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?"
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...
November 23, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
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