Christmas is fast approaching, and alongside the most famous holiday of the year comes a fresh batch of very confused people. Very confused people gifted with strange gadgets the likes of which they’ve only seen in catalogues and sci-fi reruns. Perhaps we’re talking about a grandmother with a new digital camera she can’t figure out how to turn on, and perhaps we’re talking about someone pretty tech literate who needs to know something more advanced. It doesn’t matter — the only prerequisite for getting value out of this list is that the individual knows how to post a question on a forum, as this is a list of places you can go to for help when your electricity-sucking gifts start taking on a mind of their own.

1. PC Hardware

Can’t find your new PC’s “On” switch or need to figure out how to get a few memory slots upgraded? Popular tech hardware site, HotHardware, has a forum with a section dedicated to free tech support on all things to do with PC guts. Judging by the number of “my PC won’t turn on!” posts, it could be that time of year already. Be clear about your computer’s symptoms and what steps you are taking in order to try and achieve the desired result when asking for help.

2. Apple Hardware

If you’ve got a new iMac or Macbook for Christmas and need some assistance, the most logical place to go would probably be the very helpful Apple Support Forums. Unfortunately my past experience with certain other companies taught me to ignore the manufacturer’s own forums as a source of good information, so I found that Mac Rumors had a helpful hardware forum, but now I’m inclined to believe that this is one of few situations where the official forums are the best forums.

3. Windows

So you went to some suspiciously NSFW website and came out with a bad rash and a bucketload of spyware, or you’re using Windows Vista (enough said). Or you need help with network configuration, which seems to be one area where any version of Windows is a real pain in situations that involve anything more than one modem and an Ethernet cable. Tech Support Guy has Vista and XP forums, and heck, even Windows 95 and 98 forums (though I won’t link to them, simply because I think you’re due for a better Christmas present!).

4. Mac OS X

Like I said before, Apple runs decent forums, but the forums at Mac OS X Hints are great, too. The site’s membership has a higher ratio of geeks-to-newbs because of the blog’s type of content that tricky questions can be ironed out in a jiffy. While you’re over there, I think any new OS X user really should subscribe to the blog, since there are so many great ideas there and often there are answers to questions you didn’t even know you had, but needed to know.

5. Linux

Linux can be tricky for the newbie, but it’s also becoming more popular as a pre-loaded option on many computers, including the EeePC—exactly the type of computer that is likely to end up in the stocking thanks to its price range. For those of you giving one of the many flavors—or “distributions”—of the open source operating system a shot, then Linux Questions is a good place to start, since it makes a strong effort to cater to absolute beginners.

6. iPod and iPhone

Apple’s iPod and iPhone have become increasingly popular gifts over the years, especially from that relative who seems to be hoarding a hidden wealth that pops out for a visit around this time of year. They’re not the cheapest gifts but they do make good ones. There are many places to go for help regarding these devices, but perhaps the best belong to the venerable iLounge, long the most popular website pertaining to such devices. iLounge’s forum section is here.

7. Xbox and Playstation

I’m willing to bet there will be more than a few consoles under the tree for boys aged 8 to 80 this year, and most likely they’ll be either the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3. The reputable gaming network IGN’s Xbox-oriented site, TeamXbox, has a very active forum, while those with new Playstations can head to PS3Forums which is equally active.

8. HDTV

If you got a HDTV for Christmas, it was probably a gift from yourself, or an angry spouse who wanted an excuse to use your high interest credit card. CNET has a forum for home audio and video which is mostly focused on HDTVs, since these days it’s hard to get an old CRT clunker anywhere except a second-hand store. There’s also a dedicated Samsung forum, which seems to be the most commonly purchased brand of HDTV (there are no survey numbers involved in that statement — just an eyeball of my own and my friend’s living rooms).

9. Digital Cameras

A digital camera is something we intend to get over the next few weeks, since we’ve decided that taking iPhone pictures of our two kids is not going to provide warm fuzzies ten years down the track, but rather pixelated fuzzies. It can be a confusing market when it comes to the purchase alone, and though I’m at home when it comes to technology in general, controlling cameras and microwaves have a strange tendency to throw me off. Lurking at Digital Camera Resource’s forum has proven helpful enough, and I imagine posting your questions there would be helpful too.

10. Networking

So routers and modems are not usually the first thing on your list when you rush out to get someone a gift, but considering the fact that just about any device you bring into your home these days will have some sort of networking capability—whether it’s the Ethernet on a wifi-crippled Xbox or an Apple TV’s wireless networking—problems are waiting to happen. Networking is one of those areas where the average consumer is, by and large, just as confused as ever. PracticallyNetworked is a useful and oft-referred website with a helpful forum that might prove helpful when you just can’t get the damned (insert device) to acquire an IP address.

Search is Your Friend

I always try to seek out answers to my problems without posting a question on a forum. Sometimes I’m stubborn enough to search for days before caving, and I ask questions only two or three times a year when I have to.

Part of that is just me being a stubborn male. Part of that, however, is simple etiquette. Search, with Google or some other search engine, to see if there’s an answer out there on the web already. If that fails, once you’ve found a forum, search there and see if Google missed anything from the archives.

It’s considered rude and ignorant to ask a question that has been answered many times before, but mostly it’s just lazy, and a bad habit to pick up. Don’t be afraid to exercise some resourcefulness and find the answers to your questions on your own before piping up for yourself.

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