What’s in your toolkit?

I was recently asked where one gets a toolkit. That was about as clear and complete as the question was. I suspect that it was actually a student in some computer technician certification class who was asking.

My response: a toolkit isn’t something that you just find or purchase. It’s something that most computer geeks collect and assemble themselves, often over time, consisting of an assortment of tools and utilities that they’ve found helpful in the past.

As I’m about to go visit a friend with computer troubles, let me show you mine.

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I carry a few CDs and DVDs along for things that are either very large or items that I’ll want to be able to boot from as part of some diagnostic process.

  • Spinrite is a hard disk maintenance and surface recovery tool. It’s helpful for recovering from defective sectors physically on the hard disk. I liken it to a non-destructive format. All the data is preserved, but the disk surface is completely cleaned, refreshed, and where possible, recovered.
  • Macrium Reflect Recovery Disk is something that I carry for two reasons. Occasionally, my friends actually listen to me and use the same backup software that I do. It saves time to walk in with the recovery disk ready to go. It’s also useful for making an image backup without having to install anything: boot from the CD and Reflect fires up ready to back up as well as restore.
  • Windows Memory Diagnostic is for diagnosing RAM memory problems.
  • BartPE (Bart’s Preinstalled Environment) is essentially a bootable “live CD” that contains a plethora of tools that can help in diagnosis and recovery. There are actually several similar tools, like Hiren’s Boot CD, Ultimate Boot CD, Knoppix, and more. I like my old copy of BartPE in part because it’s running Windows. The others tend to run a Linux variant, although they can still also be exceptionally helpful.

Operating systems

ToolsI actually carry OS discs with me as well for various reasons.

  • Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 – I want something that can recover specific files or respond to the System File Checker’s need for media if it asks for it. These aren’t 100% useful, because my friends will have machines with OEM Windows and Windows with or without service packs installed. I’m not going to carry all possible variants with me, but these do come in handy from time to time. I suppose I should include Vista.
  • Ubuntu 32-bit – This is typically what I fire up in lieu of the Linux-based rescue disks that I mentioned earlier. Ubuntu on a DVD will operate as a “Live” DVD; it’ll just run the operating system off of the disc without touching the hard drive. That means that I can examine the hard drive, tweak it, copy files off of it, and even connect to the internet if I need it. Linux Mint is another alternative.
  • Puppy Linux – Puppy is a smaller distribution that’s targeted at older, less capable machines. It’s the same idea as Ubuntu, but with a tad fewer tools and options. It’s perfect for older PCs.

Anti-malware tools

Naturally, the issue that’s often being dealt with is malware, so having some tools along makes sense. In many cases, these are “just to get started” kinds of tools. You always want the latest copies, which means getting them downloaded at the moment that you need them.

  • Malwarebytes Anti-Malware – This seems to be the go-to anti-malware tool for just about everyone when faced with a variety of issues not caught by whatever anti-malware software might already be installed.

That’s it for anti-malware tools. Seriously. And even Malwarebytes is a boot-strap. After I’ve run it and regained some semblance of control over the machine, I’ll download a more up-to-date version on the spot and run it again. The same is true for Windows Defender Offline, my choice for running anti-malware scans without booting into Windows.

Disk, file, and system recovery tools

I basically carry a complete set of the free tools from Piriform with me. (While I carry the installers, I typically will take with me the portable versions and use those directly).

  • Speccy – This is nothing more than a system inventory tool that displays the hardware present on a machine in detail. This is perfect for understanding exactly what makes the machine tick.
  • Recuva – This tools examines the free space on a disk for files that can be recovered in part or total. Basically, this allows you to undelete files that were “permanently” deleted or overwritten either recently or long ago. (File recovery success is never guaranteed, because it depends on how the disk was used since the deletion or corruption.)
  • Defraggler – While fairly redundant with Windows’ own built-in defragmenting tool, Defraggler does a slightly better job and also presents a much more informative display of progress and fragmentation.
  • CCleaner – A Windows Cleaning tool, CCleaner could be thought of as the Windows Disk Cleanup utility on steroids. Not only does it present the option to clean up files that are left over from assorted Windows operations, but also files related to whatever browsers you happen to have installed as well as several other applications.

Other tools

As you might expect, when I visit someone, I also tend to throw my laptop in the car with me, so I have everything that’s on there available to me as well. That includes:

  • VMs of both Windows 7 and Windows 8
  • A set of Linux-equivalent command line tools from the CYGWIN project
  • Zipping, compressing, decompressing, encrypting, decrypting, and related tools
  • Microsoft Office

And a very random collection of tools and utilities – some of which I use every day and others once in a blue moon. The point being that I have basically everything that I might care to use with me.

And I carry a small thumb drive on my keyring to easily copy files back and forth.

The most important tool in my toolkit

I don’t want to sound arrogant or self-serving, but the most important tool in my tool kit is me… or rather my experience and knowledge.

And you are most certainly the most important part of your own toolkit as well.

Having CDs and DVDs and software utilities are important, but knowing when to use them, which ones to use, and when not to use them is perhaps more important than any tool that you could carry. Knowing where to find the tools and help you need online is also critical. So much is available online that you often don’t actually need to carry as much with you as you once did.

Sometimes, like knowledge in general, having tools is less important than knowing where to find the tools you discover you need.

23 comments on “What’s in your toolkit?”

  1. Two physical tool I try not to be without when working on computer problems….a flashlight and a phillips head screwdriver. Sometimes it is useful to peer into the insides of a computer to find problems, especially intermittent ones. Slow computers can be caused by overheating, peering inside can tell you if it needs the dust bunnies removed! A can of air, or perhaps a small vacuum has often cured strange behavior in computers!

  2. I second Leo and Jim’s items, plus some more physical tools:

    – 2nd can of air for when the first one freezes and loses pressure. (it will be good again when it warms up)

    – Digital multimeter. Even a cheap one is usually good for PC troubleshooting tasks.

    – A set of precision screwdrivers (aka jeweler’s screwdrivers).

    – Small snippers, and a handful of tie-wraps. These will improve the workmanship of the kludge you implement on Grandma’s computer.

    – Pile of extra cables and inexpensive peripherals from the thrift store, for pop-and-swap troubleshooting

  3. Completely agree. “you are most certainly the most important part of your own toolkit”. A fool with a tool is sill a fool. I have a copy of most of these softwares in an external hard disk, in case if i need them.

  4. Leo mentions bring a copy of Microsoft Office. There is a really neat feature in Office 2010 Starter that doesn’t exist in any other version – Office Starter To Go. Yes, Microsoft actually has a *portable* version of Office, and it’s free to all those owners of Office 2010 Starter. One ‘installs’ Office To Go on a flash drive and then can carry to any other PC and run it. The copy gets branded with the user’s name, so it’s not something one can give away, but neat for those that can use it.

  5. I like to carry a MiFi(independent internet connection device – or mobile hotspot). Having an alternate internet source can be extremely helpful to download items or diagnose issues with a bad internet connection that they have at their location.

  6. Sadly, I noticed no one that said they go inside computers listed ESD protection, a wrist strap at the very least. Failure to include and use ESD protection will almost guarantee damage to a pc and it may be immediate, or show up later. Many of the hardware problems, e.g., intermittent, are caused by this omission.

    • I never wear a wrist strap, but I do take some caution to touch chassis and other things in the right order to dissipate static electricity. I certainly wouldn’t use the phrase “almost guarantee damage” however. In my three decades of work on PCs I can’t say I’ve seen a single case, and my behavior hasn’t always been … appropriate :-).

      • I have to agree with you 100% Leo. I’ve never engaged the wrist-strap grounding-rod ploy ever but have, at least in the earlier days, maintained the good practice of touching the grounded case before touching or removing/replacing RAM or CPU. I’ve also never had a failure or even a suspected failure because of this. I suspect that RAM and CPU manufacturers have decreased their sensitivity to static discharges over the years. This is from a 35 year computer repair technician veteran.

  7. I’ve been wanting to assemble some usb utilities to run checks on my and my family’s computers. I’m wondering if there’s a menu utility that you can put on a flash drive that will allow you to put several utilities on one stick, then select which one you want to run after the computer boots from the stick. Thanks. Jim

    • I use “YUMI – Multiboot USB Creator” (http://www.pendrivelinux.com/yumi-multiboot-usb-creator/) to carry around all of my CDs (and BIOS upgrades for many common computers) on a flash drive. I also carry a 3 1/4″ floppy bootstrap for computers that will not natively boot of USB. There can be minor issues installing Ubuntu Server from it (GRUB won’t find the correct drive automatically), but besides that it is a great space saver (and no disks to scratch either).

      • Yehuda……..thanks for the info about YUMI. I’ll do that today. At present I don’t need to use a 3 1/4″ floppy bootstrap, but I’ll add it to my list of things to get familiar with. Thanks again. Jim

  8. I also bring extra phone and network cables, computer power cables, printer cables, and paper and pencil to note all screws and wires that I remove.

  9. I agree with what others said about physical tools. I recently added a small power screwdriver (a bit bigger than an old fountain pen). It really helps with long screws or if you need an extra little push (only a little push, it does not have a lot of torque.)

  10. Leo
    I believe you wrote a book on introduction to process explore. I was surprised you did not list sysinternals. I use these quite a bit. They are a suite of tools that run on xp – 7 (I am not sure about 8) but they do not install, they are free tools that you download from the microsoft web sight and just run them.

    • They do work on 8, and yeah – I probably should have mentioned at least Process Explorer. It, and almost all the other sysinternals tools, are part of that other collection of random tools that I bring along.

  11. All the computers we have purchased (home and office) in the past couple of years do NOT have cd/dvd drives. A lot of utilities will run from usb drives, just make sure you know how to boot from usb. Labeling the usb is the biggest problem; you may have to number them and keep a paper listing what is on each stick (or get the biggest usb you can afford and pack everything onto it!)

  12. I use Sardu, which creates multiboot USBs, CDs and DVDs of your favorite tools. Just collect what you want tools you want from their menu and it will create a multiboot disk that includes all those tools on a single disk. When you boot from the disk, it gives you a menu from which to boot into your tool of choice.

  13. Leo, I don’t understand the sentence (about CCleaner): “Not only does it present the option to clean up files that are left over from assorted Windows operations, but it also files related to whatever browsers you happen to have installed as well as several other applications.” Specifically, “…it also files related to whatever…” Is it me, or was there some incomplete editing in that sentence? Thanks.

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