Here’s extra helping of Thanksgiving tech-support tips.
Q. I know I’m going to wind up providing tech support for my family over Thanksgiving weekend. Beyond whatever symptoms they mention, what other issues should I look for?
A. Good doctors or mechanics won’t put down their tools once they’ve addressed the particular ache or rattle somebody complains about, and tech-support house calls shouldn’t be any different.
Especially when it’s family involved: The glitch you don’t catch while you’re there will probably wind up being the one you’re asked to help fix over the phone three months later.
Based on my own experience and what I hear from readers, I suggest keeping an eye out for problems in these five areas. FYI: links followed by a date in parentheses take you to earlier columns here with more detailed instructions
Slow Wi-Fi: The causes for this vary, but here are remedies to try once you’re on a Wi-Fi router’s setup screen, usually accessed by typing 192.168.1.1 into the browser of a computer on that network:
• Shut off 802.11b WiFi (Jan. 8, 2012) if it’s on, as this obsolete variant will only slow down your network.
• If you live in a smaller space, try switching to 5 GHz WiFi (May 8, 2014) should your router and your devices support it — most reasonably new models do. This lacks the range of standard 2.4 GHz WiFi but is faster and less prone to interference.
Security: The worst tech-support call you can get starts something like “I think I have some kind of virus?” Prevention is easier than treatment:
• Get Oracle’s Java out of your browser. The simplest way to do that is to uninstall Java completely (April 6, 2012). Since I wrote that piece, two desktop apps that once needed a full install of Java, the Minecraft game and the CrashPlan backup tool, now ship with their self-contained Java code, leaving you free to boot Oracle’s software.
• Get Adobe’s Flash plug-in out of your browser. With this vulnerability-prone multimedia add-on no longer needed to play video at many sites, you can go ahead and uninstall Flash (July 20, 2015). For sites that still demand Flash, Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (plus its Windows 10-only Edge) include chained-down, automatically-updated versions of Flash.
• Get smarter about passwords. After ensuring friends and family don’t reuse passwords (July 14, 2012) for accounts of any value, the simplest security upgrade is to use a password manager like Dashlane (the pick of USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham) or LastPass (my choice) to generate, store and enter complex passwords automatically. Two-step verification, in which you confirm a login that appears unusual (April 27, 2014) by entering a numeric code sent to your phone, helps safeguard especially valuable accounts like the e-mail you use to log into bank accounts.
For extra credit, save the most important passwords of family members you help in the secure-notes function of your own password manager (Jan. 11. 2105).
Backups: If everything else goes awry, a good set of backups safeguards the important stuff on your computer, from your work to your personal e-mail to your photos:
• Mac advice: Apple’s Time Machine has an annoying habit of complaining that a backup volume is out of room when it should have plenty of space. In addition to the suggestions I offered here to fix that (April 13, 2015), this page explains how to excise a large but irrelevant file from Time Machine’s existing backups.
• Windows help: Windows 10 includes backup tools (called “File History”) that may not look as snazzy as Time Machine but offer the same basic functions. A cheap USB drive or SD Card can get you started, although it won’t have much room for backups over time.
• It doesn’t hurt to have a backup to your backups. Online storage solutions, such as those from Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan and Mozy that I assessed here earlier (Dec. 1, 2013) can keep your data safe even if your computer and its backup drive are destroyed or stolen. And stashing a backup on a recordable CD or DVD or a spare drive that you then unplugged keeps that data safe from the unlikely but scary threat of ransomware. (Oct. 11, 2015)
Install mobile updates: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have seen a few updates since last Thanksgiving, but phones or tablets low on storage can’t install them. Here’s how to free up space quickly:
• Delete space hogs. Both iOS and Android let you rank apps by how much space those programs and their data eat up, which may reveal some have been piggy with storage space (July 13, 2014). The storage screen in Android’s Settings app also hides a “Cached Data” line; you can delete that category of data painlessly to free up space quickly.
• Delete photos from other devices. With Google Photos or Apple’s iCloud Photo Library active, you can view and remotely delete your pictures from a computer or tablet signed into the same account. It’s much easier to spot and delete the duds on a larger device, and this exercise just might help you recognize the traits of better photos.
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