Are you prepared for holiday PC repairs?

Are you prepared for holiday PC repairs?

Summary: For IT professionals and computer support people, holiday travel means a flurry of ad hoc support requests. You will, of course, say yes when Mom or your brother-in-law asks for some help with a PC problem. So why not accept the inevitable and show up prepared for the job? Here's a list of the hardware and software tools I bring home for the holidays.


In the U.S., the holiday season is about to begin. This Thursday is Thanksgiving, which begins a six-week cycle of travel, parties, and family gatherings that won't end until the last bit of confetti is swept up after New Year's.

For IT professionals and computer support people, however, the holidays have a different meaning. Every visit to Mom, the grandparents, or your favorite brother-in-law is invariably accompanied by a hesitant request: "Say, I've been having this problem with my PC. You don't suppose you could take a look...?"

You will, of course, say yes. So why not accept the inevitable and show up prepared for the job? If you have the right tools, many software and hardware repair jobs are trivially easy. If you show up empty-handed, even the simplest tasks can turn into marathons.

I'm about to head our for the holidays, and I'm certain to be called on for some ad hoc Windows support. Here's what I'm bringing with me:

  • Windows XP and Windows Vista media. Murphy's Law of PC repair guarantees that your brother-in-law will not be able to find his restore disks, which you will need to make some necessary repairs or to do a clean install. So burn some CD or DVD copies and bring them with you.
  • Keyfinder. If you have to reinstall Windows or Office, you'll need the product ID. Murphy's Second Law says the 25-character key will be lost or unreadable. Fortunately, there's a fix. Download the latest beta version of Keyfinder from Magical Jellybean Software and bring it with you on a flash drive. It supports all versions of Windows, including Vista x64. Even if you don't have to reinstall Windows, you'll want to extract the codes for all installed software and print them out for future reference. (Hint: E-mail yourself a copy, so if Mom ever has to take her PC to the repair shop you can forward this essential information to the tech.)
  • Up-to-date antivirus/antispyware software. There is nothing quite as horrifying as turning on a PC and discovering that its security software was last updated six months ago. Pick your favorite AV product and download a version you can use to scan for malware and then install as a 30-day trial.
  • Drive imaging software. One of the best gifts you can give is a bit-perfect copy of the system you just cleaned up. Bonus: Next year, when you return for the holidays, you can restore the saved image and cut your ad hoc repair trip in half. I like Acronis True Image, which is available in a 15-day trial version. If the PC in question has a Seagate or Maxtor drive, you can download the free OEM version of Acronis' software (Seagate DiscWizard or Maxtor MaxBlast 5, respectively).
  • A USB flash drive. I have an office full of flash drives I don't need. I've tucked a 256MB, 512MB, and 1GB drive into my travel bag. They're ideal for backing up files or moving them from my notebook to the PC under repair. I expect to leave them all behind as parting gifts.
  • An external USB hard drive. My Mom has a new PC, and an external drive is the perfect destination for an image backup plus daily or weekly data backups. I have an extra 2.5-inch drive that I'll bring with me. If you're planning a shopping trip while you're in your home town, why not pick one up? Costco and Best Buy have a great selection of 300-500GB drives for under $150. They make great geek gifts.
  • Blank CD-R and DVD media. If you need to download an ISO file, a corollary to Murphy's law says there won't be a blank disc when you need it.
  • Cables. It's particularly frustrating to have a router that you can't access because you don't have an Ethernet cable. The last time I was in CompUSA I picked up a retractable network cable that was on sale for five bucks. I also bring an assortment of standard and mini USB cables and a memory card reader. Thus armed, you can be a hero to the poor technophobe who has stopped taking digital pictures because their digital camera's memory card is full and they don't know how to transfer its contents to a PC.
  • Application software. I keep copies of the latest versions of Firefox, Acrobat Reader, iTunes/QuickTime, and other applications that are likely to be installed and in need of updating. Yes, you can usually download them on the spot, but having them on a flash drive eliminates the need to wait for a slow connection.

So, what did I leave out? Hit the Talkback button and add your suggestions.

Topics: Windows, CXO, Hardware, Networking, Operating Systems, Software, IT Employment

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  • UBCD4Win ...

    ... for when things go really bad ...

    I also find a TechNet ISO handy. Oh, and a password unmasker ...

    Also, give someone you know the gift of a password safe -

    Why do I bother visiting relatives? They should come visit me at the PC Doc HQ.
    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • But it could be much worse

      Retiring to the computer, beer in hand, to help solve the issues aquired (after fixing the same issues at the same get together a year earlier) would be much more enjoyable then, let us say:

      "Gather round! Now, here is a picture of your Uncle Frank and I in front of the ocean,... and here is a picture of your Uncle Frank and I in front of the hotel,...and here is a picture of your Uncle Frank and I in front of the rental car..., and here is a picture of your Uncle Frank and I in the restaurant...

      • And . . .

        "Here's a picture of your Uncle Frank and Iby the side of the hotel, but you can still see part of the front . . . "

        After all these years, Monty python is still the best!!! ;)
      • RE: Are you prepared for holiday PC repairs?

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    • Upgrade them to Vista

      Here are a few tips that we've put together for your hosts when they ask about upgrading to Vista. We're assuming that there are young ones in the family who, if not already, will be showing an interest in computers at some point or another.

      1) Take books away from children.
      If they learn too much, too young, they'll be too sharp to be satisfied with the computing landscape at a later age. If you can keep their IQ within the eighty-ninety range by the time they start work, their level of dissatsfaction will be reduced. They will also find clicking on things stretches their current level of ability.

      2) Teach children not to share.
      This is a common way in which parents handicap their children. They'll grow up very naive and unprepared for what lies ahead. Show them how to get ahead at an early age. One such example might be hitting other kids with the playgroup toys whilst shouting loudly "they're mine".

      3) Hinder the competition.
      Show them how to steal sandwiches from other lunchboxes and flush them down the toilet without being noticed. This will slow the development of the other children, which has obvious advantages in the short medium and long term.
      Alternative strategy: Pay little Johnny a large amount of pocket money to do it for you so that you don't get caught.

      4) Treat them to an evening at the Fairground.
      Typically this should begin by indulging on candy-floss as a sweetener. Next, initially pay for one go on the Merry-Go-Round. Each time they say they're bored, feeling sick or want to do something different shout at them and pay for another go. Explain later that there'll be no pocket money this year to make up for all of the goes they wanted on the ride.
      Bonus: If they say they would like a go on the dodgems or big-wheel etc, explain that not only are these other rides dangerous, but will actually cost them their pocket money for five years instead of just the one, according to your research.

      5) Throw the best birthday parties.
      Always invite every classmate/yearmate to their birthday party. Use the most addictive food groups available for the spread. Throughout the party, make an effort to speak to all of the children, asking them closed questions such as "My little Freddie's the best isn't he?", and make sure they all say "Freddie's the best" to at least one other child before they're invited to eat.

      We hope you've find this guide helpful. If you have any suggestions of your own, or would like to make a contribution, please do so. Perhaps we can collate them together.
      "Your Impotence. Our Poisson."
      • Upgrade them to Vista

        Frothy, Dude you must really hate your family if you would do that to them!
  • Old RAM

    Something else I do is pack all the RAM that I've stripped from old systems or systems going to file server duties and hand that around to the needy still trying to run XP on 256MB. I'm amazed how many problems that solved over the years!
    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • Oh, and most impotant of all ...

      ... a #2 crosspoint screwdriver.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • I believe that the common name a "Phillips head" screwdriver.
        Hallowed are the Ori
        • Actually ...

          Phillips and Pozidriv are two specific types of screw head and screwdriver. If you buy a quality screwdriver you get a choice, but as a rule the cheap junk you buy are rubbish hybrids that are neither one head nor another. This is what I carry around with me on my keyring, hence the reason why I called it a generic crosspoint.

          Interesting tidbit - Henry Phillips lost the patent to the Phillips design in the late 1940s and the Phillips Screw Company went on to develop the far superios Pozidriv.
          Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
          • How long do you think . . .

            it'll be until they start to incorporate star (Torx) screws, and we'll all have to go buy a whole new set of tools? I already had to do this for some of the larger appliances and parts of my cars . . .
          • Compaq had done it already

            All of my Compaq Servers and workstations are Torx already. I don't know if the carried that through the HP merger since I don't care for HP.
          • Torx or not ....

            I can confirm that HP servers and at lest one style of desktop use Torx screws - but the saving grace is that some have a flat head slot as well as the torx.
          • Prince & Smith:

            When I got my first car in the eary 40s, my dad, a mechanic, had two styles of cross point screwdrivers in his tool box. He called one a "Phillips" adn the other a "Prince & Smith".
          • Reed & Prince

            is the type of screwdriver. The primary difference between Reed & Prince and Phillips is the angle of the tip. Reed & Prince has a 75-degree angle, Phillips has a 90-degree angle.

            To the untrained eye, they both look alike.
          • Pozidriv almost a good thing...

            ... except just try to find Pozidriv screws anywhere, let alone the driver itself.
          • crosspoint/phillips

      • Did you mean a Phillips?

        A Phillips screwdriver, that is? "Crosspoint"? lol
    • Sure wish I had thought of that

      It would have saved me $65 for 512MB of PC133. Old memory is very expensive.
  • oddly enough

    the relatives usually don't bug me for PC issues during the holidays. On regular weekends I get the requests all the time though.