In my What I Use article series, I occasionally document the hardware, software and services that use every day. But there are a number of other useful tools which are needed far less often and are yet no less valuable. Key among them is a USB 3.0 to SATA adapter, recently acquired to replace an older USB 2.0-based solution. This lets you access the contents of an internal hard drive externally, aiding in PC disaster recovery and other scenarios.

In 2011, I wrote about this device's predecessor, the eForCity USB 2.0 to IDE / SATA Converter, in a Windows IT Pro editorial called The IT Toolbox: Tools of the Trade. I'd been using that adapter for quite some time, and it's fairly straightforward understanding why it's so crucial: It lets you connect any SATA- or IDE-based internal hard drive—including both 3.5-inch desktop and 2.5-inch laptop models—to a PC via USB. This lets you copy data off those drives—say, if you've upgraded your PC to a larger capacity drive—wipe them clean using a secure erase utility, and the like.

That USB 2.0-based solution served me well for many years. But when a friend started experiencing hard to troubleshoot PC reliability issues that were finally (and unexpectedly) tied to a faulty hard drive, something newer was required.

His original setup was a very high-end 2011-era PC with a 3.5 GHz Core i7 processor, a high-end graphics card, 12 GB of RAM, and a then-large 1 TB hard drive. But he wanted to upgrade the hard drive capacity to match the machine's other specs. So he purchased a 240 GB SSD and a 3 TB hard drive to use as a data drive. (He backs up locally to a USB 3.0-based drive and to the cloud with Carbonite, so he gets it.)

In a situation I'd imagine is familiar to many of you, I did the upgrade for him, and while I won't give you the gruesome details—long story short, the Dell-supplied recovery disks would not restore the PC to a hard drive smaller than 1 TB, which is bizarre—I finally got his PC back up and running with Windows 7 (which he had been using and preferred to Windows 8) and Office 2010, and whatever other applications he needed.

The issue was the data. He has a humongous music collection—in the 90 to 100 GB area, I think—and his musician wife likewise has 60 or 80 GB of Audition files. And of course the usual allotment of photos, documents and videos.

Everything was backed up to both USB hard drive and Carbonite, but as I discovered, his USB-based backups were done with something called Comodo, and neither of us could get it to restore properly, and this thing didn't even offer a way to selectively restore just parts of his data. He started restoring selectively from Carbonite, but of course that was going to take a while.

For some reason the USB 2.0-based adapter I'd been using wouldn't work properly with his original, failing hard drive, but it occurred to me that newer, USB 3.0-based adapters must be available. And even if this couldn't help my friend—he was resigned to the slow drip of a Carbonite restore—I was due for the upgrade. The model I ended up with is the Anker USB 3.0 to SATA Adapter, but I'm not trying to sell you on this one thing and suspect any similar device would work just fine. I can say that this one is a gem. And what the heck, it only costs $22.

Compared to the older USB 2.0-based solution, the Anker has no IDE connections, so it won't be much help for legacy systems. But it is much cleaner and much faster than the old one, and it doesn't need SATA or hard drive power cables. And it made short work of my friend's hard drive: We recovered all of his music, his wife's music, and everything else he wanted in just a few hours, and enjoyed a nice dinner while it happened. Not too shabby.

I still have a collection of internal hard drives locked in the cellar that I need to wipe, and I'll be using this tool for that. If you do any work at all with PCs, you will need something like this eventually.

Oh, and I got my friend going on Windows 7's built-in backup and recovery tools. I'm not sure why he wasn't using that already, but if this ever happens again, he'll be able to selectively recover data or blow the entire PC install back onto a new hard drive too.

This episode sort of reminded me that there's a whole wealth of "IT toolbox"-type tools that I rely on from time to time. And while this may seem overly pandering, I'm curious if anyone else has any similar recommendations: What are the gotta-have-it tools that should be in any IT pro/tech enthusiast's toolbox?