One solution to the family IT man problem: Standardize

This weekend was Mother’s Day, which meant a family get-together, which inevitably led to some computer questions. A few months ago I found a PC for my mom that’s for all intents and purposes identical to my main PC. Now that my sister and brother in law are due for a computer upgrade, I suggested they get the same model.Companies standardize because it makes support easier. Running the same operating system is supposed to minimize differences, but if I’ve learned anything since 1996 when I took my first part-time computer support gig, it’s that it doesn’t. Every system has its quirks, but if you’re used to them, are they really quirks?

The advantage is that when I inevitably get that phone call with a weird computer question, I can take a look at mine and probably find the answer. If a computer gets trashed too far, I can make an image on mine and mail out a CD to reload the system to a known-good configuration.

The cost isn’t outlandish. In our case, we’re standardizing on 2-ish GHz Compaq Evo PCs. They’re quiet, very well built and dependable, and they’re inexpensive. All the usual computer closeout places are selling secondhand Evos for $75-$125 depending on the configuration, but in the last two cases, I just searched the local Craigslist for an Evo. In both cases, I found people who buy and refurbish business PCs either for a living or as a side gig for some extra cash. They buy the machines, format the hard drive and reinstall Windows, and flip them for profit. In both cases, I avoided shipping charges and got PCs with more memory in them than mine originally had.

The downside to the Evo is that it doesn’t have a lot of drive bays or expansion slots. But in reality, none of us use a lot of drive bays or expansion slots anymore. Practically anything we’d want to plug into the system plugs into a USB socket. Back when a CD burner cost $400, of course I would install a regular CD-ROM drive for routine use so I didn’t wear out an expensive drive, but now a DVD burner costs $30, which isn’t significantly more than a read-only drive. So I really only need a single 5.25-inch bay anyway.

If you need more space than an Evo has to offer, buy something like a Dell Dimension that comes in a minitower case. The Dimensions I use at work have two external 5.25" and 3.5" bays, plus another internal 3.5" bay, and seven available expansion slots. Going the other way, if your family craves laptops, pick up identical Thinkpads. Thinkpads tend to be very reliable; Dell would probably be my second choice.

Another possible way to pick up inexpensive business PCs is to ask your workplace’s IT department. Most companies replace their PCs every 3-4 years by policy, and dispose of their PCs one way or another. You may be able to talk them into selling you a small quantity, provided you’re willing to sign a release saying you won’t receive or expect any support for the system from the company. The nice thing about this method is that you know what you’re getting because it might be just like the machine that was on your desk. It should go without saying that if it’s served you well, buy it, but if it’s a piece of junk, buy something else.

Over the years I’ve spent a significant amount of time fixing family computer problems. At one time I didn’t mind, but I don’t have a lot of time anymore. By the same token, I don’t want my family to be at the mercy of repair shops that will keep the machine longer than necessary, then overcharge for shoddy repair work. Standardizing on a quality, known-quantity machine seems like a good solution to the problem. It means any software problem is a 20-minute fix: Back up the data, re-image the machine, then restore the data. Hardware problems are minimal, since business PCs tend to be very reliable.

Basically, the same practices that made it possible for me to support hundreds of computers in a 40-hour workweek will scale down to 3 computers too.

The practice works fine for those who build PCs as well. Just buy the same motherboard and video card (or at least a video card that uses the same drivers) when you build PCs for family members. If you’re someone who changes PCs couple of years, keep that family PC around as your secondary PC until everyone else decides to upgrade. But for these purposes, I think buying secondhand business PCs saves a lot of time and money. I can build a PC in 30-60 minutes, but it takes at least that long to spec out and order all of the parts (and perhaps longer than that). It would have been difficult for me to build a better computer than those Evos for $100, and that wouldn’t have included the copy of Windows.

I think this is going to save us all a lot of grief over the years.

So if you find yourself doing a lot of tech support for family and friends, try getting all of them to buy the same system and get one yourself. (For that matter I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to chip in towards your system–split three or four ways, the cost would be $25-$35 per person.) The system will probably cost less than one trip to a repair shop would, and your lives will be a lot easier.

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