2 Last-minute gift ideas (from a geek, for anyone)

*Last-minute gifts*
It’s Christmas Eve. If you’re still looking for a last-minute gift and don’t want to go with the usual Amazon gift certificate, perhaps one of these suggestions can help.

1. Backup
You know that backups are important. Without backups, family photos, music libraries, and critical documents are one step away from being lost forever. And you may be the one who is called to try and save them. Save everyone a headache by making sure that your family’s data is safe. The easiest thing to to if you are only backing up one or two computers is to gift a subscription service such as Mozy or Carbonite. That way they have an automatic, offsite backup wherever their computers have an Internet connection. If your family uses several computers, those subscription fees can add up pretty quickly, so something like a Time Capsule is probably a better idea, and there’s a pretty good chance your local Apple Store is open on Christmas Eve (and there’s at least one open on Christmas.) Or if you still want an offsite solution, see if a Pogoplug works for you. Just make sure you set up something that backs up automatically.

2. Photo scanning
If your family has a box of negatives or slides sitting in an attic, a gift certificate (or box if you have time) to ScanCafe could be a great gift. Not only does having photos scanned provide a backup, it also means that with a digital copy, sharing and printing old photos becomes incredibly simple. For example, most of my parents’ wedding photos were never printed, probably because getting prints of all of the photos wasn’t affordable at the time. Once I finish getting them scanned, however, ordering a book of full-page photos using the services available today is something that will be very easy.

*Other ways you can help out over the holidays*
There was recently a post on the Google Blog describing something that many of us are familiar with: coming home for the holidays and providing technical support. That post mostly focused on making sure your family is running a modern browser, so I decided to add my take on some tasks you may wish to perform while you’re visiting family.

Internet access
Your family may know how to keep their OS and browser up to date, but what about router firmware? Make sure that’s current.

I also like to do a walk around the house while streaming live video (such as TWiT Live) and make sure that every room has a good wireless signal with sufficient bandwidth.

Finally, if your family has had the same ISP for a while, take a look and see if there’s room for improvement. Is the cable modem that came in a box with Excite@Home branding not serving up the full bandwidth that your family is paying for? Might be time to buy or lease a new model. And alternative providers such as FiOS may not have been available in your area last time you checked, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t now.

Contact management
There are a couple of things you can do to help manage a family member’s list of contacts: sync and de-dupe. Think about all the places your family member may access their contacts: desktop email client, web interface, and phone are pretty common. If you use a cloud-based service such as Gmail, keeping everything in sync is actually pretty easy. Check out instructions for syncing with your iPhone or Mac.

And when you have everything in sync, watch out for those duplicates that can quickly appear. I meant to do this while I was home for Thanksgiving, but I’m glad I put it off, because since then, an awesome new feature has been released which makes it super easy to consolidate a duplicate-riddled list of contacts. Procrastination pays.

OS updates
Both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 have been released since last Christmas. Do those major upgrades if necessary, but at least do the incremental updates that are available online (and train your family to respond to your OS’s automatic upgrade checks.)

Prepare for future support
One of the reasons that I don’t have a huge tech to-do list when I get home is that my family is pretty tech-savvy. But another reason is that I check in with them often via video chat, where I can easily take a look at their screens (and control their computers) from across the country. If you get your family set up with a VNC solution, you can cut down on trying to interpret what they mean by “the Internet disappeared” and save yourself from giving instructions like “Click on the… oh, man how do I describe the Chrome icon?” I personally use iChat with my family since it’s free and easy, but if you’re on Windows you might want to look into something like GoToMyPC or GoToAssist, which I’ve never actually used myself.

Have fun
If all you show your family is how to manage backups and stay updated, technology can seem pretty dull. Think of some cool things you can show off to your family, and they might be happy to have you take some time to explain what cool new stuff is available. Show off your smartphone if you have one. Maybe someone has never seen their house (or their childhood home) on Street View. Does your local newspaper or TV station have a website with an RSS feed? Introduce someone to a feed reader. Are they interested in a particular field of study? A university may have free lectures available on YouTube. Still paying for directory assistance? GOOG-411. Have a Kindle? Show that off. Anytime you reach for a gadget, consider giving a tour.

Did I miss a good gift or tech support suggestion? Add more in the comments.

3 thoughts on “2 Last-minute gift ideas (from a geek, for anyone)”

  1. Three things for any relatives with PCs:

    1. Install an up-to-date Antivirus! Remove the bloated Norton or McAffee that came with the computer and hasn’t been updated since and install a lightweight, free-for-home use product like AVG Free, Avast, or Clamwin.

    2. Install and run an anti-spyware tool like Spybot.

    3. Get their photos organized with Picasa, and set them with Picasa web sharing so you can see new pics of the relatives back home.

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