The parent trap

We’ve all been there at one time or another: fixing a family member’s computer. It’s not a situation I particularly mind, since my family has done countless favors for me over the years. Taking an hour or so every once in a while to sort out their computer issues is the least I can do. When it comes to recommending a new computer, however, I’ve found myself wondering not only about the price/performance ratio of the machine, but also about what choices could be made to prevent possible issues down the line. After all, some forward-thinking purchasing decisions could save me a number of headaches in the future.

The first choice to make is whether to buy a pre-built unit or assemble the machine yourself. Cyril described his experience with the latter in one of his own blog posts, which demonstrated some of the issues I’ve found with building computers for others. Usually, the biggest reason to build it yourself is out of cost concerns, but I’ve found this "prebuilt is more expensive than assembling" belief to be less accurate in recent years. Hunt around the web for coupons, or simply look in the Sunday paper ads, and you’ll see pre-built machines sold for less than the retail cost of the individual parts. Welcome to the power of mass production and volume pricing.

So, what if you decide you can still beat Dell’s prices? When going with parts from Newegg or Fry’s, you absolutely must remember that you become the end-to-end support regardless of what goes wrong. Be it failing hardware, software hitches, or just a loose cable—any problem will become yours to diagnose and resolve. That’s generally not a big deal for me, but oftentimes I can’t get a problem squared away over the phone, resulting in an answer like, "I’ll just have to take a look at it next time I’m in town." Now my family member is out of a computer for an indeterminate amount of time, and I’m less excited about my next visit.

Enter PC vendors and their customer support infrastructures. Obviously, this is the biggest benefit to buying a pre-built system. When something goes wrong with a Dell PC, the owner simply rings up customer support and gets walked through a number of scripts in order to diagnose the problem. Dell’s been doing phone support for 20 years, so it’s (in theory) better prepared to perform a remote diagnosis than I am. In the event of a hardware failure, parts and an in-home technician are on the way. With software, well, it usually falls on me to get it sorted out. Still, PC vendor support can fix a good number of the issues I would normally have to deal with—and it does so in a much timelier manner. It’s a win-win situation. Of course, extended or in-home warranties always add to the cost of the unit, but they can prove wise investments. In most cases, I’ll recommend sacrificing some hardware capabilities to keep the price down before skimping on the warranty.

Next up: picking an operating system. With most of my family members, I try to keep computer-related activities as simple as possible. Though Windows Vista is probably a better choice than XP at this point, some people just can’t be bothered to learn a new OS. My grandmother, for example, knows how to check her email, local weather, and stock portfolio, and she knows how to look up recipes online. That’s about all she uses her computer for. While the transition to Windows Vista probably wouldn’t be a very disruptive one, she knows how to use XP, so it’s just not worth the aggravation of forcing the upgrade on her.

The same thought crosses my mind whenever I consider recommending a Mac (or even one of those slick Eee PCs running Linux). On the one hand, Apple’s got the "it just works" appeal going for it. I don’t have to worry about an alternative browser, and as of right now, malware still isn’t a large concern. iChat even has built-in screen sharing, so I could theoretically walk someone through a task on their computer by showing them. Linux brings similar security benefits to the table, although the open-source community still has some work to do before I can say desktop Linux distributions "just work." Regardless, the biggest issue with recommending anything other than Windows, despite the potential benefits, is that it’s change. Change is bad for my less computer literate friends and family. I’d just be trading one type of support call for another, now treated to "why don’t my Word documents look the same in OpenOffice?"

How do you deal with your family members and their PCs? Do you build them all yourself, or are you eyeballing Asus’ new Eee Box nettops? Personally, I’ve given up on assembling machines for family members. Pre-built machines with in-home warranties have cut down on my house calls immensely, and they make visits with the family far more enjoyable. With the holidays in full swing right now, I definitely appreciate the relief.

Comments closed
    • DLHM
    • 11 years ago

    For friends, unless I happen to be at thier house and it will take less than 20 minutes, they get no support. Family is different, I have configured all their routers for web managment, and instructed them how to start VNC.
    When they call, they have allready gone to whatismyipaddress.com, ( I don’t have any dyndns host left to use) and they give me the address. I open 5900 for them and do what I have to do.
    then close it. I can sit on the couch with my laptop and work on a computer while watching tv. But they also know they are getting exactly what they pay for. pay nothing, and repairs are done at my convienance.

    • Tamale
    • 11 years ago

    I think it was already mentioned once, but boy, has logmein changed this forever for me!

    Every PC I put together or setup for a friend or family member now gets logmein installed and configured to automatically update..

    I set them up with an account and tell them the password I’d prefer to use so we both know it.. then anytime they’re having problems I can hop right on and take a look from anywhere!

    it’s brilliant ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      What is Remote Assistance lacking? It is already there on any XP (and up) setup. Seems like people just don’t know it exists or there is so much hate against it?

      • indeego
      • 11 years ago

      It’s brilliant until logmein has a zerodayg{<.<}g

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      i just use Microsoft’s SharedView, which requires a little more than logmein, but is pretty sweet.

    • joselillo_25
    • 11 years ago

    A tip:

    I always destroy my relatives PCยดs, so the never call me again.

    • SnowboardingTobi
    • 11 years ago

    I actually don’t mind helping out.

    Sure, it can be annoying if they bug you all the time, but you just need to educate them about how to do things and practice safe computing.

    For the most part though, me helping them out just means that one day I can call on them to help me out with something they can do that I can’t.

    • lex-ington
    • 11 years ago

    Seeing that I always get food (and lots of it) and drink (and lots of it) from my PC-tech visits to friends, I don’t mind at all.

    My family is 1500 miles from me in every direction, so I they ususally let the computers sit broken till they know I’m coming, then they tell me what’s wrong, i get the needed parts/programs, then I show up . . . . just to be greeted with much more food and drink my friends give me.

    I get nothing with a pre-configured machine. ๐Ÿ˜›

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    I think the biggest thing is that a $400 PC from Walmart can now run pretty much everything that is asked of it. No longer do you have to worry about checking specs and stuff. With 2gb becoming pretty much the standard, unless you’re doing gaming, integrated graphics are perfectly fine, and even preferable in some cases. (AMD/nVidia driver’s lag far behind Intel’s for ease-of-use, in my experience)

      • blubje
      • 11 years ago

      I think computers have been past this point for quite a while now, and it’s definitely nice for consumers. Unfortunately it speed doesn’t make up for component quality in my experience. Good power supplies, actual power supplies, and effective cooling is not always something to be found in a computer from walmart or best buy. They also have bloatware, and lack any sort of intelligent drive partitioning should bad things happen.

      Of course, software problems eclipse any sort of hardware deficiencies, and in my experience, it’s much more valuable to inform people about computer use rather than trying to rely on tech support. My list is something like (1) [most importantly] *[

    • Homerr
    • 11 years ago

    For decent cost and support I find myself suggesting Dell Outlet more and more for friends or family. My input is to help them pick the system for their needs – they are grateful and I’m off the hook.

    I don’t mind ordering more RAM or a monitor separately and setting these up since they are easy.

    I’ve found that asking for something I need from them keeps the relationship in balance. For example, one of my friends is a veterinarian, and I ask her about my cats health issues whenever I do pc work as a reminder of this.

    • fishyuk
    • 11 years ago

    Spent way too much time adding RAM, removing anything from Symantec and installing service packs on laptops not intended for the purpose.

    Just got mum to buy a new laptop , cheap HP pavillion but with a dual core CPU , dedicated graphcis and webcam. Some may have a heart attack but it came with Vista and all runs together a treat. Wish I’d saved wasted time trying to put lipstick on a pig and just bought it for her myself, the time lost is probably worth far more than the laptop. You live and learn!

    Just added Citrix Go to my PC too and works a treat from the UK to Cape Town.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      Similar thing here, I ended up pointing my little sis to a Lenovo C2D machine. It was more hardware than she really needed, but it came up on a Newegg discount within the price range she had specified, and even with her bric-a-brac of software randomness (like the utility that changes wallpapers every minute), it’s stays fast enough that it doesn’t need to be maintained with a fine-toothed comb. Win-win.

    • kvndoom
    • 11 years ago

    I don’t bother anymore. I like having empirical control over my own personal system, but for anyone else, let Dell support deal with their nonstop self-inflicted issues.

    • gerbilspy
    • 11 years ago

    I am suggesting Dell Latitude Series lappies and Dlink routers to all who ask about new computers. The lappies are built to last with very little “crap” installed, and the Dlink routers last “forever”, in my experience. In the last 2 years I have set 3 people up this way and every one of them is blissfully happy. Not a single call to Dell OR me for hardware issues, and 1 call to me about some virii and spyware…damned porn sites! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      I also like that Dlink’s support site has emulators available for all of their products, so that I can do phone support w/ family without having to guess about what’s on the screen.

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 11 years ago

        2nd the benefit of the emulator.

    • gtoulouzas
    • 11 years ago

    Family is one thing. Friends are one thing.

    What impresses me most, though, are people who’ve never so much as called you up for a cup of coffee, or to hang out, and somehow *still* see it fit to consider you their lifetime tech support, simply on account of being a distant acquaintance. Attractive females included (guess what? I’m not a teenager anymore and I’m not about to work free of charge for the… priviledge of being around your presence).

    Pony up the cash for a technician, you cheapos.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      I have to agree.. it’s a bit sad when an old friend messages you just because they’re having a tech problem!

      It’s happened to me on plenty of occasions..

      • kvndoom
      • 11 years ago

      Man, you are so right.

      • Synchromesh
      • 11 years ago

      Totally agree with that one.

    • Decelerate
    • 11 years ago

    I convinced an imac for my brother and my cousin. And my 2 other little cousins will very probably end up with macs too.

    They want windows? Bootcamp. The joys of having the tailored installation disc with tailored drivers make the hunt of said drivers a non-issue.

    Frankly over the years my enthusiasm with PCs have greatly dimnished. I get my full dose of excitement when I build my new comp every 3-4 years, and don’t even want to bother maintaining my brother’s computer (we’re still in the same house!) for anything but trivial. For non-newbs my typical answer is now “Google it”.

    Personally I can’t even stand towers anymore. My current shuttle is having boot issues (I think it’s the board itself) that annoys me to the bone, but my next build will probably be another shuttle. Heck, I’m thinking about an X27D for my sister (if the mac mini isn’t nicely updated this January).

    Had to fix up my cousins’ vaio a couple of months ago. URGH… I hate sony. Guess what: virus and rootkit up the wazoo. That being said, for notebooks I’m presently leaning towards lenovo over apple.

    • Hattig
    • 11 years ago

    I talked my dad into buying a Mac, and haven’t had a single support call since, although the volume of emails has gone up!

    • sdack
    • 11 years ago

    If you admit to friends and family that you are good with computers then they start hiring you as their personal, free-of-charge, life-time service technician.

    At this point you need to come up with an *[

      • Last
      • 11 years ago

      And be aware of *[

        • sdack
        • 11 years ago

        Uhh, no, _[

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      q[

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      I agree with your first and third paragraphs, but none of the rest.

      q[

        • sdack
        • 11 years ago

        /[

          • Damage
          • 11 years ago

          /me waves his ban stick.

            • sdack
            • 11 years ago

            /me smiles happily at Damage.

          • eitje
          • 11 years ago

          ANY of them? EVER?

          What about the time I called you “cool”? ๐Ÿ™

            • sdack
            • 11 years ago

            Stop trying to get personal with me. I do not like the way you keep approaching me.

            • eitje
            • 11 years ago

            YOUR opening comment in this public forum was about your personal life. I didn’t open that door.

            • sdack
            • 11 years ago

            No, you did not open it. It was Matt Butrovich, who asked “How do you deal with your family members and their PCs?”. It sure was not you. So, my memory is working. How is yours going along?

    • srg86
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve always built my parents PC for them, I have no trust in PC companies at all. You’re more likely to spend 3 hours waiting on the phone than anything else.

    • KeillRandor
    • 11 years ago

    Thankfully my Dads an electrician and can build his own, (and probably knows more about the hardware than I do), but I’ve still had to help out with a few bits of software now and again – (though not for the last couple of years since I moved about 100 miles away). Of course, the fact that his current girlfriend? is an old (good) computer programmer probably helps…

    • Philldoe
    • 11 years ago

    I don’t do computer work for family anymore. The last time I fixed a computer for the family, it became infested with more porn and virii and I was blamed for it, so I told em to fix the damned thing themselfs from now on.

    • Flying Fox
    • 11 years ago

    q[

    • Pachyuromys
    • 11 years ago

    So many posts about Dell its hard to pick one to reply to. So I’ll just make a new one. ๐Ÿ˜›

    I’ve been buying, and recommending others to buy Dells for almost 20 years. I’ve had to call them for support so many times on so many systems I’ve lost count. That’s not to say Dells tend to have a lot of problems; to the contrary, generally “they just work” as well as anything, including Apples. Usually the only time I’ve needed to call is either when first setting it up or right after installing (or more often, after someone else tried to install) something new.

    In my experience, Dell support is absolutely fabulous at resolving/replacing hardware issues, and fair to miserable at solving software issues. On one end of the scale, Dell once replaced a new CRT monitor for me /[

    • Kulith
    • 11 years ago

    Hold on a minute, did you just say Dell phone support is good just because they’ve been doing it for 20 years?

    Thats just so far wrong it’s not even funny.

    I have yet to find a dell chat/phone agent who speaks fluent English, knows more about computers than my little sister, and doesn’t walk me through 1 hour of pointless exercises and put me on hold for 30 minutes before they decide they don’t know what the problem is.

      • njenabnit
      • 11 years ago

      Dell business support really seems to remedy a lot of their previous problems that I have heard of. I also HATE using their phone support. Since all of the machines at work are Dells, when something goes down I hop on their online chat support. I have never not had some sort of action taken within 30 minutes. Plus, I get to talk with someone within 5-10 minutes if not sooner. I would highly recommend using their chat support.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    It’s never hard for me to convince family and freelance clients to go with custom machines; I just point to their current Tier One systems and all the sh1t that comes preloaded on it, not to mention the lack of insurance options (RAID, proper cooling/ventilation, et al), and the choice becomes quite obvious.

      • Chrispy_
      • 11 years ago

      I think cooling solutions and ease of adding internal hard drives for RAID are better in a dell than most home-built at the same price point.

      The preloaded software argument doesn’t hold any water as you’d have to install windows from scratch on a self-built machine, and you can do that with any other machine that’s preloaded with crap. However, it’s often quicker to just uninstall the junk.

    • leor
    • 11 years ago

    I keep trying to get out of this, but just when I think I’m out . . . they pull me back in!

    • travbrad
    • 11 years ago

    Having them get a pre-built system doesn’t mean they won’t ask for help if something goes wrong. Yes more of the burden is on the manufacturer, but for software problems (the most common kind) they are still going to want your help, since you’re the “computer guy” of the family.

    One of the biggest hardware issues I’ve found when building computers for people is the cooling/heat. Having a bunch of case fans and a good HSF doesn’t help when they shove their PC into a small enclosed desk with virtually no air flow. I built a computer for my aunt awhile back and the CPU ran at 115F load at my house, but at her house it ended up being 180F+(!!) which caused her computer to crash.

    I generally agree about pre-built PCs though. At the low/medium end it’s usually hard to compete with big computer manufacturers on price, so you might as well just have them buy a pre-built one. They will tend to end up with less upgrade options (less extra slots, more specific/smaller cases, weak power supply), but often times they will just end up buying a new PC anyway. I do try to install Windows fresh for them though, or at least tweak some of the services and stuff. OEMs tend to pile on the bloatware and run a bunch of unneeded services.

    The only exception to this is my immediate family (parents and brother). Whenever I do an upgrade I just give them my old stuff. In fact, next week they will finally get to experience dual-core computing, since I’m upgrading from my X2 4200+ to an E8400. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Ryhadar
      • 11 years ago

      “I generally agree about pre-built PCs though. At the low/medium end it’s usually hard to compete with big computer manufacturers on price, so you might as well just have them buy a pre-built one.”

      I used to think this as well, but a three year warranty will run you at least $150. When you factor that into the equation it’s definitely cheaper to build one yourself since you pick out components that come standard with a three-year warranty. But, as Matt already pointed out you’ve got to fix the problems yourself.

    • pikaporeon
    • 11 years ago

    I build for family and friends. Only issues I run into are people who don’t get that MS Word costs money

      • sdack
      • 11 years ago

      /[

        • pikaporeon
        • 11 years ago

        I know, they think its part of my “crazy hippie linux -expletive-” though and that they’ll never figure it out. They need GOOD TRUE MICROSOFT SOFTWARE

        [and then they ask me to pirate XP for them. Go figure.]

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    I like my dad’s first experience with a computer…

    “So dad, to start with, let’s pick up the mouse, and move it around a bit, to get a feel for how it works…”

    So he picks up the mouse and moves it around in the air, staring seriously at the screen with a questioning look when nothing happens.

    “So dad, let’s try just pecking a few keys, pretending they are a typewriter…

    THAT he got. And the rest is historyg{<.<}g

    • Ryhadar
    • 11 years ago

    To be completely honest, I don’t have this problem with custom PCs. I have built PCs for friends in the past, and before I let them use it I sit them down and explain the software I’ve installed (usually this is the anti-virus, but recently this has included Vista). I also explain some simple tips for keeping your PC in tip top shape. I can’t say anything major has popped up, but maybe I’m just lucky.

    However, since I am the PC guy to go to in the family I more often then not get the honor of fixing PCs from the usual suspects of PC manufacturers. These are far more annoying.

      • indeego
      • 11 years ago

      Speaking from someone who has build a lot of machines for a lot of people, ( many regrettably) their biggest concern is usually “am I bugging him?” and the last resort is them calling/bugging you. They have a billion other questions and comments that they will never tell you about.

      This can be a good thing: less bugging you.

      Or a bad thing: everything bad happens at once and them asking you may have been a good idea from the start before the crescendo startedg{<.<}g

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 11 years ago

        OR when they ask you and its pretty much already too late/far worse a situation.

        • Decelerate
        • 11 years ago

        I’m assuming you’re not asian. Then again, it’s maybe my circle of connections.

        On my side it’s practically seen as a constitutional right to call up “the guy who knows tech” and ask him for help.

    • GeForce6200
    • 11 years ago

    This post made me think twice about building my cousin a pc for Christmas. Hopefully nothing can to wrong that I can’t fix over the phone. Is there anyway to get on another persons pc over the internet?

      • delsydsoftware
      • 11 years ago

      You could use remote desktop, but that can be a pain to set up for the non-computer literate. Webex is a good option—instead of a Dell service plan for $100, you can sink $125 into a year of Webex acess for the PC. Or, you can buy a month at a time for $12.95. We use this at work for remotely accessing customer PCs, and it’s as simple as sending them a weblink through their email.

      ยง[<http://www.webex.com/individual/buy_pcn.html<]ยง PC Anywhere is still around, too, but it's really too expensive for a single user setup.

        • highlandr
        • 11 years ago

        Even easier – logmein.com Free access with limited features, more features if you want to pay for it. Works through routers, (most) firewalls, and they don’t have to know any details, just that the machine is on and can get to the internet.

        A nice, easy, free alternative to the many remote access products out there.

      • shaq_mobile
      • 11 years ago

      theres alot of programs, but the one most suited for you is probably just regular old Remote Desktop that comes with windows xp and vista.

      you will need them to open up a port on their router i believe (if its not already open) and you will need their ip (search in google “whats my ip” is the simplest way for a simple user). Then you need an account on the users computer with admin or at least remote user rights (set in computer management>groups and adding yoru account name in) or access to the ‘administrator’ account on the computer. there is a boatload of documentation on microsoft.com about remote desktop and its most likely your best option if youre using windows and only supporting one pc.

        • equivicus
        • 11 years ago

        If they are XP Home you cannot connect to them via Remote Desktop unless there is some hack I’m not aware of. There is also VNC. UltraVNC is one I’ve used off and on.

        Edit: Almost forgot VNC is not natively secure/encrypted however there are plugins for encryption. And just like all things “secure” there are ways to circumvent the security. Remote Desktop has encryption too. Another options is VPN+Remote Control but that is way beyond a simple comments post.

          • Norphy
          • 11 years ago

          It’s true you can’t use Remote Desktop on XP Home but you can still use Remote Assistance

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      There are tons and tons. Everyone has their favorite.

      I like Microsoft’s new SharedView. All you need is a browser (and a Windows Live account – ie, hotmail address) to use it.

    • d2brothe
    • 11 years ago

    Heh…what I’d like to get them doing is running a system over terminal services. I can keep the server locally and they only need a few low end terminals that need upgrading. I can do software and hardware upgrades, repairs, and installations at my leisure…and tech support is no problem. Alas, they haven’t yet agreed to such a….admittedly controlling system of computers, right now I fix them whenever I come into town. Lucky my family is fairly progressive and has accepted upgrades to vista and such in stride.

    The only major issue they’ve had is my sister picking up spyware while she was at university, I haven’t gotten to fix it for about a month now…but I figure the continuous advertisement popups are a good lesson to not run arbitrary downloaded files.

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      Get your sister on Vista without administrative rights should solve most of her spyware problems.

        • d2brothe
        • 11 years ago

        Heh, I could do that, but she’d probably complain to me about it. I figured the UAC would be enough to make her think twice, I suppose not though.

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