Upgrade Your Family And Coworkers' Tech Without Becoming Their Help Desk

Want to help out your less tech-savvy coworkers and loved ones? Don't just upgrade their browser. Set them up with these tools so they can help themselves and hassle you less.

At work, deep in a project, you try to make the moves that will create the fewest questions and hassles down the line. So why do so many of us computer-proficient types settle for triaging our friends, relatives, and coworkers’ recurring problems? You can upgrade their browser, but as soon as the browser asks them to upgrade again, it’ll be you who gets the call (or, possibly, the recurring, gramatically aggressive email). You can go so far as to make them switch to a Mac or an iPad for supposedly frustration-free computing, but you’re still the person they turn to when the file they emailed to themselves just isn’t there.

Here, then, is a short list of things you can do to best help the people who push you outside your job description and nibble at your free time. Knowing that some people use computers with corporate lock-down policies, we’ve tried to focus on fixes and upgrades that don’t always require installing new software.

Get Them A Dropbox Account

As John Gruber of Daring Fireball succinctly put it, "The only people who aren’t using Dropbox are those who haven’t tried it." Dropbox gives everyone, for free, the ability to sync up to 2 GB of files between all their computers, as well as have those files accessible from any browser or smartphone or tablet. And Dropbox is just a folder—a magic folder that backs up whatever you put in it, and shows up on every computer.

So if you can get the people who carry around thumb drives and email themselves files to install Dropbox on their computers and phones, and to use their Dropbox folder, you’re good to go. But old habits die hard, and some people will always keep their stuff on their computer desktops, or their documents folder. If you can, sneak onto their system and run this quick command line trick, which automatically backs up any files they put in their favorite spot to a Dropbox folder. Then tell them that any time they need a file from their computer, any computer, it’s on that Dropbox website you bookmarked for them.

Give Them VLC Media Player

Music and video formats are a lot more standardized these days, but people still shoot stuff and send files in all kinds of weird formats. What, for example, is a Windows XP user supposed to do with a video shot on an Android phone, sent as a 3GP file?

If you can install something, install VLC Media Player, then set it to be the default for playing all videos and audio files on their system. VLC plays pretty much everything any computer can possibly play, and does it in fast, crud-free style. If you can’t install VLC on a locked-down system, try downloading the portable version and stashing it somewhere safe but convenient (like pinned to the Start menu). The equivalent on a Mac is downloading and stashing the VLC app bundle somewhere, without actually copying it to the Applications folder.

Set Them Up With An Auto-Updating Browser

Upgrading browsers beyond Internet Explorer 6 and 7 is, indeed, a much-needed move, and one that helps move the web forward as a platform. If you can get someone to upgrade to Internet Explorer 8 or 9, hey, that’s a nice move. If you can get them into a newer version of Firefox or Chrome, you’ve put them inside a browser that automatically updates. It’s a settings tweak in Firefox, and totally automatic in Chrome, each time the browser restarts. That helps keep them safe from badware, but also helps you with (hopefully rare) troubleshooting, because now they’re running the same version you are.

Give Them Smart Printer Alternatives

There’s a really good chance a tech-needy person’s most common gripe involves their Brother/HP/Canon/Epson HJXQ4352 Wireless Inkjet something-something, and there’s nothing you can really do to make that device less painful. What you can do, though, in the spirit of fixing the problem instead of the symptoms, is show them the many ways you can get by without a printer these days.

If they’re printing out long things from the web just for record-keeping, show them how to print anything to a PDF, on a Mac, using that Chrome you just installed, or a simple software package like doPDF. Have them stash those PDFs in their Dropbox account, possibly. And if they’re printing things to read, show them the wonders of the Instapaper and Readability bookmarks, which make reading and printing much, much cleaner and ink-efficient.

[Image: Flickr user fillingthev0id]

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