How to provide tech support for your family

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I’m the tech support person for my extended family. My guess is that because you’re reading this blog, you fill that same role.

My mother has been having problems with her iMac—the onset of horizontal lines on the monitor after running the computer for an hour or so, which strongly hints at a hardware problem. I helped with the purchase of that computer and, dutiful son that I am, told her that AppleCare was a must.

So, two years in, and the iMac gets funky. “No problem,” I tell her. “Just call Apple and they’ll take care of you. You’re far enough away from an Apple Store that they’ll surely send you a shipping box for its trip back to the repair depot.”

But no. It was off to the Apple Authorized Dealer a few towns away. Fair enough.

Except the next day Mom calls and tells me that the technician declared that the Mac was perfectly fine and she just needed $300 of RAM, which prompted this conversation between me and the store’s tech:

Me: Why are you suggesting a RAM upgrade for a computer that clearly has a hardware problem?

Tech: Well, Skype keeps popping up automatically and that uses memory. And she said her Mac was slow.

Me: She said her Mac had horizontal lines that appeared after awhile. RAM isn’t going to fix that. And you know you can tell Skype to not auto-launch, right?

Tech: I tested it with Apple’s Hardware Test disc and it said it was fine.

Me: How long did you run the Mac?

Tech: It took 45 minutes to run the test.

Me: You ran it for only 45 minutes? Why not run it all day and keep an eye out for the screen issues. This is not an unusual problem.

Tech: Well, I ran it for three hours. I also repaired the iMac’s permissions. When you repair permissions you…

Me: I know what happens when you repair permissions, thank you. I also know that repairing permissions doesn’t fix hardware.

Tech: What do you want me to do?

Me: I want you to not install any more RAM—particular $90 worth of RAM that costs $300. I also want you to put that Mac in a corner somewhere, turn it on, and leave it on until the screen acts up. If, after two days, it doesn’t, you’ve made a great effort and I’ll have my mother pick it up. If it misbehaves again, she’ll call AppleCare and tell them that a nearly 80-year-old woman shouldn’t be hot-footing it around the desert with an iMac strapped to her back. My hope is that as a result of that conversation a shipping box will appear on her doorstep the next morning.


Let me make clear that I’m not suggesting that Apple Authorized Dealers are any less skilled than their Apple Store counterparts. And I also understand that intermittent problems are the bane of any technician. Diagnosing this kind of thing can be difficult. However, voodoo solutions such as repairing permissions and throwing RAM at the problem aren’t cool.

So, what can you as the family support unit do? Make these suggestions to those you support:

Before calling Apple, call me.

You want to be as sure as possible that a problem really exists before contacting AppleCare. Yes, the tech who answers will run through the steps necessary to determine if there’s a real issue, but perhaps you could save that person some trouble by first determining if the computer’s plugged in.

If you have AppleCare, don’t let anyone sell you anything until you check with me.

The beauty of AppleCare is that you pay up front to save you money should something go wrong later. Should a tech suggest that your problem can be solved with the addition of X, Y, or Z when the computer was operating perfectly well a few weeks ago, be suspicious—within reason.

And within reason means that if you’ve filled the hard drive to the brim, loaded your Mac down with half a dozen new peripherals, and installed just as many new memory-hogging applications, consider that circumstances have changed and the addition of more RAM or a more expansive hard drive may be valuable advice.

Call me if there’s a problem.

One of the burdens you carry as the support person is to talk the talk when things get technical. “Repair permissions” could easily confound a relative, but you know better. Give the tech a call, be as polite as possible, and try to determine exactly what’s going on. In nearly every case, the tech is going to know far more about the issue than you will and deserves the benefit of the doubt. And that’s something you want the supported to know as well—techs are almost always working for their benefit.

But if they’re obviously snowing you, be very clear about what they are and are not authorized to do. If they appear to be ready to give up, urge them to send it to Apple.

Call me afterwards.

How’d it work out? Is your computer happy? Were you happy with the service you received? Do you hate me for recommending that you purchase a Mac?

The answers to these questions may have a real effect on where you spend next Thanksgiving.

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