Essential tools for hardcore PC builders and upgraders
You would think that building a modern PC would be a matter of simple assembly: Insert Part A into Part B, connect all this to Part C, and you're off to the races. Components are relatively standardized, so as long as you ensure your parts are compatible with each other, piecing everything together should require little more than a number two Philips screwdriver, and an hour of your time.
But it's never that simple.
While you probably can build a PC with just that single screwdriver, the time you'll take and the roadblocks you'll encounter will lead to unnecessary frustration. With the right tools, however, you can shave hours off your assembly time, and turn that PC building or upgrading project into a truly enjoyable experience.
Allow me to share the tools I use, why I use them, and how my preferred workshop essentials make the art of PC assembly a breeze.
If you assemble (or upgrade) just one or two PCs in a given year, a pair of handheld (that is, non-powered) Philips screwdrivers should suffice. The two I use feature long shafts, which are necessary for turning the screws hiding behind heat sinks or water blocks, or otherwise located in hard-to-reach places. As for head sizes, you'll want both a number one and number two Philips model. Although most screws used in PC assembly are number two, a few are just a wee bit smaller.
To ensure you're prepared for any job, consider expanding your collection. My long screwdriver with the yellow handle and small, standard blade is useful for removing (or attaching) VGA and DVI connectors to graphics cards or monitors. My extremely small screwdrivers are for laptop work, or for the occasional oddball PC case that may use very small screws.
If you're a serious PC enthusiast who's constantly embroiled in building or upgrading projects, you may want to consider a power tool. Indeed, for most PC assembly work, I use a Milwaukee 6547 2.4v cordless electric screwdriver. I've owned one for more than five years now, and it's my go-to tool for any light screwdriver work. The key to making this useful for PC assembly is the adjustable clutch. Dial the clutch to its minimum setting, and you'll never strip a pot-metal screw or attachment point that ships with most PC cases.
Panasonic makes a nearly identical model to the Milwaukee in its EY6220N. Either can be found for about $100, but the Milwaukee kit includes a spare battery and carrying case. Both units use 2.4v batteries, but have an amazing amount of torque for a 2.4v motor. I use magnetized bit holders, which make retrieving accidentally dropped screws a breeze. They also extend the reach of the bit, allowing you to reach areas that may otherwise be inaccessible due to the bulk of the motorized body.
Sometimes you need a tool that will firmly grab a small item. Enter the hemostat, which is perfect for locking onto the end of a tiny connector (say, a motherboard power switch connector) and then guiding the connector onto a tiny pair of leads. Other times, you just need a third hand to hold something in place while making an adjustment. Hemostats (sometimes incorrectly referred to as forceps) are great for this.
You don't need high-quality surgical gear. Low-price hemostats can be easily found at your local electronics store, hobbyist craft shop, or online. I have two of them, one large and one small, and use them appropriately depending on how much reach I need. They're also very handy for picking up screws or stray small items that may have fallen inside your PC case.
The interiors of most PC cases are black, and often a very flat, matte black at that. So, even if you're working in a brightly lit room, the lack of contrast inside a case makes it difficult to see where connectors, screws, and wires may go.
To bathe my case interiors with plenty of light, I use the Clamplight from Blackfire. It's more compact and costs less than similar devices from the major tool manufacturers. The LED light is plenty bright, but also power-efficient, so it won't eat batteries. Almost any flashlight will do, but I would avoid those small LED lanterns that put out a very bright, 360-degree light. Those tend to be more blinding than what's useful for working inside a PC case.
These small tools have two purposes. The larger socket tool attaches or removes motherboard mounting nuts, which reside inside your PC case, and support the motherboard. The smaller tool is used to re-attach the tiny nuts used in DVI and VGA connectors. Sometimes, when you remove a DVI connector, the little nut will remain behind, attached to the graphics card. So you can use this tool to remove the nut from the card, and re-attach it to the connector. I've also used small nut drivers that insert into the bit holders of electric screwdrivers, but an electric screwdriver often isn't useful in this scenario, as some of these motherboard nuts are in very cramped locations.
Needle nose pliers and wire cutters
Sometimes you just need the basics, like a good pair of small needle nose pliers and wire cutters. Note that the wire cutter built into many needle nose pliers isn't as useful, since it won't reach around tight spaces to actually cut a wire. However, I don't use the wire cutter to actually cut wires. Instead, they're handy for cutting cable ties used to route wires.
You want really small versions of these tools, because large ones are too clumsy inside some of the smaller cases. To this end, look for pliers and wire cutters at hobby shops instead of hardware stores.
Keeping it clean
If you keep your PC running for long periods of time, it's likely to collect dust. Dust collecting on fan blades, heat sinks, and other internal parts eventually results in temperature increases. The PC gets hotter, becomes less efficient, and, in the worst cases, becomes unstable.
The better PC cases have dust filters, but those can eventually get clogged, which restricts airflow and—you got it—increases internal heat. For this reason, I pull out my main desktop systems every couple of months, open up the cases, and clean them all out with compressed air. I usually look for cans of actual compressed air, which are free of CFCs, HCFCs, and flammable gas.
Sometimes you need to snap a quick photo of a work-in-progress. Any camera will do, including your cell phone camera. The purpose isn't to record your fine, PC-building handiwork for a scrapbook, but to capture a moment in time so you can see exactly how small switches are set, and where cables are attached. In essence, you take a photo before you disassemble something so you'll be better prepared to connect everything back together in the proper configuration.
Sure, you can label all your cables, but a quick photo will help you keep track of just which wire attaches to which connector. Indeed, when I build systems for friends and relatives, I'll often give them a printout of all the connections on the back of the new system. Being the "family tech guy," I receive fewer support calls this way after I've closed their computers and gone home.
If you're routing wires and cables inside a PC case, you've probably needed to tie them down. One pro tip: Don't use zip ties. I loathe zip ties. If a system has wiring tied down with zip ties, and you later need to reroute a few wires or install something new, you need to cut off the ties. So instead, I use ordinary twist ties most of the time. If I need something a little more robust, I can use a plastic buckle tie or a variety of Velcro-equipped straps.
You can pick up Velcro straps online, at hobby shops, or local electronics stores. And they're tremendously useful for chores unrelated to PC assembly. I use them to organize bundles of Ethernet cables, the mess of cables in the back of my home theater rack, and in a variety of other scenarios. The possibilities are endless.
I've used IR thermometers to measure the temperatures of power supplies, graphics cards, and interior case locations that may be thermally sensitive hotspots. It's really a wonderful tool. You aim the thermometer's laser at a potential hotspot, and if you find your case is trapping heat in that area, you can add a case fan, or simply re-route some wiring. IR thermometers have become less expensive over time. The Kintrex 421 shown here can be found for under $50.
External SATA dock
If you want to move an existing system build (OS, applications, docs, settings, everything) to a new physical PC you're building, you can always install the old drive alongside the new one and copy over an image. However, it may be easier to attach an external USB drive dock. These come in a variety of connection types, and some will hold multiple drives. I happen to use a Plugable USB 3.0 single drive dock, which suits my needs. A USB dock is also useful for making quick and dirty backups, or when you need to move really large amounts of data via sneakernet. They're less useful, I've noticed, for SSDs: Trying to clone a drive from a system to an SSD in the dock seems to take roughly a galactic lifetime or two.
PCs have become more power efficient, but I've found that simple power meters are still useful to keep around. For example, with the help of a power meter, I once noticed a particular PC's average power consumption increasing substantially. The problem turned out to be dust clogging up the power supply fan. The fan couldn't cool the power supply properly, and as any power supply gets hotter, it loses efficiency and consumes more power. No, I wasn't worried about using extra electricity—I was worried about frying my power supply by over-taxing it.
A power meter is also a useful tool for measuring any appliance or other piece of electronics. When we remodeled our kitchen, I ended up with two extra refrigerators, but only needed one for our garage fridge. I tested each extra fridge with the Watts Up Pro, and kept the more efficient model. The USB-equipped Watts Up Pro I use also allows you to collect data over time, and analyze it later.
Sound pressure level meter
Now let's get a little exotic. At around $260, the Extech 407750 sound pressure level meter is probably the single-most expensive tool I regularly use (though a variety of affordable SPL meters exist, ranging from $30 to $70). An SPL meter is useful for measuring sound output from a PC, which is essential when your main goal is building a quiet model. The Extech has a tripod mount, so you can easily point it where you want it, set the distance, and lock it in place. I typically use A-weighting, slow response settings. I've also used this meter when calibrating the room where my HDTV and home theater gear live.
Bottom line: your favorite tool
Whatever your DIY predilections, using the right tools will save frustration and time. However, having good tools doesn't just save time. The old adage about how everything looks like a nail applies here. If you're trying to use a tool that's not quite right, then you risk damaging hardware irreversibly. Having stripped my share of screw heads and twisted off more than a few connector shells, I've made plenty of mistakes using the wrong tools. So once again, take a look at that pile of parts on your table, and understand just what you need to get the job done efficiently and correctly. Your reward will be a POST screen seconds after you press the power button the first time.