Are you prepared for holiday PC repairs?

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.