Something you Should Have In Your Repair Bag
Besides programming, one of my favorite hobbies is fixing computers old and new. I enjoy renovating old computers for charity, and fixing misbehaving machines for anyone I happen to come across.
I've been pursuing this hobby for well over a decade, and in that time, I've assembled my own tech repair kit.
You could absolutely go out and splurge on some ready-to-use kit, and I'm not about to dissude you! However, if you're generally broke like me, and want to assemble a fantastic kit from (mostly) readily available parts, here are couple things you should track down!
Let's start with the basic repair tools. Like I said, if you really want to splurge, you can buy the professional-grade stuff on Newegg or iFixit. However, in the end, it all comes out roughly the same.
The most obvious things here are the screwdrivers. I picked up a neat little four-bit mini-screwdriver from a hardware store for a few bucks, and I find that it fits virtually every computer screw I encounter. (That yellow one is actually because the smaller Phillips bit BROKE a few days after purchase. I suspect that was a fluke, though, as the rest of the bits have been going strong for three years now.)
The cool thing about the multi-bit mini screwdriver is that, if you remove the bit from the handle, you've got a quick-and-dirty nut driver, which I find fits most computer bolts. Win-win!
I also carry a standard size Phillips screwdriver, and sometimes a flathead for good measure, because some desktop screws require larger bits.
One of the odder items I snagged is a 3/16 nut driver for removing motherboard standoffs. I picked up a little plastic one as part of a motherboard's included hardware. If you can't find one like this, you can just purchase a proper metal one for about $10-30, which will do the same job.
At the top, you see I carry a penlight and a headlamp, both of which are invaluable. You'd be amazed how many dark places computer techs find themselves working in, so you want to make sure you get the really bright LED versions of each.
Below the screwdrivers, I have a paperclip, which I use to access the release switch on modern optical drives.
Towards the middle, you'll see my black guitar pick. If you ever fix laptops, you seriously need one of these for taking apart the case without leaving a lot of tooling marks. This is a pretty thick plastic pick, so it can stand up to some serious abuse.
Upper right is my pocket knife, although just about any small multi-tool will do. I like to make sure that my multi-tool has mini-scissors in addition to the knife part.
Below that are two sets of tweezers - one with ridged tips, and one without. I use the grip-type tweezers for retrieving screws and other bits and bobs from the deep recesses of a computer. The flat-type tweezers come in handy for releasing ribbon cable collars and whatnot in laptops - basically wherever you'd want a fingernail but can't get your hand in there.
Electrical tape, I found, is an absolute must. Sooner or later, you're going to encounter a damaged cable you currently need, but cannot replace. (NOTE: You should know enough about electricity to weigh the risks when it comes to damaged adapters. Some can be temporarily repaired, others are just fire hazards.)
I like to carry a bunch of twist ties for holding coiled cables in storage, and zip ties for bundling cables in computer builds. You really do need both: twist ties aren't a good fit for long-term use in a computer, and zip ties are a bit too permanent for storing cables.
On the far right, I have wire cutters, which I've found a need for more than once; you don't want to use a pocket knife for cutting zip ties on cable bundles.
I also want to get my mitts on small pliers - one of the few things I need but haven't yet acquired. These are helpful for unplugging some especially stubborn ports (ever tried yanking loose a six-year-old Molex connector?)
Getting and Keeping Stuff Clean
It's just a fact of life: computers get dirty. Whenever you're fixing a machine, you need to be able to clean things off, and then keep them that way. There isn't much high-tech equipment involved here, actually.
First, I like to have a large cloth, preferably one with minimal lint and static. This is perfect for setting easily-scratched parts on - especially laptop screens - and it can be useful in a pinch for cleaning up spills.
Below that, I have a stack of paper (it's letter size, just folded up in this photo). There are many occasions where I don't want to set a motherboard directly on the work surface, such as your average kitchen table, so I'll set it on paper instead. There have also been many cases where I had to tip a laptop back and set the half-connected motherboard on the monitor; a sheet of paper keeps the monitor from getting scratched.
Top-middle, I have the staple of the tech repair world: canned air. I seriously go through a lot of this stuff, so I like to buy large cans, and keep some on standby.
Next to the canned air, I have 90% Isopropyl Alcohol. This is like the all-purpose computer cleaning solution, working well to remove gunk from screens, the case, the motherboard (carefully, of course!), the CPU, and so forth. The higher the alcohol concentration (and thus the less water) the better, so if you can get 99% Isopropyl Alcohol, go for that instead.
I like to carry cotton swabs for cleaning with the alcohol, although the less fluffy they are, the better.
Next, I always carry thermal compound with me. Any time you're swapping out a CPU or heatsink, you need to reapply this stuff. In my experience, Arctic Alumnia (pictured) or Arctic MX-4 are the best out there.
You'll see at the bottom-middle that I have a stack of coffee filters. These are excellent for cleaning CPUs (and other things) with alcohol, as they have absolutely no lint and no static. The cone filters are the easiest to work with by far.
Towards the right, you'll notice I carry plastic bags for storing random loose bits, and anti-static bags for more sensitive items. Any time you buy a motherboard, RAM, or anything else that is static-sensitive, hold onto the bag it came in. These are very useful for temporarily storing those sorts of things while you're working on the machine.
I also have plastic RAM cases, which I once again salvaged from packaging. Any time I swap out or temporarily store RAM, I like to use these.
Lastly in this picture is a notebook and pen. These are more important for keeping your mind clutter-free. Any time you encounter an issue, learn something new, or notice something odd in a repair job, take a note of it. In that notebook, I also keep a list of common Terminal commands I use in diagnosing various problems.
So far, most of the equipment I recommend isn't terribly expensive. I recommend taking the money you saved there and splurge a little on these items instead.
In all honesty, you can probably get by without half of this stuff, but having it will make your life considerably easier.
Once again, starting from the upper left, I have random USB cables. More than once I've found myself scrambling around a client's office looking for a particular USB cable, so I started carrying the most common ones with me.
Many computers these days come without optical drives, which sucks when you need to boot from DVD, so I like to carry a portable USB optical drive with me (upper-left). That LITE-ON has served me well for over eight years. It's also handy if I need to burn a bootable DVD in the field (I like to carry two or three blank DVDs in my CD case.) (Purchase from Newegg: $32.99)
On the upper-right (and just below it) is my SATA/IDE to USB patch cable. I get so much mileage out of this thing! Any time a computer is having trouble with its hard drive, I'll yank it and plug it into my own laptop using the patch cable. That allows me to test it, recover data, and format the drive as needed. I use a Vantec, and it has held up to regular use over the past three years. (Purchase from Newegg: $18.00)
In the center is my external hard drive. People are generally terrible about backups, so it is often wise to carry one of these (or else a high-capacity flash drive) on house calls. This way, you can back up any files your client wants to keep before you do any risky repair tasks. I've used many brands of hard drive over the years, and Western Digital is the only one I really trust. I carry a 1TB, which is large enough to store just about anything I encounter. (Purchase from Newegg: $59.99)
You'll notice I also have a flash drive in this photo. It is often helpful to carry at least two: one for your common tech software tools, and one that you can use for making a bootable USB stick.
On the left is a standard ethernet cable. These are infinitely useful. For one, you might need to plug a computer directly into the wall if wifi is not available. Alternatively, you can use it to share your laptop's wifi connection with the computer you're repairing...which is something I have to do more times than you might expect. Just make sure you test your cable before you leave home.
The two little dohickies towards the bottom-middle are USB to PS/2 converters, which are pretty important whenever you're fixing older computers without available USB ports for laptop and keyboard. I snapped these no-brand ones up at a thrift store for a few cents, so I really can't recommend any particular brand. However, Newegg has a lot of options, ranging from 99 cents to a few dollars. Whatever you get, make sure you have one for your keyboard, and one for your mouse.
Speaking of keyboards, there are times I find myself needing one in the field. Instead of my having to lug a large unit about, my friend bought me an Adesso flexible USB keyboard. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's a fantastic device that rolls up and tucks away in my repair case. Bonus, it's waterproof and antimicrobial. (Purchase from Newegg: $22.66)
I also keep an extra mouse handy. Sometimes I bring along a typical corded USB mouse, but I dearly love my Logitech Wireless Mouse. I've got the M317, but they have a wide variety of models. (Buy from Newegg: $29.99)
Last, but not least, I have a wireless usb adapter, which allows me to get any computer online quickly. I work with many operating systems, and I find TP-LINK to be one of the more widely compatible brands. That model, the TL-WN722N, has been in regular use for three years without a hitch. (Buy from Newegg: $14.99)
Tech repair involves lots and lots of screws and tiny parts, and if you don't have a system, you will wind up losing them. (Personally, if I don't have a case, I will misplace at least one screw per job.)
To make my life easier, I carry two screw organizers:
You can pick these up for a few bucks from most hardware stores. In one, I store a wide variety of laptop and desktop screws and other parts.
The other is intentionally empty, with handwritten labels in each compartment:
Whenever I'm taking apart a computer, I place the screws into the correct compartment. This way, I never lose anything, and each screw goes back into the right place in the computer.