How to be your family's tech-support hero during the holidays

You should never have learned about computers if you didn't want to spend all your time fixing them during the month of December.

My first car was a truck. While I loved that beat-up, rotary-engined Mazda, I didn’t like the question it spurred everyone to ask: “Hey, you own a truck, right? By any chance can you help me move?”

I ditched the truck because I valued my weekends. But l’m also a nerd, and all my in-laws—as well as my wife’s co-workers and co-workers' cousins—know it. That means I get a whole new set of requests every Thanksgiving, Christmas or bat mitzvah: “My CPU won’t turn on—can you tell me why? I’m running out of space in my Photos folder—do I need more RAM? I'm still using Windows XP—but it's still safe for online banking, right?"

During my truck-owning days, I never wanted to spend Saturdays hauling boxes, but I’ve grown to accept and actually enjoy my nerd superpowers. Sure, in the nerd pecking order, I’m more of a Willie Lumpkin, but to those who still can’t understand that they shouldn’t open email attachments, I’m a technology superhero. 

And this is what I've learned from helping tech-challenged relatives during the holidays.

Prep like you’re the last boy scout

Leatherman Surge Leatherman

A Leatherman Surge or Wave with additional bit kit and bit extender will fill most of your tool needs.

Besides my own laptop, I bring spare USB flash drives, one of which is packed with updated utilities and full installs of Chrome and other applications I’ll need. Why not download software at your relative's house, you ask? Because in-law Internet is always horrible. It’s some galactic law or something.

When visiting relatives, I come with a Leatherman Surge and a 4Sevens flashlight holstered to my belt. Yes, it’s a dress belt, but I’m a nerd and married, so I don't care how I look. I also bring a box packed with a spare hard drive, a wireless USB adapter, network cables, and an old router.

To this I’ll add a can of compressed air and monitor cleaner. Hmm, might as well grab that old video card and some spare RAM, too. And, oh yeah, that powerline network adapter I found in the clearance bin—that could come in handy. All this and more gets thrown into the back of the minivan before we go to the big holiday dinner.

It may sound like I’m prepping for the techpocalypse, but I know that when we arrive at the party, I'll be asked if I can “look at the computer,” “look at the router” or “look at the tablet” before I even get in the door.

The typical problems...

Dust and cat hair: These are usually the culprits when the in-laws' fans cause overheating issues.

If I’m lucky, the night’s on-site tech support call will go easy. Maybe someone's CPU cooler is just clogged with dust. Or maybe it's just a loose VGA cable. (Yes, VGA. Do you think in-laws run DisplayPort?) Or sometimes it's just a matter of setting up a powerline networking adapter because, “Hey, I can’t get WiFi in the basement. Any ideas?”

Or maybe it's just a matter of cleaning out some low-grade malware. Because there’s always malware. I don’t care if your in-law claims he doesn’t go to “those kinds of websites.” There’s always malware. That support call usually starts with a vague complaint: "My laptop is acting really slow—can you check it?" But I don't mind the request, because after I've fixed the machine, I’m free to hide in the den watching YouTube videos while my wife and in-laws think I’m wrenching on the machines. I get to skip all the tense political discussions, as well as Uncle Joey slurring his way through dinner, too.

Sometimes it's real work, though: a malware infestation so bad, I have to soak my USB keys in Holy Water when I get home.

But even that's better than sitting through an Uncle Joey tirade.

Don’t get too cocky, kid

Helping people has its own rewards, but you still need to honor two important holiday tech-support rules. 

Rule number one: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Your relative's desktop PC might benefit from a number of upgrades, but it's best to leave it alone, because even the smallest software update could send someone into hysterics. Then there's the Pottery Barn rule: If you do break something, you better rush out of the store before the clerks notice.

If you don’t follow these two key lessons, you’ll be making the 120-mile drive again next weekend to "fix" (explain) whatever you "broke" (upgraded). That's the last way you want to spend a Saturday when CompuBin is having a special holiday sale on Core i7-5960X CPUs for $25.

While I might update the UEFI on my home machine just because I have nothing else to do, I would never, ever do it on a relative’s machine unless I absolutely had to. That galactic law that says your in-laws' Internet connection will suck as much as the channel selection on their HDTV also says that after a BIOS update, their machine will stop booting. And, yes, this has happened to me. There's nothing like sweating bullets for the next 45 minutes, trying to figure out if there’s an easy way to recover a broken BIOS update.

So, yeah, working the holiday tech-support desk is a chore, but I don't mind. Really, I don’t. I’d rather take a few hours to perform annual preventative maintenance than have the in-laws pay $75 an hour to the local computer store after disaster strikes.

Just like Spiderman, family tech-support superheroes don't complain. We do our jobs for the good of mankind. Also, I noticed they just got a new truck, and, hey, I've got this old carpet I need dumped. 

Got family tech tips of your own? I want to hear your ideas on how you help your in-laws when they come calling for tech support.

This story, "How to be your family's tech-support hero during the holidays" was originally published by PCWorld.

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