How to fix your parents’ messed-up computers this holiday season


abandoned parents computers
Don't let this be your Christmas.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Christmas time means packing up your daily troubles, forgetting work for a week, and heading home to… troubleshoot your parents’ broken computers and gadgets? Oh man, is it that time of year again already? That’s the problem with being the family’s only geek – you get handed all the geek jobs. However, you can turn this to your advantage, and make it a lot easier, by going in prepared. Check out our Holiday Troubleshooting Guide right here.

Day minus 1: The prep

Before you leave, get your kit together. It should include, but not be limited to:

  • A known-good Ethernet cable.
  • Several known-good USB cables, of various kinds.
  • An empty portable hard drive or SSD drive, for backups.
  • An iPad with cellular, to look up problems while computer is down. Your phone will do.
  • A USB keyboard (if they use Bluetooth) to perform startup keyboard shortcuts on the Mac.
  • AeroPress and portable grinder, plus beans. Unless you have coffee-loving parents with their own setup.

Day 1: The arrival

You arrived at home. Step one is to kiss your mother, and accept a delicious holiday-themed beverage. Pro-tip: avoid anything with “nog” in its name at this stage. You don’t want to get taken out of the game at this early a stage. Step three is to run a full, bootable backup of your parents computer. This means that – should the worst come to the worst – you can nuke their Mac, reinstall macOS, and copy back all their data. Use your preferred backup app for this: SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner are great choices. Once the backup has started, you can leave it running and join the family. Remind your mother and father not to turn the computer off. Actually, even better: put post-it notes over both the wall plug and the computer’s power button.

Day 2

Step one: Note your hangover, and regret telling your parents drunkenly about that time you made out with the babysitter while they were out at their bridge night. Step two – and this might be the most important part of this whole guide – switch off “soap opera” mode on all TVs in the house. Soap opera mode — aka motion-smoothing — is when the TV makes up frames in-between the actual frames of the TV show or movie in order to use up the full 120/240fps or whatever the TV serves up. Movies look especially bad, like a cheap soap opera shot on a 1980s video camera. The problem has gotten so out of hand that movie directors have gotten together with the industry to combat the problem with something called Filmmaker Mode.

Just turn it off. And do it when your parents aren’t around. They won’t like you messing with their TVs, so do it in secret, and never mention it. If they are your in-laws, then do not even tell your spouse. He/she may let something slip, or even try to stop you. And you’re not finished with the TV just yet. We’ll be back, later in your holiday stay.

If you’re caught switching off soap-opera mode, just distract the target parent by asking them which of their gadgets and computers need fixing. Perform software updates on all devices – computers, phones, iPads, etc. Leave these to run while you get drunk and argue with your family. Keep avoiding all nogs. Also, while you’re in the “computer room,” find and throw away all instruction manuals and driver CDs/DVDs. They will all be out of date. If needed, you can download new ones.

General computer troubleshooting tips

Step one is to ask what needs fixing. Make a list. Step two is to see if you can reproduce the problem. If you can, step three is to turn the device off, and then on again. That will fix almost everything. Except the computer, because parents already turn their computer and the internet off every night anyway.

Ask your parents for their passwords. They’re probably the name of a dead dog, or your birthday. Whatever, get them written down, so you don’t have to keep asking. You want the computer password, their Apple ID, Dropbox, Gmail, anything you might have to access. And – as you’ll see later – you want anything likely to be both important and weak, because you’re going to change those passwords. Then, get started. Accept offers of drinks as you go. A small nog may now be acceptable.

Getting help

For iOS, unless you know the cause of the problem, Google is your best bet. Try to imagine how other people would describe the problem, and use those words as your search terms. Also try jargon. Most problems with iOS are down to a mis-configured setting, so try to narrow it down. For the Mac, Google also helps, but you should also create a new admin user account on the Mac, then log out of your parents’ account and into the new one. Very often, this will fix the problem. If so, it means that the problem is being caused by something that is only active on your parents’ user account – an app, a setting, some background process.

In this case, you can either try to locate the problem, or just create a new user account and migrate your parents to that. The latter option is certainly appealing, but it will inevitably lead to more questions along the lines of “Where’s my…?”.

Ask lots of questions

Instead, ask your parents what the problem is. Discard their first answer, and get them to describe the exact steps they take when before they see the problem. Then, Google the problem and fix it. And remember, at any time you can excuse yourself from the festive proceedings, telling them you have to “check on the backup,” or “format the terminal,” or any buzzwords you can cobble together. It doesn’t matter. The vaguer the better, but avoid terms they may actually know, or you could get pulled off-topic fast.

Pro-tip: do this right, and you won’t have to clear a single table, wash a single dish, or look at any photos from your cousin’s wedding. Of course, they had to get married, because they’re having a baby. My younger sister, already a grandmother…

Finishing touches

For improved future security and trouble-free computing, you might also do the following to your parents computers/devices:

  1. Uninstall any antivirus software. It’s a crutch, and it slows down computers. If it’s a Mac, get rid of it right away. In fact, just wipe the computer and start over. Antivirus has no place on the Mac. On a PC, if your parents are sufficiently good at avoiding dodgy websites, recognizing phishing attacks, and not opening links or attachments in emails, then they don’t need antivirus software either.
  2. Set them up with a password manager. 1Password is good, as is Dashlane (Dashlane is a Cult of Mac sponsor). If they’re on iOS/macOS, iCloud Keychain is perfect. And make sure you upgrade their terrible passwords when you do it. We have a full tutorial on using Dashlane, Official Security Manager of Cult of Mac.
  3. Update the firmware on anything you can. Their router, for instance, especially if you are the person that set them up with a good third-party router in the past, to replace the terrible router supplied by their ISP. Also check for firmware and security updates on any smart home gadgets they might have.
  4. Do not change the router password without very good reason. This could lead to all kinds of things breaking. Unless you want to try to talk your parents through entering a Wi-Fi password into the printer over the phone, sometime in the New Year, then avoid this if at all possible. And don’t forget the TV:
  5. Back to that TV. Make sure to run any software updates on any TVs in the house, and to disable as many of the “smart” features as you can get away with. If anyone complains, just tell them that their TV is spying on them — it’s probably true. The best way to avoid spying TVs is to never let them connect to Wi-Fi. For the initial setup, plug it into the internet with that Ethernet cable you brought with you, and then unplug it after you’re done. If your parents use an Apple TV to get all their shows and movies, then you can leave the TV disconnected. If not, bad luck.

And finally, if anyone asks you to fix their printer, just refuse. The best case is that you manage to find and download the actual up-to-date driver from an entirely Chinese-language website, and that it installs and recognizes the printer. This is, however, extremely unlikely. You will probably just end up throwing something across the room, and drowning your pain in a pint of eggnog.

Which brings me to my final point. Now is the time to hit that nog. You’ve earned it.



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