How To Fix Your Family's Computer

If you're unable to get out of being your family's on-call tech support this Christmas, there are some things worth doing on your family's household PC if you do get roped into the job that will make your life a little easier year-round. Here are a few of them.Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

The Basics: Software Updates, Security Scans And Speed Tests

  • OS updates. When I go home to visit my family for the holidays, I go upstairs to my room, put down my bags, and immediately go to my parents' PC and start downloading any updates available for their computer. I'm lucky -- my family is pretty computer-literate and it's usually a quick process, but I have friends who have to go through a year's worth of patches and updates every time they visit for Christmas. Get this out of the way first, since it'll probably take the longest.
  • Other software updates. Nothing's worse than going home to find that your family members are still using Firefox 3, or heaven forbid, IE 6. Spend a little time while you're waiting for the OS to patch downloading the most recent versions of the applications they use most frequently, like their web browser, security and anti-malware software, email client, music player or anything else that may have vulnerabilities or that they rely on every day.
  • Run a system scan with an anti-malware application. Hopefully your family's PC has some antivirus and anti-malware application installed already, and it's set to update itself quietly in the background, so it's already up to date. If it's not, update it, and run a complete system scan. If you find anything, it's easier to deal with while you're there than over the phone after you've gone home.
  • Speed tests. If I had a dollar for every time my family called and complained that their internet speeds were slow, I'd be rich. Contrary to most times when someone complains about slow internet access, it's not their fault. Their internet provider's upload and download speeds are abysmally slow, and while they've called to complain in the past, it wasn't until I started running a few speed tests when I was home to visit and passing along the results as proof that the problem wasn't with their computer that their internet provider started listening. If you're in the same boat, your family may have a real problem that's not their fault either -- stave off hours of pointless troubleshooting with a few quick tests at Speedtest.net.

Photo by Mihael Mafy.

The Big Guns: Replace the Computer, Upgrade the OS, Switch Them to a Mac/Windows/Linux System

If you have some more time, or you're tired of dealing with your family's computer problems entirely, it may be time for more... drastic measures. If the system is really old or suffering from hardware problems that you don't have the tools or the budget to address, it might be time to go ahead and replace the system entirely.

If your family's computer is running Windows XP, it might be time to upgrade if your system meets the requirements for Windows 7. If it doesn't, maybe now is a good time to get your family familiar with Linux. They don't need to be command line masters, but a good linux distro like Ubuntu gives you as an administrator complete control over the system, and them as non-admin users big pretty icons they can double-click to surf the web, get their email, read the news, and most importantly, not get themselves into trouble.

Many of you have mentioned in the past that you got so fed up with being your family's on-call computer technician that you switched them from Windows to a Mac because it was easier to use and more foolproof, or from a Mac to Windows because it was easier for you to lock it down, or from Mac OS or Windows to non-admin Linux accounts with only the applications installed they need to do what they need to do. These steps are definitely not for the faint of heart, and will require a little retraining so your family is comfortable with the way things have changed, but once you're finished, their computer -- and your sanity -- will be better in the long run.

Photo by Beth Kanter.

Set Up Remote Access So You Can Troubleshoot Anytime, Anywhere

Finally, once you've done everything you can do to make sure your family's PC is in proper working order, you want to make sure you can get access to it to troubleshoot it later when it eventually gets fouled up again. We've discussed some great remote-access options for every occasion in the past. Since you'll have physical access to the computer while you're visiting, you have the time to set up a two-way remote access solution like GoToMyPC from Citrix, LogMeIn or Join.me, all of which you can get your parents signed up for and set up with before you go back home.

When they call with computer problems, you can sit down at your computer, connect to their PC over the internet, and have them show you what's wrong and fix it immediately without having to schedule a one-off visit.

We've already covered how you can get out of this job entirely, but assuming you aren't able to, your family is just too stubborn and demanding, or you actually take pleasure in helping them out with their technology problems, you can make your life easier over the long run by doing some regular maintenance and a few choice upgrades that will save you a few phone calls after the holidays are over and you've gone back to your normal life.

Is there any additional basic maintenance you plan on doing to your family's PC when you get home for Christmas? Share your tips and tools in the comments below.


Comments

    So true... I've already had my Dad saying "When you get here for Xmas, I might get you to have a look at my computer - It's running a bit slow..."
    I've got him to put Temaviewer on so I'll do most of it before I get there...

      remote access is the most important part by far. You can fix everything far more quickly unless they have network problems.

      For the network problems I put a quick batch script on their desktop called 'NETWORK TEST.bat'. In the event its a network problem, it'll do some quick tests (ipconfig, ping router, ping google, test dns etc) and outputs to a text file. It speeds up the average diagnosis a bit.

    What a spergfest of an article.

    I've found the latest Ubuntu distro to be pretty buggy, I certainly wouldn't set my parents up with it.
    I've found the best thing to do is set it up as closely as possible to their computer at work, everything down to the icon layout if possible. As they're forced to learn it at work they'll be able to use the home one much easier. However, there is a drawback, given companies are oft slow to update OS's you might be behind the times for a while.

      I'm on the latest ubuntu right now. But Im going to roll-back to 10.10 since this version is pretty bad. Set them (whoever you are thinking of) up with the LTS version of ubuntu and it should be right.

    Ahem: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/tech_support_cheat_sheet.png

    The best thin I did was take administrator rights of my parents computer. They can not install anything nor can a virus or malware take hold. I have had exactly zero problems with their computer in the last 2 years. The PC green shields so windows is always patched.

    I'm going to have to recommend ninite again.
    The article mentions updating software but doing it yourself makes it only good until next christmas. ninite is the ultimate way of taking care of this and making it family-proof for them to take of it themselves in future. Go to ninite.com and choose all the software they do/should have. Save the installer somewhere that your relatives can find it. Tell them to double click it every now and then when they are not using the computer for the next half hour. All software are updated each time. You could even set it up as a scheduled task.

    If you don't use ninite yet, start this holiday season and thank me in the new year.

    One remote software that is very useful and wasn't mentioned in the article is GoToAssist

    http://www.gotoassist.com/mm/intl/au/entry.tmpl

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