Know Your Stuff is a new column that unlocks the hidden secrets about the everyday products you own.
Congratulations. You’ve finished opening gifts and now you’re the proud owner of a new…gadget. Maybe you asked for it specifically or maybe it was just a well-intended notion. Either way, now it’s yours, it looks expensive, and you don’t have a clue how to use it.
This is the point at which many of us throw in the towel. It doesn’t matter if you’re older, younger, or more or less educated. We all have our blind spots when it comes to tech and sometimes we’re too embarrassed to ask for help.
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to get you up to speed that don’t require a degree in computer engineering.
Read the manual
It should go without saying, but reading the manual is fundamental to understanding a new product. Granted, not all manuals are created equal. Some are indecipherable and some don’t offer much advice beyond the bare basics. But chances are that those pages contain a jewel or two. So please, at least skim it before you toss it in with the recycling.
Family tech support (in moderation)
Every family seems to have its own tech support specialist: the nephew who troubleshoots your cable box or the daughter who resets your passwords. They’re good in a pinch, but they have their limits (both with their know-how and their patience).
To make the best use of everyone’s time, a little preparation before sitting down together will go a long way. Gather your questions ahead of time. Also, keep in mind that just because your family member is good at using tech, that doesn’t necessarily make them good at explaining it. Ask if they’ll write down step-by-step instructions, then practice while they’re present so you can both troubleshoot. It may seem excessive, but it sure beats asking the same questions over and over again.
YouTube is your friend
Asking Google “how to use [insert product name here]…” can lead you down some strange and unhelpful rabbit holes. Question-and-answer sites like Quora and Wikihow are iffy. Specialty forums can be a treasure trove of enthusiasts eager to share their two cents, but newcomers might find them too jargon-heavy or unwelcoming.
Even official support websites from brands can leave you wanting more. (I find Apple’s support pages far thinner than they should be.)
Try taking that same “how to use…” question to YouTube instead. Yes, the videos can overly long, poorly shot, and hosted by a motley collection of individuals, but it’s where I most frequently find success.
YouTube is, after all, the second-largest search engine in the world and about 500 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute, so you won’t want for options. And like any search engine, the most popular videos rise to the top so they’re easy to find.
In doing a cursory search for “how to use” some of the most popular products our readers bought this year — Instant Pots, Eufy RoboVacs, Echo Dots, and LifeStraws — I was able to find thorough and easy-to-understand videos right away for nearly all of them. (Sadly, videos about the LifeStraws tended to emphasize gross-out challenges rather than straightforward help, but three out of four is pretty good.)
The benefit of learning by video is that you can pause and rewind, going at your own pace and returning as frequently as you like. As your understanding of the product deepens, you can ask more nuanced questions (e.g. “how to make sushi rice in an Instant Pot”).
The caveat to YouTube as a learning tool is that the number and quality of videos is proportional to the popularity of the product. If you’re bringing obscure queries to the internet, expect to find the answers in obscure corners.
Retailers with free tech support
When in doubt, you can always turn to the professionals. Several big retailers offer personalized support for the products they sell.
Apple: Did you receive an Apple product for the holidays? Inside every Apple retail store is the famed Genius Bar, which offers free appointments for consultation. Just make sure you book in advance to avoid long waits. Apple stores also offer a variety of free classes that will put you face-to-face with instructors who know Apple products inside and out.
Microsoft: Likewise, Microsoft stores offer a number of free workshops and events for kids, educators, business, and gaming.
Amazon: If you were the recipient of an Amazon Echo, Fire, or Kindle device, Amazon’s website has a page dedicated to Digital Services and Device support full of articles and videos. But if you need that human connection, try their help chat or call them directly at 1-888-280-4331.
Best Buy: Best Buy’s Geek Squad has a less-than-sterling reputation for the expertise of its technicians, but if you’re willing to pay, they can offer a wide variety of help, even for products and services you didn’t purchase at Best Buy. If you’re curious, you can start with their help chat, but we recommend avoiding the $199/year “Total Tech Support” membership. While it comes with some benefits, the more critical services require additional payment.
Home Depot and Lowe’s: Home Depot and Lowe’s sell a huge variety of tools, gadgets, and smart home devices. Neither is particularly famous for its customer service — wandering the aisles in search of an employee is almost a right-of-passage as a home owner — but with patience and good timing (visit on a weekday rather than the weekend) you may find that retired contractor who’s got a wealth of advice. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s offer a limited selection of DIY classes.
Help is out there if you’re brave enough to ask for it, and who knows? With enough practice, you just might end up becoming someone else’s tech support someday.
David Kender is the editor in chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.