In addition to hand tools, your toolkit should have an assortment of floppy diskettes and CDs that contain reporting and diagnostic utilities and essential applications. The location of the kit can vary according to your own needs. If you have only one PC, keep all this stuff near it. If you work on many PCs, carry these items with you.
The contents of your software toolkit depend greatly on how many PCs you maintain, which operating systems they run, and similar factors, but a good basic assortment includes the following essential utilities:
DOS boot diskette
Even if all your computers run Windows or Linux, the most important item in your software toolkit is a DOS boot diskette with drivers for the CD-ROM drive. When the PC won't boot, this diskette allows you to install or run diagnostic and repair utilities from a CD. Without it, you may be stymied because you can not access the CD-ROM drive, even to do something as basic as reinstalling the operating system. That's true even if your system allows booting from the CD-ROM drive because not all CDs are bootable. The Windows 9X startup disk described in the following note fulfills this purpose. If you run only Windows NT/2K/XP or Linux, borrow someone's Windows 9X computer long enough to make a DOS startup diskette. To create the Windows 95/98/Me startup diskette, open the Control Panel and double-click Add/Remove Programs. Display the Startup Disk page and click the Create Disk icon to create a startup disk. This diskette is bootable and contains the drivers needed to access most IDE CD-ROM drives. You can use a Startup Disk created on any computer to start any other computer. Floppy diskettes have a way of getting lost or damaged, and you can not get far if you can not boot a problem PC, so we generally keep several copies of the Windows 98 SE Startup Disk distributed around our work areas, in our toolkits, and so on.
On this or another diskette, depending on free space, you'll want copies of essential utilities. At minimum, add the following files to those present on the Windows 9X startup floppy:
FORMAT.COM Necessary to reformat the hard disk, if that becomes unavoidable.
EDIT.COM and EDIT.HLP A standard ASCII editor that is bundled with Windows 9X and Windows 2000. Note that this is a standalone program, unlike earlier versions that required BASIC. If disk space is tight, as it may be if you need to add special drivers to the boot floppy, you can dispense with the help file. This editor uses Alt-letter commands—e.g., Alt-F to open the file menu.
All three of these "extra" files fit on a standard Windows 98 startup floppy.
The Windows 9X startup floppy contains drivers that work with nearly any IDE/ATAPI CD-ROM drive or DVD-ROM drive, and may work with a SCSI CD/DVD-ROM drive, depending on the type of host adapter it is connected to. If your system has a SCSI CD/DVD-ROM drive, verify that booting with the standard startup floppy allows you to access that drive. If it does not, download the DOS SCSI drivers from the web site of the manufacturer of your SCSI host adapter, copy them manually to the startup floppy, and make any necessary additions or changes to autoexec.bat and config.sys. Verify that the modified startup floppy will allow you to access your SCSI CD/DVD-ROM drive before you have a problem.
Years ago, PCs often came with CheckIt, QAPlus, AMIDiag, or a similar diagnostic utility. Now system vendors expect people to use the bundled Windows utilities. These are fine, as far as they go, but they do not go very far. Windows (particularly NT/2K/XP) and Linux isolate users and programs from the hardware, which makes it hard for a diagnostic utility to do its job. Also, Windows-based utilities are usable only if the computer boots. You can use these bundled utilities to do things such as detecting a misconfigured component or an IRQ conflict on a bootable system, but that's not enough when you need detailed information or when the PC won't boot. For those situations, you need a DOS-based utility that provides comprehensive testing and reporting. Any of the following products will do the job. We use them all, but if you get only one, make it SmithMicro Software CheckIt.
SiSoft Sandra SiSoft Sandra is our favorite Windows-based diagnostic utility and probably the most-used diagnostic program, not least because a free version can be downloaded from SiSoft. Although the free version is sufficient for most people's needs, SiSoft also sells the $29 Sandra Professional which includes additional functionality and technical support (http://www.sisoftware.demon.co.uk/sandra/).
Symantec Norton Utilities (NU) Almost since the first PCs shipped, most technicians have carried a copy of NU. Unfortunately, Norton discontinued the DOS version some time ago. The current Windows versions are nice desktop extenders, but provide limited hardware diagnostics. Grab a copy of a late DOS version if you can find one (http://www.norton.com/nu).
SmithMicro Software CheckIt The best dedicated hardware diagnostic program is CheckIt (http://www.checkit.com), available in several versions. For most users, the $40 Portable Edition suffices. If you repair PCs for a living, the $296 Professional Edition provides additional tools and utilities that are worth having. Either edition can boot independent of the installed OS, and so can be used to diagnose hardware problems on a system that won't boot to Windows. The various CheckIt products are hard to find in retail stores, but can be ordered directly from the web site.
DOS diagnostics remain a popular shareware and public-domain software category, although most are single-purpose products (e.g., a serial port tester) rather than general-purpose diagnostics. If that's all you need, though, searching a shareware library such as http://www.shareware.com using the string diagnostic may turn up a program that does the job for free.
Emergency boot/repair diskette
Recent versions of Windows allow you to create an emergency disk that contains critical system configuration data, part or all of the registry, etc. Create or update this disk for a computer anytime you make a significant change to it. Label and date the disk and store it near the computer or keep it with your toolkit. If you do not have a recent copy, do yourself a favor and make one right now. Use the following procedures to create an emergency disk:
Windows 95/98/Me - For Windows 9X, we recommend backing up the entire registry, which you can do simply by copying the registry files to another location. The registry comprises two files, SYSTEM.DAT and USER.DAT, which are located in the \WINDOWS folder. These files are assigned the Hidden and Read-Only attributes, so you'll need to change the default settings of Windows Explorer before you can view or copy them. To do so, from Explorer, choose View, then Folder Options, and then click the View tab. Under Files and Folders locate the Hidden Files item and mark the Show all files radio button. Once you have rendered the registry files visible, you can use Copy, then Paste to copy them to a different location. USER.DAT is usually only a few hundred KB, and will therefore easily fit on a floppy. SYSTEM.DAT may be quite large. On our test-bed system, for example, it is more than 3 MB. Fortunately, registry files are easily compressible. Using a utility such as WinZip or PKZip yields 4:1 or 5:1 compression, which allows the compressed SYSTEM.DAT to fit on a floppy unless the original file is huge.
Windows 2000/XP Emergency Repair Disk (ERD) - Click Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and then Backup. With Backup running, click the Emergency Repair Disk icon to create the disk. In the resulting dialog, mark the Also backup the registry... checkbox to copy key system files to the repair directory on the hard disk. Like the NT ERD, the Windows 2000/XP ERD is not bootable. To repair Windows 2000/XP, you must boot either from the distribution CD or the boot floppies.
The Windows 2000/XP ERD does not contain any registry files. Creating the ERD copies the registry files to the %SystemRoot%\Repair folder, where they may be lost if the hard disk crashes. To be safe, each time you create or update the ERD, copy the entire contents of that folder to another hard disk, network volume, or CD-R disc.
Linux - Use the mkbootdisk command to produce an emergency boot disk. This disk is specific to your system configuration, and should be updated anytime you make significant hardware or configuration changes. Also consider downloading a live-filesystem Linux distribution such as Knoppix. You can create a bootable disk from which Linux runs directly, allowing you to perform all sorts of diagnostic tests.
You can find various boot disks and other utilities at http://www.bootdisk.com. Although we are not lawyers and haven't looked into the legality of all these utilities, many of them appear to be quite useful.
Operating system distribution discs - You need the OS distribution discs to replace a failed hard disk, but you may also need them for routine upgrades and maintenance. For example, Windows prompts for the distribution disc to load drivers for a new device, and Linux distribution discs may contain hundreds of programs that weren't loaded during the initial installation. If you've updated the operating system from the initial distribution version (e.g., by applying a Windows NT/2000/XP Service Pack), also keep the Service Pack or update CD handy.
If you use a third-party backup utility, keep a copy of the distribution disk in your kit to make sure that you can restore backup tapes after reinstalling the operating system. Few things are more frustrating than getting a failed computer up again, having a good backup tape, but not having the software at hand that you need to restore it.
If your system becomes infected by a virus, you need to have a DOS-bootable, write-protected floppy disk and a recent version of an antivirus utility. In fact, anytime a system behaves strangely, a good first step is to run a quick virus scan. The DOS-bootable floppy allows you to boot cleanly and detect and remove a virus on a DOS or Windows 9X disk, or on a Windows NT/2000/XP disk that is formatted as FAT. Because you cannot access an NTFS volume after booting from a boot floppy, the only way to remove a virus from these volumes is to boot the system from the hard disk and run an antivirus utility from a local hard disk or network drive. The big names in antivirus utilities are McAfee VirusScan from Network Associates (http://www.nai.com), and Norton AntiVirus from Symantec (http://www.symantec.com). We've used both, and either is sufficient for the task. Lately, however, we find ourselves using the free-for-personal-use AVG AntiVirus from Grisoft (http://www.grisoft.com).
CMOS save/restore utility
CMOS settings store the current configuration of a PC. These settings range from easily understood ones—current date/time, boot options, hard disk configuration, and so on—to ones such as advanced chipset configuration that only system designers fully understand. Although you can manually record all of the settings on paper, there's a better way—a CMOS save/restore utility. These utilities save CMOS settings to a disk file, which you can later restore to re-create the settings in one step. CheckIt Diagnostics Suite includes such a utility. If you do not have CheckIt, download a dedicated CMOS save/restore utility. There are many free and shareware alternatives available. One that we've used is Benjamin Johnston's free CMOSViewer, which runs under Windows 9X. Numerous DOS products are available from shareware archives such as http://www.shareware.com. Search for CMOS.
Most expansion cards, modems, and disk drives come with a driver CD. Just keeping them all straight is hard enough, let alone making sure that you have the correct and most recent driver for a particular component. When we buy or build a computer, we create a folder for it on a network drive. When we buy a component that comes with a floppy diskette or CD with drivers, we copy the contents of that disk to a subfolder of that folder. If you have a CD burner, use it to make a customized CD for each computer. Collect all the drivers and other miscellany in a folder and copy them to a CD for that system. Include a change log in the root directory. When you replace a component, note that in the change log and burn a new CD with the updated and new drivers. If there's room on the CD, also include the operating system, diagnostic tools, and so forth.
Beyond essential utilities, we carry several supplemental utilities. These tools are nice to have, but not absolutely required. Rather than doing things you can not do without them, they save you time—sometimes a lot of time. If you work on PCs frequently, every one of these commercial utilities belongs in your bag. Each of them costs money, but unless your time is worth nothing an hour, each pays for itself quickly—usually the first time you use it.
If you seldom work on PCs, these utilities probably aren't worth buying ahead of time. Instead, try to schedule your upgrades, and buy these as you need them. Note that most of these utilities are available in both inexpensive single-user/single-PC standard versions and much more expensive versions that are licensed to be used by a single technician on multiple PCs. The prices given are typical street prices for the standard versions
This $50 PowerQuest (http://www.powerquest.com) utility has saved us countless hours of extra work over the years. Before Partition Magic, the only way to change disk partitioning was to back up, delete the old partitions, create and format new partitions, and restore. In addition to taking hours, this process is perilous. More than once, we've been unable to restore a backup tape we made immediately before starting to repartition, even though that tape had passed a verify flawlessly. Partition Magic lets you repartition on the fly. It takes less time and is probably safer than the old backup-and-restore method. In fact, although PowerQuest recommends backing up before repartitioning, we confess that we seldom bother to back up our own systems before repartitioning. We've never lost any data doing it that way, but if you repartition without backing up and you lose data, please do not send us any nasty messages. You have been warned.
This $20 PowerQuest utility is the cheapest, easiest, and most reliable way we know to copy the contents of one hard disk to another—for example when you're replacing a hard disk. Using DriveCopy allows you to avoid the time-consuming process of backing up the old drive, installing the operating system on the new drive, and then doing a restore. Instead, you simply connect the new drive with the old drive still installed and use DriveCopy to replicate the entire contents of the old drive to the new. When you remove the old drive, the system boots from the new drive without further ado. Note that some retail-boxed hard drives come with software that performs the same function.
This PowerQuest utility is available in a $50 DriveImage version and a DriveImage Pro version that is priced per user. DriveImage Pro is primarily a disk cloning product. It allows you to create an image of a master disk and then replicate that image to multiple hard disks—just the thing when you need to set up 100 identical workstations. It even has a SID editor, which allows you to get around the problem of Windows NT's unique SIDs. As a personal utility, DriveImage is useful for migrating programs and data between partitions and for disaster recovery. Unlike DriveCopy, DriveImage can copy individual partitions, can change the partition size after copying to the destination, and can automatically resize partitions to fit within a smaller drive. As useful as all this is, the really important thing about DriveImage is that it can create a compressed image of a partition. The image file typically occupies about one-quarter of the space used on the source partition, and can be stored on another partition or on removable media. If disaster strikes, you can recover the image file automatically using the bootable recovery floppies that DriveImage creates for you. Anytime we're about to do a significant software upgrade to a system, we run DriveImage first to create an image backup. That way, if the upgrade ends up causing a problem, we can immediately roll back the system to its original state.
This $50 tool from Sonera Technologies (http://www.displaymate.com) does just one thing, but does it supremely well. It helps you optimize your video card and monitor. More than any other PC component, monitors can vary significantly between individual examples of the same model. We do not buy an expensive monitor without using DisplayMate to test it first, and neither should you. DisplayMate is also useful on an ongoing basis. Monitors change as they age. Using DisplayMate to tune them periodically results in the best possible picture. You can download a demo from the web site that is sufficient for casual testing.
The best way we've found to organize and protect CDs is to lose the jewel cases and store the CDs in one of those zippered vinyl audio CD wallets you can buy for a few dollars at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. They use plastic or Tyvek sleeves to protect the CDs, hold from a half dozen to two dozen CDs, and make it easy to find the one you want. If the CD has a serial number or init key on the original jewel case, make sure to record it on the CD, using a soft permanent marker on the label side.
We stock one of these wallets with essential CDs—Windows 95/98/NT/2K/XP and Red Hat Linux distribution CDs, Office, various diagnostics, and so on—and always carry it with us. We also buy a CD wallet for each PC we buy or build. New PCs usually arrive with several CDs, and even video, sound, or modem cards are likely to come with their own CDs. Storing these CDs in one place, organized by the system they belong to, makes it much easier to locate the one you need.