At Thanksgiving, relatives crowd around asking you about the iPad mini, Wi-Fi networks, if they should buy an Android tablet, and whether Apple is doomed with Steve Jobs’ demise. You are the unpaid Apple family tech-support person. Some relatives and family friends want to debate the merits of Apple’s stock price, while others taunt you with the number of computers running Windows worldwide.
But you’re probably also called upon to help with more useful problems. Here’s what you can do, but only if they ask. You may even provide this service to your children home from school — just don’t tell their friends.
Update systems: Mac users were once smug about the absence of viruses and other terrors in the wild that could affect unsuspecting computer users. The last two years have shown that that’s a bad attitude to hold, even if you’ve disabled Java and with Apple’s quicker response to blocking damaging software. The best solution is keeping up to date; a second is to install a firewall or anti-malware software.
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While Mac OS X includes free updates for each numbered release (like 10.8.0 to 10.8.1) and is a $29 upgrade across versions, older Macs may not be able to run the very latest OS. You’ll have to check what systems your relatives have.
Be prepared when you install an update to deal with the fallout of software that suddenly stops working and new methods of doing old tasks. You’re a trainer, too.
When my in-laws were on the other side of the country and had only dial-up service, I would download “Combo” updates, which could update any release to the latest patch, such as any 10.6 version to 10.6.8. You may have family with satellite connections, where downloading system updates exhausts their monthly allotment of full-speed service, after which they’re throttled to dial-up-like speeds.
With more people owning an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, you may need to help upgrade those systems as well. Since iOS 6 was released, you can download a small “patch” update (a few tens of megabytes) via the device.
If you plug in to iTunes to update, Apple ships the entire system file of nearly a gigabyte. With iOS, you can’t be sure to have the right update file, but must update from the device. A nearby Starbucks may be better than a home update.
Anti-malware software, typically including both anti-virus and firewall features, isn’t new for the Mac, but it’s newly useful. Such software protects against the last known attacks, and only helps protect against future attacks if it blocks unknown software from running.
Nonetheless, anti-malware software can keep less-techie users from being attacked by older vulnerabilities if they haven’t upgraded since you last visited.
I like Little Snitch (just revised to version 3), as it pops up warnings about software trying to make connections, and it can be quickly trained to allow non-malicious common activities. If a strange alert appears, a relative can be directed to call you instead of approving it.
McAfee’s anti-malware suite is also quite nice, including a firewall, malware protection for downloads, frequent updates, and a Web plug-in that warns against known malicious sites.
Fix the network: A friend in Pasadena messaged me just before Thanksgiving about networking troubles in her lovely, many-decades-old family home. Its chicken-wire and plaster walls unintentionally form a “Faraday Cage,” in which the pattern of metal prevents wireless signals from passing through.
While the house hasn’t changed, an upgrade to broadband service made it painfully clear that the home’s old Ethernet was inadequate to the task, turning a 30 Mbps cable river into a 5 Mbps local drip.
Power-line networking can be a solution in older homes in which you don’t want to string Ethernet or drill holes in walls (and for renters, of course). These devices plug into electrical wall outlets to form a network over the wiring. It’s a nifty way to penetrate walls and floors without drill bits. Each power-line adapter has either an Ethernet jack (to plug in to the LAN port of a broadband modem or into a computer) or a Wi-Fi router to extend a wireless network.
Power-line networks can run from 85 Mbps to several hundred Mbps depending on the generation you pick. Faster is much more expensive, and buying equipment from the same manufacturer is the best way to ensure compatibility.
It’s vitally important you buy only such equipment that the retailer will accept returns for a full refund, as many factors can impede a power-line network. My Pasadena friend’s home is full of ancient knob-and-tube wiring, which interacts poorly with this electrical gear, and thus it wasn’t a solution.
New construction or revamped home circuits work best, but that’s when Ethernet tends to be run as well. These wall plugs also may have trouble across outlets connected to different circuits in the same home.
Adding Wi-Fi access points, or buying newer Wi-Fi routers, might help. Newer equipment that costs close to $200 can have a stronger signal and uses better-tuned sets of antennas than older or less-expensive hardware.
The last resort for some, first for others, may be stringing Ethernet. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Instead of buying raw cable and crimping the ends (a task that benefits from experience and repetition), I rewired my house a year ago with long Ethernet runs (50 and 75 feet), and a couple of well-placed holes covered by output plates with Ethernet jacks on both sides, meaning I didn’t have to wire the Ethernet cable into the faceplate.
Being your family’s Apple support tech is an unpaid job, but it should bring rewards. Ask for an extra slice of leftover turkey, a full cup of (spiked) eggnog, and the prime football-watching seat. If not, you might have to develop tech-amnesia until the next holiday.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.