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Holiday tech support: quick fixes for all your family's gear

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As we leave our glowing multi-monitor gaming rigs behind on our journey home for the holidays, many of us will be recruited to fix a wide variety of gadgets and technology. It's the burden that we bear as the "technology gurus" of our families, and though it can be an irksome role, helping your loved ones cohabitate with their gear can be a rewarding and educational experience. You don't have to let your title as the de facto tech expert turn your holiday into a struggle with your family's gadgets. Instead, go for the simple fixes that make a big difference — most of them won't even cut into your post-dinner nap.

To help, we've collected a few tips and suggestions for your role as a bespoke technical support specialist. From home theater to networking, there are small interventions that can make life easier for everybody involved. We may not have asked for the job of technology overseer, but as long as we're doing it, we might as well strategically choose some areas that will offer the best bang for your holiday tech support buck.

Rescuing the Home Theater

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AV equipment — TVs, surround sound systems, Blu-ray players — are all systems that have to work together. The devil is in the details when it comes to correctly connecting everything, but those details are often obscured by overweight and somewhat dusty home entertainment centers. Is the TV calibrated correctly? Did the left and right channels get switched at some point? What about equalizer presets, are they making movies too bass-heavy?

The only way to find out is to dive right into the settings, starting first with the receiver. I use these files by Bjørn Lynne to make sure sound is coming out of every speaker (they're far nicer than Microsoft's test sounds), in addition to panning the sound from left to right and front to back to make sure everything's in order. With so many speaker wires running into the receiver, I'm never surprised when I find a pair swapped with another pair close by.

Next up is the TV. Many people aren't aware that HDMI cables also carry audio, so it isn't uncommon to see the RCA wires attached in addition to the HDMI connection. This can sometimes confuse the receiver, or worse, force it to play in analog stereo when digital surround sound is available. Other devices like Blu-ray players and streaming boxes also need to be checked for errant connections.

many smart TVs already have Netflix and Hulu Plus built in

Speaking of streaming boxes, your parents or siblings may have Netflix or Hulu subscriptions on their tablets, but can they view that content on the big screen? Every current-generation game console and many Smart TVs already have Netflix and Hulu Plus built in — it's simply a matter of taking what's already there and setting it up. If the hardware currently in place is lacking, you can choose from several brands and models of streaming set-top-boxes at any major electronics retailer.

Wi-Fi and networking equipment

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It's surprising how frequently I get calls from both friends and family about unreliable Wi-Fi, and you'd think that by 2012 we'd have figured out how to make a quality router. The unfortunate reality is that most people use the router given to them by their ISP. The best you'll be able to do with a default router is ensure that its built-in settings are tweaked to perfection — a task that often goes undone because cable installers simply don't do it.

The best you'll be able to do with a default router is ensure that its built-in settings are tweaked to perfection

For whatever reason, routers will sometimes come with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) disabled. If your family has game consoles, computers, and smartphones on the same network, UPnP allows them to communicate with no configuration, so having it enabled is practically a no-brainer. It enables DLNA apps like Samsung's AllShare to stream music, movies, and pictures to any DLNA and UPnP-enabled TV or streaming box, and there are several apps in both the Google Play and the Apple App Store that offer similar functionality.

The other thing you can do to improve the networking situation while you're at home is to change the router's default password. Many ISPs provide customers with a convoluted and impossible-to-remember string of letters and numbers, making it difficult to recall if no one's entered it in several months. If push comes to shove, most routers can be reset to the factory default of "admin" while you're away, but setting a memorable password will keep you from having to go this route. It won't improve the quality of your family's Wi-Fi coverage, but it can make everybody's life significantly easier.

If coverage is the problem, one thing you can do is change the location of the router. Moving routers away from load-bearing walls and steel support structures can yield surprisingly good results simply by reducing signal obstruction. If this still doesn't improve the signal in your parents' house, you can turn an old Linksys router into a repeater or buy a premade one at stores like Best Buy and Staples.

Smartphones and tablets

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Regardless of what your family's smartphone alignment might be, people that aren't plugged into the pulse of the industry like we are sometimes struggle with what we'd consider basic smartphone functionality. The workflow for syncing music and backing up pictures isn't always as straightforward and logical as it appears to us technophiles.

For family members with iPhones, their primary interface with a computer is likely still iTunes. Unless they're using iOS 5 or 6 with iCloud and its automatic backups, users with unsynced phones are at risk of data loss if their handsets are lost or stolen. For these people, make sure to encourage them to do at least one full backup.

users with unsynced phones are at risk of data loss if their handsets are lost or stolen

Both Windows Phone and Android devices can also function relatively independently of PCs, and they are likewise at risk if they've never been backed up. If you have Windows Phone users in your family, you can turn them toward the recently-renamed Xbox Music software (or the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac) for their local backup and syncing needs. Microsoft's SkyDrive app automatically uploads pictures taken on the phone, just like Android's Google Plus app, Dropbox, and iCloud.

Android has the benefit of being partially synced with Google's servers, keeping important things like contacts and emails out of harm's way. However, for syncing media like pictures, videos, and music, programs like DoubleTwist and Kies (for Samsung devices) make good suggestions for family members who are used to an iTunes-like interface. There are even apps in Google Play like My Backup that can keep copies of whole apps safe in cloud or local storage.

the situation is a bit of a mixed bag for Android users

After the backups have been made, your next order of business will probably include a check for OS updates. iPhone users can connect to iTunes or download their updates over the air (OTA), but the situation is a bit of a mixed bag for Android users. Most carrier-branded Android phones receive security patches over the air, but sometimes require a connection to a desktop for major OS updates. This job will undoubtedly fall to you, so be sure to follow the instructions for your aunt's aging Captivate carefully or you'll never hear the end of it.

The last good deed on the list is enabling lost smartphone tracking. Apple's "Find my iPhone" or "Find my iPad" apps do exactly what their names imply, and similar functionality can be had on both Android and Windows Phone devices. Android users will have to find an app like Locate my Droid to do the tracking, but Windows Phone users simply have to log into their account on Microsoft's website and follow these instructions.

Social media privacy settings

Your mother and father are probably on Facebook, and your siblings almost certainly are. Now imagine that they aren't entirely sure how to control their privacy settings — not a stretch when you consider just how convoluted Facebook's settings can be even for experts. Many people have an abstract idea of how privacy on social networks is done, but actually managing all the wall posts and photo galleries can result in a lot of unanswered questions.

Luckily, this is a situation that can be remedied with a little bit of coaching. Explaining how Friend Lists work and how to limit a previous post's audience can add a much finer level of control over your family's Facebook contributions. App permissions also have individual settings, making it possible to limit the amount of public activity your usage exposes, adding a much-needed element of control to a service that would otherwise seem like it broadcasts your every move.

Maintaining the family PC

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If your family uses Macs, most of the maintenance you'll end up doing is coaching parents and siblings on how to manage their media. iPhoto and Lightroom are excellent applications, but people who grew up with more traditional filesystems may struggle trying to find where their pictures and music are actually located on the drive. Otherwise, you might spend some time helping them upgrade to the latest version of OS X, or moving their data to a new Mac. For that, you'll probably want to brush up on Apple's built-in Migration Assistant.

If one of your relatives recently bought a Windows 8 PC — or if they jumped on the upgrade pricing — you'll almost certainly be asked to explain what in the world is going on. With a significantly revamped user interface and a slew of new features, even the most seasoned tech evangelists are struggling take in the breadth of change in Microsoft's new OS. Your best bet might be to simply explore the OS with loved ones as you use it — after all, practice makes perfect.

Machines running Windows 7 and earlier can present rather significant problems if infected or severely corrupted. Browsers plagued with toolbars, popups, and unreliable internet connectivity are the hallmarks of a compromised machine. Windows 7 and 8 are less prone to infection than their predecessors, but it's definitely worth giving the family PC a quick checkup while you're visiting. If the aforementioned symptoms describe your family's machine, it might be a good time to show your parents and siblings how apps like Malwarebytes or SuperAntiSpyware can make quick work of digital intruders.

you should ensure the family PC has an adequate backup scheme

The last thing you should do is ensure the family PC has an adequate backup scheme — be it cloud-based or targeted at an external hard drive — if only to save yourself a considerable amount of file recovery work down the road. If you haven't read our comprehensive guide to PC backups, be sure to give it a look before you head home.

And with that, you can rest easy knowing you've done your part in keeping all that high-tech gear running at top performance. It didn't even take that long, did it? We wrangled home theater systems, unruly network equipment and mobile devices, then moved on to social networks and compromised PCs. It's really all in a day's work for a tech buff like you, so go ahead, enjoy that well deserved candy cane.

The Verge
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