Holiday tech support survival guide (2015 edition)

Get some down time over the holidays by preparing in advance for the inevitable tech support requests.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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 lawsuits? 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 guide. While I've called it a "Turkey Day" guide -- 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 seem to be in greatest demand.

The 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. 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 backup 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 friends and family are running, but here are some suggestions:

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 10.10 El Capitan, my advice is to tell them you'll talk about that another time. Upgrading OSes is the sort of timesuck you want 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.

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 (note that Windows 8 and above come with Windows Defender - essentially Microsoft Security Essentials under a different name - already preloaded).

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

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

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.

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.

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 probably 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 Decrapifieris a handy tool to have nearby. Running this on a new PC can make it feel like an even newer PC.

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)

Alternatively... just say no!

Toss aside the keyboard, frisbee the boot CD out of the window and gorge yourself on huge slabs of turkey and pumpkin pie instead.

Do you think that this t-shirt from ThinkGeekis a fantastically passive-aggressive way to get the message that you're not in the mood to fix PCs across? It might be the best $20 you spend this year.


Have a good Turkey Day, folks, and try to find time to have fun!

See also:

Editorial standards