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Thanksgiving Tech-Support Recipes

Those of who are a primary source of tech support for our families know what's coming this weekend--not just a prolonged eat/nap/eat sequence, but a request, or outright plea, that you give your folks' computer a tune-up.

Debugging deep-seated software ailments is difficult enough under ideal conditions, much less when you're operating in a haze of tryptophan and pinot noir. So you have to prepare for this possibility before you head home for the holidays.

Most of the basics haven't changed from last year's version of this piece:

* Bring something to back up the data on that computer. In many cases, a 2- or 4-gigabyte USB flash drive should suffice--and you can also leave it behind for continued backup use (with the right backup software). Otherwise, pack an external hard drive.

* If your hosts only have dial-up Internet access, put the latest security updates for their computer on the drive you're bringing. If they run Windows XP, download Microsoft's Service Pack 3 update; if they run Vista, grab the Service Pack 1 installer. If they have a Mac, ask if it has an Intel or PowerPC processor and what version of OS X it runs (tell them to go to the Apple-icon menu at the top left of the screen and select "About This Mac"), then get the appropriate "combo update" download; here's Apple's latest patch for 10.4, and here's the most recent update for 10.5.

* If you've got a Windows repair job in store, also put an anti-virus program on that drive--the open-source ClamWin Portable can be run right off a flash drive, without your needing to install it first. If the anti-virus software already on that machine has expired, you'll want to put a free substitute in its place. I've recommended AVG in the past, but this company has made some of its free version upgrades hard to find. I've also heard good things about Avast and Avira--so if you've got a preference among these and other free, self-updating anti-virus programs, let me know in the comments.

* To reduce the odds of your needing to provide the same service a year from now, be prepared to upgrade a few programs on the computer as well. If it's still got Internet Explorer 6 as the default browser, it's time to upgrade that to IE 7 or Mozilla Firefox (the latter won't present such a visual shock). To see what other Windows programs need security updates, try using Secunia's free system-scanning tools.

* You should also expect to spend some time uninstalling obsolete, unnecessary programs... with your hosts' permission.

What other things should be in any T-day tech-support toolkit? Post your suggestions in the comments!

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 24, 2008; 12:58 PM ET
Categories:  Computers , The business we have chosen , Tips  
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This serves as a good time to reorganize my parents' bookmarks, put easy-to use buttons on the toolbar menu, go through their emails to see if photos need to be saved. Sometimes their photo program (for example iPhoto) needs some help -- putting labels, sorting photos into albums. Often their email program needs some sorting and purging. I try to reorganize their documents for them, if that is an issue as well, since sometimes there might be a recipe that was inadvertently put in the wrong file. Backing up the photos is my final priority, and I bring DVDs for that purpose.

Posted by: rjrjj | November 24, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse


PC Magazine is going away. The print version is, anyway. I'm gonna miss that. Kind of hard to read a digital version when I'm sitting on the couch. Or eating out at the Thai place down the road. Or on the beach. For some things, print is better.

I still miss Byte. The April 1998 issue is still relevant.

Posted by: wiredog | November 24, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I switched to Avast when AVG added that LinkScanner nonsense, and have been happy with it.

Posted by: Hemisphire | November 24, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Hemisphire | November 24, 2008 2:00 PM

That linkscanner was a killer, wasn't it. Subsequent builds have made it an option if you do a custom install. It's now a decent product for the price...;)

Memory is now almost as cheap as wine. If you have the specs in advance, moving a slow PC up 5ook in RAM can make you a hero. Of course, the wrong memory sticks just makes you a turkey...:)

Posted by: JkR- | November 24, 2008 2:50 PM | Report abuse

If you're really the family's "go-to geek" consider installing CrossLoop or another program that will let you take remote control of your auntie's computer from where ever you are. I can't tell you how much easier that is than spending hours on the phone trying to teach someone to "right-click".

Posted by: catester | November 24, 2008 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Anybody miss Personal Computing and Personal Software magazines?

Posted by: LauraGM1 | November 24, 2008 10:13 PM | Report abuse

I noticed that you made no mention of adware software - there are several out there. I've always had great success with Adaware which is free in its basic config.

Posted by: tmurt | November 25, 2008 7:03 AM | Report abuse

So very true...I'm "looking forward" to fixing up a Dell desktop which is several years old and a Sony Vaio laptop which is newer. Mom did manage to get her wireless router moved from the basement up to the first floor (the tech guy reset the password) which is good for my wireless access at home. I have used a MacBook for 3 years now, and I'm finding my Windows skills need updating! I suspect my main tasks will be updating anti-virus software, removing multiple copies of programs and reorganizing digital pictures... Happy turkey day all!

Posted by: jeffcoud1 | November 25, 2008 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Does anyone still use Spybot? Or is it abandonware?

Posted by: jimward21 | November 25, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Any recommendations for easy back up or transfer software for Mac users?

Posted by: Tiredtbug | November 25, 2008 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Time Machine, built into the Mac, is wonderful.

Posted by: wiredog | November 25, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I lived in Prague for a few years and started using AVAST then, I guess almost since inception. It has been totally reliable and effective for 6+ years now.

Posted by: pdxdennisj | November 25, 2008 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Time Machine is the ideal backup solution for Macs. But, if you want to be less incremental, I recommend SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner.

Posted by: query0 | November 25, 2008 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I love my family, but I love my turkey coma and copiously-spiked nog more. I'll gladly buy them all a gift card to if it means I can just sit back while someone else (albeit someone I trust) fixes their problem. Sorry mom. :)

Posted by: heather15 | November 25, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Another task in my top 3: help the nice neighbors secure their wireless networks.

Posted by: Chrs | November 25, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Still on dialup out here and my main machine runs Win98SE even though I do some tech support for SOHO systems up through Vista. AVG Free 7.5 still works well for me under Win98SE and 8 on higher systems. I like AVG's simplicity and efficiency considerably more than the bloated Norton, McAfee, or ZoneAlarm antivirus suites. Yeah, don't install the LinkScanner as it slows down browsing. AVG's daily update also causes a considerable rewrite of some database, and bogs the system during this activity, but it is much shorter than with Avast!.

I have the paid version of Avast! for some customers. The nag screen of the free version after xx days was annoying (and it worked as designed). Avast! gives a large discount to charitable nonprofits orgs.

One disliked feature of Avast! is that it seems to rewrite its virus database on a daily bootup basis which can take several minutes before the database updated message appears. When first installed, it also takes a long time (+1 hr on some systems) to generate some sort of database. During this time, the system is sluggish but once you get past this phase and the daily bootup rewrites, it runs well.

Spybot 1.6 with Teatimer is the antispyware/adware program I prefer. I try to toss a few dollars to the author on occasion. Doing a scan can take an hr, and occasionally its fixes are only partial short-term solutions to problems it finds.

I don't like that Spybot 1.6 changed some of the menus on my Desktop items in Win98SE. Now the default left double-click scans the item rather than launching it. To launch, I have to right-click, and then left-click Open.

Spybot still doesn't deal with cleaning up its previous versions effectively. I recommend uninstalling the previous version and blowing away its folder in the directory before installing a new version.

When I encounter spyware/adware that Spybot can't contend with, I'll use Ad-Aware. And on occasion I have to go on a manual hunting expedition through the directory and registry, provided I have some clues on what to search for.

Have not encountered any root kit problems on customers' PCs. The bulk of the problems my users encounter seem to be spyware/adware and half-baked updates for other programs, including Windows.

Posted by: BCLeeOR | November 25, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse reboot the router...I have advised many folks to do it and it will often fix little hang ups on the speed and page loading. Unplug, eat more turkey and gravy, look wise, plug it in again pie, two slices 'cause you were so smaaaart

Posted by: tbva | November 25, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

@Rob et al:

On T-day: Happy Thanksgiving to you all for recommending Avast. The whole machine is running smoother after jettisoning AVG, in spite of the fact that Avast occupies much more room.

I've thought for a while that AVG was designing its free version to be so annoying that users would switch to the pay version!

You might say that Avast is a vast improvement!

Posted by: featheredge9 | November 27, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I wish I COULD upgrade to IE7 (or IE8 beta), but our idiot enterprise programmers have so laden some of our corporate web apps with proprietary technology that they only work with IE6. Dumb...

So for anything not requiring IE or ActiveX, I use Firefox or SeaMonkey. I like the all-in-one-ness of SeaMonkey, which gets almost no press. It is my default browser. But I do like Firefox themes and extensions.

Speaking of Apple upgrades, when I try to download Safari 3.2.1, it downloads the 50+MB version which includes QuickTime irrespective of which radio button I choose. Do you have a URL for the Safari-only download? I sent a gripe to the Apple webmaster.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | November 29, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

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