The seven "Prime Directives" of repairing and upgrading tech

Over the years I've built up a set of rules that I keep in mind when fixing things. I call them the "Prime Directives," not because I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but because they're important, and bad things tend to happen when I violate them.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

I've been an avid "fixer" of things for almost four decades. One of my earliest memories is of helping my grandfather fix a broken antique clock (I don't remember what part I played beyond the fact that the job required my expert application of a little yellow plastic hammer). We must have fixed it because it worked for another decade before it broke terminally.

As I grew up I progressed onto bikes, then onto TVs and other assorted appliances (back in the day when you looked for a valve that wasn't glowing and replaced it with another one that looked the same), and then cars (lots of cars) before coming to PCs and consumer electronics, which is where I've been for over twenty years.

Now I'm not going to try to fool you into thinking that I'm some "fixing guru" or "tech ninja". I'm not. While I have a pretty high success rate when it comes to resuscitating things, I've had plenty of failures too, and been responsible for letting the magic smoke out of a number of devices by doing something daft.

But over that time I've built up a set of rules that I keep in mind when fixing things. I call them the "Prime Directives," not because I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but because they're important, and bad things tend to happen when I violate them.

I present them here in no particular order.

#1: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

This one belongs right at the top.

If something is working, leave it alone. Don't mess with it. Don't try to make it better. Don't fiddle with it.

Just let it do its thing.

I've lost count of the number of times I've come across someone who read or heard about some "tweak" that would make their PC or router or network faster (most of the time pursuing some snake-oil nonsense someone made up), dive in with the best of intentions and then break the thing they were trying to make better.

My philosophy nowadays is that when I buy something, I set it up and then leave it to do its thing until it needs updating or it breaks.

#2: Just wait a minute.

You would be amazed how many problems go away if you give it a minute or two. This is especially true of network and internet issues.

Give the problem a chance to catch its breath and it might just fix itself.

#3: Don't keep fixing something until it's broken again.

You know the routine. You start out fixing something, but then you see it as a good opportunity to upgrade stuff.

There are no end of examples. Maybe your network switch is dead, but while changing that you notice some of the cabling is a bit rough and start tackling that job. Or you're swapping out a dying hard drive in a PC and think that this is a great time to add more RAM and tweak the BIOS.

The problem with this is that if you have problems it makes it hard to know where to start. Is it a problem with your fix, or a problem with something else you touched?

Another example of this is where a PC is misbehaving, but the owner thinks that might be a good time to upgrade the operating system and drivers. I can't believe the number of PCs I've come across that have ended up in a worse state than they were in before they were "fixed."

#4: Don't be a parts changer!

This is one from the auto repair industry that is also prolific in the PC repair industry. Someone tries to "fix" a PC by just randomly throwing new parts at it. This is a really expensive way to fix a problem.

I once came across a PC that had had the motherboard, RAM, and power supply unit replaced before it was discovered that it was the processor that was the problem.

Make sure you diagnose the problem, not just throw parts and guesses at it.

#5: Use (and contribute to) the hive mind.

The internet is a powerful resource for diagnosing problems, but it only works if people contribute to it in the form of blogs and forums (or the awesome repair guides over at iFixit).

If you come across an unusual problem, share it. If you solve it, update the post or forum with your solution, being as clear as you can so that others can follow in your footsteps.

#6: Know when to give up.

Sometimes a thing you're trying to fix just doesn't want to be fixed. You might have the tools and be armed with the know-how, but the repair is either too costly or complex or is just taking more time and effort than it's worth.

Then give up (or, if you are uncomfortable with that idea, think of it as a retreat).

This can be especially true of items that are cheap to replace. For example, you're not going to see me wasting my time fixing a cheap cable or power adapter, or something like a cheap consumer network switch or router. Even if you can get the parts, by the time you've put in the time and money, you're worse off than if you'd just replaced it.

Obviously if the piece of kit is specific or customized in some way, this may not be the case, bit for cheap off-the-shelf parts, there's no sense in wasting time with an attempted fix.

7: Take care.

The gadgets around you are home to a number of dangers, from high voltage waiting to zap through your body, lithium ion batteries that are just waiting for you to short them out so they can blow up in your face, to dangerous chemicals that can cause you long term harm.

Take the time to be safe. I routinely wear safety glasses because I intend to leave this world with the same number of eyes I came into it with. Also, after years of not giving a damn about my skin, I'm now a convert to nitrile safety gloves. And I'm super careful around high voltage, especially now that the "hair that sticks up" look is out of fashion.

But all jokes aside, do take care. Repairing something is not worth your life, so if in any doubt, just don't. Get a professional in, or at least someone who values their life less. I've seen a lot of nasty things happen with CRT tubes and capacitors and high voltage and lithium ion batteries, stuff that looks awesome in a YouTube video but isn't so awesome when it happens on your living room table.

Only the other day I was fixing a busted Bluetooth wireless speaker, and I can tell you that I was much happier continuing with the repair once I got the lithium ion battery pack out of it in one piece. These things are in everything, and are safe until you cut into them, bend them, stress them, or short them out, at which time they can become horribly unpredictable.

Stay safe!

If you've got a cool tip or story to share, feel free to leave it in the comments section.

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