How to Ask for Tech Support So You Get Good Answers Quickly

Need help with something? On occasion, we all need tech support. Speaking as the people who are sometimes on the other end of those requests for help, we have some suggestions on how to get the support you need as quickly as possible.

For instance, think about what we have to do if we receive an email message along the lines of “I keep getting a note that my backups aren’t working.” All we can tell from that message is that something may be wrong with the user’s backups. But without knowing what app they’re using and what the specific error is, we can’t even begin to recommend a solution. We’ll have to go back and forth to figure out what we need to learn to address the problem. By the end of the (possibly lengthy) process, the user and we may be quite frustrated.

So here’s a simple set of steps you can use to get to the heart of a troubleshooting problem whenever you’re communicating with tech support.

  1. Describe your setup as it relates to the problem. Whenever possible, be specific about what apps you’re using and include screenshots or videos. In our example above, this might involve saying, “I back up with Time Machine to an external hard drive. It has been working fine, but now I’m getting this error.” (Obviously, if you’re talking on the phone, it might not be possible to share a screenshot, but you can read it to the support rep.)
  2. Next, explain how you’ve tried to resolve the problem so tech support doesn’t automatically tell you to repeat the same actions. (They may anyway, just to confirm that you did everything properly, but it’s still a help.) You might say, “I clicked OK and let Time Machine try again, but I got the error on the next backup too. Then I launched Disk Utility, selected my Time Machine drive, and clicked First Aid.”
  3. Finally, explain what happened (or failed to happen) when you took the actions in the previous step. For instance, “First Aid also reported an error.”
  4. At this point, you may need to repeat Step 2 and 3 for each thing you tried, but you’ve given the support person enough for them to start recommending other courses of action. (In this case, we’d have you erase the drive using Disk Utility and see if that eliminated the error. Even if it did, we’d recommend that you get a new backup drive since you don’t want to depend on a potentially flaky drive for important backup data.)

The steps are a little different if you’re trying and failing to figure out how to accomplish some task. Try this script:

  1. I want to _____. State what you’re trying to achieve, and as before, make sure to say what apps you’re using. For instance, “I’m using Preview to read a PDF, and I want to print it with four pages per sheet of paper to avoid wasting hundreds of pieces of paper.”
  2. I tried ____. As before, explain what you’ve already attempted, as in: “In Preview’s Print dialog, I tried choosing 4 from the Copies Per Page menu.”
  3. What happened was _____. Finally, explain what happened after what you tried, and why it was wrong. “That caused me to get four copies of the same page in the preview, rather than four different pages.”
  4. Again, you may need to repeat Steps 2 and 3 for everything you tried, but in this case, we have all we need to explain that you need to click the Preview menu in the middle of the Print dialog, choose Layout, and then choose 4 from the Pages Per Sheet menu.

One last thing. It’s always important to explain your overall goal, rather than just ask a specific question. In the example above, for instance, saying that your goal was to reduce paper usage was helpful because we could then suggest that you select the Two-Sided checkbox near the top to print on both sides of the paper, cutting your paper usage in half.

So next time you need to contact tech support, make sure to use these tips, and you’ll likely get better support and a faster resolution to your problem.

 

(Featured image by Christina Morillo from Pexels)

Audiovisual Tips for Better Videoconferencing

Whether for work or socializing, we’re all spending a lot more time in video calls these days. But—surprise!—it turns out that many of our group video calls could be more pleasant, less embarrassing, and overall better if we follow a few basic audiovisual tips.

Make Sure You Have Decent Lighting

Natural light is best, but room light is generally fine too, especially if it’s coming from the side. An overhead light isn’t quite as flattering, but whatever you do, avoid light that comes from underneath your face or you’ll look like an old-time movie villain. Also, avoid sitting in front of a window because the bright light behind you will make you look way too dark. Pull a shade or try to put your computer against the window so the light hits your face instead.

Arrange for a Decent Background

You may not have many choices for where your computer is located, and thus for what’s behind you when you’re on a video call. If you’re using Zoom or Skype, you can employ a virtual background (pick one that’s appropriate for the context, and for goodness sake, don’t use an animated background). Otherwise, make sure that what’s behind you is tidy and wouldn’t embarrass you if the people on the call were to visit in person. Or, take it up a level and put a pleasing arrangement of art or photos on the wall behind you. Even if they are too small to be seen well, they will break up a monotonous blank wall.

Wear Appropriate Clothing

Yes, it’s tempting to schlub around all day in pajamas or ratty old sweats. Resist the urge and wear the same type of clothes you’d put on if you were meeting with these people in person. That includes pants—if you get up in the middle of the call without thinking, you don’t want to advertise your taste in boxers. You don’t want your boss and colleagues to have a mental image of you as a total slob. For bonus points, avoid tops that are bright white, black, or have distracting patterns.

Think Like a Movie Director

Particularly if you need to use a phone, tablet, or laptop to participate in a video call, think about your camera angles. It’s best to have the camera at roughly the same height as your face, if possible, so if you can avoid it, don’t put your laptop in your lap or hold your phone at your waist. And if you’re using a phone, don’t walk around such that the changing background distracts everyone else.

And Like a Movie Star

It’s sometimes hard to remember that everyone can see you even though they’re not in the room, but you’ll come off as more alert, confident, and engaged if you sit up straight, get close enough to the camera so your face fills the screen, and smile. Seriously, you’re on Candid Camera, so act like it. You’ll almost always have a thumbnail that shows what you look like, so make sure you like what you see. Oh, and don’t touch your face repeatedly.

Look at the Camera, Not the Other Participants

This one is tough. The camera is usually at the top center of your screen, so if you look anywhere else, it seems like you’re avoiding eye contact. It can make you look shifty or inattentive. But it’s hard not to look at the other people or at your own video thumbnail. The best trick is to resize and position your video window so the person you’re most likely to look at is right under the camera.

Pay Attention and Don’t Multitask

Look, we get it—a lot of meetings are boring. But it’s both rude and distracting to the speakers if you are clearly doing something else or worse, leaving and coming back. Focus on the screen, and show that you’re paying attention by nodding your head, smiling, and all the other little things you’d do if the meeting were taking place in person. If you truly can’t stay engaged, turn off your audio and video so no one has to see and hear you. If you need an excuse for that, say that your Internet connection is being a little wonky, so you want to cut down on bandwidth usage.

Mute Your Mic When Not Talking

The more people on a call, the more important this tip is. All video conferencing apps have a Mute button you can click so others in the call aren’t distracted by you coughing or sneezing, your children playing in the other room, or other extraneous noise. Just remember to unmute before you start talking. It’s hard to remember at first, but you’ll get good at it.

All this may seem like a lot to think about, but once you get your environment set up properly, you’ll be a bright spot in the video grid at your regular meetings. And then maybe you can forward this article to your family, friends, and colleagues so they can up their video game too.

(Featured image by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels)

Use the Mac’s Built-In Screen Sharing to Provide Remote Help

Are you the person your friends and family members turn to for questions about the Mac? In normal times, those questions might come over dinner or at another in-person gathering, such that you could look directly at their Mac to see what was going on. Now, however, with everyone staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, answering those questions has seemingly gotten harder. But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to a built-in feature of macOS that you may not have known about: screen sharing.

With the Mac’s built-in Screen Sharing app, you can either observe or control another person’s Mac, anywhere on the Internet. They don’t even need to enable Screen Sharing in System Preferences > Sharing. (Don’t worry—there are multiple ways that Apple ensures that this feature can’t be used surreptitiously.)

Initiate the Connection

There are multiple ways to connect to a remote Mac for screen sharing, but two stand out as being particularly easy.

First, if you communicate in Messages with the person whose Mac you’re trying to control, make sure your conversation with them is selected, and then choose Buddies > Ask to Share Screen. The other person can also initiate the connection with you by choosing Buddies > Invite to Share My Screen.

Second, if Messages doesn’t work for you (those commands are often dimmed), or the other person doesn’t use Messages, there’s another option. Press Command-Space to open Spotlight and type “Screen Sharing”. The Screen Sharing app should be the top hit—press Return to launch it. (For future reference, it’s stored in /System/Library/CoreServices/Applications/Screen Sharing.)

Then, in the dialog that appears, enter the person’s Apple ID, which is likely their email address, and click Connect.

Accept the Connection

Needless to say, macOS doesn’t allow anyone to connect to a Mac like this without permission. The other person needs to accept the connection request, which they do by clicking Accept in the notification that appears, likely in the upper-right corner of the screen. Obviously, clicking Decline immediately terminates the connection.

After clicking Accept, the other person gets yet another permission request, this time with additional options. They can once again choose to Accept or Decline, and choose between allowing you to control the screen or just observe them using it. And, of course, if you ever get a screen sharing request from someone you don’t know, you can always click Block This User to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Next, a little popover appears to alert the other person to the new icon on the menu bar. The blue menu bar icon constantly flashes while the connection is active so there’s no question that screen sharing is taking place.

So what’s in that menu? Commands for switching between controlling and observing (choose “Allow Name to control my screen” to toggle), mute the microphone (more on that shortly), pause screen sharing, and end the session.

Use the Connection

The Mute Microphone command in the remote Mac’s Screen Sharing menu is a hint—when you’re sharing the screen, the connection also provides full audio communication. This seems helpful, but in many cases, you’re already talking on the phone, at which point it’s helpful to mute the microphone on both sides. Or hang up the phone and stick with Screen Sharing’s audio.

For the most part, once you’re controlling someone’s Mac remotely, it’s just like using the Mac while sitting in front of it. You can move the pointer around, select icons and menus, open apps and documents, and so on. You may notice a slight lag or jitter as the screen draws, since updating it over an Internet connection is much, much slower than in person.

You do have a few special capabilities based largely on the buttons in the toolbar, however:

  • Toggle Control/Observe: When you’re controlling the remote Mac, you may find yourself competing for the pointer and keyboard with the other person. To let them “drive,” click the binoculars icon in the toolbar to switch to Observe mode. Click the arrow pointer to return to Control mode.
  • Resize the window: If you’re on a 13-inch MacBook Pro and trying to control a 27-inch iMac screen, it simply won’t fit. Luckily, Screen Sharing lets you resize the window so it does, although some interface elements may become too small to use easily. If that’s a problem, you can disable scaling by clicking the left-most Scaling button, after which everything on the remote screen will appear at normal size. You’ll have to scroll the window to see parts of the screen that are out of view.
  • Share Clipboard: By default, you’re sharing the Clipboard, so anything you cut or copy on your Mac will be transferred to the other Mac’s Clipboard, and vice versa. If that’s awkward, you can disable it and then use the commands in the Clipboard menu to get or send the Clipboard contents manually.
  • Take a screenshot: Normal screenshot controls don’t work for taking a screenshot of the remote screen, or rather, they’ll work on the remote Mac. To take a screenshot of what you see and keep it on your Mac, click the Screenshot button.
  • Transfer files: It’s not obvious, but you can move files back and forth between the two Macs merely by dragging them to and from the remote Mac’s window. You sometimes have to pause slightly for Screen Sharing to realize your pointer has left the remote Mac and is on your Mac, but as soon as you let up on the mouse button, the file copies. A File Transfers window shows progress and history.

When you’re done with your screen sharing session, you can shut it down by choosing End Screen Sharing from the remote Mac’s Screen Sharing menu or just close the window or quit the Screen Sharing app on your Mac. Remember that as soon as you do that, the audio connection will drop as well, so make sure you’ve said goodbye first!

(Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

New 13-inch MacBook Pro with Magic Keyboard and Twice the Storage

In a move that completes the transition of the MacBook line from the troubled butterfly keyboard to the Magic Keyboard, Apple has released a new 13-inch MacBook Pro. The company also doubled the amount of storage in each of the standard configurations while keeping prices the same, and it ramped up the specs in the model with four Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Like the MacBook Air that Apple released several months ago, the most notable change in the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is the replacement of the butterfly keyboard with the new scissor-key Magic Keyboard introduced last year in the 16-inch MacBook Pro. So far, that keyboard has been well-regarded. Unlike the MacBook Air, however, the 13-inch MacBook Pro continues to include Apple’s Touch Bar, though now with a physical Escape key and a separate Touch ID sensor.

Apple doubled the onboard storage across all base configurations, so the 13-inch MacBook Pro now starts at 256 GB, and you can choose from configs that include 512 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB, and even a whopping 4 TB.

As in the past, there are two models of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, one with two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left side and another with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side. The two-port model receives the Magic Keyboard and additional storage but is otherwise unchanged from last year’s model. It still features 8th-generation quad-core Intel Core i5 and i7 processors running at 1.4 GHz and 1.7 GHz, respectively (the faster processor is a $300 option), and 8 GB of RAM, upgradeable to 16 GB for $100.

However, Apple beefed up the four-port model with faster 10th-generation processors, either a 2.0 GHz quad-core Core i5 or, for $200 more, a 2.3 GHz quad-core Core i7 that should provide even better performance.

These new processors also feature updated Intel Iris Plus Graphics that Apple claims improve graphics performance by up to 80% and can drive the company’s 6K Pro Display XDR screen.

Finally, the four-port model now starts at 16 GB of RAM (up from 8 GB) for the same price, uses faster memory than before, and can be upgraded to 32 GB of RAM for an additional $400.

The two-port model of the 13-inch MacBook continues to start at $1299, and the price of the four-port model still starts at $1799. Both are available now in silver or space gray.

If you’re looking for a new laptop, which should you choose? With its new processors, more and faster RAM, and improved graphics performance, the four-port model provides a particularly attractive package for the price.

For those who would prefer something less expensive, however, the new MacBook Air may be more compelling than the two-port model of the MacBook Pro—it largely comes down to whether you would prefer the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar or the MacBook Air’s function keys. Contact us for help choosing the right Mac for your needs!

(Featured image by Apple)

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