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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2017: The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

Thanksgiving tech support survival kit (2014 edition)

Get some down time over Thanksgiving by preparing in advance for the inevitable 'Turkey Day' tech support requests deluge.

Accept it, if you are a regular reader of this blog then your "Tech IQ" will be way ahead of your average PC users (and I mean way ahead!). And I bet that you're surrounded by friends and family who just about know how to switch their PC on, and think that the more toolbars they have installed into Internet Explorer, the richer and more fulfilling their browsing experience will be.

Thanksgiving is a time of year which sees "the techies" and "the non-techies" come together, and chances are that you being the techie, the non-techies will spot you and hunt you down -- The Walking Dead style, albeit slower thanks to the tryptophan -- 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 suits? No... well, maybe we're just in the wrong line of work?

With this in mind, I've put together what I call a "Turkey Day" tech support survival kit. While I've called it a "Turkey Day" kit -- I'm certain that it will work just as well at other times of year -- this seems to be the time of year when the techie's superhero skills are in greatest demand.

So, without any more preamble, here are my recommendations for a Thanksgiving tech support survival kit:

First rule of Thanksgiving tech support is...

Don't needlessly 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, and make sure you have several of them on hand.

Not only are they handy for storing your "superpowers" (software) on, but they also come in handy if you have to move or backup any files.

Download updates in advanced

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.

I hate seeing PCs that are running outdated software. Worse still is sitting around for hours waiting for software updates to come down the pipes over a slow connection (the chances are, the updates haven't been applied because of a sluggish Web connection).

Be prepared and download updates in advance. You know better than I do what operating systems your friends and family are running, but here are some suggestions:

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.

Security

In my experience, about half of what I would affectionately call "home users" doesn't run any security software, and about half are running an outdated package.

With that in mind, I always find it handy to carry around a free antivirus installer. My download of choice is Microsoft Security Essentials because it's simple to use, it updates automatically in the background, and it is 100 percent nag-free.

For Mac users, I recommend AVG Free because it is free, simple, and offers comprehensive virus and syware protection.

I also find it handy to have a scanner that I can install and run to clean up any infected PCs I stumble across. For this I use VIPRE PC Rescue Program, 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).

Here are a few other things worth checking: Java | QuickTime | Flash

Another good security tip would be 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.

A great way to make sure that people keep up-to-date with patches is to install the Secunia PSI 3.0 scanner. This tool not only identifies programs that are insecure or in need of updating, but can also automatically update many of the commonly used applications.

Install this now, and next year you might actually get to watch the game next year.

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 probably the best collection of utilities available, and has saved my bacon more times thaat I care to remember.

Freebies

It's also good to have a few freebies. After all, People love freebies.

I find that most people asking your for help are running on Internet Explorer (and maybe even an old version of the browser). Consider auto-updating versions of rival browsers, such as Firefox or Google Chrome because security patches and fixes are automatically downloaded and installed without user intervention.

Another great freebie (especially for those who don't have Microsoft Office) is the LibreOffice suite. If the PC is used by someone who wants to play with graphics, throw in Paint.NET as a fantastic basic (but with advanced features) image editor.

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.

If you want to give out real freebies, then small USB flash drives are both cheap and really handy.

For those still "thinking about going to Windows 7 or Windows 8..."

I'm betting that at least a few people you know are still running Windows XP, right? But unless your family and friends have been living in a cave on Mars (with their fingers in their ears, humming show tunes) there's a good chance that they will have at least heard about Windows 7 or Windows 8.

Chances are high that you'll be asked questions such as, "will it run on my PC?" Well, be ready for them and grab the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor and the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant. Both of these tools will help determine whether the next-generation operating systems will run on the existing hardware, which may negate the need to buy a new computer for the December holiday season.

Hardware

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);

Alternatively... just say no!

And engorge yourself on pumpkin pie and turkey slices instead. Do you think that this t-shirt from ThinkGeek is a fantastically passive-aggressive way to get the message across?

Have a good Turkey Day, folks -- oh, and try to have fun!

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