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.

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