The proper care of your HDTV, phone, camera

Want to stretch your tech equipment's life? Here's how to properly clean and care for your gear

You have to take care of your stuff--all of it. Like your car and your house, your electronic gadgets big and small need to stay clean and protected from accidents.

I've already described how to care for your laptop and laptop battery, and we've covered tips for cleaning out your dusty desktop PC before. So this time around, I'll concentrate on your flat-screen HDTV, your smartphone, and your digital camera. But before I discuss these items separately, I'll tell you about the one maintenance chore they all have in common.

Cleaning Your Screen

Your HDTV, your smartphone, and your camera all have screens, and they're probably all LCDs. A dirty screen won't give you much pleasure--or much information.

Screens are delicate, however. Clean them the wrong way, and you ruin them for good.

The main tool you need is a microfiber cloth. You can get a very small one, perhaps even for free, at your optometrist's office. That's fine for a camera or phone, but if you're willing to clean a 50-inch TV with a 2-inch cloth, you have more patience than I do. You can buy larger ones for a few dollars at camera stores, electronics stores, hardware stores, or online.

Wipe the screen gently with the dry cloth. Don't press hard on it, but for particularly stubborn dirt you can apply some gentle pressure.

Most of the time that will be sufficient, but if a dry cloth doesn't do the job, you'll need to use a wet one--and that can be tricky.

Never use a glass-cleaning product like Windex. Avoid anything with alcohol in it. Don't apply the liquid directly to the screen. And don't do any of this while electricity is coursing through the device.

Distilled water is the safest and cheapest liquid for a screen. If that isn't strong enough, mix it half-and-half with white vinegar. You can find commercial LCD-cleaning fluids, but I haven't encountered any that clean better than distilled water and white vinegar.

First, turn off the device. If it's a television, unplug it. If the phone or camera's battery is removable, take it out. If you can't remove the battery, simply turning the device off will probably do.

Put the liquid into a spray bottle, and spray it onto the microfiber cloth. Wipe the display as described above, and then wait until the screen is completely dry before turning the device back on.

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How to Clean Your HDTV

While we're on the subject of cleaning, you might want to freshen up the TV's frame. A dirty frame won't interfere with your viewing pleasure, but it hurts the room's aesthetics, and dust can bring on allergies.

Use a soft cloth; the microfiber one you use on the screen will do, but so will an old T-shirt. Dampen the cloth with water, and unplug the HDTV before applying.

Let your HDTV breathe. Make sure you don't block its ventilation openings, and don't install it near a heater.

Keep the set dry, too. Make sure that anything that might spill stays away from your television. Humidity can also be a problem, especially if you live in a tropical environment and want to watch television on your semi-open patio. As a general rule, an HDTV shouldn't be subjected to more than 80 percent humidity.

A direct hit to your home by lightning can get through your surge protector and fry your television. If a thunderstorm is coming, unplug the HDTV. Unplug it if you're going away for a few days, too, just in case a storm comes during that time.

Burn-in isn't the problem it was a few years ago, but it can still happen, especially with plasma sets. Check your TV's setup menu for a screen saver or an automatic turn-off option; if you find it, enable it. And in the unlikely event that burn-in occurs, leave your television on for a few hours with a constantly changing image that fills the entire screen. A photo slideshow--provided that the photos fill the screen--will do.

Protecting Your Phone

I've never dropped a television, and you probably haven't dropped one, either. But at some time or another, we all drop our smartphones. We also put them in pockets or purses crammed with keys, forget to charge them, and leave them in hot or wet locations. Some of us have even taken them swimming. Smartphones need to be protected from their own owners.

First, be careful where you carry your phone. That pocket full of keys was fine for your old, clamshell-style "dumb" phone. But your smartphone almost certainly has a screen--quite likely a touchscreen--open for all the world to scratch. So put your handset where nothing can scratch it.

Better yet, buy a case for your phone--preferably one built for your specific model--and keep it in that. Most cases leave the screen uncovered so that you can use it, so buy some screen protectors as well. These thin, transparent membranes fit over the screen, stay in place, and let both light and touch go through them. They're also reasonably cheap and disposable.

Not all protectors are the same, however. Some "privacy" protectors, intended to make your screen unreadable from an angle as well as to protect it from scratches, interfere with the touchscreen's sensitivity. You might try one out for a few dollars, but you may want to stick with something that protects your screen from scratches but not from snoops.

Turn off the touchscreen before pocketing the phone. Not only does this stretch your battery life, but it also avoids butt-dialing.

If your phone feels hot to the touch, turn it off and (if the phone allows it) remove the battery. Let the handset sit awhile where it can breathe. If the phone or the battery is still too hot an hour later, contact the vendor; something of a chemical nature may have gone wrong inside.

Don't worry too much about wearing out the battery. It will wear out eventually, no matter what you do, but probably not before your contract is up and you're ready to upgrade to the next new thing.

Get in the habit of charging your phone every night when you go to bed. That way, you'll seldom (if ever) run out of juice in the course of a day. If you still have trouble charging, buy an extra charger or two; one that plugs into your car's cigarette lighter may be useful.

Caring for Your Camera

If you're not satisfied with the camera in your cell phone and you prefer to keep something better around, that device needs its own special care, too. I've already described how to clean the LCD; but in a camera, that's the secondary cleaning job. Your photos don't really depend on a clean menu screen, but they certainly rely on a clean lens.

The first tool you'll need is a blower brush: a rubber bulb with a brush on the end. Use this to remove the bulk of the dust. If that doesn't do the trick, use a photographic microfiber cloth and some lens cleaner. Spray the cleaner on the cloth and apply it that way. You can pick up all of these items, often in a kit, in any photography store.

If you have a pocket camera, you'll notice something that keeps you from cleaning the lens--it's enclosed inside the camera. That means you have to turn on the camera to clean the lens.

You won't need to turn on your digital SLR to clean its lens, but it has another component that you might want to clean from time to time: the sensor. Because you can remove and change the lens on an SLR, dirt can get inside and affect the light-sensitive chip that records the images (not a problem with fixed-lens pocket cameras).

This is a delicate and dangerous job, and you should think carefully about undergoing it (I've never tried it myself). Check out "Clean Your Digital SLR Camera's Image Sensor" for detailed instructions. If you think you're not up to the task, bring your camera to a professional.

Cameras can get pretty badly banged up as you carry them around. I know: I used to keep my camera in a large pocket of my cargo pants--then it clanged into a metal handrail and became an ex-camera. That wouldn't have happened if I had bought a carrying case.

The best cases for pocket cameras aren't much bigger than the camera itself, and have loops to attach to your belt. Serious SLR photographers will want a padded shoulder bag with room for extra lenses as well as the camera. No matter the size of your camera, you'll want a case with a few small pockets for extra batteries and memory cards.

Should you need any of those extra batteries or memory cards, be sure to turn your camera off before opening it up to remove or replace any inside component.

After you get home from a vacation or other photo-friendly event, and you transfer your photos from your camera to your computer, remove the camera's batteries. That way, should an aging battery spring a leak, it won't ruin your camera.

For more detailed DSLR camera cleaning tips, check out "Clean Your Dirty Camera."

With proper care, your HDTV, smartphone, and camera will last as long as you want to use them. They may even be worth passing along to someone else when it's time for you to buy something better.