Playing the role of family tech support reinforces the difference between how computers are put together and how the nontech-inclined public uses them.

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Practical Mac

As it is too often when it comes to computers, this is a tale of troubleshooting.

The cascade started with an email my mother-in-law wrote. “My iMac keeps turning itself off.”

She lives in California. I’m in Seattle. I connected to her 7-year-old machine remotely using the app Screens, ran some basic diagnostics in Disk Utility, checked system logs for any telltale bad behavior, and made sure her Energy Saver preferences weren’t somehow putting the machine to sleep at odd times.

We reset the SMC (System Management Controller), which involved unplugging the iMac, waiting 15 seconds, plugging it back in, waiting 5 seconds, and then restarting.

But after a couple more weeks of intermittent shutdowns, it was time to take the iMac to the geniuses at her nearby Apple Store. The diagnosis was doubly discouraging: logic board and hard disk, both failing. Although Apple could fix it, the cost would be nearly $800, which replaces only like-for-like components; her dying 320 GB hard disk wouldn’t be replaced with anything larger or faster (like an SSD, which would really help the computer’s performance).

What’s interesting about situations like this is how much other factors come into play. Price is important, of course, and I wanted to make sure she got a good machine for the money. But just as important to her was having her iMac’s 21-inch screen so she could read everything clearly.

And it quickly became apparent that solving this problem should involve as little complication as possible. Financially, we could have set her up with a new Mac mini and an external monitor for about what it would cost to do the iMac’s repairs. In her eyes, though, that meant getting an entirely new type of computer that could require a new learning curve to get running.

The reality is that I could have set up a Mac mini to be identical to her old iMac, since it’s the Mac’s software she interacts with day to day. But she’s not on her computer all the time, and has zero interest in the technicalities of Mac hardware. (That’s why she has me.) For her, the all-in-one iMac is the entire computer — and that’s fine.

We who are tech-inclined too often forget that the computer isn’t the important component. It’s what people do with computers that’s important.

My mother-in-law is a retired librarian who wants to check her email, browse the Web, and shop online occasionally. Unfortunately, even with the Mac and its vaunted ease of use, computer owners are still expected to become computer experts, and that leads to unneeded stress.

The solution was to get a new iMac, but to save money we chose an Apple-certified refurbished iMac from the online Apple Store. To my surprise, of the models available, we picked one from September 2013 for $1,099. Although it’s a model from a year-and-a-half ago, it performs better than an entry-level 2014 model, which was $50 cheaper. (Searching online for reviews was instrumental, I should point out.) She wouldn’t notice a performance difference, but I wanted to find something that would hopefully last seven more years.

When the new iMac arrived, we communicated via a FaceTime video call so I could see her screen during the initial setup process. And this, friends, is where the minor hassles of maintaining data backups paid off: With her Time Machine backup drive connected, the OS X setup migrated all of her files and settings from the point just before she’d taken the old iMac to Apple. When the Finder appeared, it was the exact environment she’d left, from the desktop background to the placement of her icons.

In typical fashion, Apple released updated iMac (and MacBook Pro) models last week, the day after we got her replacement up and running. I’m happy with our choice, though, since she’s now back in familiar territory and free from the anxiety that accompanies failing hardware.