When friends call you with computer trouble, you try to help. But no matter how much you know about PCs, correcting a problem can be a challenge when you're talking to someone who doesn't know a taskbar from a USB port. So we've put together the definitive guide to providing IT support for those closest to you. We'll show you the tweaks, the tricks and the freebies that will make you the most popular geek in town.

First, we'll tell you how to help local loved ones - those who live close enough for you to sit down at their PCs. Then we'll offer advice for long-distance support over the phone and via the internet.

1. Be a tech-support hero

First, you don't know everything. If you can't figure out the problem, say so. It's better not to help than to make things worse.

Second, you have a life. You're not obliged to drop everything you're doing to help figure out why Auntie Vivian's antivirus conflicts with Final Catastrophe IV: Attack of the Dentists. Let people know when it's not a good time.

When you sit down at someone's computer, start by checking the basics. Are the security programs up to date? Check msconfig to find out what programs are loading with every boot.

If there's a working internet connection, run a free, online malware scanner, such as this one at Kaspersky Lab and this one - Trend Micro HouseCall.

Put shortcuts to your favourite scanners on a flash drive so you can take them to different computers.

  1. Be a tech-support hero
  2. The right tools for the right job
  3. IT support from far away
  4. Vista: heal thyself
  5. Help your friends to help themselves