ALTOM: Don’t overlook these simple but important tech tools

A lot of us have to be our own technicians from time to time. Microbusinesses can’t afford the time or treasure to lug hardware into a repair shop, or have a techie visit. Here’s what you really need to fix it yourself. None is particularly high-tech.

• Multipurpose tool. These are sold by several manufacturers, but Leatherman and Gerber are probably the most popular and respected among professionals. A multipurpose tool has a foldout tool for almost every common need. They’re not designed to replace individual tools, but to be a fallback measure, something you can keep around for emergencies.

I keep one in the car, just to be prepared. The old Boy Scout habits die hard. When time is of the essence and you have one of these babies in a drawer within arm’s reach, you’ll appreciate your foresight.

• Screwdrivers. Or just one screwdriver. I’m partial to the ones that have four interchangeable bits, two at either end of a switchable shaft. In effect, four screwdrivers in one, and each one capable of holding up under considerable force.

At the other end of the durability scale, a small kit of jeweler’s screwdrivers can be helpful for dismantling small equipment like watches or headsets.

• Knife. Not a big, bad Bowie, just a small lock-back. A lock-back is a knife whose blade locks into position when opened and requires a specific mechanical action to allow it to close. They’re safer than their non-locking cousins, which can snap shut on your finger.

These are handy for all sorts of unexpected things, from slicing open shipping boxes to clearing a stapler jam. A small craft knife comes in handy now and again, but it isn’t up to the bigger jobs.

• Compressed air. This comes in convenient little spray cans and is mostly used for blowing the dust buildup out of computers, copiers and other gear. It’s amazing how few computer owners ever do this, but it will prolong computer life if you do.

Those little fans inside the case almost always have feeble little motors that don’t take well to having to spin around with an added load of crud on them. There are heat-sensitive components in lots of modern technology and layers of dirt insulate them with deadly effectiveness.

Sometimes, as with cell phones, the cases are sealed, but laptops, desktop computers, copiers and the like generally are open to the air and have fans in them.

Copiers and printers can get especially cruddy due to the tiny paper scrapings that accumulate over time. You can do the same job with a good vacuum cleaner, but it’s more expensive and takes more time.

If you use compressed air, be sure to wear goggles and take the unit being cleaned outside or drape something around it to keep the dust from billowing up.

• Flashlight. Get a small high-intensity light for digging shadows out of corners. These come in an amazing variety of sizes and types. The brand everybody seems to know is MagLite, perhaps because they’ve seen so many cop shows where police hold them up when entering a building.

MagLite does make a line of fine mini-flashlights, but so do several other manufacturers. Some have legs on them so they free-stand. Some are wind-up, so they never need new batteries.

I’d recommend buying a small flashlight for the desk drawer. Even a little one can put out an impressive amount of wattage, and they’re easy to stick between your teeth so you can free up both hands. I personally don’t prefer the LED versions of these. I like the brighter, but more battery-intensive, halogen type.

• Tape or rubber bands. Technology comes with cables, even in a wireless world. There are chargers, power cords, phone cables and much more that need to be occasionally wrapped up and stored.

Electrician’s black tape works well to hold the coils together, although a cheap brand will come unglued over time and leave a sticky residue. Rubber bands don’t leave a residue, but they, too, have a limited lifespan and when they reach it, they crack and then disintegrate.

When you wrap something in a rubber band, you’re applying permanent tension to the poor little thing, which speeds deterioration.

There are a few more things I’d recommend having on hand. One is a number of plugstrips; you never seem to have enough when you’re plugging stuff in. Another is a stock of batteries in every size you generally use, including specialty ones for equipment like wireless headsets.

In my view, a supply of very good loose tea is essential as well, but that’s another column.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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