Build your own IT pro toolbox - Holiday 2019 edition
If you are going to be repairing moden electronics than having the right tools not only makes the job quicker, it also makes the job safer and if you attempt repairs with the wrong tools then there's a good chance you could cause more damage and mayhem during the repair process. In fact, I'm surprised just how many jobs I come across where you can see clear signs of other people having been there before me!
There's an old adage worth remembering when it comes to tools -- "Feel the pain once when you pay for the tool, or feel the pain every time you use it!" Quality tools are undoubtedly expensive, but treated well they could last years -- maybe a lifetime -- and pay for themselves many times over.
Anti-static wrist strap
People give me a lot of grief for not wearing one. I should, and so should you. Those little buzzes of static that you feel when touching metal, patting your cat, or giving your significant other a kiss can be deadly to delicate electronic components. Ground yourself with an anti-static wrist strap.
Fluke LVD2 voltage detector
I'll be honest with you, I'm no fan of electric shocks. It's true that you really do feel it in your fillings. Experience has taught me not to trust anyone when they say that the power has been cut off to a cable or socket or whatever and it's safe for me to start working. This is why I carry with me a Fluke LVD2 non-contact voltage detector. The LVD2 features a dual sensitivity feature, with a blue LED coming on when the detector is 2.5 cm to 12 cm away from a power source, and a red LED coming on when it's at the source.
The detector does feel a little overly sensitive (in my experience most of these non-contact voltage detectors are), but after a while you get used to it.
Priced at around $30, you can certainly find cheaper, but given that I'm trusting my life to this, I'm happier sticking with a brand I trust.
The iSesamo is a thin metal sheet with a non-slip handle that allows you to split open devices. It'll fit into the most microscopic of cracks and take a lot of prying force.
For $10, this is a brilliantly useful tool.
For devices that have tolerances too tight for the iSesamo to get in the cracks, the iFlex is the tool for you. This is a machined sheet of 0.2mm inox stainless steel that will slip into the tightest of gaps.
iFixit Manta Driver Kit
This is now my go-to toolkit for fixing tech gadgets. No matter what the screw of fastener I'm faced with, there's a bit in this toolkit that can handle it.
iFixit's Manta Driver Kit not only contains 112 bits designed to tackle pretty much every fastener you're likely to come across when fixing electronic devices in both 4mm and 1/4-inch bit sizes, but it also comes with two premium anodized aluminum driver handles to hold these bits while in use. The bits are precision engineered and fit the smallest or most complicated of fastener perfectly.
Both the driver handles feature magnetized bit sockets to hold the bits, knurled grips for a positive feel in the hand, and have free-spinning tops on them so they can act as precision screwdrivers. They're some of the nicest, highest-quality bit drivers I've come across, and are a pleasure to use, and are more than robust enough to handle daily use and abuse.
The kit comes in the tough ABS plastic case, and the magnetized lid doubles as a sorting tray.
This is the perfect kit for someone looking for a driver set that's up to the task of dealing with both small, delicate fasteners, and big, chunky screws.
Broken/chewed up screw remover
I find that jobs get exponentially tougher when someone else has had a go at fixing something and in the process caused more problems.
One problem I come across often are chewed up or broken screws. Usually they're as a result of someone being too enthusiastic with a poor tool, but other times they're because someone's taken a powertool to the screws.
iFixit have two great tools to deal with such problems. The first is Neji-Saurus -- the screw extracting dinosaur. It's a crazy name for a fantastic tool that can grip screw heads, bolts, or nuts allowing you to twist out even the most damaged fasteners. It might seem steep for $30, but it's a real lifesaver.
If you need to tackle screws that have had their heads sheared off completely, the precision screw remover set is worth a look.
Engineer micro cutters
I'm always on the lookout for good quality cutters, and these Engineer brand, made in Japan, micro-cutters are some of the best I've used. Yes, you will destroy them if you use them on things that they're not suppose to cut -- these are only suppose to cut 0.6mm copper wire -- but if you keep them in reserve for the right job, they'll cut perfect every time.
Flir TG165 thermal camera
When I was first exposed to the Flir TG165 thermal camera I thought that is was a cool toy for people with more money than sense. But having used one for a while, I'm finding it invaluable to have the "superpower" to be able to see in infrared. Why? Because when it comes to electrical repairs, excess heat means that there's something wrong, and this camera allows me to see this overloading directly.
I've already use the Flir TG165 to spot bad connections and overheating components, and it's a great tool for spotting heat buildup in PCs. It's also great around the home for a myriad of things, from spotting heat escape points to finding airlocks in the heating system.
At $399 it's certainly not cheap, but once you learn how to use it, it becomes a totally invaluable tool.
Having a magnetic tray handy to catch any screws that fall is a real timesaver. If they fall on the floor or roll off into a corner, they're usually gone!
If you can get a tray that comes with a magnetic pick up tool too, so much the better.
Nitecore TIP 2017
For the past few years I've been using flashlights that need throw-away cells such as the CR123A, which are good but wasteful. Recently I moved up to the Nitecore TIP 2017 which features a built-in lithium ion battery that can be recharged using a USB charger and a micro-USB cable and I have to admit that it works very well.
With the press of a button the Nitecore TIP can switch from a 240 lumen monster that has a 30-minute battery life, to a 1 lumen firefly that can last for 46 hours. The flashlight has a 1 year standby capacity which means it's great for storing in a toolbox.
Sure, you can spend big money on a PSU tester, or break out the multimeter, but for quickly confirming a dead PSU I find a cheap tester works fine. Also, if you have a few hard drives handy, you can add some load to the PSU by connecting them up before you test.
My go-to device is the Thermaltake Dr. Power II. It's reasonably cheap but reliable and does a pretty good job of finding faulty PSUs.
DROK USB light
These tiny USB lights -- which are little more than LEDs attached to a circuit board with a USB connector -- are awesome for both testing USB ports (I've lost count of the times that the reason a device isn't working is a broken USB port) and for illuminating the back of a PC when plugging in cables and connectors.
Knipex stripper for data cables
If you've ever had to strip network cable to put RJ45 plugs on then you'll know how much of a pain it can be. The Knipex data cable stripper takes all the stress out of the job!
For stripping UTP and STP data cables with diameters of 4.5 to 10.0 mm. Blades are a special tool steel, oil-hardened, TiN-coated.
Fluke multimeters are eye-wateringly expensive when compared to the no-name meters you'll find at the big box stores, but after chasing my tail due to inaccurate readings I decided to bite the bullet and invest in one.
There are a number of Fluke units to choose from, but a unit such as the Fluke 179C covers most of the bases.
USB dummy load
These USB dummy loads -- i don't have a specific link but they are widely available online and in places such as eBay -- are a switchable 1A/2A load for USB ports that allow you to test the power output of things like USB chargers and power banks (in combination with something like the DROK digital multimeter USB hub). They cost around $5.
Loctite Threadlocker Blue
Got a fastener that just always seems to work its way loose? Probably means the fastener is damaged, the thread is damaged, or you lost a washer that was helping to keep it down.
Rather than over tighten the fastener (which will just make things worse in the long term), apply a dab of Loctite Threadlocker Blue compound (I find the non-drip stick version a lot easier to use and cleaner than the liquid, which goes all over the place). The blue stuff is designed to be undone with hand tools, so it won't cement the fastener into place.
Follow the instructions, and don't go mad with it!
Sabrent USB-DSC9 USB 3.0 TO SATA/IDE converter
Connect any 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch Serial ATA/SATA Hard Drive, solid state drive (SSD), or desktop 5.25″ CD/DVD-R/RW externally to your computer through an available USB 3.0 port.
The Sabrent USB SATA Adapter is a caseless solution that makes swapping hard drives easier than ever before. Ideal for recovering data from drives inside dead PCs and checking drives that are laying around.
Engineer PH-50 scissors
For years I made do with cheap rubbish scissors. Then I found the Engineer PH-50 scissors and my life changed. $17 might seem like a lot for a pair of scissors, but these are high-quality, made in Japan and can handle tough, heavy-duty jobs such as chomping through hose and cables, as well and thin sheet metal.
Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste
Handy if you have to whip off a heatsink. I prefer the polysynthetic stuff because it's not electrically conductive, so if the tube releases the schmoo over a component, there's no risk of shorting out.
DROK Digital Multimeter USB 3.0 hub
Want to test the power coming out of a USB port? Want to know how much capacity a portable battery pack has? Want to know how much power a device is pulling when it's on charge? You need a DROK Pocket Digital Multimeter USB 3.0 hub. This device, which is no bigger than a USB flash drive, gives you all the information you need.
For around $30, this simple device can replace a lot of complex test equipment.
Knipex crimping pliers
Knipex pliers are some of the best I've ever used. Cheap crimps are just a false economy.
These crimpers create perfect RJ11/12 and RJ45 crimps every time.
Wiha Slimline Insulated screwdrivers
The mainstay of PC repair has to be the #2 size Phillips screwdriver. Using this you can get inside and take apart most PCs. While I've stripped and rebuilt countless devices using nothing more than the screwdriver fitted onto a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman multitool, I recommend getting your hands on a good screwdriver. Using the wrong screwdriver on a stubborn screw will make your day unhappy.
My personal screwdrivers of choice come from the Wiha slimline insulated range. Not only have these tools been tested to withstand 10,000 Volts and each carries a 1000 Volt certification (which, trust me, is a feature that can save your life), but they have been designed specifically to be able to access screws that other insulated screwdrivers can't.
Prices start at around $13.
While Wiha makes a whole range of screwdrivers, if you want to get inside something like the new MacBook Pro or iPhone you'll need special tools to help you defeat the proprietary screws. For these I recommend that you head over to iFixit where you will find a fantastic range of tools to help you get inside pretty much everything.
I love Sugru. It's great for repairing frayed cabling (be smart though and don't use it on high voltage cabling!) or damaged plastic or rubber parts. It's also great if you want some extra heat resistance or add some waterproofing to a homebrew project.
This, along with cyanoacrylate adhesive, now for part of my day-to-day repair kit.
Tweezers/magnetic pick-up tools
To paraphrase Vincent "Vinnie" Gambini from the film My Cousin Vinnie, repairing a PC is a procedure; like rebuilding a carburetor has a procedure. You know, when you rebuild a carburetor, the first thing you do is you take the carburetor off the manifold. Suppose you skip the first step, and while you're replacing one of the jets, you accidentally drop the jet, it goes down the carburetor, rolls along the manifold, and goes into the head.
You're then in a world of pain.
While there's no cylinder head in a PC for screws to roll into, they can end up in awkward, hard to reach places (oh what a laugh it is when they roll into a PSU -- NOT!). And if you don't have the right tool you can end up having to up-end the entire PC to get it out.
This is why I like to have tools to help out. First on the list are tweezers. While you can get plastic ones, I prefer ESD-safe metal ones because they are stronger. Whia has a good range spanning different shapes and sizes.
I also like to have a magnetic pickup too, not so much for working inside a PC (it's not the magnetism I'm worried about but more the way that the head can be drawn towards any and all metallic objects with enough force to cause damage) but for picking up screws that have fallen on the floor, rolled under a desk, or dropped into a dark crevice.
Ideal Industries LanXPLORER PRO
Sure, if you run the occasional bit of Ethernet cable then you can get away with a cheap LAN tester, but for professional installations you need something a bit (well, a lot) more hardcore.
The Ideal Industries LanXPLORER PRO is an In-Line tester for diagnosing problems in active and passive networks. Capabilities include troubleshooting for Ethernet connectivity and identifying faults in copper cables. Networks can be accessed through copper, fiber, and Wi-Fi interfaces.
LanXPLORER PRO includes advanced detection of PoE and PoE+ with voltage, current, and power consumption measurements to diagnose power supply problems. The In-Line mode also allows you to measure the power consumption of your PoE and PoE+ devices.
LanXPLORER PRO enables monitoring of VoIP calls to measure Quality of Service (QoS) including Real Time Transport Protocol (RTP) and jitter, whilst providing detailed network statistics and device mapping.
Great quality, but not cheap at $3,700!
Liquid electrical tape
Ugh, I hate insulating tape with a passion. It doesn't stick well, but leaves a horrid residue that picks up all manner of filth and crud. A far better solution is liquid insulating tape. Just brush it on and you're done. It's also great for reinforcing vulnerable points on cables, like near the connectors on things like MacBook chargers and Lighting cables. It's not pretty, but it does the job.
This is great for automotive use, or on low voltage wiring, but use it sensibly. Don't use it on mains voltage. If you've damaged a power cable by running over your vacuum cleaner, you need to get that cable replaced.
Spare computer screws
Screws are forever falling out of PCs, so i always carry spares with me. You can either buy a kit or just salvage old screws from derelict PCs.
Schneider Electric punch down tool
Also known as a Krone tool, a punch down tool is used to insert wires into punch down connectors without having to strip the insulation.
If you need to punch down wires, I suggest getting a decent tool such as this one from Schneider Electric because the cheap ones fall apart in no time and can damage the fittings you are trying to punch the wires into.