How to give of yourself

As I clack out these words, Christmas is just three days away, many of you have come down with NeedtoBurnSickDaysitis and are away from work, on your way to visit family and other assorted loved ones; and you still haven’t figured out what gift to give to those you treasure most. May I suggest that rather than another pair of wooly socks or reindeer-themed undergarments you instead share some of the technology skills you’ve acquired over the years?

If you’re reading these words, it’s highly likely that you’re the geek of the family. When a sister’s, brother’s, mother’s, father’s, second cousin’s Mac or iPhone or iPad or wireless router or printer goes bad, it’s you who are called in as the first responder. Given your expertise, now would be the perfect time to give of yourself and, while visiting family, take a turn through their technology. That includes:

Update their stuff. OS X’s Software Update is a minor miracle in that it automatically queries Apple’s software servers to look for updates. However, it’s not terribly helpful if the person who normally operates the Mac rejects these updates because they’re unsure of what an update might be packing. Arm yourself with the Mac’s administrator’s password, run Software Update, and see what’s waiting. Install those updates that matter (particularly security updates).

Of course your friends and family have more software than what’s offered via Software Update. Take a gander at the applications they use most often and look for a Check for Updates entry under the application menu. Before you give it up as a job well done, if the object of your affection has an iOS device, launch iTunes, select Apps, and click the Check for Updates link at the bottom of the iTunes window. In all likelihood there will be scads of updated apps waiting for you.

And while you’re in iTunes, jack in their iOS device to see if a worthwhile update awaits. iOS 4.2 has some pretty slick tricks up its sleeve but those people who never sync their iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches may be blissfully unaware of it.

Note that some people don’t have the benefit of a fast broadband connection. If you’re visiting a broadband-challenged friend or relative, do their Internet connection a favor and download Apple’s updates from the company’s Support Downloads site to your Mac (which presumably has a much faster connection), place them on an easily transportable bit of removable media, and install the updates from that media on to their computer.

Check the network. Increasingly wireless networks are installed in the homes of “normal” people. Yet these normals have no idea whether their wireless networks are configured for best performance (and even if they had some small idea, they likely wouldn’t know what to do about it). Frequent Macworld contributor Glenn Fleishman does. Read his Speed Up Your Wireless Network and put his suggestions to good use.

Set up screen sharing. Leopard and Snow Leopard’s Screen Sharing feature is as much a gift to you as it is to your loved ones. With it you can avoid the long meandering tech support calls that plague every family’s pet geek. With screen sharing configured properly all you need to do is remind Aunt Vilma how to launch iChat, accept your request to share her screen, and Please, for the love of Santa, take your hand off the damned mouse! and you can go about your lifesaving business.

Should you need reminding of how to set this up, sit down at your loved one’s Mac, fire up their browser, and sign them up for a free AIM account. Launch iChat and configure it to use this account. Add your MobileMe or AIM identity to their buddy list and from the Audio or Video menu choose Screen Sharing Enabled. When you return home, enter their account in your buddy list. (Of course if they have a MobileMe account you needn’t get an AIM account for them. Just use their MobileMe identity.)

Back them up. If the family Mac isn’t being backed up you’re going to hear about it when its hard drive eventually dies. Save yourself the headache and purchase an external hard drive, attach it to the Mac, hide it under a doily so no one can muck with it when you’re not there, and configure Time Machine to back up to the drive.

Clean up after them. Some people—many of them your relatives—have no respect for their computers. They happily clutter their Desktop with files, toss countless items into the Trash and never empty it, and figure that when they delete an image in iPhoto, it’s really gone. With their permission, offer to do a little housekeeping. The other day I offered a few tips for speeding up your Mac. Now would be a good time to put some of these tips into practice.

Show them a simple trick or two. A lot of the operational things you take for granted are a mystery to many people who own Apple products. If you notice that your father routinely mouses to a common menu command, gently suggest that Command-S will save a file and Command-Option-Eject will put the Mac to sleep. If the brother who refuses to wear bifocals invariably hunches over to read small print on the screen, demonstrate the Control-Scroll Wheel/Ball trick that zooms the screen. Point out to Cousin Bob an Angry Birds level or two where a Golden Egg can be found.

The nicks and nacks. There are a host of additional little things you can do. Set the proper date and time on any devices you come across—computer, iPhone, digital camera, and camcorder. Switch on the flat-screen TV and configure it to display the best HD image possible. (And see if the family is viewing the HD-versions of its favorite networks rather than the standard definition versions they’ve defaulted to.) Check the ergonomics of the desk and chair your mother sits at when using her Mac. Glance at About This Mac to learn whether a Mac is RAM-starved.

Ask, listen, and act. Finally, take a seat next to your friend or family member when they’re using their Mac or iOS device and ask them if there’s anything that confuses them or they’re having trouble with. After the initial “Oh, no, I'm getting along just fine” you might hear “Oh, but there is this one thing….” That’s your cue to reply “That’s a problem for a lot of people. Here, let me help you.”

The helping hand you extend may be the greatest gift they receive this year. Happy holidays to you and those who benefit from your generosity.

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