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May 25, 2020

Toolkit item: Spare PC parts and devices for repair and recovery

I’ve been tinkering with some laptops today, in a file-intensive way. In particular, I’ve been working on my Lenovo X380 (i7-8650U, 16 GB RAM, 1TB NVMe SSD). The design of these newer 7th-gen models requires a dongle for GbE access. Alas, I didn’t buy the dongle to access the built-in Intel I219-LM GbE adapter. But I do have a Startech USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter. When downloading the latest Win10 ISO via Wi-Fi, I couldn’t help but notice (and wait for) download speeds in the 25-30 Mbps range. “Aha!” thought I to myself “I bet the Startech will run at least a bit faster.” I was right: upon plugging in the device, and resuming the download, I immediately enjoyed download speeds in the 120 – 135 Mbps range (4.5-4.8 times faster). Given I could double speeds again (or better) using the dongle, I’m rethinking that purchase, too.

Benefits of Extra Hardware for Intensive Laptop Use.GbEUSB

Compared to a built-in GbE NIC, this US$30 USB adapter is slow.
Compared to most wireless NICs, it’s blazing fast.
[Click image for full-sized view.]

There’s a school of thought — to which I subscribe — that it’s good to keep backup/fall-back/alternative hardware around for use in installing, troubleshooting and maintaining PCs, especially laptops. Thus, this USB3-to-GbE device is just one item I keep around for those purposes.

What Else Ya Got?

I keep a number of USB device around for working on PCs. They’ve saved my hindquarters on many occasions. Often, they help me recover from self-inflicted trouble, especially as that relates to installing new, beta, or modded device drivers. Particularly, this relates to networking adapters, but also to storage and USB drivers as well. Here’s what else I keep in my spare USB devices locker, just so I can switch over to a known good working device on some PC, if other or built-in devices stop working properly:

– Wi-Fi Adapters: I’ve got a couple of them, actually. One’s an ASUS USB-AC56 (AC1300). The other’s a more compact and newer Trendnet TEW-805UB (AC 1200). Both are totally plug-and-play, and have worked for me in most of the PCs (both desktop and laptop models) I’ve stuck them in. Each has come in handy when Windows 10 upgrades or updates have hosed my built-in networking capabilities. Each of these items cost me US$25 (Trendnet) to US$55 (ASUS, but it has an external antenna and works over a much greater distance from the Wi-Fi router/hub/WAP).
Bluetooth Dongles: I’ve got 3 right now: Edimax EW-7611 ULB (US$15), Trendnet TBW-106UB (US$13), and an older ASUS USB-BT211 (no longer for sale; I think I paid US$10 or so for it around 2012).
– Wired mouse: Sometimes, wireless meese disappear from various Win10 PCs on which I use them. Less often, reseating the USB cables to the wireless “PC end” of the connection fails to restore the wireless mouse to normal operation. When that happens, it’s nice to have a wired mouse to plug in for emergency recovery manueuvers. I use a US$11 Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse.
Keyboard: I keep one or more extra keyboards around, including  an ancient PS2 Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard (my main keyboard is a wired Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, US$40 or so, of which I always keep a spare around). I’ve also got a spare Microsoft Digital Media 3000 wired keyboard around, because it’s my wife’s keyboard of choice. Apparently, they’re no longer on the market new, but I see refurbished and eBay sellers galore.
Storage: I’ve got 4 USB 3.0 2.5″ drive enclosures, each with 1 or 2 TB SATA III hard disks inside. The Inatek 2.5″ enclosure costs US$14, and the drives range from US$50 to US$100 or so. I also have a similar number of MSATA SDDs in sizes ranging from 250 GB to 1 TB (nominal) in these coo US$14 Sabrent USB 3.0 mSATA drive enclosures (mSATA SSDs range from US$68 to US$159/250 GB to 1 TB Samsung EVO models). I also keep spare SD and microSD cards around, too, in capacities from 64 to 256 GB/US$16 – US$60. Lots of USB 3.0 Flash Drives in capacities from 8 to 64 GB (and a few older USB 2.0 UFDs mostly 4 and 8 GB) for building bootable install/repair/recovery media, too.
Extra laptop screws: If you mess with laptops frequently, you’ll want to spend the US$10 it costs to buy something like this Mcsher 300pcs Laptop Notebook Screws Kits for IBM, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, … It’s especially useful to keep around if you work with 2.5″ drives inside laptop or notebook PCs. Those little screws are easy to lose!
Extra cables: USB, DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI, Cat5e or Cat6 RJ-45 Ethernet, you name it: I’ve got extras for all of these types in various lengths and speed ratings. Never know when a cable will go bad, so it’s good to have replacements on hand. Prices vary, but you can put a good set together for under US$75.

In general, if a PC part can fail or go missing, and you can replace its functionality with a USB device or an outright item swap, it’s a good idea to keep some around for times of trouble, repair, and maintenance. For a total outlay of under US$700 (as described above), I’m able to cope with just about any kind of device or driver issues and failures I might encounter on my desktop and laptop PCs. Savvy admins not already doing likewise should take note, and start picking up similar odds and ends. If you spread the expense over time, you can keep things manageable and not too painful, financially speaking.

Author: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.

One Response “Toolkit item: Spare PC parts and devices for repair and recovery”

  1. John Schroedl
    August 27, 2019 at 19:19

    That’s a good collection of items. Thanks for writing this up, Ed. I’m ordering one of the Bluetooth dongles.

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