Take (Remote) Control of Their PC
Trying to troubleshoot a computer problem over the phone is like trying to tie someone else's shoelaces--when that someone is in a different house. It's a maddeningly slow, often fruitless process, one that usually unfolds like this:
"Okay, open up the Control Panel."
"Where's the Control Panel?"
"In the Start menu."
"The Start menu. You know, the Start button?"
"Oh, that. So I should click that?"
"Okay, then what?"
"Open the Control Panel."
"Where's the Control Panel?"
"Look for the thing that says 'Control Panel.'"
"I don't see it."
Fortunately, an easy way to avoid this special kind of hell is to use remote-control software. As long as their Internet connection is working, such software lets your PC take control of the other person's PC, interacting with their system just as though you were actually sitting in front of it. It's a lifesaver and a sanity-saver--and it won't cost either person a penny.
I'm partial to LogMeIn Express, if only because it's the easiest of the three for the other user--the person needing help--to deploy. Here are the exact over-the-phone instructions you'd give that person:
1. Google "LogMeIn Express," then click the first link that appears.
2. Click the blue Share button.
3. When a pop-up box appears, click the Run button. (Firefox users may need to save the LogMeInExpress.exe file, then run it manually.)
4. Read off the nine-digit code that appears in the LogMeIn Express box.
At your end, fire up your browser, visit the aforementioned LogMeIn Express site, and type the code into the View Another Screen field. Click View, and in a few seconds you should have total control over the other person's system. Now you can poke around, see what's happening, and, hopefully, fix whatever needs fixing.
Don't Forget The Flash Drive
If you can't make any headway via remote control--a definite possibility if the problem is a malware infection, a finicky printer, or the like--it may be time for an in-person visit. But unlike a repairman out to fix a busted dishwasher, you don't need a big, heavy toolbox to deal with most computer-related issues. The only "hammer" required is a flash drive.
Specifically, a flash drive (I recommend one with at least 2GB of storage space) equipped with file-recovery utilities, malware-fighting software, system-diagnostic programs, and other so-called portable apps that can run directly from the drive, no installation required. It's like a multitool for PCs, one you assemble yourself with the applications you like best.
Or, if you prefer, the ones I like best. I never go on a repair call without the following flash-drive freebies:
CCleaner Portable Not so much a problem solver as a system tuner, CCleaner cleans up the Registry, eliminates temporary files, and just generally gives Windows a good scrubbing. It may help a slow PC run faster.
Everything Portable Sometimes the only problem is a missing file. The Everything search engine makes quick work of finding files and folders.
Recuva Portable Virus, drive glitch, user error--who cares how the files got deleted? The point is to get them back. With this free tool, your chances of "Recuva-ry" are about as good as they get. And because you run it from your flash drive, it reduces the chances of the lost file(s) getting overwritten on the hard drive.
SUPERAntiSpyware A few months ago, the so-called AntiVirus Live virus started bombarding PCs with scary, real-looking security warnings and masquerading as a program--Antivirus Live--that would protect and repair them. SUPERAntiSpyware (which sounds like one of the fake programs it promises to remove) can rid a PC of that and other pernicious infections. (Click on the thumbnail below.)
You can find hundreds more portable apps at Pendriveapps.com. Of course, most of these tools have one common requirement: Windows. But what happens if Windows won't boot or keeps crashing? This could be the result of corrupted system files, a major malware infestation, or even a failing hard drive. In any case, Windows-powered utilities won't do you much good. You're going to need a stronger solution.
Like Linux. You can install an entire Linux operating system on your flash drive and make that drive bootable, meaning it'll load the OS without making any changes to your PC. That's one effective way to rescue files and data that are otherwise trapped inside a busted Windows. To learn how to create a bootable flash drive, check out Lincoln Spector's handy guide.
On the other hand, if you're just trying to clear out some stubborn viruses, try AVG Rescue CD. True to its name, this free antivirus utility was designed for bootable CDs--but a flash-drive version that works just as well is also available. It boots into a specialized Linux environment that can scan for and remove infections within Windows. It also features a Registry editor, a file-recovery tool, and a file browser, among other helpers.
Share Your Resources
What's the best defense against technology problems of all kinds? Education, of course. Consequently, when you come across particularly helpful articles, how-to guides, and the like--you know, the kind packed in PCWorld and on PCWorld.com--share them with your family, friends, and colleagues. The more they know, the better prepared they'll be when trouble strikes--and all the less likely to call you during dinner.