For many of us, it’s the time of year when families and friends gather to celebrate the holidays, renew old bonds, and give gifts. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a gift in physical form, sometimes the best present is lending someone a helping hand. Here at Mac 911, I’ve established something of a tradition of providing my technical expertise to those I care for. If you’re of a like mind, I’d like to make a few suggestions.
Save those memories
As always, I start with one of the most helpful things you can do—provide the target of your generosity with a backup of their most important data. Ideally you’d give them a hard drive of at least double the size of their startup volume, connect it, and configure Time Machine to work with it. If a hard drive isn’t within your budget, consider picking up a hunk of removable flash-memory storage and copying their most important documents to it. (In most cases this means irreplaceable files like pictures of the grandkids.) If they don’t have a lot of vital files, you could additionally add them to a Dropbox or Google Drive account that you create for them.
Update their stuff
I can count on several peoples’ fingers and toes the number of times I’ve visited family members, taken a turn through their devices, and found dozens of waiting OS and app updates.
“Well, I wasn’t really sure if I should” is the common excuse for failing to acknowledge the many update notices they’ve received.
It’s now up to you to decide if particular updates are wise. See what’s on offer and then choose. For example, your brother’s old iPhone 4 may be capable of running iOS 7, but the latest version of the iPhone’s operating system is not going to be terribly fleet on that phone. On the other hand, if an application on your dad’s iMac has been giving him nothing but trouble, the latest chockfull-o’-bug-fixes update could be the answer to his prayers.
Clean up the cruft
Because today’s hard drives are so expansive and there’s so much material free for the downloading, it’s easy to pack a hard drive with hundreds of thousands of files. While your cousin may not appreciate you mucking around in his stuff, he may be more open to you speeding up his email client by archiving the messages he received between 1998 and 2011. If an iPad is so full that updates are impossible, sit down with its owner and negotiate over those apps that can be tossed. And if a Mac’s hard drive is so full that the poor thing has nearly ground to a halt, create a smart search that seeks files over 500MB and either chuck them or back them up to another piece of media and then give them the boot.
Set up remote help
If you’re the person in charge of helping Aunt Vilma when her Mac misbehaves, you’ll want to spend only the amount of time on the phone necessary to say “Launch Messages and when I ask to share your screen, click the acknowledgment message and then step away from the computer. If you touch the keyboard, mouse, or trackpad while I’m working on it, your Mac could explode.” The ability for you to remotely control (and fix) a Mac is the gift that keeps on giving.
Screen sharing within Messages can be confusing. If you mix services—one of you has an iCloud account and the other a Jabber account, for example—screen sharing won’t work. I’ve found the most reliable way to do this is for both of you to use an AIM account. If your aunt doesn’t have such an account, create one and then configure Messages for it. Then show her how to launch it and accept your screen-sharing request.
If Messages is problematic, use a service such as LogMeIn. It provides a free option that allows you to take control of another person’s Mac, do what needs doing, and then log off.
Tune into the TV
No one can blame Apple enthusiasts for focusing their attention entirely on Macs and iOS devices, but we’re all surrounded by technology—particularly in the living room—and not all of it was hatched in Cupertino.
Depending on the kind of TV viewing setup your friends or family have, you could easily spend an entire day going over this stuff. First, take a look at the TV’s image. Has someone set it to the wrong aspect ratio or imposed some kind of preset that makes the picture less than it could be? Fix it.
Are those viewing the TV throughout the year watching the standard definition version of a channel when HD is available 400 channels up the line? Create some presets on the remote or, if they access these stations by punching in the channel numbers, make a list of the HD versions of their favorites.
Is Grandpa Lewie losing his hearing and thus driving Grandma Pat crazy by blasting the nightly news at deafening decibel levels? Purchase and configure a set of wireless headphones so that poor Pat can live in peace as Lewie keeps the racket to himself.
Has Uncle Phil placed all six speakers in a 5.1 surround sound audio system on a shelf behind the TV? Spread ‘em out.
Is the home full of “smart” components that can connect to the Internet in order to obtain streaming media and updates? Make sure that the devices are actually communicating with the home network and then install any waiting updates.
Don’t forget the little stuff
And then there are these “stocking-stuffer” bits of assistance.
The network: Is the network far slower than it ought to be? Network troubleshooting can be a bear for even the technically adept but it rarely hurts to reboot the network’s devices—starting with the modem and then, if there is one, the router. If there’s a wireless router in the home, make sure that it’s not planted next to a device that could be interfering with its signal—a microwave oven, for example.
The printer: Check the printer’s ink or toner levels as well as its paper supply. Ask if the printer’s been used in the last several months and—if the answer is “no”—run a few test prints to be sure that its print head is still up to the task.
The camera: Many people who are given digital cameras as gifts, pop in a storage card, and then never think about the camera’s storage again. See how many shots remain on the camera’s card. If it’s getting full, back up the pictures (you should do this regardless), back them up again to yet another medium, and then format the card so it’s ready for another year’s-worth of memories.
The appliances: If your mom doesn’t know that her coffee maker could start brewing five minutes before she gets out of bed, she’s sure to find that knowledge welcome. If your son is constantly fiddling with the thermostat he might be pleased to know that it can be scheduled.
Safety first: If the area behind the AV center is a mass of cheap extension chords and socket splitters, purchase higher-grade power strips (and, perhaps, install a fire extinguisher nearby). Clean out the dryer vent and ask when the furnace filters were last changed. And check that smoke alarms are installed and working. Making the air clean and home more fire safe is one of the best ways to ensure that your family and friends will be around for next year’s get-together.
When taking on the task of holiday fixit guy or gal it can be tempting to bully your way around the joint imposing this fix and that repair. Before doing so, it will help maintain holiday harmony if you first sit down with those you wish to help and solicit them for any complaints they might have. A gentle “How’s your Mac running, dad?” or “Are you still enjoying that iPad, cousin Earline?” may elicit clues to what needs your initial attention. (Plus, if you fix That Thing you’ll be given more leeway to go after problems of which they were unaware.)
You have the power to give a gift like no other—help to those who need it. May your (and your loved ones’) holiday be bright and as trouble-free as you can possibly make it.
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Chris has covered technology and media since the latter days of the Reagan Administration. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he's a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area.