You've seen the ads. Swarms of geeks parachute in to rescue desperate victims of computer disasters. Our new survey shows that these hired guns usually succeed in their mission, but their help does not come cheap.
Still, think about opening your wallet if you want your Windows-based PC up and running quickly. Support from computer makers remains uneven, so you'll most likely consider the money well spent.
We drew those conclusions from our first survey to rate both independent and manufacturer tech support, in which the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed more than 23,000 users. Independent services trounced all Windows PC manufacturers, who solved a measly 59 percent of problems. Free manufacturer support was often abysmal, succeeding only 53 percent of the time. Extra-cost extended warranties had a slightly higher success rate, 62 percent, but no fewer hassles.
By contrast, independent tech support services affiliated with major retail chains, such as Best Buy's Geek Squad and Circuit City's Firedog, solved 84 percent of users' problems with Windows-based PCs. Other third parties offering in-home and phone support (and sometimes online aid) solved fully 93 percent of problems. Independents also had more knowledgeable staff and better phone responsiveness than computer makers.
Good help can cost a pretty penny, though. More than half the survey respondents who used independent services spent $100 or more. If the situation isn't urgent, you might as well try free manufacturer support for computers still under warranty. (See "Manufacturer support".) That's especially true for two manufacturers that stood head and shoulders above the rest: Apple and Lenovo. Both solved 80 percent of problems, comparing favorably with independents.
Even if your warranty has expired, you may be able to get help from Web sites that offer free advice and tools. See "Free help for the asking."
When to Hire a Geek
Of users who contacted any type of independent support, 69 percent were highly satisfied vs. 42 percent of those who used manufacturer support. Satisfaction rates reflect cost and promptness as well as problem-solving skills. Consider the following:
The source of the problem isn't obvious. Most manufacturers look only at the pre-installed hardware and software covered by the original warranty. Independents go beyond that, evaluating your whole setup, including peripherals, networks, applications, and the software drivers on your system. If the problem doesn't clearly lie with the original setup, an independent is more likely to solve it.
A virus or spyware might be to blame. If your computer has slowed to a crawl or barrages you with pop-ups, your system might have been infected by malicious software. Independents were more likely to make such diagnoses. They did so for 25 percent of the calls reported in our survey. Manufacturer tech support unearthed the culprits for only 8 percent.
You want no-hassle phone service. Only 12 percent of users reported problems with independents' phone support, compared with 58 percent of those who phoned manufacturers. In fact, picking up the phone is often the best way to start. It costs less than in-home service, and you needn't take your PC to a store.
Caveat: Protect your warranty. If your computer is still under warranty, make sure that using another service won't void it. This is mostly an issue for hardware repairs--say, if a third party installs a new graphics card. It's less likely to be a problem if someone removes a virus or adds a software firewall. Call the computer company if you're unsure.
Independent tech support is available from a variety of sources. Perhaps the best-known services are those offered by major retail chains. Other third-party organizations such as 1800905Geek and local repair shops will service your computer by phone or in-home. Our "Tech support survey findings" (available to subscribers) suggest that some manufacturers' help centers did better than the services affiliated with the major retailers. If you don't need a house call, you can also try services that specialize in remote access via the Web. With that type of service, a technician takes over your machine via the Internet. Here's a sampling of independent tech-support services. (Most also offer service subscriptions, but here we list per-incident or per-house-call options, which we recommend.)
1800905Geek (1800905geek.com). Formerly known as Geeks on Call, it offers in-home service in about 23 states and phone service nationwide. Most locations charge flat rates, starting at $99 for home service that includes diagnostics and 15 minutes of repairs.
Ask Dr. Tech (www.askdrtech.com). For $19 per incident, you can get phone, chat, e-mail, or remote-access help.
Firedog (www.firedog.com). Circuit City's service offers in-home, in-store, phone, and remote-access support. House calls cost $160 an hour. You can also pay per incident for data migration (moving data from one computer to another), drive installation, PC setup, and wireless-network setup. Prices range from $15 for an in-store PC dust removal to $230 for in-home data migration, operating-system setup, or premium PC setup.
Geek Squad (www.geeksquad.com). This is Best Buy's affiliate. You can take your PC to a Best Buy store for service or pay a premium for an in-home visit. Services range from creating a system-restore CD ($29) to performing advanced diagnostics and repairs and taking preventive measures ($299 in a store, $349 in your home). Remote-access services include online diagnostics for $29 and wireless network repairs for $99.
PC Pinpoint (www.pcpinpoint.com). This site uses online self-help guides to solve problems, presenting manufacturer-specific solutions step by step. Self-help, phone, chat, e-mail, or remote-access support costs $30 per incident; house calls cost $99 an hour.
PlumChoice (www.plumchoice.com. Remote-access fees are $90 an hour or $25 for 15 minutes. In-home support costs $119 per hour. Per-problem fees include $100 to remove viruses and spyware, $80 to get a wireless network up and running, and $50 for PC setup.
How to Choose
If your computer starts acting up, try these steps to get it back in business.
Consider free support first. It's possible that free tech support from the manufacturer can solve your problem without costing you a cent. There's no harm trying that first if your system is still under warranty and the problem doesn't seem too complex.
Check the reputation. If free support isn't an option you can or want to use, then it's time to pay for assistance. Be choosy about letting strangers tinker with your computer. Before you allow anyone into your home or give anyone remote access to your computer, make sure the provider is reputable. Consult the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org). Also see whether the company has done a background check on any technician who is to visit your home.
Ask about tech certification. You're paying for expertise, so make sure you get it. Look for technicians who have CompTIA A+, MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer), and MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional).
Skip the all-you-can-eat plan. Most independents offer subscription-based support, with fees of $25 or so a month or $150 per year for unlimited use. Skip it: 75 percent of survey respondents who subscribed hadn't used the service at all in the previous six months or had used it only once. It's more cost-effective to pay by the incident or by the hour. As a rule, service costs less per incident--as little as $15 to $20 for problems that can be solved by phone without a house call. Even if a house call is required, per-incident payment is predictable in a way that per-hour may not be. If you are paying by the hour, make sure the company won't charge for a full hour if your problem is fixed in 15 minutes. For in-home service, the clock shouldn't start ticking until the technician reaches your house.
Request a guarantee. The length of Geek Squad's guarantees varies with the type of service you purchase. PCPinpoint guarantees work done under its single-use services for seven days and under annual subscriptions for 30 days. PlumChoice guarantees its work for five days, and 1800905Geek for 10 days.