The best free tech gifts you can give

Even Santa won't organize someone's photo library or set up a password-management system. If you have the skills, prepare to become a holiday hero.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
5 min read

Recently a friend asked for help setting up her new cable modem and router. I was only too happy to help, and she was as grateful as if I'd given her an expensive gift.

Which, come to think of it, I sort of had. Help with technology is worth a lot to people who aren't especially tech-savvy. Lightbulb! If you're looking for a great gift to give this year, consider the inestimable value of your time and tech skills.

Suppose, for example, your uncle is constantly griping about how slow his computer has gotten. You probably know some tricks to try: Check it for viruses, run a system-optimization utility and so on. An hour or two of work could result in a computer that's nearly as good as new. How much would your uncle love that? Thiiiiiiiiiis much.

With that in mind, I've put together a list of tech-oriented "gifts" you can give to friends and family. Call them the gift of service, or even the gift of tech sanity. However you frame it, I suspect it'll be met with a lot of appreciation.

Organize their photo library


Nearly everyone I know has this problem: too many photos in too many places. They might have some stored on memory cards from old cameras , some stored in old cameras and maybe even some old prints that never made it into photo albums. And let's not forget the mounting library taken with their phones and tablets .

Assuming you've figured out how best to master your own photo mountain, take the time to do likewise for an organization-strapped friend. It might involve training them to use the likes of, say, Flickr or Google Photos , which offer 1TB and unlimited free storage, respectively. (See CNET's roundup of the best ways to store your photos online for guidance.) But once you've done the initial setup and upload, it should be smoother, easier sailing for their photo future.

Migrate their data and settings to a new PC

Did Santa bring someone a new PC? No doubt they're going to need help moving everything over from the old one. Programs, data, settings, all that stuff.

You've probably done this before yourself, so just use whatever methods you're comfortable with. My advice: Download (to the new PC) any software that needs installing rather than using a transfer utility, tweak settings as needed, and sync all data to the cloud (from the old PC) so it's easily accessible and backed up on the new machine.

Help them transition to a tablet

I'm a firm believer that for a lot of tech-challenged users, especially those fed up with virus issues, long boot times and other common PC hassles, an iPad or Android tablet is a much better option. I lay out some of the reasons why in How to buy a new PC for your parents.

If you're able to make the sale, help your friend or family member make the move. This might mean installing apps to take the place of certain desktop software, getting the tablet connected to a printer and migrating data to the cloud so it's tablet-accessible. You can also help with selecting and connecting accessories like a keyboard.

Cut their cable clutter

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Most houses have a snake's nest of cables in at least two places: near the PC and behind the TV. Wireless devices are helping reduce this scourge, but if you've noticed some unsightly clutter in someone's home, offer to organize their cables.

There are plenty of ways to do this on the cheap, starting with good old-fashioned twist-ties. You can also buy some inexpensive strips of Velcro for a slightly more elegant cord-wrap solution, and maybe some 3M Command Hooks to help keep cords out of sight -- without furniture-injuring nails or hooks.

Set up a password manager

I'll bet you a box of donuts you know at least one person who is constantly forgetting their passwords -- or using the same weak one on every website.

That person needs a password manager! And needs you to set it up. First, introduce the concept: an app and/or desktop utility that stores all passwords; generates new, secure ones as needed; and inserts them automatically when signing into websites. All they need to remember is the single, master password for the password manager itself.

Many of the most popular passwords managers -- Dashlane, Lastpass, etc. -- are free for use on a single device. Of course, much of the value lies in being able to sync passwords between phone, tablet, desktop and so on. That feature usually requires a subscription -- it's up to you if you want to make that part of the gift. Lastpass is the deal to beat: It's just $1/month for the Premium version. Or, for a one-and-done option, grab a lifetime Password Boss Premium subscription for $19.99.

Set up remote tech support

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Troubleshooting PC problems by phone can try the patience of even the saintliest helper. It's just a slow, imprecise, ultimately aggravating process. "Click the Start button. I know there's nothing that says 'Start'...it looks like a Windows icon. An icon is a picture. It's in the lower-left corner of the screen. Yes, that. Click it!"

If you can't be there in person, remote control is the next best thing: You take control of their computer via your computer and work your problem-solving magic, same as if you were sitting at that distant keyboard.

For this I recommend a great, free tool: Teamviewer. Download and install the client software at your end, then direct your friend or relative to the Teamviewer home page. Have them click Join remote control session, launch the no-installation-required executable, then feed you their ID and password from the app. Presto! You've got control.

And maybe do a test run before an actual support issue arises, just so you're not fighting two battles at once.

Other options

Get the idea? It's all about helping someone solve a problem, save time or the like. A few other random gifts to consider:

  • Help set up iCloud on a new iPhone
  • Set up two-step verification for Apple , Google and other services
  • Configure a new smart-home appliance like an Amazon Echo or WeMo plug
  • Teach the basics of using a new Chromebook
  • Fix their TV so it stops showing the dreaded soap-opera effect

What other free tech "gifts" can you think of?