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Holiday tech support: routers, printers, security cameras, and more

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What's Thanksgiving without turkey and routers?

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Everything is connected these days. Not only are our households filling up with an ever-increasing amount of screens, but the rest of our physical world is becoming wired as well. The coffee maker, the vacuum cleaner, and the refrigerator — it's all hi-tech nowadays. And the thermostat, washing machine, and television? All of those are now "smart" devices, brimming with Bluetooth and running software seemingly designed to piss your parents off when things don't work just right.

The end result is a whole new suite of problems to address when you come home for the holidays. The old ones still exist — a router is just as obnoxious as it’s always been, while the printer remains the bane of everyone’s existence. The good news is that you don't need to work in IT or have a degree in computer science to seem like a wizard over Thanksgiving break. Here are some tips for how best to spend your time off tinkering with the family’s tech, with a few solutions to common issues that will help your family get the most out of their current devices.

Networking equipment

If anything can seemingly fail in the weeks or months away from your parents' home, it's access to the internet itself. Routers, modems, Wi-Fi signal strength... all of it manages to confound even some of the most tech savvy people. And for good reason. Networking is complicated and troubleshooting with an internet service provider is often a hopeless task.

More often than not, our parents are complaining about dismal connection speeds. There are a few ways to address this problem. The first is recommending they just move everything. Seriously. Relocating the router and modem to a different area of the house has the potential to drastically improve the Wi-Fi signal.

Try moving everything. Seriously

For instance, my parents have spent the last two years complaining about poor signal strength in the downstairs kitchen and living room of their home. After advising they unplug everything and hook it up downstairs, the situation was fixed. Of course, moving the router and modem may affect the ability to reliably access internet near the previous location. But the trade-off is worth it if most of the web browsing and media consumption is done in only one or two rooms of a house or apartment.

If your parents are still having issues, try a Wi-Fi range extender. Oftentimes a signal can be flowing freely throughout a household, only to run into layers of brick or other material that keeps the internet from reaching more remote corners of a home. A Wi-Fi extender lets you extend a signal to hard-to-reach areas — and for less money than it costs to buy all new equipment. The downside here is that most Wi-Fi extenders may not work all that well unless they're hardwired with ethernet to the router itself. That can be a cumbersome process if you're trying to boost a signal around doors or through floors.

However, if that’s not a viable option or your parents are relying on super clunky gear, have them look into ditching the leased networking equipment from their ISP, specifically router-modem combos from companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. These devices, while simple to understand in a broader sense, tend to cause more problems than they solve down the line. That's because — with a device designed for two different connection tasks — it's difficult to tell which function is causing the issue. Is the router acting up, or is the modem running into issues? And if one goes dark, so does the other.

Stop leasing equipment from an ISP

So suggest a replacement router and modem, and calmly explain how owning your own equipment pays off after a year and yields a better internet experience too. Any modem that supports DOCSIS 3.0 — the most up to date data transmission standard for cable internet — tends to stand up well, such as an ARRIS SurfBoard SB6141, which costs around $60 to $70.

Yet what you'll really want to do is bring your parents into the wonderful world of dual-band routers. It may be 2015, but remember that not very many people give much thought to their wireless setup. Few, if any, parents have the desire to research how different frequencies affect a networking environment.

Picking up a router capable of sending out a separate 5GHz signal — like the TP-Link Archer C7 for around $90 — for more internet-hungry devices like laptops and smartphones is a good suggestion. That way, they’ll free up the more common and congested 2.4GHz band for older gadgets. Devices like the cordless phone your parents insist on having and even most microwaves can interfere with 2.4GHz signal strength. Setting up both as distinct Wi-Fi networks can be tricky if you've never done it before, so double check which brand of router you have and a quick Google search should tell you how to access its wireless settings from your web browser.

How to buy your way out: For those who just don't want to go through the trouble of recommending new equipment or fiddling with arcane router settings, there's a pricey Google product designed to be the router of the future. The Google OnHub brings all the benefits of modern hardware and software to the most stubborn of necessary gadgets. The catch: it costs $200, or more than double the price of a standard router.

Google OnHub

Streaming devices

Fixing the media center for your parents over the holidays used to be all about adjusting the surround sound system. Now it’s more likely you’ll be asked to "fix the Netflix" or find ways to convince your parents to stop paying for cable.

The first step in helping your parents better adjust to the cord-cutting lifestyle is figuring out which streaming video apps like Netflix or Hulu they either subscribe to already or may be interested in trying. Most services offer one-week free trials, so let your parents pick and choose which ones they’ll want. But make sure to explain to them how to cancel the subscription in the event they don’t like what they see.

Most smart TVs' built-in software is terrible

From there, figure out the best way to access those services on their main television. If they have a smart TV or a streaming set-top box, figure out which apps your parents like to use most and whether or not they’re signed in using the primary hardware. Nowadays that means having a laptop or smartphone nearby to authenticate whatever streaming device you're using with a web-generated code.

Then go through the full process of turning on the TV, booting up a service like Netflix, and finding a popular show by using the built-in search function. If it’s a laborious process, or it just plain sucks to use, it’s likely due to outdated software. Most smart TVs’ built-in software is finicky at best, with handicapped controls forcibly tied to a clunky RF remote, hit-or-miss app selection, and the complete absence of modern features like voice search.

At this point, buying your way out of the problem isn’t really a last resort; it’s more like the logical next step. Suggest the new Apple TV or a Roku 4 for a more robust streaming device. But make sure to explain the necessary trade-offs: the Apple TV may have the best voice search with help from Siri and the broadest app selection, but it lacks Amazon Prime Video or Sling TV support. The Roku 4 has both, and it supports 4K-quality video as well.

If your parents want a no-frills option, there’s always the second-gen Google Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick that lets them control the content on the screen from their smartphones. Those devices can also turn a television into a conduit between your phone and a hi-definition stereo system via apps like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora, letting you wirelessly queue up music.

Smart appliances

The internet of things tends to create feelings of skepticism and condescension among internet natives. That’s partly because 20-somethings don’t see the utility of a Bluetooth-connected gas grill or light bulbs you can control with your smartphone.

Yet for parents, who don’t get nearly as excited as we do about outfitting a laptop with a solid state drive or bumping our internet speed up to 150Mbps, the idea of merging modern tech with home appliances can be genuinely exciting. The only problem is how dumb these smart appliances can become without careful monitoring and employing the right tips and tricks.

Make sure every smart appliance's software is up to date

Most smart appliances from big-name brands like Nest, Samsung, LG, and Philips have companion apps either for their entire smart home ecosystems or for specific products. These apps may not be very good — for a laugh, check out the LG Smart Laundry app — but they should be able to tell you whether the appliance's software is up to date. Going through every Wi-Fi-equipped device in the home is a tedious process, so try sticking to the gadgets causing the most annoyance.

For instance, is your parents' fancy new LG washing machine not responding to washing cycle changes made from the SmartThinQ app? Or is the Nest thermostat you bought them for Christmas last year not activating central air conditioning when it should be? Making sure everything is up to date and resetting the appliance from its mobile app is a good troubleshooting first step to solving basic problems.

There are also a few pieces of free or cheap software that make managing smart appliances a little easier. For Nest appliances, Climate and Thessa offer solutions to having to fumble with your smartphone and dig through settings menus. Both let you change the temperature setting on your Nest thermostat from your computer, and Thessa lets you do it right from the Mac Notification Center. Thessa even has an Apple Watch version of its app, while Android smartwatch owners can use WrisTemp Pro. For Windows users, there’s the Roost Notifier for Nest.

How to buy your way out: If your parents have been eyeing expensive security systems for peace of mind — or for keeping an eye on the family dog — steer them toward the Nest Cam. For just $200 apiece, the Nest Cam is a dead simple way to get persistent video and audio recordings of any room in your home.

Nest Cam (stock)

Printers & Scanners

There are so many ways a printer can malfunction that it’s impractical to list them all here. Suffice it to say that the easiest way to get a printer back online is making sure there’s blank paper in the tray. And if the printer itself is spouting some confusing error message back at you, it may be a good idea just to thumb through the menu options until it starts operating again. Both solutions sound silly, but oftentimes older printers won’t explicitly explain a problem or will freeze up until you do something as simple as pressing "OK" three times to confirm the ink cartridge is running low.

On that note, it’s also a good idea to remind your parents what type of printer they have if they happen to be running low on either toner or ink. The terms seem interchangeable, but they are both in fact distinct printing formats. Toner is used by laser printers, while ink is what you’ll need for an inkjet printer. Inkjet printers tend to run low on ink more frequently than a laser printer uses up a toner cartridge. So while ink can be less expensive up front, you may end spending more money replacing ink in the long run that you would have on the seemingly more expensive toner replacements.

Try getting the most out of a current printer, even if it's old

However, if your parents do a lot of heavy printing, don’t immediately try and convince them to upgrade to a $100 or $150 laser printer. There are workarounds for getting more out of every print. For instance, suggest printing only in black and white, using the double-sided option for every page, and shrinking the contents of the page so the print job doesn’t waste an extra sheet or two of paper.

If your parents would like to avoid having to plug their laptop directly into an older printer or scanner via USB, there’s a few ways you can modernize the device for Wi-Fi printing. If their printer doesn’t have an ethernet jack and your router lacks a USB port, they can use a cheap USB-to-ethernet adapter to connect the two devices, which should let them locate the printer from any computer connected to the same Wi-Fi network. If the printer isn’t located near the router, you can try a more costly Wi-Fi print server, which plugs into the printer via USB, but it may be more cost effective at that point to replace the printer itself.