Low-Cost Tools That Every Techie Needs

muo techtools intro   Low Cost Tools That Every Techie NeedsIt’s been ten years since I took my first IT job, and in that time I’ve collected a bunch of tools that have proved invaluable to me in resolving issues with computers, hard disk drives, printers and other corporate hardware. While I work purely freelance these days, I still maintain a collection of devices and gadgets that can be used to assist with quickly resolving problems that might arise.

By bringing you this list of must-have hardware, I hope to be able to demonstrate that not only is the role of the successful desktop support technician 50% knowledge, 30% personality and 20% efficiency, but that these tools are affordable. You shouldn’t need more than $30 to build your tech support toolbox, enabling you to resolve the majority of issues on the spot.

The Basics

What do you keep in your toolbox? Screwdrivers, no doubt, as well as some pliers and wire cutters. These items can form the basics of your IT support toolkit, to which you can add the following:

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  • USB stick, 4GB or higher capacity.
  • USB SD card adaptor (can be bought very cheaply).
  • Ethernet Cable Crimping Tool.
  • Torx screwdrivers.

On top of this lot, you should also regularly carry a spare Ethernet cable, a spare crossover cable and a USB cable with various suitable adaptors for the different connections that are available.

Hard Disk Recovery

Recovering a hard disk can be tricky enough without having to waste time connecting the device up to a working PC or one that is more suitable for data recovery.

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Fortunately there are many useful and low-cost tools on offer that will enable you to connect an older device with an IDE ribbon connection or a more recent SATA hard disk direct to a USB 2.0 socket on your PC or laptop.

For flexibility, you might also consider getting your hands on an adaptor for the smaller IDE connectors found on old laptop hard disk drives.

Laptop Motherboard Testing

Staying with laptops, they’re tricky beasts to diagnose issues with. While hard disk failures and motherboard/CPU overheats can be recognised with a bit of detective work, you would be wrong to ignore the various diagnostic tools that can be picked up for just a few dollars.

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These useful devices can be purchased to either connect to a parallel port or USB, as well as directly into the motherboard through an empty memory slot (such as the device above).

Using the guidelines provided with the device, you should be able to diagnose the problem via a code displayed on the small LED.

Fixing Printer Problems and Paper Jams

One of the main problems encountered by desktop support technicians is the dreaded printer jam, usually caused by a combination of issues all manifesting at the same time.

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While the device can end up back with the manufacturer or even in the bin, there are various simple fixes. A can of air, for instance, will prevent future paper jams (assuming all dust is dislodged) while explaining that label sheets shouldn’t be left in an always-on printer is worth trying (although it will typically fall on deaf ears). It is worth knowing that the heat from a switched on printer loosens the gum on the labels, causing them to unpeel as they are printed on.

Something that might work better, especially if you appeal to the end user’s green sensibilities, is to explain that printers should be switched off overnight, just like computers. Over 50% of printer issues can be resolved with a cold start, something that should never be overlooked.

Don’t Forget the Software!

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In addition to these amazing gadgets, you should also keep a collection of useful software, ranging from Linux Live CDs for data recovery purposes to virtual machines (VirtualBox being the most flexible), hard disk capacity checking tools such as WinDirStat. You would be wise not to miss out on recovery software such as Piriform Recuva.

Furthermore, you should have an account with a popular remote access service such as PCAnywhere, GotoMyPC or LogMeIn, as well as a collection of portable applications installed on your USB stick.

Now You Just Need a Toolbox!

While you might have a jacket with plentiful pockets or a car with a spacious glove compartment, I wouldn’t recommend storing any of these devices in anything but a suitable case. Indeed, this single item might cost more than the tools suggested elsewhere in this article.

The best case or box would be one that comfortably stores optical discs, cables and all your various tools safely, securely and protected from static, so make your choice carefully. With the right case to hand, you’ll have easy access to everything that you need for fixing PC related problems.

Do you have any favourite tools that we’ve missed? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

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35 Comments -

Ikki Tenryou

A good read indeed. IDK if it’s just me but lately I’ve been coming across problems where I need to solder things. Had a few devices crap out on me so now I have to learn to solder and find a cheap soldering iron to practice with.

Gerwell Taroma

start with soldering, you might want to practice with a 30w soldering iron…

SoftwareDemons

I too got soldering iron in ma first year of ma college but didn’t used it yet :D

Richard Steven Hack

Depends on whether you just do “tech support” for your friends and family or anyone including corporate clients. You need a LOT of stuff if you really want to go at it.

One thing I’m always short on is the fifty million different types of screws. There are places you can buy assortments of screws, so get plenty of different ones because no one box ever has the one you need.

I have one of these CompUSA toolkits which I bought because it had a nice assortment of tools. Interestingly, I’ve rarely used it! I use one of those smaller pouches of tools that just has the screwdrivers, a plier, a part grabber, and a couple other things. But I’ve added stuff to the pouch over time including the antistatic wrist strap, my small flashlight, a small bag of screws, etc. This is my main tool kit and I haven’t needed much more than that for 98% of my jobs.

What I do need is an assortment of other gadgets. Those IDE/SATA-to-USB converters are very useful – except most of them are cheap crap. I had one actually fall apart in my hands at a client site – embarrassing. Fortunately I had two and the second one of a different brand held up to get the job done.

An external USB drive at least 500GB in size is critical for backing up client files. With some clients having massive amounts of photos and videos on their home machines, you need something large to hold it all.

Haven’t really needed a crossover Ethernet cable, although I have one, because most network devices these days support autodetection of the cable pinout.

Keep a couple spare power cables, and some of those power cable extenders so you can plug a power brick in when there’s no room on the surge protector.

A spare keyboard and mouse to make it easy to determine when the one they have is bad.

As for software, Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (which can be put on a USB drive as well) has been the standard for Windows XP, and LiveXP is another one that’s good. I haven’t gotten around to standardizing on one for Windows 7, but there are some. Currently I’m carrying Windows 7 Recovery Disks and Win7PE. Have no idea whether there’s anything for Windows 8 yet – trust me, despite all of Windows 8’s built-in repair tools, sooner or later it won’t boot and you’ll need one.

Gparted Live CD is good for quick partition work, as is BootItNG (now called BootIt Bare Metal).

It’s important to have versions that run on CD and USB in case one or the other isn’t feasible on a given machine. Client CD drives break, and older machines don’t necessarily boot from USB.

The hard part is getting install CDs/DVDs for most of the Windows versions since no one ever has their original CD or the hard disk on which the recovery partition was located has died. I’m in the process of trying to find downloadable versions of Windows 8 since Microsoft doesn’t provide them with this version unless you’re in Technet or DevNet. There are clean original RTM versions out there. MyDigitalLife Web site has links to them as well as Full-Packs.com.

For updating a new install without having to download updates from Microsoft, WSUS Offline Updater is a must. DriverPacks is useful, too, for getting drivers offline.

Finally, to combat malware there’s a ton of stuff available. Ultimate Boot CD comes with a couple of the best, but a USB key loaded with others is important. No one antimalware utility is enough and you need other utilities to enable you to manually detect and remove the stuff that can’t be removed by any standard utility: process analyzers, rootkit detectors, specialized removal software such TDSSKiller from Kaspersky, and big guns like ComboFix (which is dangerous in some cases.)

My utility USB key has over 200 utilities on it out of a selection of over a thousand I have on my hard drive, most of which admittedly I’ve never used. But having the right utility can save you hours of work.

Bottom line: Fixing computer problems isn’t easy and an endless source of frustration. The more tools you have, the less frustrating it is. But it never gets easy.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Well said. I sometimes drop some utities off my utility USB because I never use it, then scrambled to find it once I need it. Overkill preparation is much better than no preparation.

Anonymous

thanks for sharing this great information. i have been using similar tools and software for the last many years.

Scutterman

I always carry a paper-clip in my wallet, which I use to open CD drives without the need to turn the PC on. It’s rare these days that a CD in the drive will prevent the computer getting to the stage it can be removed, but doing it this way generally saves time when the computer is off and you want to boot from a live CD

Tony Gonzaga

Don’t forget to check the CMOS battery. If the computer won’t boot, the battery is the most likely culprit.

Christian Cawley

Great tip, Tony. As a former office-based tech, paper clips were in plentiful supply but you’re absolutely right – top tip!

noah mcelroy

Paper clips rock but media has changed. Can paper clips be used other than CD/DVD drives?

MikeFino

I use a unbent paper clip to check to see if the power switch is bad or a mother board problem. I jumper the green and black wires on the 20/24 pin power supply connector next to it to see if the power supply will come on. If it does than I use a meter to check the power switch, if good it then points towards the mother board problem. It has saved me a few times.

Chew Jian Yue

Nice article for computer enthusiasts !

Andrew Niklas

can links to sites where these items can be purchased/built be posted either in the article or comments?

Douglas Mutay

Thanks Andrew, that was also what i wanted to suggest.

Bob

try ebay – I have bought most of my tools from there. No problems so far

Charley Rouse

Traveling to many different location as a Day-to-Day IT Solution provider means :

ScotteVest: Highly, Highly Recommended !
HTC Desire HD
Diary (Yes I still use a mini paper diary)
Pen
Mobile Wifi Hostspot (USB double connection cable for the HTC)
Charge (debit) Card
Business Cards
Phillips/Flat screwdriver set (pen type to prevent “pocket damage”)
2 x USB Keys (see below) Car/Motorbike Keys + Combined Led Torch and Mini-Magnifying Glass (for reading License and Serial Labels)
Still have 3 pockets “spare” currently : )
Backpack: (Wenger Computer Backpack W09389BK)

11? Notebook (Dell XPS M1210) & iPad
Notebook Charger
USB to Harddrive (3.5 & 2.4 IDE and SATA) Kit
Ant-static Wrist Strap
Cat 5e Cable(s)
VGA Cable VGA to DVI adapter
Standard Power Cable
Double adapter for Power
Console Cable (CISCO)
RJ11 Phone Cable
Battery Tester
CMOS Batteries
ADSL Line Filter(s)
Small container with assorted Screws and even Jumpers !
CD-Kit:
Driver Packs
Hirens Boot CD
Drive Fitness Test
All Versions XP on on CD
All Versions Vista on One DVD
All Version Win 7 on One DVD
Apple DVD and ToolTech/Diskwarrior
Ubuntu Live
Gparted
NT Offline Password Reset
Ophcrack

USB 1: 32 Gb Utility Kit
Too many to list !
includes
Driver Packs
WSUS Offline Updates
Malware Kits
Ninite Packs
NirSoft etc..

USB 2 : 8Gb OCZ ATV Drive (Fast!) for quick data transfer

1 x Portable Toolkit though the main item used is a Phillips Head jewelers screwdriver
Head and Microphone set (Logitech have one with a Hardcase Travel Kit)
500Gb Military Grade USB external Harddrive with Cable
Mini USB Mouse
USB Rollup Keyboard

That’s what I carry onsite ..
plus the Boot of the TechCar has power supply, \modems & routers, an LCD screen, etc…
Plus DropBox, and a File Server at Home with VPN, RDP, Logmein, Tonido
and Everything (www.voidtools.com) as an HTTP/FTP search solution.
I believe that L.U.C.K = L abouring U nder C orrect K nowledge !

Christian Cawley

That is a commando kit of tech support! This man, ladies and gentlemen, this is where it is at!

Réy Aétar

And surely a duster for removing dust :p

John Hampton

I carry a couple pair of hemostats (one straight and one curved) they are great for getting the little pieces of paper left behind when someone rips out the paper from a printer during a printer jam.

Mike Brant

You know those dental floss holders? They have a hooked end that woks like a dental pick, but won’t scratch delicate parts. And I cut the handle of a soft toothbrush in half. And because I am fast approaching Geezerdom, I carry a telescoping magnetic pickup (because my knees don’t defy gravity any more) and a magnifying glass. I’m looking for a cheap rolling day pack — my old one leaks (tools). I keep my screws in a baby food jar, which doesn’t spill and is surprisingly robust.

You should see my pain killer kit!

Spin-Dizzy

I also keep the following in my techie toolbox:
– 4 port USB hub (need to keep all existing devices connected for troubleshooting, but also need to plug in my own)
– 4 port network switch (needed for those situations where the troublesome pc is connected directly to the cable/dsl modem)
– travel size power bar with 3 power sockets and two USB ports (never fun to crawl around looking for a power socket to keep your rescue laptop / netbook juiced up)
– a slim USB wired keyboard and travel sized mouse (for those occasions when you need to work in a driver-less OS to troubleshoot but the pc with issues is using fancy wireless peripherals)

Ned

Cristian, This is definitely my type of post. The Laptop Motherboard Testing section was a little bit thin though. Are you able to add a little detail? Thank you.

Arpit Nadda

cool article…

Bobby Smith

Very Complete and informative list!!!

Giggity Goebbels

I only have the software part lol

Rajnish

Very nice

Don Richardson

A great article. I have been looking for clues like this for years!

jim

My 5c – some of the stuff I use in my workshop (laptop/desktoprepairs)

Driverpacks and driverpack solutions are handy to have

Some sort of universal disk imaging (I use paragon) – allows a windows install to be transferred to different hardware – ie another machine – works like Sysprep.

Double Driver – full backup of system drivers for new OS install on same machine

PCI database – online resource for finding drivers from device ID’s

Portable, self-updating usb toolkit – I really like Liberkey for this. All repair apps on a USB and it manages its own updates

A cd-rom emulating hard drive that allows you to load the disk with ISOs and then boot via USB – Zalman have a great product for this – looks like a normal 2.5″ enclosure but has a LCD menu so you can select the ISO you want the machine to boot to, then load whatever disk you want – ie windows, linux, Hiren’s etc

Hirens boot cd

Guitar picks – incredibly handy for opening devices like laptops, hard drive enclosures, etc, without scratching the plastics. I have tried a variety of ‘spudgers’ (purpose-built plastic tools) but always come back to picks as they seem to work better

Kapton tape – heat resistant sticky tape that can be used to stick wires inside devices and will not shift if they get hot

Plasti-steel – epoxy-based mouldable product thats great for filling and repairing chassis holes. Sets like metal, moulds like plastic.

Cleaning vinegar and distilled water 50/50 mix – actually the best computer hardware cleaning solution I have ever used. Tried lots of commercial products, but this is the best I have used for streak-free cleaning of lcd’s and keyboards, chassis, etc, and removes just about anything (I have met some pretty nasty laptops over the years and this stuff always works and leaves a great result)

A SMART reading tool to test hard disks. I like HDTUNE and Crystaldiskinfo.

A sector-by sector testing tool to test hard disks – I like IBM/Hitachi Ultimate Drive Fitness test – it works on all brands and is very reliable at detecting faults.

Memtest x86 for ram testing (boot disk)

Kon-boot for bypassing windows login/admin passwords (boot disk)

A keyfinder (ProduKey is the best on the markey AFAIK)

D7 by FoolishIT is a phenomenal tool for any pc repairer (see technibble for the enormous thread on this application)

PCRT for managing customer/repairs/database. Awesome tool for any computer repair business. One of the best purchases I have made bar none.

Igor Rizvi?

Whats the name of the device on the picture?

Geoff

I used to carry a budgie mirror for plugging cables into the back of a computer.

djb

Add Spinrite (grc.com) to that list, got me out of a hole a few times. The only hard drive maintenance/prooving/recovery tool you’ll need, other than a host PC to run it on. Not free, but very very very good.
No affiliation, just a 110% satisfied owner/user.
DJB.

Leslie Penibanga

Very usefull information thank you.

Shakirah Faleh Lai

Qiguan code…I used that to test motherboard.