It's that time of year again…
Thanksgiving is a time of year which sees “the techies” and “the non-techies” come into contact. And chances are that you, being the techie, will be spotted an hunted down — The Walking Dead style, albeit these zombies are slower and sleepier thanks to all the tryptophan — by the non-techies in search of “help.”
And why not?
Don't doctors get asked for advice on boils and sores at every get-together they attend? Don't all lawyers help friends and family members with their latest crop of legal problems? No… well, we must be in the wrong line of work.
With this in mind, I've put together what I call a “Turkey Day” tech support survival guide. I've called it a “Turkey Day” guide — though it will work just as well at other times of year — because this seems to be the time of year when the techie's superhero skills are in greatest demand.
The first rule of Thanksgiving tech support is…
Don't needlessly or recklessly take on huge projects. They will end up sucking away all your time, and you'll be back at work wondering where Thanksgiving went.
Only take on projects that you can finish in a short amount of time. Also, if you're not making any headway with an issue, know when to give up.
Collect several high-capacity USB flash drives
The foundation of the “Turkey Day” tech support survival kit is several large USB flash drives. 4GB is good, but 8GB or more is better. Make sure you have several of them on hand.
Not only are they a must-have for storing your “superpowers” (software tools) on, but they also come in handy if you have to move or back up any files.
Download updates in advance
You know that PC that you worked on last year? The one that hadn't been updated in a year? Chances are it has not seen an update since the last time you laid hands on it.
Be prepared and download updates in advance. You know better than I do what operating systems your family (and any nearby friends) are running, but here are some quick links:
Alternatively, if you're going somewhere that has a fast internet connection, use the operating system's own updater to bring in the updates (this is usually quicker and needs less hand-holding).
Top tip: Thanksgiving is NOT the right time to be upgrading operating systems — remember that first rule? If family and friends start asking you about Windows 10 or macOS Catalina, my advice is to tell them you'll talk about that another time. Upgrading OSes is the sort of timesuck to avoid if you want to relax.
Other patches and updates should be small enough for you to be able to download them over a poor connection. If not, then impress your family and friends by setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot using your smartphone or tablet and download them that way.
Secure your bases
In my experience, about half of what I would affectionately call “home users” don't run any security software (unless it was pre-installed), and the other half are running an outdated package.
As for a comprehensive, nag-free antivirus for both Windows and Mac systems, I recommend you take a look at Sophos Home, which offers commercial-grade antivirus to consumers at no cost.
I also find it handy to have a scanner that I can install and run to clean up any infected Windows PCs I stumble across. For this I use VIPRE Rescue, which is a superb tool for on-the-fly malware removal.
Remember to check that all installed browsers are up-to-date (along with any add-ons). This is a good time to be on the lookout for any random toolbars or dodgy add-ons that need removing.
Another good security tip is to determine which program is the default PDF reader on the system. If it's not an up-to-date version of Adobe Reader then I'd recommend uninstalling it and adding FoxIt Reader, a move that will make the system in question safer.
I used to recommend Flexera Personal Software Inspector scanner for identifying programs that were insecure or in need of updating, and it could also automatically update many commonly used applications. Unfortunately, this product has been discontinued and direct alternatives are not available. Two of the alternatives that I've tested are SUMo and Patch My PC.
Install this now, and next year you might actually get to watch the game.
Prepare for battle… erm… troubleshooting
My favorite portable troubleshooting utility is, and has been for years, the Ultimate Boot CD.
Ultimate Boot CD now allows you to run the .ISO disk image from a USB flash drive, which is more convenient and a lot easier to keep updated than a disc (although for older systems it's still wise to have a CD in your bag, just in case it won't boot from a USB drive).
This is without doubt the best collection of tools and utilities available, and has saved my bacon more times than I care to remember.
Get ready to fight crapware
For any relatives who might have a new PC (that's more than likely stuffed full of ‘crapware'), then PC Decrapifier is a handy tool to have nearby. Running this on a new PC can make it feel like an even newer PC.
Then there's all the other stuff!
It's not just PCs these days. It's also everything else: iPhones, iPads, Android devices, set-top devices, etc.
This is where life gets extra complex and it's wise to pick your battles here.
Make sure you have some basic tools
You need to be packing hardware as well as software. I find that at minimum it's good to carry the following:
- A #2 Phillips screwdriver (or a good multitool)
- An anti-static wrist strap
- A few anti-static bags
- Some spare screws (drive screws and motherboard screws are especially handy)
- A spare Lightning and micro USB charger cables for smartphones and tablets
- Spare USB charger
If you have a decent everyday carry kit with you, you should be OK for tools.
Thinking on your feet
Don't waste time (remember, this is your time too). If you don't know something, don't bother trying to reinvent the wheel; instead hit up your favorite search engine to look for answers. Jumping straight to this stage (as opposed to going through long-winded troubleshooting procedures) can save you a lot of time.
Alternatively… just say no!
Toss aside the keyboard, frisbee the boot CD into the garbage can, and just gorge yourself on giant slabs of turkey and pumpkin pie.
Thinkgeek may be gone, and that means no more fantastically passive-aggressive t-shirts to get the message across that you're not in the mood to fix PCs? But fortunately others have picked up where Thinkgeek left off.
Have a good Turkey Day, folks, and try to find time to have fun!