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A Thanksgiving Tech-Support Toolkit

"Hey, could you take a look at the computer when you get a second? It's been acting a little strange lately."

If you're one of your family's primary sources of tech support, you'll probably hear some variation of that request this weekend.

If you're lucky, nothing more needs to be done besides getting rid of some unwanted startup programs. But sometimes, "a little strange" translates to "severe disk corruption" or "massive spyware infestation."

Heare are tips you can do now to prepare yourself:

* Pack a high-capacity USB flash drive, external hard drive, or a few rewritable CDs and DVDs -- whatever will suffice to back up any important data on the family computer before you start tinkering.

* Also, download any security updates for Mac OS X or Windows that your relatives might need and burn these files to a CD or DVD, so you're not stuck waiting for them to download over dial-up.

* Get an anti-virus tool that you can run off a flash drive without installing it on a PC first, such as ClamWin Portable, an open-source virus screener.

* Next, put installers for a few essential maintenance and Internet programs on that flash drive. For Windows, I suggest the free AVG anti-virus utility, the Spybot Search & Destroy and Windows Defender spyware removers, the AutoRuns startup optimizer, the Opera and Mozilla Firefox browsers (use Opera, not Firefox, on a older, slower machine) and the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client. For Mac OS X, the list is shorter: Firefox and the free ClamXav anti-virus tool (especially if anybody who uses the Mac keeps forwarding Windows viruses by mistake).

* Whenever you do start to repair the computer, make sure you've got a couple of hours free and either a clear view of a TV with the game on or something to read while program installers do their thing. Please try not to swear at the computer while children are present... no matter how badly the #$%#@! machine deserves the verbal abuse.

I wrote an earlier version of this last year; that, in turn, was based on the Lifehacker blog's advice.

Now's your turn to help improve this for next year. What troubleshooting hardware and software do you take with you when you're seeing family?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 20, 2007; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Tips  
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Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, my dad has outstripped me in terms of geektastic gadgetude. He's got HDTV, a remote control that requires a PC to program, more frickin' freeware on his PC than I've ever seen, a USB turntable, at least two MP3 players, and I can't tell him a damn thing.

Posted by: 23112 | November 20, 2007 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Great advice. Just gearing up. I'm starting to tell the older relatives that it would be in their best interest if they do NOT let their grandchildren to "play" on the computers unsupervised. They should tell the children that it is a tool, not a toy.

It never fails that the younger children/teens change settings, location of toolbars, programs, the first call I get after a holiday/family weekend is "help, how do I find my email?" or "Word doesn't look right."

I love your advice about running the virus tool off a flash drive -- I will try that for my son's college computer which has a nasty infestation of spy/adware and he is just limping along with his college documents.

Posted by: rjrjj | November 20, 2007 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Your list so far is fairly similar to mine, but I would add:
* Google Picassa: for cleaning up pictures scattered across the hard-drive. I let it scan everything, and then retrieve lost images saved to system and app folders. Plus, it's not uncommon to have to discreetly delete or "file" more adult content, especially on machines where users don't have separate accounts. More than once I've been called around to "de-porn" a PC .

* TweakUI for Windows XP, mostly for resetting system folders

Posted by: Mike | November 20, 2007 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I was wondering why you omitted the Opera Browser for Mac? Opera is available for Linux, Mac, and several others. (see

Might I also suggest imaging/backup software, especially if you have to rebuild a system.

Posted by: Robert Clark | November 20, 2007 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Yea -- I've been having some real strange experiences on my desktop recently -- like, it sounds like my machine has been turned into a 'bot' in that often the hard drive seems to 'go off on a frolick of its own' and whenever I hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up the task manager to see whats happening -- it won't come up BUT lots of task manager sections seem to get opened almost simultaneously. At one point while using Firefox, my task panel showed 95% CPU activity.

I am on XP Pro using Kaspersky with SpywareDoctor and Ad-aware Plus.

Is this, per chance, Google grabbing everything off my hard drive, or has something malicious somehow got past my defenses?

Posted by: | November 21, 2007 3:53 AM | Report abuse

Assuming you're not a Storm bot, then I would take a close look at what indexers are running. There seems to be a lot of people with both Google and Live Desktop indexers running simultaneously, even though they make use of neither.

Posted by: Mike | November 21, 2007 6:57 AM | Report abuse

Have been a happy Opera user for several years; a great browser. I only use IE7 for MS updates. It does indeed run on Macs.

Posted by: Bartolo | November 21, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I've always warned people about their 11 yr. old relatives who are enlisted to "fix" the computer. These kids are fearless and will beat on it until it works or dies. Their problem is that they don't know how to experiment properly - they change a setting and if it doesn't help, they don't put it back. Get enough of these and it's hopeless.

Then there are the visiting 30 and 40 somethings who make slight changes to icon positions on the desktop or columns in a program or formerly hidden toolbars now exposed. I get called in after the holiday to fix the 70 year old's "broken" computer. Some people can't handle slight tweaking. Be careful, please!

Posted by: Brien | November 21, 2007 9:45 AM | Report abuse

If you think you're ever going to be asked to fix/decrapify the computer again, consider installing CrossLoop ( while you are still visiting. It will allow you remote access to the computer securely. It's got a very small footprint, you can control the desktop and transfer files, and it just works great. I've tried it on XP, Vista, and Win 98SE (yikes!) machines, and I can fix stuff miles away while still in my jammies. Far better than LogMeIn, which left bits of itself all over my hard drive when I uninstalled it. Oh yes, and it's free.

Posted by: Cate | November 21, 2007 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Cate: With XP I just use the in-built Remote Assistance facility, which doesn't require anything to be added.

I once fixed an MP3 player remotely by getting them to plug it into the PC and then moving files in Explorer - all over RA.

Posted by: Mike | November 21, 2007 1:01 PM | Report abuse

This is a great list of suggestions. SANS has a similar list (although theirs is a bit more "techy") at their Internet Storm Center Web site:

One of my most-used tools for problem diagnosis and clean-up is a Knoppix live CD or DVD. This contains a copy of the Knoppix distribution of Linux, which boots and runs entirely from the CD/DVD -- it will discover and mount Windows partitions read-only. It also includes a large selection of applications and software tools. If you suspect that something fishy (e.g., malware) is the problem, this gives you a pretty safe way to have a look around. You can also use it to back up data to an external device, like a USB drive or external disk drive. Obviously, it requires some familiarity with the Linux environment, but it's an excellent learning tool for that, too. You can get more info and download the ISO images from:

I think there are some similar Windows-based live CDs available; a few are mentioned on the SANS page above (look under "Frameworks"). I can't comment on these since I have never used them.

Posted by: Rich Gibbs | November 21, 2007 1:18 PM | Report abuse

RG: Thanks for posting the SANS Institute's list. (The name, for anybody curious, stands for "SysAdmin, Audit, Network, Security").

I hadn't heard of the Areca backup software but will check it out--none of the other Windows backup programs that I've tried have really wowed me so far.

- R

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 21, 2007 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised no one mentioned 'Users and Passwords' in the Control Panel. With this you can (just temporarily for the holidays if you detest passwords) set passwords on your own user account(s). Then enable a Visitors account with Guest privileges. No loss to you if someone mucks up Visitors -- just delete the account.

Posted by: Solo Owl | November 21, 2007 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Mike: Thanks. I've tried Remote Assistance, and found I liked CrossLoop better. Seems faster to me, and if I've had the chance to download it to a friend's machine already, I can just have him/her open the program, give me the code, and we're away.

Posted by: Cate | November 22, 2007 1:37 AM | Report abuse

Mike, I too have tried remote desktop and found it to be veeeeery slow, even after playing with the graphic settings and over a company network. It's not nearly as bad as PCAnywhere I hasten to add, which is, IMHO a buggy, resource hogging, just over all pain in the butt program with pathetic tech support to boot. Bottom line though, if it works for you great! The price is certainly right :-).

I personally use Radmin at work and like it a lot. Of course you have to pay for it so I will take Cate's suggestion and check out CrossLoop. Thanks for the info Cate!

Posted by: Mark | November 28, 2007 7:11 PM | Report abuse

One of the first tools I run is Hijack This. Certainly if the home page is part of the problem

Posted by: Nimrodj | December 1, 2007 11:10 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: SupportSpace | December 3, 2007 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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