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[ The PC Guide | Troubleshooting and Repair Guide | Diagnostic, Troubleshooting and Repair Tools ]

The PC Tool Kit

If you are a very casual PC user you can probably get by hacking around with an old screwdriver and a pocket knife when you need to work on your PC. However, if you plan to do any reasonable amount of work upgrading, building, troubleshooting or repairing PCs, a proper tool kit is a good investment. There are many different types of tool kits available for the computer enthusiast, with tools selected specifically to make the lives of those who work with PCs easier. The right tools can save you a lot of time and help you avoid damage to your equipment (and your hands!)

As with most things, tool kits range widely in size, quality and price. At the low end are $5 kits that are barely any better than the screwdriver and pocket knife. At the high end are kits costing over $100 that include everything but the kitchen sink; these are overkill for most people (including me). Most people can do just fine with a toolkit costing between $15 and $50. These are often available pre-assembled into "genuine artificial leather" carrying cases, sold at most general computer stores.

Here are the items that I would recommend you definitely have in your toolkit; note that some of these don't generally come in pre-assembled toolkits so you will want to add them yourself to the carrying case. Every item in this list is one that I use personally on a regular basis:

  • A Good Screwdriver: You want a good screwdriver with magnetic, interchangeable bits and a comfortable handle. At a minimum you should have two different sizes each of Phillips and flat bits. If you've never used a magnetic screwdriver before, you'll wonder how you ever did without one once you do; the magnetic tip will prevent screws falling into the PC, and will let you get access to drives mounted deep in your system case.
  • Additional Screwdrivers: An additional Philips screwdriver and an additional flat blade screwdriver, for when you misplace the good one. :^) Actually, it's sometimes useful to have two screwdrivers anyway.
  • Needle-Nose Pliers: These are useful for grasping small items and for removing and replacing jumpers on circuit boards.
  • Wire Snips: A pair of wire snips for cutting wire and stripping insulation. Some kits include wire strippers for the latter purpose.
  • A Small Flashlight: Very useful; the insides of PC boxes are quite dark and there are lots of very small things you will need to see, such as the "pin 1" marking on a connector for example.
  • Tweezers: Or even better, a part retriever. A retriever is like a tiny set of retractable claws with a spring-loaded handle. Useful stuff.
  • A Large Crowbar: For making adjustments to stubborn hardware. (Just kidding. :^) )
  • A Roll of Black Electrical Tape: They never include this in the kits but they should. Used for wrapping wire ends and insulating components.
  • A Can of Compressed Air: Very handy for cleaning things hands-free and without using any hazardous liquids.
  • A Soft, Lint-Free Cloth: For cleaning the monitor and other components.

The following items I categorize as "optional, but useful". They are tools that are used less frequently, or perhaps only in certain circumstances. They are more for someone who does a fair bit of tinkering or who maintains a number of machines:

  • A 3/16" Nut Driver: In fact, tool kits often come with several different sizes of nut drivers (using exchangeable bits), but 3/16" is the really important one, because this is the size of nut most commonly used on PCs. These hexagonal nuts are used as mounting hardware for motherboards and serial and parallel ports. A necessity for anyone who builds their own PCs; if you don't have one you'll be attaching port connectors using a pair of poor-fitting pliers.
  • Vice Grips: These are incredibly neat tools that have all sorts of uses.
  • Torx Screwdrivers or Bits: These are the star-shaped screwdriver heads that are used to make equipment "tamper-proof". You need these drivers if you want to, well, "tamper".
  • An ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) Wrist Strap: This is more of a safety device than a tool; it is used to greatly reduce the chances of static damage to components.
  • A Knife: A cutting blade or utility knife of some sort.

The following items are sometimes included in tool kits but in my experience are rarely if ever used:

  • Soldering Irons: Essential if you are going to try to do repair of circuit boards, but virtually nobody does this (and with good reason). They are also quite dangerous if used improperly.
  • Hex (Allen) Keys: They include these in virtually every commercial tool kit I've ever encountered. I've never seen anything PC related that used them but of course that doesn't mean that there isn't something out there that does...
  • Chip Extractors: These are used to remove chips from regular (non-ZIF) sockets, but modern PCs do not generally use these sockets any more. Useful for upgrading much older systems in some cases.

Finally, it is a good idea to accumulate a stockpile of spare parts if you are going to be doing work on PCs. I would recommend the following:

  • Screws: I have a "big ol' bag o' screws" of all shapes and sizes that comes in handy when working on various machines.
  • Expansion Card Inserts: Save the metal inserts that come out of the back of the case when you put a modem or other card into the PC, as you may need them again later on.
  • Drive Faceplates: Similarly, save the plastic faceplates that you remove from the front of cases so you can replace them later if needed.
  • Mounting Kits: These sometimes come with retail hard disks and allow you to put a 3.5" drive into a 5.25" bay. Useful when your case has more free 5.25" bays than 3.5" ones.
  • Cables: Save any power, IDE, floppy, CD-ROM, or other cables that you accumulate in case you need them later on.
  • Keyboard, Mouse, 3.5" Floppy Drive: Keep an extra one of each of these components around to aid in troubleshooting problems by swapping. (Actually, keeping an extra of every major component in the PC is helpful, but the three I mention are here because they are cheap. Most people can't afford to keep an extra hard disk lying around as a spare.)

Next: The Troubleshooting Expert

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