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Most of us "superusers" are regularly asked to fix computers for friends or family. To improve my chances of repairing a PC (or at least recovering important data) on the spot, I would like to assemble a portable kit of hardware and software tools that I can keep in my car.

What would you put in your "computer repair toolkit"?

One tool per answer please, so that the best tools can be voted to the top.

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35 Answers 35

All the Sysinternals tools. They are a must have for Windows troubleshooting...

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SpinRite.

It's a tool that will scrub your hard disk, bypassing all the built-in mechanisms to repair sectors on the disk. It can fix many a hard disk that would otherwise be toast because of a few bad sectors here and there, and will in most cases help recover files. (I've personally never seen DynaStat working, but I guess that makes me lucky.)

SpinRite can run on any PC compatible system with a 32 or 64-bit Intel or AMD processor and a color screen. The previous SpinRite v5.0 is available to v6.0 owners who need to run SpinRite on older 16-bit 8086/80286 systems and/or monochrome screens.

SpinRite is self-contained, including its own bootable FreeDOS operating system. It can be used on any operating system and any file system. This means it can run on drives formatted with Windows XP's/Vista's/Windows 7's NTFS and all other older FAT formats (in addition to all Linux, Novell, and all other file systems.) It can be used to pre-qualify and certify unformatted hard drives before their first use. Drives on non-PC platforms, such as Apple Macintosh or TiVo, may be temporarily relocated to a PC motherboard for data recovery, maintenance and repair by SpinRite.

SpinRite provides complete interaction with IDE-interface PATA (parallel ATA) and SATA (Serial ATA) drives, and it can also be used with any other type of drive — SCSI, USB, 1394/Firewire — that can be made visible to DOS through the addition of controller BIOS or add-on DOS drivers. To obtain the best performance, IDE drives can be temporarily removed from their external USB or Firewire cases and attached directly to the PC motherboard.

Spinrite

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I've seen it working, but once I ran it on a drive which had hardware problems.. I could read about 80% before running SpinRite, but after running SpinRite for about 8 hours, the drive was fried... Lesson learned: try to get as many data out first, than run spinrite to fix your badsectors... – Davy Landman Aug 19 '09 at 13:10
    
i think its always best practice to image (ddrescue is good for that) or copy out as much as possible before trying anything drastic – Journeyman Geek Nov 9 '09 at 0:04
    
should note that spinrite now works with NTFS - for many years before spinrite 6 it didn't. – MikeJ Mar 2 '10 at 6:24
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Does SpinRite do what it claims to do? - serverfault.com/q/51681/773 – Svish Sep 17 '10 at 13:30
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I would never recommend SpinRite. Once your hard drive is broken doing a repeated surface scan will only break more of it. – Henk Poley Sep 14 '11 at 8:24

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A tiny USB key on my keyring full of portable apps.

The portable apps include:

  • PuTTY, for SSH and telnet.
  • WinWGet, a wget alternative for Windows, to download files.
  • Firefox, for when I need an alternative browser if the current one is damaged.
  • 7-Zip, for unpacking files in an efficient way.
  • ClamWin, an open-source antivirus client.
  • JKDefrag, for very customizable file defragmentation.
  • WinDirStat, for checking out file system usage.
  • Notepad++, for editing text files, as Notepad itself is not enough.
  • WinMerge, for merging differing files and folders.
  • WinMd5Sum, for checking whether something downloaded or copied is actually right.
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Do you have a heap of diagnostic/troubleshooting and malware cleanup apps on there? Would be good to mention that ;). – jtimberman Aug 3 '09 at 2:14

Here is a must have that hasn't been posted yet. A Paper Clip. So many times I've visited a client with a CD/DVD drive that won't open. You can open any dead CD/DVD tray by sticking the end of an unfolded paperclip into the small pin hole at the front of the drive.

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+1 for usefulness and a clever image to boot! – Zannjaminderson Nov 21 '11 at 19:44

Compressed air! Every computer gets full of dust...

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Fixes a computer that "keeps turning off" every time. – Travis Aug 3 '09 at 20:51

A bootable Ubuntu CD.

Whatever happens to the operating system you're working on, if (for example) you need to access the Internet to download a driver, just pop in the CD and do what you need to.

Along the way you might even convince your family or friends that Linux is quite user-friendly nowadays...

enter image description here

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Thats my favorite tool. I've used it to replace Windows on two people's computers so far. They liked what they saw in the GUI when I was working on their systems :). – jtimberman Aug 3 '09 at 2:15

My laptop, if that counts. 80% of the time I'm troubleshooting network issues, so I'd rather use a tool that I'm positive works.

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How about a working DSL/Cable modem to go with that :) – Ciaran Aug 2 '09 at 21:13
    
A cable modem wouldn't work because it's provisioned to an account. I really don't feel like shelling out again for a service so I can carry a spare modem with me. – phuzion Aug 2 '09 at 21:50
    
Didn't actually know that! Good for future reference – Ciaran Aug 2 '09 at 21:56

A multimeter.

Useful if you ever want to check continuity or voltage levels.

alt text

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This should get bonus points for showing a Fluke. – Joe Internet Nov 9 '09 at 0:46
    
If its working..... – MikeJ Mar 2 '10 at 6:25
    
Im curious to know just how often you use this if you are doing consumer grade computer repair for users... – francisswest Aug 18 '11 at 16:46
    
It is hard to say how often you'd use it, but it can be invaluable in diagnosing a hardware problem. – hanleyp Aug 26 '11 at 2:42

Screwdrivers.

enter image description here

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the question states "one tool per answer"... – fretje Aug 2 '09 at 20:59
    
Blargh...I missed it under the big bold text – Dan Walker Aug 2 '09 at 21:00
    
Changed to only one tool – Dan Walker Aug 2 '09 at 21:01
    
You can add multiple answers, you know? – fretje Aug 2 '09 at 21:04
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Thumbscrews so I won't have to use screwdrivers again – Ciaran Aug 2 '09 at 21:04

My (physical) weapon of choice is something MacGyver would recommend, the indispensible Swiss Army Knife. Except the one I always keep in laptop bag is an updated 21st century incarnation of tool, Victorinox Swiss Army Cybertool 29 Pocket Tool:

Cybertool 29

It has saved me on countless occassions, not just computer related.

The cybertool is literally an entire self contained toolbox unto itself.

And the software equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife I carry along always is Damn Small Linux:

Damn small Linux

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I haven't worked without one of these for many years, and I use it every day. I can't recommend the Victorinox Cybertool (or Cybertool Lite) highly enough. They're indispensable, and the build quality is outstanding. – Collin Allen Sep 1 '09 at 2:05

A UBCD4win (bootable recovery CD) disc and/or USB.

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A SATA/IDE-to-USB adapter. For a great variety of problems, it's a great help to be able to pull the harddisk out of the system to hook it up to your laptop...

The model in my repair kit is this one, but there are plenty like it. These things don't require any drivers on any OS I've come across in the last 4 years; they're just plain Mass Storage Devices.

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dead link. good advice, tho. make sure to get one that will handle both 3.5" and 2.5" IDE, for those PITA laptop drives. :) – quack quixote Nov 8 '09 at 23:08

CCleaner. Is freeware.

Its primary purpose is to remove unnecessary files: in the recycle bin, memory dumps, file fragments, log files, system caches, application data (like cached files in Opera). And the Registry Cleaner can locate and correct problems in the Windows Registry. It can be used to disable start-up programs.

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I always have a bootable USB-stick containing SystemRescueCd in my backpack. It's one of those "Linux Live CDs", but one that is packed full of relevant rescue/recovery tools.

It only needs a 512 MB stick, which everyone probably still has lying around idle in a drawer somewhere (notes for installing to a USB-stick are here, and if you have trouble getting it to boot, you might look here).

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HijackThis™ is a free utility which quickly scans your Windows computer to find settings that may have been changed by spyware, malware or other unwanted programs. HijackThis creates a report, or log file, with the results of the scan.

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Paste the log into hijackthis.de for an automated review of the things it found. – Henk Poley Sep 14 '11 at 8:46

Linux USB Boot. Brilliant :D

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A smart-phone with 3G Internet access and the ability to share that Internet access over Wi-Fi. Great for googling network/Wi-Fi problems :-)

I use my Nokia N95 + Joikuspot Premium for this.

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Crimping tool & connectors and spare wire. I've seen too many cases where people break off the locking tabs off of RJ-45 and RJ-11 connectors and the plugs start to fall out.

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Hardware:

  • Anti-static wristband
  • Screwdrivers
  • Multitude of driver bits (security bits included)
  • Hex keys
  • Angle pliers
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • LED flashlight
  • LED tester
  • Soldering iron & solder
  • Electrical tape
  • I.C. clipper (haven't had use for it for a while, though)
  • Wire cutter/stripper
  • Tons of screws
  • Zip-ties
  • Cables and adaptors
  • Leatherman and pocketknife (multitools)
  • Razor blades

Repair-related Software: (Kept on a flash drive)

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One tool per answer – dreamlax Mar 5 '10 at 0:16

One cd with gparted for partition management.

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A recent Bart PE bootable live Windows CD.

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Something to access laptop HDD's on "dead" laptops.

Like http://www.cooldrives.com/saandidehadr1.html, a SATA/IDE-to-USB adapter.

It's invaluable to have as it's a problem that arises more often then you would think.

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Get/make yourself a boot CD in conjunction with a USB key of SysInternals Apps/NirSoft Apps/PortableApps. I use BartPE (freeware) to get it exactly how I want it. Alternatively, you could use a Linux boot CD or whatever you're most comfortable with.

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An .iso file of your whole hard disk BEFORE it crashes ...

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Which program backups hard disk drives (or partitions) into .iso files? – Manuel Faux Aug 3 '09 at 11:01
    
A Time Machine to go back in time to before the HD crashed. To collect a .iso backup.... – Matthew Scouten Jul 16 '10 at 4:18
    
This, so very this. Always capture a ghost before working just to cover my bases. – francisswest Aug 18 '11 at 16:44
  • Precision Screwdrivers
    • T8 x 50 mm
    • T9 x 50 mm
    • 2.4 x 50 mm
    • 2.4 x 50 mm
  • 6in Wire stripper pliers (0.2-0.8 mm)
  • Electrical test screwdriver
  • Soldering iron and stand
  • Desoldering pump
  • 25-pc Bit set
  • 5-pc Socket set: 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 mm
  • 5in Side cutter pliers
  • 6in Long nose pliers
  • Part box
  • 8-pcs Mini electronic combination wrench: 5, 5.5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 mm
  • PU carrying case (315 x 240 x 93 mm)
  • Ratchet driver
  • Extension bar (60 mm)
  • Extension bar (100 mm)
  • 3-pc Soldering aid set
  • Heat sink
  • Solder core
  • Operating System CD or DVD
  • Boot Disk
  • Power Cables , Data Cables
  • Mother Board ,processer Manual
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Sounds about right. Only thing I have to add is a giant box of every screw I've ever "not needed anymore" and zip-ties. – Travis Aug 3 '09 at 20:30

I don't actually do this. But for hardware troubleshooting purposes, I'd love to have good working hardware. Motherboard, PSU, cabling, memory modules, etc. That would make life so much easier

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An XP account cracker.

Burnt onto a bootable CD, VERY useful for people who forget their administrator account passwords.

Cough COUSIN Cough

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PCinspector Data Recovery, I'm often asked to magically retrieve files deleted by mistake.

PCinspector Data Recovery

From the product website:

PC INSPECTOR™ File Recovery 4.x is a data recovery program that supports the FAT 12/16/32 and NTFS file systems.

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  • Linux live CD (I've normally got Ubuntu and Knoppix)
  • Set of screwdrivers
  • Network cable
  • Known working ADSL filter
  • Ophcrack CDs
  • Blank CDR and/or Empty USB key for data recovery

If I know I'm going to be fixing a computer I'll try to take some bigger things along:

  • Laptop
  • USB hard disk
  • ADSL gateway/router
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+1 for the Ophcrack distribution. I've used it plenty of times and can vouch that it's worked 80% of the time. – Travis Aug 3 '09 at 20:47
  • BartPE / VistaPE (A windows live cd, which is nice for the NTFS write support)
  • Ultimate Boot CD
  • Laptop
  • Working network cable
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