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Another helping of Thanksgiving tech-support tips

If you spend enough time in front of a computer at home or the office, you can expect to hear one or more relatives make this request over the Thanksgiving weekend: "Hey, do you mind taking a look at my computer to make sure it's working alright?"

So for the past few years, I've been trying to ease that task by suggesting tools to fix current problems and prevent future ones. See, for example, my advice for 2008, 2007 and 2006.

Since most computing problems don't change that much year over year, this year's advice doesn't depart significantly from last year's:

* As before, your first priority should be getting a good backup of the data already on the computer. Pack a USB flash-memory drive with plenty of capacity--4-gigabyte models now sell at commodity prices--or get a cheap external hard drive. I reviewed backup software in late 2008; most of those recommendations still stand, but if your folks run Windows 7 they have a pretty good backup program included with that operating system.

* In the increasingly unlikely even that your hosts only have dial-up Internet access, save a copy of the latest comprehensive security update for their computer--usually, a download measured in hundreds of megabytes--on the drive you'll bring. If they run Windows XP, you'll need Microsoft's Service Pack 3 update; if they're on Vista, get the Service Pack 2 installer. If they have a Mac, ask them to select "About This Mac" from the Apple-icon menu at the top left of its screen and tell you its version of OS X and if it has an Intel or PowerPC processor, then bring the appropriate "combo update" download--Apple's Mac OS X 10.4.11, 10.5.8 or 10.6.2.

* If you'll be tending to a Windows PC, pack an anti-virus program on that drive too. You can run the portable edition of the free, open-source ClamWin right off a flash drive, but for ongoing protection I now recommend Microsoft's free (and nag-free) Microsoft Security Essentials. (Read my follow-up Q&A blog post about this program before installing it, though.)

* If your relatives have even vague thoughts about upgrading to Windows 7, run Microsoft's free Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor on their computer to check for hardware or software conflicts.

* Finally, upgrade their Web browser and its plug-ins (do I have to link, yet again, to my sermon about the obsolescence of Internet Explorer 6? Oops, I just did.). Mozilla Firefox makes a fine all-around browser in Windows or on a Mac that can't run Apple's current Safari 4. On an older, slower Windows machine, try Google's Chrome or Opera's eponymous browser instead. Then you'll need to update the major Web plug-ins, as any of these can be subject to attack by hostile sites. Windows users will need the latest versions of Adobe's Reader and Flash Player, Sun's Java and Apple's QuickTime; Mac users will need an up-to-date release of Flash (Mac OS X handles Java, PDF and QuickTime chores on its own).

* Don't rule out being asked for help with a new digital-TV setup. If your folks watch TV over the air, remember to have their set or converter box's tuner rescan the airwaves for any channel changes. And make sure they've got the right cables plugged in behind the set--you don't want to see a high-definition source, like a cable box or upconverting DVD player, hooked up to the set with a standard-definition S-Video or, worse yet, composite video cable. (It's best to pack a spare HDMI cable, just in case.)

Got other suggestions for turkey-day computing help? Have stories to tell of past adventures or misadventures in family tech support? Share your experience in the comments...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 23, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Tips  
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I do a considerable amount of Mac OS support for family members and have found that setting up screen sharing through iChat makes for a much smoother remote support process. I'm sure there's some kind of Windows equivalent, but I've never used it since I just tell people I don't do Windows. Setting this up (and testing it!) in advance will make future calls easier.

Posted by: pjgeraghty | November 23, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I would suggest the Foxit reader instead of Adobe. Much lighter and faster, and perhaps a little safer.

Posted by: txJosh16 | November 23, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

Turkey Day or no, I would be hesitant to KNOWINGLY have a back door open all the time on my machine or that of any relative.

It may make remote repairs SOOOooooo much easier for me, but at what risks to them ???

Posted by: | November 24, 2009 1:50 AM | Report abuse

I'm tech support for half a dozen family members and friends. One of the major issues for me right now is that the free AVG v9 anti-virus program only provides a stub file to download and launching that file initiates a large download. This is a total roadblock for dial up users (my sister). I'm trying to find a replacement that doesn't present nagware, require much human intervention etc. Suggestions anyone? Perhaps the Microsoft Security Essentials is the way to go?

Posted by: tojo45 | November 24, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Oops, I meant to ask if Microsoft Security Essentials works for XP?

Posted by: tojo45 | November 24, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, MSE works for XP, but you still have to download updates for it immediately. It doesn't come with the latest version of the definitions file.

Posted by: koalatek | November 24, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

If you’re gonna install the latest version of Adobe Flash Player, you should also install the latest version of Shockwave Player. The most recent dot-release for Shockwave fixed a vulnerability that was not in Flash.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | November 24, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I have set up on both my parents' and brother's computers so I can remotely control their computers when troubleshooting. For us, the hassle it saves is worth the risk -- as their software diverged from mine (different versions of Windows, different printer software, etc) it just got too difficult to try to get them to describe what they were seeing on their screen and to be sure they were doing exactly what I described when I gave them instructions. You can also install remote control software but leave it disabled until there is a problem.

Posted by: Podunk | November 24, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

One problem with your HDMI recommendation: some cable companies (COMCAST!) disable the HDMI-out ports on their boxes via firmware. It's unbelievably aggravating to be forced to use a gigantic bundle of component+audio cabling in a small space (say, a bedroom) rather than running one HDMI cable and calling it a day.

Posted by: JoshCVT | November 24, 2009 11:31 PM | Report abuse

Hi Everyone. Just an FYI - but be careful reading and downloading software packages from the old articles. I did it to look at them, and they were, of course, several years out of date. Be sure to only download and save the newest versions.

Posted by: Juhrom | November 25, 2009 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Good point, Juhrom!

Posted by: Astrogal | November 26, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I am also setting up Back to My Mac for households that have more than one. And, with the big reduction in price for AppleTV, I am suggesting it as a way to reduce multimedia clutter and stream music all over.

Posted by: query0 | November 26, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

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