I hate using broken things. But I’m too stubborn to just not use something that’s broken. The only other option is to fix it. So I never leave the apartment without a couple basic tools. #1: Folding Knife. Need to cut some rope? Open a package? Strip electrical wires? Pry something open? A nice sharp knife is probably the most versatile tool ever made, so I keep one on hand at all times. #2: Leatherman. My preferred multi-tool with everyday useful things like pliers, 4 screwdrivers, and tiny scissors. And more camping-related things like a saw, can opener, and another knife. #3: a USB flash drive. While it doesn’t really fit with the wilderness-survival-like themes of the other two tools, it’s just as important to keep on my person.
Now, my University’s cloud file storage has pretty much made my flash drive obsolete for sharing files. The associated program automatically syncs all the files I use regularly across all my computers and has amazing version control. And if I need to share a file with someone, I just send them a link to the file using the web interface.
The reason I keep a flash drive around is for the software I keep on it for computer repair. See, if a computer is running slowly, even after I’ve run virus scans and cleaned out unnecessary software, next on the list is to make sure it’s being cooled properly. If you recall from my laptop post series, if a computer isn’t adequately cooled, the CPU and other major components get too hot, and they slow down to compensate. On an older computer, inadequate cooling could be a result of vents blocked with dust or ageing thermal paste. I do this by monitoring CPU temperatures and speeds using a portable version of Speccy, which lets me view all the hardware specifications of whatever computer I plug it into. Then, I put the computer under maximum computational load by using Prime95, a CPU stress test that calculates prime numbers and checks for errors, and Cinebench, another CPU stress test that renders a complicated image and gives a score. A properly cooled computer should stay well below the 100°C thermal limit of the silicon, even at full load.
For reference, my Notes Laptop idles at about 50°C. At full load, the CPU hits a maximum temperature of 80°C while the speed throttles just a little from 2.2 GHz to 2.0 GHz and holds this temperature and speed for the duration of the test. This is pretty typical for a laptop. If the computer is “always slow” and it’s idling at a high temperature of 75°C or higher, there’s definitely something wrong with the laptop’s cooling. At full load, it’s not unusual to see high temperatures and some speed throttling, but if temperatures continue to rise or speed continue to drop, then it might be time for some cooling system cleaning.
The much more exciting stuff needs you to restart your computer. Because hidden under the old Robotics controller code and couple of CAD drawings of a custom bracket I wanted to 3D print at work are 3 full operating systems that each have their own purpose in computer repair. How you ask? First, I used a program called YUMI that lets you put multiple boot disk images on the same boot drive. Then it’s as simple as booting the misbehaving computer from the flash drive. You know how when you first turn your computer on, it says something like “Press F12 to enter the BIOS” or something to that effect? Well, in there is an option to tell the computer to look at my flash drive for boot code rather than the internal hard drive.
First up, a full copy of Xubuntu, a version of Ubuntu Linux with a lightweight GUI1Graphical User Interface, i.e. the windows, mouse cursor, etc. As opposed to Command Line Interface that runs quickly on any computer from the last 10-15 years. It has great driver support, allowing me to connect to the internet and download any programs I need on the fly. Most importantly, it has a User Interface easy enough for anyone to use without too much direction on my end. See, when someone tells me their computer is “dead”, it’s usually some sort of weird Operating System issue. And usually when someone calls me saying their computer is dead, they’re worried that all their files are gone. Xubuntu gives me a set of known-good software that lets me first test the hardware. First I check to make sure the computer starts my OS, then I check to make sure the Disk Drive is accessible, then I check the drive’s SMART health status to make sure drive failure isn’t an immediate issue. I can usually go from “Oh God my computer’s dead and all my files are gone” to handing the computer back to it’s owner with a simple GUI showing all their files safe in under 5 minutes.
Next up is a copy of SystemRescueCD, a different version of Linux that is recovery-focused. It’s a little less easy to use since most of it’s utilities are text-based, but it comes with a ton of great tools to recover typical system faults. Things like TestDisk for rebuilding a partition table for a drive that wasn’t ejected properly, or PhotoRec for recovering accidentally deleted files. It also has tools that can really mess things up if you’re not familiar with how they work. Case in point: the first time I used SystemRescueCD, I accidentally wiped my Dad’s Laptop’s Hard Drive while I was trying to recover pictures from an older drive. Yeah, with great power comes great responsibility.
SystemRescueCD also has a bunch of other cool tools like memtest86+, a tool for diagnosing failing RAM that checks every single inch of your RAM for read or write errors, or ntpasswd, a tool for, among other things, resetting a forgotten (or simply unknown) Windows password.2Yes folks, you read correctly. With only my flash drive that I carry around with me, I can make myself an Administrator account on most Windows PCs. If you think you’re safe by using Mac or Linux, I don’t even need my flash drive to get Root on most of those. This isn’t a brag, this is a warning about the dangers of giving people physical access to your computer.
Finally, I have a copy of whatever version of Linux that I’ve been playing around with recently. Today, it’s Androidx86, the Android operating system that’s compiled for regular computers! It serves no purpose other than just being a fun gimmick, but I am trying to get it working with my touchscreen laptop.
The one thing I’m missing is a copy of Windows PE, or Preinstallation Environment. There are a few Windows-only tools that I’ve needed to run in the past, like SRC (System Resource Checker) that checks though the essential Windows files on the hard drive to make sure everything is up to snuff, and BOOTREC, which fixes the Boot code needed to start Windows. I’ve tried putting Hiren’s Boot CD, a PE-based recovery tool, but it isn’t playing well with my current setup.
In short, I carry a lot of tools to fix things that I use on a daily basis. The flash drive with it’s multitude of software tools is essential for everything from diagnosing faulty hardware to recovering lost data. Having it on my person wherever I go brings me peace of mind.