You want to be nice. When friends or family call you with computer trouble, you try to help them. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a task bar from a USB port. So sometimes, you need help to be helpful.
First, I'll tell you how to help local loved ones--those who live close enough for you to sit down at their PCs. Then I'll offer advice for long-distance support over the phone and via the Internet. Finally, I'll suggest a few articles you should encourage your tech dependents to read so they won't have to depend on you so much in the future.
First, you don't know everything. If you can't figure out the problem, say so. It's better not to help than to make things worse.
Second, you have a life. You're not obliged to drop everything you're doing to help figure out why Auntie Vivian's antivirus conflicts with Final Catastrophe IV: Attack of the Dentists. Let people know when it's not a good time.
When you sit down at someone's computer, start by checking the basics. Are the security programs up to date? Check msconfig to find out what programs are loading with every boot. If there's a working Internet connection, run a free, online malware scanner, such as this one at Kaspersky Lab and this one at Trend Micro. Put shortcuts to your favorite scanners on a flash drive so you can take them to different computers.
Tech Support Tools
And while you're at it, put some portable diagnostic and repair programs on the flash drive, as well. Portable programs don't have to be installed on a computer; you run them from the flash drive and they work just fine.
Here are three free, portable programs that belong on every local hero's flash drive:
ToniArts' repair tool searches your Registry for unnecessary entries and gives you the option of deleting them. You can instruct it to skip entries containing a specific word, and you can have it print or save its search results.
EasyCleaner has other tricks, as well, including an Add/Remove programs tool (it's no better than Windows' built-in add/remove utility, however), tools for finding duplicate and unnecessary files, a space usage tool that tells you where your hard-drive space is going, and a Startup inspector that could take the place of msconfig. It has an undo command, too. Should you regret a particular Registry change, you can undo all or just one of them.
CPUID's freebie provides a full list of everything on your friend's PC. It will identify the BIOS make and number, the type of RAM, and CPU and motherboard temperature. PC Wizard can also report on Windows' configuration, system files, and resources. And it benchmarks the PC's performance.
Just in case your beneficiary accidentally deleted a file and then emptied the Recycle Bin, it's a good idea to have this little program on your flash drive. It scans the hard drive, groups deleted files by type, and estimates you the likelihood of recovering the lost items. Then it tries--and often succeeds--to recover the ones you select. Undelete Plus is free, but if you like it, be nice and send in the requested US$10 donation.