Get IT Done: The ultimate PC troubleshooting toolkit

Stock your admin tool box with these items

By Brien M. Posey

If you’ve ever tried to remove a screw with a letter opener, paper clip, or thumbtack, you know that although these makeshift tools sometimes work, they are certainly no substitute for a good screwdriver. If your job involves repairing computers, you'll tend to rip out a lot less hair if you have the right tools for the job. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll discuss the hardware and software tools that no computer guru should be without.

When many people think of PC repair tools, they instantly think of items like screwdrivers and multimeters. But good diagnostic software is as essential as any screwdriver. In this section, I’ll review several different pieces of software that should be in your toolkit, explain why I believe that each one is important, and tell you where to get it.

TechNet is a software subscription service that provides service packs, resource kits, white papers, and knowledge base articles that are related to all of Microsoft’s products. A basic single-user subscription costs about $300, but several plans are available. Subscriptions come with a TechNet CD that you can use to see what Microsoft says about a particular error message.

You can access the majority of the TechNet content for free on the Microsoft Knowledge Base Web site, but I still recommend subscribing to TechNet. Having all of the various TechNet resources available in one place without having to look for them on the Microsoft Web site can save you serious time. Furthermore, having TechNet on CD means that you don’t have to worry if the Internet is unavailable or is running slowly.

ERD Commander 2002
A software tool that I absolutely refuse to be without is ERD Commander 2002 (available for about $400 from Winternals Software). Although the ERD Commander series is traditionally associated with network server repairs, the 2002 version is excellent for workstations as well.

One of the first steps in repairing any PC problem is to verify that the PC has all of the proper settings. However, some operating systems such as Windows NT Workstation, Windows 2000 Professional, and Windows XP block many of the core settings from anyone who doesn’t have administrative privileges. But what do you do when no one in the office knows the PC’s Administrator password? ERD Commander 2002 allows you to boot the system from a CD into an environment that resembles a Windows operating system, completely bypassing any security. Furthermore, you can do things like change the startup status of devices and services, view the event logs, and edit the registry, all from outside of the operating system.

QA+WIN32 is a diagnostic program that’s designed to test computer hardware. It is available from Eurosoft for about $475 and includes a Windows and a DOS version. The software was originally designed to allow OEMs to test PC prototypes for compatibility and reliability, but many computer techs use QA+WIN32 to put images on new PCs or detect problems on malfunctioning PCs.

Boot disk
One of my favorite software-based tools for older operating systems is a custom boot disk that I created using Windows 98. You can use it to access the hard drive on any system that uses the FAT-16 or FAT-32 file system. Essentially, I created my boot disk by using the FORMAT A: /S command. After creating a bootable disk, I copied a set of DOS CD-ROM drivers, which allowed me to boot a dead system from my boot disk and be able to access the CD-ROM drive from a command prompt.

To do this, copy to the boot disk the MSCDEX.EXE file found in the \WINDOWS\COMMAND directory and the actual CD-ROM driver file found on the driver disk that came with your CD-ROM drive. Next, add the following lines to the CONFIG.SYS file of the boot disk:
REM Standard Hitachi CD-ROM Drivers
DEVICEHIGH=a:\d011v110.SYS /D:MSCD000

Then, add these lines to the AUTOEXEC.BAT file:
@echo off
prompt $p$g
REM Hitachi CD-ROM Driver
mscdex /d:mscd000

Now that the disk is bootable and supports the CD-ROM drive, it’s time to copy some tools to the disk. My disk contains the following additional files:
  • ATTRIB.EXE:  ATTRRIB.EXE is used for adding and removing the Hidden, Read Only, and System File attributes. For example, to make a file Read Only, you’d enter the following command:
    ATTRIB filename +R
    The plus sign, followed by R, H, or S, adds the Read Only, Hidden, and System File attributes to a file. Using the minus sign with R, H, or S removes the attributes.
  • CHKDSK.EXE: You can use the CHKDSK.EXE utility to diagnose some types of hard disk problems. Use the CHKDSK command to generate a report on the hard disk status, and correct any problems found by using the CHKDSK /F command.
  • DELTREE.EXE: The DELTREE command is used to delete a folder and all of its files and subfolders by issuing a single command: DELTREE foldername. DELTREE will ask you if you really want to delete the folder and all of its subfolders. Press Y, and watch the magic happen.
  • DISKCOPY.COM: The DISKCOPY command is used to copy a floppy disk. Simply enter the DISKCOPY A: A: command, and DISKCOPY will then prompt you for the source and the target disks.
  • EDIT.COM & EDIT.HLP: The EDIT.COM and EDIT.HLP files make up the DOS Editor. The DOS Editor is a simple text-editing program that is great for making changes to configuration files or for viewing text files.
  • EXTRACT.EXE: The EXTRACT.EXE utility is used to extract individual CAB files from the CAB files contained on the Windows 9x or Windows ME installation CD. If Windows won’t boot because of a damaged system file, you can extract another copy of the file from the CD and use it to overwrite the damaged copy. You can view the syntax for the EXTRACT command by entering EXTRACT /?.
  • FDISK.EXE: FDISK is used to create and delete partitions and logical drives. The FDISK program is menu-driven and may be launched by entering the FDISK command.
  • FORMAT.COM: The FORMAT command allows you to format a drive. To do so, simply enter FORMAT drive letter. If you wanted to format the C: drive and make the drive bootable to a command prompt, you’d enter FORMAT C: /S.
  • MEM.EXE: The MEM command examines system memory. Entering MEM /C | MORE will generate a report that tells you how much memory the system has, what is loaded in memory, and how much memory each module is consuming.
  • MODE.COM: Occasionally, I’ve performed troubleshooting chores that scramble the display, leaving it unreadable. By entering MODE CO80, you can return the screen to a readable status.
  • MORE.COM: You might have noticed that I used the MORE command in conjunction with the MEM command earlier. The MORE command prevents text or images from scrolling off of the screen before you have a chance to read them. If you ever enter a command that produces a lot of text, follow the command with | MORE. For example, the MEM /C command produces a report that scrolls by too quickly to read, unless you add the | MORE command to end.
  • SCANDISK.EXE: SCANDISK is a disk repair utility. It’s similar to CHKDSK but is more comprehensive. To run it, simply enter SCANDISK.
  • SYS.COM: The SYS.COM file is used to copy the IO.SYS, MSDOS.SYS, and COMMAND.COM files from your boot disk to another disk, thus making it bootable. For example, if you used Windows 98 to create your boot disk, you could use the disk to fix some types of boot problems on Windows 98 systems by entering the SYS C: command. This command will only fix boot problems that are related to missing or corrupt IO.SYS, MSDOS.SYS, or COMMAND.COM files.
  • XCOPY.EXE: The XCOPY.EXE file is a file copy program. XCOPY is similar to the COPY command except that XCOPY can do things like copy subdirectories and preserve file attributes. You can view the full syntax of the XCOPY command by entering XCOPY /?.

Norton SystemWorks 2002 Professional Edition
Norton SystemWorks 2002 Professional Edition is actually an entire suite of products. As with any software suite, some of the components that are included are more useful than others. In the sections below, I’ll briefly discuss the more useful components of System Works.
  • Process Viewer: Allows you to view all running processes, regardless of the version of Windows you’re using.
  • Norton Antivirus 2002: I’ve worked for at least three different companies that didn’t take viral threats seriously. In these environments, I find it helpful to carry Norton antivirus software with me.
  • Norton Utilities 2002: Norton Utilities is a subsuite of Norton SystemWorks. The utilities included with Norton Utilities are: Speed Disk to optimize file storage for faster hard disk performance; Norton WinDoctor to find and fix Windows problems; Norton Disk Doctor to detect and repair problems on hard disks and floppy disks; Norton System Doctor to continuously monitor a PC to spot potential problems before they happen; Unerase to allow you to retrieve files that were accidentally deleted; and Wipe Info, which allows you to securely erase files.
  • GoBack3 Personal Edition: Unlike the Windows XP System Restore feature, GoBack is completely independent of Windows. I saw a demo in which someone went into the Windows directory and erased every single file. The person then used a hot key to initialize GoBack (which runs outside of the operating system), and told GoBack to restore the system to the way that it was five minutes before. After a system reboot, it was as if the damage had never occurred.
  • Norton Ghost 2002: This utility allows you to make an image of the system’s hard disk. You can image individual partitions or a hard disk as a whole. Ghost is most useful when performing a hard disk upgrade. If a user needs a bigger hard disk, you could create an image of the old hard disk, install the new hard disk, and then restore the image to the new hard disk. This process works much better than trying to manually copy all of the necessary files from one drive to another. I also regularly use Ghost to back up particularly difficult configurations.

Norton SystemWorks 2002 Professional Edition is available from Symantec for about $100.

Although Norton Utilities is excellent for data recovery, I also recommend putting a copy of PartitionMagic in your troubleshooting toolbox. With PartitionMagic, you can create, delete, merge, and resize partitions, all without fear of losing data. You can also use PartitionMagic to repair some types of partition problems. You can buy a copy of PartitionMagic directly from PowerQuest for about $70. PartitionMagic works on Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows 9x, and Windows NT 4.0 (with Service Pack 6a).

BCM Diagnostics
BCM Diagnostics is a shareware system-analyzer utility that’s intended for Windows 9x and Windows ME systems. The program runs a comprehensive stress test of the entire system and evaluates the system's overall stability. The program runs all component tests concurrently and stops if any errors are encountered, giving you the chance to view the error.

BCM Diagnostics is provided as shareware from BCM Advanced Research Inc. You may download a copy of BCM Diagnostics from Because the software is shareware, the initial download is free, but if you decide to keep the software, the registration fee is $25 per license.

Although Pc-Check from Eurosoft is technically a software package, I’ve chosen to include it in the hardware category because it relies on several hardware tools to perform a PC diagnosis. The Pc-Check bundle package, which costs about $370, includes the Pc-Check software and some of the hardware add-ons. One of the components that’s included is the CD-ROM test disk. While there are a variety of test CDs and cleaning CDs on the market, this one is a little different. The CD-ROM test disk allows you to perform burn-in tests on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and CD jukebox drives. In addition to performing burn-in tests, you can also perform sector-by-sector data-read tests, and transfer-rate tests.

Another component included with the Pc-Check bundle is a PCI/ISA POST card. The card is a circuit board that can be plugged into either a PCI or an ISA slot. Once installed, the card is used to read the system's POST codes upon power up. The PCI/ISA POST card is a stand-alone tool that requires no operating system. It can quickly detect over 500 different system board problems.

Status Indicator Box
Although not included in the Pc-Check Bundle, another helpful tool is the Status Indicator Box, which allows you to view test results on systems that don’t have a monitor. The Status Indicator Box costs just over $80 and is available at Eurosoft.

Power screwdriver
Power screwdrivers are a serious time-saver and extremely helpful to people with bad wrists. Although most power screwdrivers come with a couple of interchangeable bits, I’ve found it very helpful to buy additional bits. My PC toolkit also contains a set of drill bits. My drill bit set includes a variety of nut driver sockets that are intended for cordless drills. These nut driver sockets fit perfectly into my power screwdriver and are excellent for removing PC cases. Although most PC cases are simply screwed together, a nut driver can fit around the edges of many of these screws. This means that even if the screw is stripped out, you can use a nut driver to remove it.

As much as I like using my cordless screwdriver, there are times when it’s impossible to fit the bulky screwdriver into a tight space. Because of this, I keep a set of standard flat-head and Philips-head screwdrivers on hand.

Another helpful tool to have on hand is a multimeter. There are many different types of multimeters available, ranging in price from about $20 to about $200. I personally use a midrange multimeter, the Craftsman Digital + Analog Multimeter 82322. It’s priced around $60.

I use my multimeter to:
  • Check electrical outlets for proper amounts of electrical current
  • Test PC power supplies
  • Test for proper termination on coaxial Ethernet lines
  • To measure the temperature inside a PC case to test for overheating. (I can do this because my specific multimeter contains a temperature probe.)

Wrist strap
A wrist strap wraps around your wrist and contains a wire with an alligator clip that is attached to something grounded. This wrist strap prevents you from accidentally destroying electronic components with static electricity while working on PC components.

Chip extractors
The only safe way to remove a chip from a PC is with a chip extractor. If you simply try to pry a chip out of a socket with a screwdriver, you'll bend the pins. There are several different types of chip extractors, each used for different types of chips, so it helps to have a variety of extractors on hand. You can see two common types in Figure A.

Figure A

Loop-back plugs
By attaching a loop-back plug to a port, such as parallel ports and serial ports, you can place a simulated load on the port, and, therefore, use diagnostic software to accurately test the port.

Cable testers
Cable testers are typically used to check long stretches of network cable. However, when repairing a PC, it’s sometimes necessary to use a cable tester (Figure B) to determine whether a connection problem is related to a bad network card or to a bad patch cable.

If the patch cable turns out to be good, and the network jack is known to be good, then you need to check the machine’s network card. If you suspect that the network jack may be to blame, you can use a known working patch cable to attach the tester to the jack.

Figure B

There are a variety of different network cable testers on the market, ranging in price from under a hundred dollars to over five thousand dollars. The LANtest unit shown in Figure B costs about $75 dollars and can be used for most basic cable troubleshooting chores.

Phone line testers
There are several different tools that you can use to test for phone line problems. I like to conduct the initial tests with a phone line tester, such as the one shown in Figure C. This tester displays a green light if the line is working, a red light if the line is cross-wired, and no light if the line is completely dead. You can find testers similar to the one shown in Figure C for a few dollars at any hardware store.

Figure C

I also like to keep a cheap, standard telephone with me. I’ve run into situations where a line may be live, and correctly wired, but there was no dial tone. By attaching a phone to the jack and attempting to manually dial into another modem, you can hear exactly what’s happening.

The crimper shown on the left in Figure D is useful for cutting and stripping network and phone cables. It can also be used for attaching RJ-45 and RJ-11 connectors. The crimper shown on the right of Figure D is useful for stripping wire and cable of varying widths.

Figure D

Odds and ends
In addition to all of the tools and software I mentioned above, I always keep a pair of needle-nose pliers handy because they have a built-in wire cutter and are great for installing and removing jumpers. If the area around a jumper is too small for needle-nose pliers, I use tweezers instead. I also keep a small grabber tool (Figure E) nearby, for those times that I drop a screw into a tight place.

Figure E

If you have additional hardware or software tools that you find helpful, send me an e-mail, and I will write a follow-up article that includes some of your favorite tools.

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