Free Support Free-for-All

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - When vendor support fails, where do you turn? We try nine support sites to see which ones provide the answers you need, at a price you can't refuse.

When a PC suddenly and for no apparent reason conks out, most people pick up the phone and call the manufacturer's technical support line. Sometimes that means waiting forever on hold. Or it could involve sending e-mail that never gets answered, paying money for help, or receiving bad advice. Don't worry.

Third-party technical support sites are springing up all over the Internet, offering practical tips on computer-related problems and a useful, accessible alternative to less-than-stellar vendor support. Like so much else on the Web, most of these sites are free (supported by ads), and some of them provide exemplary advice.

When Leigh Washburn of Washington, D.C., needed help designing an Excel chart, she went first to Microsoft's Web site. It was pretty much a bust. "Their only advice was to buy a book," she says. Eventually, she found her way to another site,, where a search for 'Excel chart' brought her quickly to a graphic explaining exactly how the procedure worked. Initially she doubted the accuracy of the advice: "When it works that easily, it couldn't possibly be right." But she soon became a believer. Washburn had discovered one of the conundrums of today's Internet: It's full of helpful free advice--if only you can find it.

Is third-party support any good? In many cases it's excellent. We examined nine free,,,,,,, PC Support Center, and for answers to questions about computers, the Windows OS, applications, and peripherals. Time and again, we found clear, complete, and correct answers, though no single site performed best consistently. Forum sites, where a community of users helps other users, did particularly well.

That's more than we can say for the vendors' own sites. We asked the same questions at Web sites maintained by Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and other leading companies. Finding the correct answer was generally either very difficult or nearly impossible (Dell proved the one major exception).

Internet support usually falls into one of three categories: forums, expert advice sites, and knowledge bases. Forums are bulletin boards where people post questions and answers for each other. You can also post a question at an expert advice site, but only one person will respond--an "expert" responsible for answering questions. At a knowledge base, you can search an online database to find answers to specific questions. A site needn't be limited to a single, for example, offers both forums and expert advice, while uses all three methods.


You're most likely to find the right answer at a forum site such as,,,, or The community spirit of a forum increases the likelihood that you'll get a variety of opinions and more than one way to solve a problem, and that good advice from one person will correct bad advice from someone else.

You don't get that kind of give-and-take experience from an expert advice site, where only one person reads your question, and only you read his or her answer.

The quality of these,,, and entirely on the quality of professionals hired or, in some cases, of the volunteers selected to answer your questions. One caveat about expert advice sites: Their usefulness hinges on their having enough experts for the traffic. If a site becomes popular quickly, the quality of its service could plummet as it scrambles to muster staff.

Waiting is also part of the game with forum and expert sites. Overall in our testing, forums proved more responsive than experts, usually providing at least one answer within an hour of our posting a question. When we asked late at night, the forums usually had an answer by the following morning. By contrast, experts often took a day or more to answer a question. This variation in response time is hardly surprising: When you ask many people, someone is bound to answer quickly; when you ask only one, he or she may take some time to get back to you.

Two exceptions are and, both of which offer a chat-based feature on their sites. (By the time you read this, should also offer live chat.) Live chat potentially can provide a speedier give-and-take dialog than e-mail allows. You ask a question, an expert asks for additional details, you supply those details, and so forth. But you may have to wait for 5 or 10 minutes while the expert looks something up. At, some experts charge for the information they provide. You can decide whether you want to accept it and pay their fee.


When you do get an answer from a forum or an expert site, it's bound to be more useful than the information you retrieve from a knowledge base site such as,, or With a knowledge base, you don't have to wait for someone to reply, but the search itself takes time, and the answers you're looking for aren't always there. When we searched with keywords like taskbar and margins, the three knowledge bases let us down more often than they hit the mark.

The Web is full of help, and we don't have sufficient space here to cover every site we found. Some that we don't cover are useful but charge for information:, for example, claims that it can respond almost immediately as well as provide more than one solution. (formerly and both offer a mix of free and fee-based services. These two sites were being revamped as of press time; the new versions should be available by the time you read this. claims its fee-based service can deliver a faster response from an expert. Yet another group of sites, including, uses a point system to ration the number of questions you can ask.

In a nutshell: If your hardware or software vendor fails to provide prompt, reliable advice, third-party tech-support sites offer a helpful alternative, though some of them exhibit minor quirks.



MORE THAN MOST free stuff, technical support sites are refreshingly free of concealed hitches. Sure, you run the risk of getting a delayed response, bad advice, or no answer. But these hazards apply to tech support of all kinds, free and fee-based.

Don't be startled, though, if your favorite free help sites don't stay free.

Many sites would like to charge for advice (as and already do). So enjoy the free ride--for now.

PCs and Windows

The most basic technical support questions concern the computer itself and the operating system. To find out how different sites handle these queries, we asked each one a series of four questions.

First, we asked how to get the computer to start with the NumLock function off.

Second, we looked for advice on picking the right kind of RAM to buy to upgrade a PC's memory. Then we searched for a way to make Windows' taskbar disappear.

And finally, we asked why Windows 98 SE couldn't shut down properly. (This is a known bug, for which Microsoft's Web site provides a patch.)We started by looking for answers on the vendors' own sites. We asked the first two questions at Compaq, Dell, and Toshiba. Extensive searches proved futile at Compaq and Toshiba. At Dell, by contrast, we quickly found what we were looking for, thanks to the site's natural-language search tool. We also checked Microsoft's site for answers to the two Windows questions. After much searching, we discovered the cause of Win 98 SE's shutdown problem and a fix for it. We didn't find an answer to the taskbar question.

The best answers for system questions came from users at the forum site. Their explanations, though not always conventional, were sound and useful. For the RAM upgrade, for example, someone suggested that we pull our existing SIMMs from the computer and bring them to a store for reference. is also extremely straightforward and simple to use. Its unpretentious design has no doodads to slow the download and no odd colors to make reading difficult. Posting a question is ridiculously easy: You just scroll to the bottom of the page and find the form. Unlike the other forum sites, doesn't require you to register to post a message.

The worst site for this set of questions was, a knowledge base that covers far more than computer use. Ask EHow how to attract hummingbirds, and you'll get a wide selection of useful tips. Ask it how to turn NumLock off, and you'll get a short list of irrelevant suggestions, ranging from 'How to Make a U-Turn' to 'How to Top Turn Off the Lip on a Windsurf Board'. EHow sports a natural-language search tool, but it lacks the intelligence to guess just what your question means. If you ask how to turn off the taskbar in Windows, you'll get a list of answers, including the ubiquitous 'How to Make a U-Turn' and 'How to Flip-Turn When Swimming the Backstroke'.

Worse, in many cases the info we sought wasn't there. For three of the four questions we asked EHow, no right answers appeared among all the wrong ones.

But for the upgrade question, it provided a useful article, 'How to Buy RAM', written for the site. And since EHow provides canned solutions for common problems, we didn't have to wait for an answer.

Overall, we received few blatantly wrong answers to our questions. The experts at and had trouble with the shutdown problem, offering general advice that evinced no knowledge of the documented bug. In fact, the PC Support Center guru went so far as to tell us that the only probable solution would be to reformat the drive, though he admitted that answer was too drastic.

Do Your Own Background Check

IT'S A COMMON OCCURRENCE. You ask a question online, wait for a response, and then get not an answer, but another question: What kind of PC do you have? What version of Windows? What printer?

If the people trying to help you don't have enough information about your system, they may not be able to answer your question until you've answered theirs, turning a simple query into a volley of e-mail exchanges. So if you want your answer fast, put every relevant fact into your original query.

What's relevant? Best to give more info than less. Start your message with a brief description of your question before getting into a long, detailed description with all of the information suggested here. If you're using Windows 98, you can get information about your PC from the System Information program.

Select Start*Programs*Accessories*System Tools*System Information. If you're using Windows 95, right-click My Computer, select Properties, and click the Device Manager tab for hardware information. Here are the facts you should include in your query, just to be safe.

Hardware: Give the make and model number of your computer. Identify the CPU (Pentium III-500, for example) and video card, and list the amount of installed system RAM. If you're writing to the vendor, include the serial number; you'll probably find it on the back of your computer.

Software: List your operating system (such as Windows) and the version number (95, 98, or other). Add the names of all software that loads when you start your computer, such as antivirus or crash control programs, and anything in the start-up folder. Of course, you should include the name and version number of any program pertinent to your problem and the names of any programs that interact with it, such as browser plug-ins.

Peripherals: If you're asking about a printer, modem, scanner, or other peripheral, include the name of the vendor and the model number of the device.

You should also mention the type of port it's plugged into (for example, serial, parallel, USB, or IEEE 1394).


To find out how well third-party Web-based free support handles the programs we use to get our work done, we asked two questions about Microsoft Office and two about Quicken. Most of the sites provided some help with Office but did very poorly when we asked about Quicken, a market leader in a very popular category.

We asked how, in Microsoft Word, you make the first line of a paragraph stick out farther to the left than the other lines (a formatting arrangement called a hanging or overhanging indent--though we didn't acknowledge knowing the term).

We also asked how to create an Excel formula for x to the power of y. Again, we avoided using the technical term, exponentiation.

Our first Quicken-related question concerned use of a common shortcut, -V, to paste text. This Apple Macintosh standard has been adopted by Windows and most Windows applications but was not a default setting in Quicken until version 2000. The second query asked how to enter a new share price manually into an investment account via the register.

You're not likely to find answers to these questions at Microsoft's or Intuit's sites. Although has an extensive database, we found only a long, complex way to create hanging indents, and nothing explaining exponentiation.

Intuit's site had no relevant help. offered the best advice in response to both sets of questions, perhaps because it combines expert advice and a forum. When one proved inadequate, as when the Word expert didn't provide enough details with his instructions, the other came through.

The exception involved the Quicken share-price question. Here, once again, the expert didn't include enough details, but this time the only reply we received in the forum was just plain wrong. On the other hand, NoWonder was the only site that offered the correct answer to the Quicken paste question, both through the expert and from a kindly soul on the forum. We also tested NoWonder's chat-based expert area, which was on its trial run at press time.

Unfortunately, since this facility was still in an early stage of development, it was not as successful in providing us with a prompt response.

On the design front, NoWonder's site could be called NoNonsense. The straightforward site is easy to use and navigate. To ask an expert, you simply fill out a form that asks for all pertinent user information. For forums, employs Prime-Web's Ultimate Bulletin Board software, which enables you to easily enter messages, respond to them, browse, and find answers to your questions.

Good Quicken experts are, apparently, hard to find. Consider what we encountered at, the other site using a chat feature. It handled the Office questions quite capably. But when I asked about Quicken on a Tuesday, I was told to come back the next day for the Quicken expert. Come Wednesday, I was told the expert would be there on Friday. Someone who was there on Wednesday took a stab at the paste question, figuring out the problem but not a solution. He asked for my e-mail address so the Quicken expert could answer the price-change question. But the expert's eventual reply was that he didn't have an answer--not exactly useful.

None of the knowledge bases held answers to any of our application-related questions. Even, which helped Leigh Washburn with Excel and is the best of the knowledge bases because it culls information from various sources rather than depending on what its own people produce, couldn't help here. MyHelpDesk is a technical support portal that guides you to information on other Web sites. It's a great place to find extensive data about a subject, but you can't rely on it to find answers to specific questions. MyHelpDesk is still improving its site, however--currently it's adding a natural-language search tool, for example--and may soon offer more useful and relevant advice on specific PC-related topics.

No site bombed in the applications category quite as badly as, a knowledge base, and an expert advice site rolled into one.

The forums are difficult to figure out, and returning to questions you posted can be nearly impossible. What's more,'s forums are sparsely populated, limiting the give-and-take that usually makes these venues attractive. Finally, they're not carefully moderated; postings are often off the subject and can sometimes be offensive.

A knowledge base typically covers a lot broader area than just computers and doesn't fare well with technical questions. Although's experts were often on the mark in other categories, giving prompt and accurate answers, they failed to make the grade with applications. We didn't obtain correct answers to either Quicken-related question. And 24 days after posting our Microsoft Office questions, we had yet to receive any answer.

Usenet Newsgroups


IF YOU DON'T FIND adequate technical advice from an expert-advice, knowledge-base, or forum site, consider Usenet, a forum-based portion of the Internet that predates the Web by years. Usenet forums, called newsgroups, offer a plethora of useful information, and the people who populate them are often very well informed.

The best place from which to search Usenet is the Web site In the upper right corner of this portal's home page, you'll find a search tool geared toward newsgroups. Type in a keyword relating to the problem you're having with your PC, application, or peripheral, and you'll find a huge listing of postings from newsgroups all over the Internet, as well as options for a power search.

AltaVista and HotBot also have newsgroups, though they're not as helpful as Deja's.

The best way to be interact with a newsgroup (asking questions and taking part in discussions) is to go to it directly or to access it through America Online, Netscape Messenger, or Outlook Express. You'll need to know the name of your ISP's news server, which is usually news.your ISP's domain example,

As helpful as newsgroups are, some of them have shortcomings. They are, as a rule, not moderated, meaning that anyone can post anything. While this unrestricted approach has some advantages, such as greater freedom of expression, it does mean that you may have to wade through spam, including porn ads, to find what you're looking for. You'll also have to deal with people who are lacking in the social graces. Your questions may provoke replies ranging from unfriendly to downright obscene, in addition to some useful answers.

Which are the best newsgroups to try for PC technical support? For general information about your computer or Windows, visit,,,,,, microsoft.public.win98, or microsoft.public.win98.apps. For info about particular programs or peripherals, go to comp.apps.spreadsheets,, microsoft.public.excel, microsoft.public.win98.comm.modem, alt.comp.softwarefinancial.quicken, or comp.periphs.printers.

Don't fret if some of these names seem a bit out of date. The Windows 95 newsgroups do discuss Windows 98, and the term ibm.pc is a throwback to a time when IBM controlled this industry; the IBM PC newsgroup covers PCs made by any manufacturer.

Peripherals and


So many different printers and modems are out there, no third-party site could possibly cover them all. Luckily, none has to. Most questions about, say, a particular ink jet printer pertain to other models, too. To test support sites' helpfulness with peripherals, we asked general questions one might ask about any printer or modem.

Our printer question asked why we couldn't load the paper in our Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C so it wouldn't jam. For modems, we asked a universal question: When in Europe, can you operate a modem designed for use in the United States? If the site asked us for more details, we identified the modem as a 3Com U.S. Robotics Modem PC Card and the country as Germany.

How did the vendors themselves do? Hewlett-Packard fared reasonably well, but only after we figured out that its advice for other DeskJet model numbers worked equally well with our 882C. A collection of paper-handling tips for the 810C, 830C, 880C, and 895Cse proved useful for the 882C as well. On the international modem question, 3Com quickly responded--we sent the question and received an answer the next day. But the company's recommendation that we buy a European modem could have been sales motivated; other sources advised us that an adapter would do the trick.

Two of the forum sites, and, outdid every other site in the peripherals category. One user not only told us about modem adapters but also pointed us to, a retail site that sells kits and adapters for traveling users. On, a response from a DeskJet 882C user offered the only model-specific advice we saw about loading the printer.

Both sites use the same Ultimate Bulletin Board software as and are equally powerful and easy to work with. The one trick to using both of them successfully involves finding the right forum. For instance, has 11 different Windows 95/98 forums, including General, Hardware, Internet, and Utilities. There's no specific Modem forum, so do you go to the Hardware forum or the Internet forum or both? The key is to look in the Posts column, which tells you if a forum is heavily used. The larger the number of people who use the forum, the better your chances of getting a fast, accurate reply. We posted our query to the Hardware forum, which had 2433 posts, compared to the Internet forum's 533.

No site completely blew it on both questions; all had something useful to say about either printers or modems. We did get some bad advice, however. An expert at wrote, 'DeskJets are known to have this problem when they get old', indicating that he didn't know the DeskJet 882C is a newer model. Experts at both and told us that a modem made for use in the United States could be used in Europe without any serious problem--true, but not sufficient advice.

And of course, a wrong answer--a possibility with any technical support source--can be worse than no answer at all. With forum sites, including,,, and, you're likely to find the right answer to your technical questions faster than you can say, "Read the manual."

Lincoln Spector is a contributing editor for PC World and writes our monthly column Answer Line.

NO-NONSENSE DESIGN:'s query page is simple and easy to follow, asking for your question and basic user information.

HOW-TO HAVEN? capably covers nontechie topics, such as making a U-turn, but isn't as useful for PC-related subjects.

LET'S TALK: offers expert advice through a live chat area, providing immediate give-and-take dialog for users.

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