THE BLOG

Is It Plugged In? DIY Tech Support

05/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

2010-03-18-ComputerFrustration.jpgDoes your computer drive you crazy? Do you feel helpless and frustrated because you can't figure out what's wrong with it? Let Ken Gruberman, The Tech Daddy, lead you through the Tech Support maze with some tips and suggestions on how to get the help you need, and possibly fix it yourself.

A classic Internet joke goes like this:

"A pilot is flying a small single engine charter plane with a couple of very important executives on board. He is approaching Sea-Tac airport through thick fog with less than 10 miles visibility when his instruments go out, so he begins circling, desperately looking for a landmark. After an hour or so, he notices he is low on fuel and the passengers are getting nervous.

Finally, a small opening in the fog appears and he sees a tall building with one guy working alone on the top floor. The pilot banks the plane around the building, rolls down the window and shouts to the guy, 'Hey, where am I?'

The solitary office worker opens his window and shouts back, 'You're in a plane!'

The pilot rolls up the window, executes a 275 degree turn and proceeds to execute a perfect blind landing on the airport runway 5 miles away. Just as the plane stops, so does the engine, as the fuel had run out.

The passengers are amazed, and one asks 'how did you do that?'

'Simple,' replies the pilot, 'I asked the guy in that building a simple question. The answer he gave me was 100 percent correct but absolutely useless. Which meant it must be the Microsoft Tech Support Center, and from there I knew the airport is just five miles due East!'"

The reason this joke endures is that anyone who has ever had a computer dilemma and called for help or tech support has encountered something similar. It's one reason that family, friends and clients send me so much email about relatively simple problems: it's much easier to get the answer from me than to have to run the gauntlet of first finding a phone number for tech support (if one even exists), navigating endless voice menus, and then dealing with some soulless drone with a thick Indian or Philippine accent who is reading from a script. And ultimately, the "help" you receive is often ineffective, or in some cases makes things worse.

The joke also illustrates another "mathematical" point, albeit a darker one: the effectiveness of the answers you need is directly proportional to the amount of detailed information in the questions you ask. And that can also be a cause of frustration and anxiety for computer users: if you don't know what something is called, how can you get help for it?

Before you throw up your hands and say "what's the use?" there is some good news. We now live in an Information Golden Age. The Internet is a treasure trove of information that can help all of us to help ourselves; using a search engine on the Web is often the easiest, quickest and most direct way to solve a computer-based problem. For example, did your software or computer just give you a cryptic error message, with no clue as to what caused it, what the message means, or what to do about it? Simply enter the error message into Google, and you'll almost always find the answers you seek.

At this point, you might be saying "wait a minute -- why is someone who makes his living solving computer and personal tech problems telling me how to do this? Won't it hurt his bottom line?" Not really. There will always be work for me to do, but I believe the day-to-day aspects of living with computers and personal tech should be an uplifting experience rather than a daunting one. That's what I stand for. As The Tech Daddy, I am dedicated to not only having a client's computer software and hardware working efficiently and in perfect harmony, but also to a client's self-empowerment when it comes to their digital life. I want people to feel like they are the masters of their digital domain!

To that end, here are some tips and recommendations when it comes to solving pesky problems with your computer, iPhone, or other personal tech items:

1. Know when to call in a professional -- Using a computer is like driving a car or going to the dentist. The day-to-day aspects of car or dental maintenance should be done by the individual, but at least twice a year you should take your car in for a tune-up, or see the dental hygienist; doing so makes sure that small problems never become big, costly ones. Similarly, I urge my clients to see me (or someone like me) twice a year, so that I can tune and tweak, perform software updates, and squash any small problems so they don't become life-threatening. If you know how to do this kind of maintenance for yourself... great! Most people don't, and don't think about it until it's too late. With computers, as in life, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure!

For the day-to-day stuff, here are some do-it-yourself tips:

2. Don't be afraid to ask for help -- This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how long some people try to "tough it out" on their own before giving up completely. It may be a small problem, but have enough small problems and the irritation factor becomes exponentially larger. Whether it's a phone call, an email, the web or some other means of communication, there is no shame in asking for help.

3. Be specific -- In other words, the more details you can provide -- whether to a search engine like Google, to me, a Help Desk Specialist on the phone or via email, or anyone you've asked to help you -- the more likely it is that you'll get the right answer. I've literally gotten phone calls where the caller says "it won't work... can you fix it?" Huh? WHAT won't work? Even a simple-sounding question like "my copy of Outlook is slow; can you help me speed it up?" is missing important details: what version of Outlook is it? What version of the Windows operating system is it running on -- XP? Vista? Windows 7? I half-joke with some of my clients that I'm good, but I'm not a psychic!

The thing to remember when it comes to fixing a computer problem is that it's no different than seeing a doctor when you're sick. You would never tell your doctor "I don't feel good... what's wrong with me?" Your doctor would urge you to be specific about your symptoms: what they are, when they started, how long you've had them, etc. before coming up with a possible cause; the doctor would then run tests to confirm their suspicion.

Computers are no different. The more info you can provide, the better it will be. On a PC, you can get this info by clicking on the START menu, then ALL PROGRAMS -- > ACCESSORIES -> SYSTEM TOOLS and then click on System Info. On a Mac, click on the APPLE menu, select ABOUT THIS MAC and click the "More Info" button. When the information appears, hit Command-S to SAVE the report to your Desktop or elsewhere so you can email it to a support professional (the "Command" key is also the Apple key).

4. Try the HELP menu -- I'm amazed at how often people forget about this option. On both Macs and PCs, each and every program -- including the operating system itself -- has a HELP menu. I'll admit that, at one time, these help systems were next to useless, but these days I'm impressed with how comprehensive and easy to use they have become... for the most part. You'll still have to deal with the issue of knowing what something is called before you can get help for it, but I've even seen some improvement in that. Try entering the phrase "key terms" or "basics"; you might be surprised at what comes up. Also try using the Table of Contents to find an overview section, or use the Index and Search features.

On a Mac, every HELP menu has a "menu search" field at the top, which provides a valuable and unique function I've not seen in the PC world: you can search for a menu item as well as a concept. This feature really shines when using a product from, say, Adobe or Microsoft, where there may be hundreds of menu items; how can anyone be expected to remember them all? Simply type in the menu command you're looking for and that menu will magically appear with a big blue arrow pointing to the item in question. Too cool!

I'm also a big fan of Tutorials and Walkthrough's: if your software features a tutorial or walkthrough in its HELP menu, I encourage you to take it. Some of them are very impressive.

5. Hit the web! -- As I said previously, Google and other search engines are your doorway into a vast repository of knowledge. If you're having a problem with something, it's a good bet someone else has already had that problem, solved it, and written about it. In addition, you'll find hundreds of thousands of product manuals, take-apart instructions for those who are handy with a tool or two, and specialty sites devoted to a single product or technology. A couple of my favorites: on the PC side, www.annoyances.org, and on the Mac side, www.macosxhints.com.

Got a question for the Tech Daddy? Send it to ken@thetechdaddy.com and be sure and put "HuffPo Question" in the subject line (without the quotes).