun. Although some hard drive manufacturers torture-test their prototype units by running them outside under direct sun, don't tempt the fates by putting your computer desk under a sunny window.

Keep It Dry

If heat is dangerous to a computer, it's nothing compared to the risk of getting it wet. There's nothing like an unexpected splash of a soft drink or coffee to disrupt the orderly, controlled flow of electrical signals and create all sorts of new, destructive paths for the signals to follow. The result is 99-44/100 percent disaster!

At home (and at START), we have a rule: No drinks on the same table as the computer. Just one slip, one drip, one spill and you'll be taking your ST in for service. Keep all moisture away! Don't spray monitor cleaner directly on the screen; it may run down the face into the cabinet. Keep your ST away from open windows where rain could blow in. And don't let the kids play Road Runner with a Pepsi nearby.

If you do have a spill near your computer, turn it off immediately! If it was off at the time of the spill, don't turn it on! Unplug all power to the system and check carefully for the extent of the spill. If any liquid appears to have spilled on the keyboard, in any of the connecting jacks or into the cooling vents, unplug everything and take or send your computer to an authorized Atari service center. Don't take chances!

Keep It Clean

A dirty computer isn't bad because it's unattractive; it's bad because dirt and dust can gang up to block the cooling ducts or drift inside and cause erratic short circuits. At least once a month, dust and vacuum your system, including power supplies. Stay away from using anything like Pledge or Endust. You don't need waxed beauty, you need a dry, clean computer.

If you must use a liquid to remove fingerprints, grime or jelly, dampen a clean, soft cloth with plain water. Turn off your computer and clean the surfaces. Be sure that the water is completely gone before turning your ST back on.

The best kind of vacuum cleaner are those designed specifically for cleaning electronic equipment. They are small, powerful enough (after all, you aren't trying to pull Ihasa apso hair from a shag carpet) and have small, soft brushes to loosen dust from otherwise inaccessible places. If you must use a canister-style vacuum cleaner, keep the motor unit well away from your ST and disks; electric motors can generate some fairly powerful magnetic fields and wreak havoc on your system and your disk library.

If you have a printer, particularly one with tractor-feed, vacuum its interior regularly. You don't have to remove the case every time just the cover over the printhead. Vacuum up the paper dust that accumulates and lubricate the mechanism,following the instructions in your owner's manual. Don't over-oil anything with electronic components--that excess oil just runs down off the bearing surfaces and into places it doesn't belong, there to collect dust and cause short circuits.

Head Cleaning

If you use your computer under normal conditions--an hour or two a day without continuous disk access--you'll need to clean your disk drive's head once a year, if that. The causes of dirty drive heads have been largely eliminated in the ST. First, the diskettes themselves are contained in protective covers which keep much of the dirt, dust and fingerprints off the diskette media itself. Second, media technology has advanced to the point that the oxide particles are bonded to the diskettes much more tightly than on early 5 1/4-inch floppies.

If you're having floppy drive problems, such as being unable to format, read or write to disks, first check out the obvious possibilities. Make sure that the cables are tightly plugged in, reboot your ST to take care of any wandering glitches in your program and check the drive's speed. If your drive problems persist, you may need to clean its head(s).

Never try to clean your drive heads by poking a cotton swab through the drive slot. Locate a reputable source for a wet 3 1/2-inch floppy disk head cleaner; never use a dry head cleaner--it can seriously damage your heads. You aren't limited to Atari dealers for head cleaners. IBM and Mac both use 3 1/2-inch disks and office supply stores often carry head cleaners for business users of these computers. The head cleaners may cost more there than at a computer swap meet, for example, but at least with an "establishment" store you have someone to complain to if necessary.

Follow the instructions that come with the head cleaner precisely and don't overuse it. Most head cleaners only allow a limited number of cleanings per disk, and with good reason: a head cleaner soaks up dirt and gunk into its absorbent material. There's only so much absorbency available.

Leave That Hard Disk Alone!

Finally, never, ever open up your hard disk to clean its heads. Hard drives are hermetically sealed and need no head cleaning--the heads float over the media without touching it. I once heard a tale from a repair shop about a customer who complained that his hard drive was acting up. Upon further questioning, the customer boasted that he knew the drive was clean--he opened it up and cleaned it every week with WD-40! Scratch one hard disk!

Follow these rules and you should keep your ST healthy and happy.