Home for the Holiday Tech Support

When the annual trip home becomes a customer-service visit to “fix the internet,” sometimes even bourbon can’t save the day. We gathered a half-dozen of our favorite tech writers and editors to help anticipate the headaches of 2011.

This week and through December, anyone who is computer-savvy will appreciate the following scenario: Your family gathers for a holiday meal. Your older sibling, the one with twins, has a slideshow of baby pictures that everyone wants to see, but he can’t remember which online photo-sharing service he used to upload them. Also, Mom’s wifi network is down. And she forgot the password. And Dad says the computer is dead anyway, in no part due to the nine antivirus packages that he half-installed. Now can you sort all of that out by dessert, please?

To share in the miseries and pleasures of holiday tech support, we gathered six of our favorite technology writers and editors to share their war stories, anticipate this year’s unique miseries (Kindle Fire flambé, anyone?), and single out the products and services that can help bring harmony to dinner tables nationwide.

Paul Ford is a writer who programs computers. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Brian Lam runs The Wirecutter.

Peter Rojas is the co-founder of gdgt, Engadget, and Gizmodo.

Jason Snell is the vice president and editorial director at Macworld.

Gina Trapani is a Project Director at Expert Labs, where she builds software that confuses her relatives.

Christina Warren is the entertainment editor at Mashable.


What new product or service is going to require the most tech support this holiday season?

Gina Trapani: Oh God, phones. I anticipate an array of new Android handsets flashing with preinstalled NASCAR apps. My brother will ask me what rooting actually does and my cousins will demand to know why they can’t get Facebook on their phones.

Brian Lam: It’s always computers. They’re a nightmare for parents.

Jason Snell: Kindle Fire. Its low price and Amazon’s brand name mean that Amazon will sell a whole bunch of them. But the Kindle Fire is a little complicated. The touchscreen interface is a bit hard to navigate. It’s not an iPad or an Android tablet, not really, nor is it like any of the other Kindle hardware devices Amazon has made. In the end I think Amazon will have success with the Fire or its successors, but I suspect that this first device is going to cause a lot of headaches.

Christina Warren: I usually say anything wireless, but looking at the direction that gadgets are going I’d say connected TVs and set-top boxes. DLNA is cool stuff, but getting it all to play nice together rarely works (a high-profile gadget maker failed repeatedly at showing off tablet and TV integration at their flagship store in New York City—it was an embarrassing demo for them and I had to stifle a laugh).

It’s amazing how stuff gets more complex over time. My parents still have trouble turning on the surround sound and their cable box. I’m not sure I could ever explain how to get video from a Mac or PC to the TV or Blu-ray player.

Needless to say, I needed bourbon by the end and vowed to never do Windows tech support for extended family again.

Paul Ford: It’s not the actual products but the remote support questions for computers hundreds of miles away. “When I click the mouse it turns blue? And then the whole thing shakes? What is that? Pass the stuffing.” Or: “What software do I need?” (“For what?” “For my computer.”)

Peter Rojas: I want to say “everything,” but you probably don’t want me to hear that, so I’ll settle on smartphones. Even iPhones, which have a reputation for being easy for anyone to use, can be surprisingly complicated for non-technical types. My mom didn’t realize for an entire year that her iPhone had wifi until I suggested that her Skype calls might be clearer if she switched from 3G to wireless.

Tell us the story of the most frustrating—or heartwarming—tech support experience you provided for a loved one.

BL: I don’t really do tech support for loved ones without a fair amount of annoyance. I’m like the accountant who has unbalanced checkbooks or the chef who eats hot dogs at home.

JS: Nothing is more frustrating than hearing “it doesn’t work” on the other end of a phone line. It’s so hard to troubleshoot something when you can’t see it, and that’s magnified when the problem is being described by someone who doesn’t understand what they’re seeing or doesn’t have the terminology to explain it to you. These days, fortunately, there’s a lot less of that—“screen sharing” services and software exist so that you can actually take control of someone else’s computer and show them what’s wrong, or fix it for them. I use iChat to fix things on my parents’ and in-laws’ computers, for example, and it has helped a lot. Spending half an hour trying to fix something that’s actually not broken, all because of a misunderstanding of terminology, is about as frustrating as it gets.

PF: A few years ago I sat down with an older person who hadn’t touched a typewriter in 30 years (he dictated into a tape recorder) to teach him how to use a computer. After about a half-hour of talking about word-processing and how to drag-and-drop icons onto applications in order to open them, he looked at me and said: “Where is the dragon?”

That said, my dad just called and said he wants to root the tablet he bought at Walgreens. So there’s a spectrum.

Tech writers aren’t price-sensitive enough because they live in this bubble of free test units. Except me.

CW: Two years ago, my uncle bought an expensive Windows laptop and proceeded to force me to spend Thanksgiving helping him install a non-trial version of Office, manage the multiple antivirus packages he installed (which I subsequently had to uninstall), and find a way to access all the photos in his Yahoo! email account.

Needless to say, I needed bourbon by the end and vowed to never do Windows tech support for extended family again.

PR: We don’t watch that much TV anymore, so I canceled our cable TV service earlier this year and felt very satisfied to be saving $100 a month. A couple of months later I was flying to California for a trip and was logged into the in-flight wifi when I got an IM from my wife. She wanted to watch The Tudors on Netflix. We use the Netflix app on the Xbox 360, which she had never actually used herself, so to watch something meant I needed to explain:

  1. How to get the receiver and TV set to the right inputs.
  2. How to turn on the Xbox 360.
  3. How to use the Xbox 360 controller to navigate and find the Netflix app.

After much back-and-forth—and remember, I’m on an airplane—I managed to successfully walk her through the first two of these steps, but somehow I could not explain over IM how to get through the Xbox 360’s menus to get to the Netflix app. After 20 minutes we finally gave up.

GT: My 92-year-old Grandpa-in-law had a serious email overload problem. His friends constantly forwarded to his inbox everything from proof President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. to kitten photos. He’d get tired of going through it all himself, so every Sunday he’d invite us over to watch 60 Minutes and have what he liked to call “a delete party.” Sitting at the computer together, dialed into his Juno account, I’d read subject lines and the first few sentences of each message to him. More often than not he’d call out “Delete!” and I’d trash the message. Once in awhile he’d say “Keep” and I’d move onto the next one.

One fine Sunday during our delete party, I opened an email with an interesting photo attachment: a topless woman with the most enormous breasts I’ve seen in my life. Eyebrows raised, I glanced over at Grandpa beside me. He leaned in for a closer look, grinned, and said “Keep.”

We’re in the nth year of a recession and iPhones aren’t getting cheaper. Do you see more friends and family choosing new products for their price instead of their quality?

JS: Actually, iPhones are getting cheaper. You can get an iPhone 3G for free now, with a two-year contract. (The iPhone originally cost $499.) And cellphone carriers know that to sell smartphones to a broader audience, they’ve got to do something about their rate plans. That’s why you’re seeing companies such as AT&T and T-Mobile offer cheaper 250MB data plans targeted at value-conscious people who just don’t want to pay for gigabytes of data if they can try to use wifi a lot and save $20/month on their phone bills.

I think many people are conscious of the tradeoff between price and quality. You can argue that in a tough economy people want to save money, but you could also argue that in a touch economy people want to find value and longevity. Some people are always going to pay as little as possible for a product that disappoints them, but the more savvy people become about technology, the more they see through the low prices and start looking for higher-priced items that provide a whole lot more value.

CW: I think that price definitely plays a bigger role in purchasing decisions than it did even a year or two ago. The Kindle Fire—a device I quite like—is inferior to the iPad 2 in every way but one: price. Yet that price difference is what will likely drive sales.

That said, I think that as tech in general gets cheaper—for example, the Samsung Focus Flash is a fantastic Windows Phone and is just $50—the trade-off between price and quality is less important.An iPhone 4 is $99. A 3GS is free. The economy might mean spending less but that doesn’t always mean getting inferior goods.

If I can get through the holiday season without troubleshooting a family member’s problem with their printer or wireless router, it will be a Christmas miracle.

GT: Amazon had the right idea. For my friends and family, this holiday season is about the cheaper Kindles, not the iPad.

PF: I’m amazed that everyone has awesome phones. Even cheap phones do everything. It bothers me that people are anxious; they’ve been told that they need Apple products in order to be fully engaged with society. I asked Siri about this and she agrees.

PR: Always seems like it’s been a mix of both. People are always value-conscious, but I feel like a lot of gadgets are moving from the luxury category to the necessity category, and so it seems easier to spend a bit more money on them.

BL: It’s always been like this for the majority of the country. Tech writers aren’t price-sensitive enough because they live in this bubble of free test units. Except me.

Pretend I’m your grandmother. You love me, but you hate updating the security software on my 2004 Dell Dimension desktop. Give me a reason to upgrade. Be sweet, dearie.

PR: Hackers.

CW: Upgrading to a newer, faster machine will not make the pains of updating software less frustrating—it will give you a more stable and enjoyable system. A lot of people forget what a fast, stable system is suppose to feel like. Rather than struggling to load email or photos, upgrade to something newer. You can spend very little and get a big upgrade over your current computer—often with a better monitor to boot.

BL: Trick question—doesn’t matter if grandma’s computer has viruses because she never does anything but play solitaire on her computer, so no big deal if it gets hacked. Once it does, buy a her MacBook Air.

JS: Grandma, you know what? You don’t need a computer. All you do is read email and the web, and you keep complaining about how hard it is to find a large-print edition of that latest book from the nice fellow you watch every weekday on Fox News. So I’ll tell you what: It’s time to get an iPad. It doesn’t need any security software or anything like that. You can use it anywhere in your house, not just at that desk. You don’t even need a computer to set it up or back it up—it will do all that over your wireless connection. You’ll be able to check email and without worrying about the roller in that old mouse getting stuck. You can buy books from iBooks or Amazon and crank up the font size, so any book can be a large-print book! And there’s a camera on front so that we can do video calls so that you can see (and talk to) your great-grandchildren.

GT: I don’t give Grandma a reason to upgrade her computer. I just arrive at her house with a better model, plug it in, and lie about it. “Guess what, Grammy? Work just bought me a new computer so that means I don’t need this one anymore. Let’s donate your old one to the local school. It’s a tax write-off!”

PF: We stopped upgrading Grammy a few years ago, after she hit EOL.

What single product or service would help the most to establish harmony in your holiday season?

PR: I suspect everyone would be happier if I looked at my phone a lot less. Is there an app that would temporarily lock me out of my phone?

JS: For harmony’s sake, let’s give everybody some device—any device—that uses wifi and gets them on the internet. Then they can stop asking me to Google stuff on my iPhone.

We stopped upgrading Grammy a few years ago, after she hit EOL.

CW: I’d say an iPad. I got my mom an iPad for her birthday in 2010 and she loves it. She’s not afraid of it, which is huge. She can get online, watch me appear on TV (or on a podcast), send emails, read my Mashable articles, and even print from it. The best part of the iPad is that it has made my mom less afraid of technology and more open to exploring new things.

GT: A speedy, reliable internet connection. That way any one of us can retreat to a safe virtual space when Uncle Harry’s eggnog-fueled political tirades get out of hand.

What single product or service should be banned to make you and your loved ones’ holiday season more harmonious?

JS: Let’s ban that feature that takes a standard-definition TV picture and stretches it out across a widescreen TV. I go to the houses of relatives and suddenly everyone on TV is 30 pounds fatter and pixelated. Let’s get rid of standard-def in general, but more specifically, if you’re watching a standard-def picture on a widescreen TV, just embrace the black or gray bars on the sides. It does not make the football game better if those 300-pound linemen look like they weigh 700 pounds and are playing on one of the moons of Jupiter.

GT: If I can get through the holiday season without troubleshooting a family member’s problem with their printer or wireless router, it will be a Christmas miracle.

CW: Windows. In a former life, I was a PC Tech. I’ve diagnosed and repaired hundreds of Windows machines, including my parents’ various computers. No more. I made my mom get a Mac last year and refuse to service my dad after he voluntarily installed fake antivirus programs.

The amount of hair-pulling required to get Windows to reliably work with multiple wireless printers was enough that I insist my mother get a Mac. She’s happier and I don’t have to do tech support calls from New York City.

BL: Not sure. Everything, when used properly, is pretty helpful. I appreciate a lot of technology these days.

PF: I think sometimes technology is the symptom, not the root cause.


TMN editor Nozlee Samadzadeh is the internet’s only “Nozlee.” She grew up in Oklahoma, loves airports even when they’re miserable, and cooks dinner from scratch every day. More by Nozlee Samadzadeh