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Required Tools

The good news is that unlike many do-it-yourself projects, you don't need to invest a fortune in tools to work on a computer. We'll discuss the types of tools you need in this section and conclude this chapter with a checklist of everything you'll need to tackle your upgrade tasks.

The System Journal

Here's a tool that is often overlooked but that can really come in handy. The system journal is simply a spiral notebook you keep next to your computer. You should write down everything out of the ordinary that happens to this computer. If Windows crashes, note the date, time, and what you were doing when it went kaput! If you hear a funny noise, note that too.

PlainSpeaking - The Right Tool for the Job

Only a few hand tools are needed to completely disassemble a computer right down to the bare metal chassis. Opening up the system case, which used to be a tiring undertaking, doesn't require any tools on many newer models. Although you don't need a garage full of tools, the tools you do need must be good ones (don't get a rusty, beat-up, old screwdriver from the kitchen junk drawer to tinker inside your system).

Your tools should be clean and sized appropriately for the task at hand. The screws that hold your computer together are small; larger screwdrivers, or worn screwdrivers with rounded edges, can slip unexpectedly and damage your system or even your hand.

By recording every crash, glitch, odd noise, and "hmmm, that was odd" incident all in one notebook, you can start to see patterns in the problems. Seeing the pattern is the first step toward solving a problem. You also can get a better warning of impending doom if the frequency of a given problem is increasing. This in turn helps you plan your upgrades and equipment replacements.

Also, you should use the journal to record every time you open the case, clean the computer, or upgrade a component. Note what you did to the system, when you did it, any problems you encountered, and how you resolved them. This can save you time on later upgrades by preventing you from having to figure out the same trick each time.


Your screwdrivers should have nice sharp edges so they'll grip the screw tightly. You'll need both Phillips and the regular slotted type. Make sure they fit the small screws that hold your system together—not too large, not too small. You don't want the screwdriver to slip and damage anything nearby. For the Phillips type, you should have a size #0 and a #1 and for the slotted type, a 1/8" and 3/16" will do.

We should mention a special type of screwdriver called a Torx, which has a tip in the shape of a six-pointed star (see Figure 3.8). Way back in the early days of the personal computer age, Compaq thought it would be a great idea if their systems used Torx screws, which made it nearly impossible for the average person to even open up the chassis without buying a special tool. What were they thinking? The good news is that it's uncommon nowadays to come across a situation in which a Torx driver is required (although it does happen from time to time). If you find you need a Torx and your local hardware store doesn't carry them, try an auto supply store.

Figure 3.8
Three types of screwdrivers are used when working on computers—the Phillips, the slotted, and the less common Torx.


Many of the metal machine screws in your system have hexagonal heads on them with a slot for screwdriver use. The hex head of the screw enables you to use a nutdriver instead of a screwdriver to rotate the screw (see Figure 3.9).

Figure 3.9
The nutdriver provides a solid grip and prevents the accidents that can occur when using a screwdriver.

Another Fine Mess - The Only Thing Magnetic Should Be Your Personality

Stay away from screwdrivers with magnetic tips. Yes, they are handy, but the risk of having magnetic fields moving around inside your computer is not worth the convenience. You risk damaging chips and data media, such as floppy disks, and your hard drive.

A nutdriver is similar to the socket from a socket wrench that has been welded onto the end of a screwdriver handle. The nutdriver generally gives you a much better grip on the screw, especially if the slots in the screw are worn. You'll need a 3/16" and a 1/4" nutdriver in your toolkit.


Even if you heed our advice and work on your system up on a table with good lighting, you'll still need a bright flashlight. A good flashlight will provide directed light on the depths of the chassis.

Cable Ties

Computer cables (both internal and external) come in three types: too long, too short, and missing. If a cable is missing, the replacement will invariably be one of the other two types. It seems you're doomed to eventually wind up with most of your cables in the too long category.

Is a rat's nest of cables lurking behind your PC or PCs? If there is, here's how you can keep those cables organized and make it easier to connect, disconnect, access, and reposition your equipment.

Cable ties can help you here. You can get plastic-coated wire ties, but we prefer the Velcro or self-locking nylon cable ties (after they lock, they're locked forever) available for about 10 cents apiece in a variety of lengths and colors. You can find these at most computer and hardware stores.

After you've cinched the self-locking nylon ties tight, you'll have to snip them off with scissors or wire cutters. Still, they are the preferred method to keep your excess cables neatly organized inside your system. We also like them for tying off cable coils. On the other hand, Velcro ties are better for bundling several cables together (see Figure 3.10).

Figure 3.10
Nylon zip, Velcro, and plain twist ties can all help you deal with cable clutter.

For keeping your cables neat and out from underfoot along the baseboard of your workspace, the ideal solution is a device that wraps the cables up but can also be easily opened and closed. Curtis cable organizers to the rescue.

Curtis makes a locking cable clip (part no. CO2) you can use to create a virtual conduit along the baseboard and perhaps at a few strategic locations on the back of a desk. Each clip has a one-inch, square, plastic plate mounted with a very strong self-adhesive so you can just peel and stick them. Position each clip properly the first time because they don't come off easily, and that's good! The front side of the plate sports a ratcheted ring you quickly can pop open, lock closed, loosen, or tighten. The ring diameter is slightly less than one inch. They come five in a box at $2.99 per box. We suggest you mount them twelve inches apart, closer in corners to minimize the tension on any given clip (see Figure 3.11). Keep extra cable neatly coiled and tied off at each end.

Figure 3.11
Putting Curtis wall-mounted locking cable clips to good use in one of our offices.

Check out these and other accessories at the Curtis Web site (http://www.curtis.com/).

PC Toolkits

For less than $20 you can pick up a basic computer toolkit at most of the computer superstores, such as CompUSA (see Figure 3.12). These usually come in a vinyl zipper case and contain the necessary sizes of Phillips and slotted screwdrivers, two nutdrivers, a pair of tweezers suitable for pulling jumper blocks and fishing loose screws out of the computer case, and so on.

Figure 3.12
Even a basic kit contains the tools in the sizes you'll need for most upgrades.

However, the toolkit might not have a three-claw parts grabber, which is so handy that we recommend you either keep shopping until you find a kit that has one or purchase one separately (refer to Figure 3.7). As mentioned earlier, you can find parts grabbers at your local auto parts store.

Some of the more expensive kits come with a wrist strap that grounds you against ESD. Don't buy an expensive 150-piece toolkit just to get a wrist strap, though. You can purchase ESD straps separately from any electronics supply store.

Splitters and Converters

We keep a number of miscellaneous but indispensable items in our tool bags. If all you're doing is swapping a sound card, you probably won't need any of these, but if you embark on upgrades of a more ambitious nature, chances are you'll need them. It's also a good bet that the nearest computer supply store will have closed five minutes before you realize you need one of these items.

A Y-splitter connects to one of the power cables inside your computer, effectively giving you an extra power connection. We've opened up computers, counted the unused power connectors, and found one available for our need—only to discover that particular unused cable was too short to reach the new hard drive. In such a case, you might be able to use a Y-splitter on one of the power cables closer to where you want power, thereby giving you an extra connector in the right place (see Figure 3.13).

Figure 3.13
Use a Y-splitter power connector to give yourself an extra power plug inside your PC.

Another common snafu occurs when you want to plug a serial device into your computer's serial port. This shouldn't be a problem, except that the device has a cable that ends in a 25-pin D-Shell connector. The serial port on your computer is a 9-pin D-Shell receptacle. Argh! Converter plugs enable you to convert a 25-pin serial connector to a 9-pin serial connection or vice versa. Converters also exist to switch a 5-pin DIN keyboard plug into a smaller PS/2 connector. If you need to use an extension cable, you might run into a situation in which you need a gender changer to make a male plug into a female socket. You can get all these at computer or electronics supply stores (see Figure 3.14).

Figure 3.14
Various cable converters can come in quite handy when performing system upgrades.

Where's an Extension Cord When You Need One?

If you fuss around with computers much, you probably have extra power cords lying around. They plug into a standard three-prong electrical outlet on one end and into a computer power connection at the other end. Said another way, one end of the cable is a male three-prong plug and the other end of the cable is a female three-prong plug. You need a converter that consists of a 6- to 8-inch length of cord that converts a power cable into an extension cord.

Tools Checklist

The following is a list of the things we recommend you have handy before you start upgrading your PC:

  • Flashlight

  • Nutdrivers (3/16" and 1/4")

  • Screwdrivers (Phillips and slotted without magnetic tips)

  • Tweezers (larger types suitable for picking up and holding machine screws, not the smaller type found in the medicine cabinet)

  • ESD wrist strap or comparable ESD equipment (antistatic mat, sprays, and so on)

  • Magnifying glass

  • Cable ties

  • Suitable container for holding screws and other small parts

  • Electrical extension cord (three-prong)

  • Extra PC power cable (and power cord–to–extension cord converter)

  • An assortment of splitters and connectors depending on the upgrade project you're about to tackle

  • The computer's system journal and NEAT box

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