The complete guide to free help on-line

The complete guide to free help on-line

You can't get your CD-ROM drive to play audio discs. Your monitor has suddenly stopped displaying at high resolution. Every time you run the spelling checker, your computer reboots. So what do you do? Go to the person who sold you the product. "Hey . . . that's me!" I hear you yell. Well, there's another way to get support, and it might get you, the reseller, out of trouble, especially when you don't have time to sit on the phone for hours at a timeFortunately, on the Internet and on-line services you can still get answers to your questions; it doesn't cost anything and within reason you get answered overnight if the information isn't already there.

Nearly every major company's Web site now features a support page with answers to your technical questions. Most include answers to frequently asked questions, knowledge bases containing loads of troubleshooting and product information, and file libraries with updated drivers and software patches. If you want help from an expert, you can usually post a question on a message board or send an e-mail to a company tech support person.

There is, of course, a catch. Hunting down the right answers can take hours (or even days) of on-line exploration. Just figuring out where to start can be a daunting task. And once you find a promising Web site or vendor forum you'll still need to know how and where to look. Downloading the wrong file or poorly phrasing an e-mail question can slow you down - or even get you an incorrect answer.

To help you cut through the on-line clutter and confusion, we searched major hardware and software companies and support sites on CompuServe and the Internet.

Here's a guide for where to go, what to look for, and how to get the right answer the first time you ask.

On-line troubleshooting 101: don't panicGoing on-line for support takes time, patience, and a do-it-yourself attitude. You may have to visit several sites before you find the right answer. If your vendor is not at an obvious address like, try using a search engine such as AltaVista ( or Yahoo ( to search for the company or model name. Microsoft has an excellent searchable knowledge base and over 200 user forums. Since the Windows 95 operating system is sandwiched between the hardware and the applications, information about all kinds of problems usually pops up at Microsoft's Web site.

So many resources, so little time

Vendor-supported web pages offer a wide selection of tech-support resources: there are FAQs which list answers to frequently asked questions; knowledge bases that offer extensive databases of product support solutions; e-mail facilities to send questions directly to company personnel; newsgroups or forums where users and company reps share information; and file libraries with downloadable drivers, utilities, and product files. Keep in mind that different sites offer different resources, and some of these can overlap on occasion - for example, you might find a FAQ stored in a file library.

Once you've located a vendor's home page, look for the link to tech support. Most Web sites are clearly marked, but at some sites the poorly designed pages make it easy to get confused. Fortunately, many sites have built-in search functions to ease navigation. Just type support or service on the search query line and most of the time you'll beam straight to the support page.


The first place to stop on any site is the FAQ, a list of frequently asked questions with answers culled from previous support inquiries. A FAQ can be just a long text file that you have to scroll through; if you're lucky, however, it'll be a list of questions with each one hyperlinked to its answer. If your problem is common, it will be covered by one of the 10 or 20 questions typically found for each product. Questions range in complexity from "Why does my mouse have two buttons?" to "Will closing jumper E-6 bypass the secondary IDE channel and let me use protected-mode drivers?"

The quality of FAQs varies greatly. The FAQ covering all of Compaq's desktop computers has a scant eight questions, while Lotus' FAQ for 1-2-3 has more than 40 questions listed by categories ranging from common error messages to clever shortcuts for data entry. The best sites present the questions by category and then order them by how frequently they're requested. But most sites just give you a long text file of alternating questions and answers. To avoid scrolling through heaps of useless data, try using the Find feature on your browser. If you have a problem with your video card, for example, search on the word "video" or on the model's name. If you come up empty-handed, move to the company's knowledge base.

Knowledge base

If your search through the FAQ has turned up nothing, your next stop should be the site's knowledge base. A knowledge base is a searchable database that contains all kinds of product support information ranging from the latest bug lists to background papers on current technologies (and sometimes even FAQs).

At the heart of a knowledge base are short articles that describe tech support problems and, hopefully, their solutions. Problems and solutions are continually updated by the company's technical support people. In fact, some phone support staff, such as Microsoft's, use the knowledge base as one of their main troubleshooting resources. Right now many major hardware and software vendors are developing on-line knowledge bases, and several companies already have limited models in place. But only big players like Microsoft and Lotus have fully stocked databases that are really useful.

Microsoft boasts a first-rate knowledge base that's packed with problem-solving information for some 40 of the company's products. Responses are usually fast, plentiful, and well written, with brief sections on the problem's symptoms, causes, and solutions. Hewlett-Packard's Web site, on the other hand, has plenty of searchable information such as driver files and FAQs, but it doesn't provide the troubleshooting resources that can be found in the Microsoft and Lotus knowledge bases.

Between these two is Dell's Autotech Diagnostic System. More of a smart FAQ than a knowledge base, this expert system guides you to an answer by asking successive questions about the problem. If your problem falls within the limits of the Autotech decision tree, you can go step by step to your solution. If not, you're given Dell's tech support number and left to fend for yourself.

Using a knowledge base is no different than using a keyword to search a database. Investigate the scope of the knowledge base by starting with broad queries and then narrow the field. For example, search first on "printer" if you think you have a problem printing TrueType fonts on your LaserJet printer. This should generate a long list of responses that will give you a sense of the type and amount of information available. Then narrow your search by looking for words that are likely to be included in the answer you're looking for, such as the model of your printer or the program you're having trouble with. You can quickly narrow a search by querying with more than one word, such as "1-2-3 and LaserJet 4".


Still stumped? Maybe it's time to seek professional help. Some companies will let you send an e-mail directly to tech support. Others, including Microsoft, will charge you for the privilege via its premium subscription support service. Only 13 of the 23 companies we looked at offer e-mail support. If your vendor offers it, you can usually find an e-mail link somewhere on the support page. Be sure to state your problem clearly and include all relevant information.

If the site offers a fill-in-the-blank template for constructing your e-mail query, use it. A template ensures that technicians get all the information they need. This can significantly increase your chances of getting a quick, accurate response the first time. Most companies that offer e-mail support try to respond within one to two days, but it's not unusual to find longer turnaround times during peak demand - like after a new product launch.

Newsgroups (user forums)

If you can't find a direct e-mail link, you still may be able to get feedback from tech support through vendor-supported newsgroups. These electronic bulletin boards allow users to post questions and get answers from company support personnel, company-approved volunteers, or people like yourself.

This kind of support has been widely available for years in support forums on CompuServe and other services, as well as in thousands of non-vendor-supported newsgroups on another part of the Internet called Usenet. Only recently has it started to show up on the Web. Microsoft just launched more than 200 Web-based newsgroups, each focusing on a different application or technical support topic. Other companies, such as Corel, are watching Microsoft's effort with an eye towards developing similar facilities.

A newsgroup often maintains its own FAQ in order to reduce the number of repeat questions. Your first task is to look for a FAQ. It may be contained inside a perpetually posted message on the newsgroup or in a file located elsewhere on the Web. If the FAQ doesn't help, it's time to go to the messages.

Before rushing in and posting your inquiry, take time to scan the questions and answers already there. Not only will this give you a feel for how the group works, but you might even find what you're looking for before you ask. However, unless you have a fairly common question, odds are you won't find a useful answer in the messages.

Hopefully, each question and its responses will be grouped in a linear thread - just like e-mail - that lets you easily view the entire question-and-answer process. Questions and responses are displayed only for a limited time after their posting date (days, weeks, or months depending on the newsgroup). As a result, you may sometimes see a group of responses without the original question. If this happens, check the responses to see if the initial question is embedded in one of them.

A quick way to hunt for a particular question or response is to use your browser's Find function. Also check the time stamps on questions and their answers to get an idea of how quickly you can expect an answer. Response times vary widely from newsgroup to newsgroup: one to two days is typical, but getting back in just hours - or not at all - isn't unheard of.

File libraries

So you've read the FAQ, searched the knowledge base, and scanned the newsgroups. You figured out that all you need is a new device driver, a patch, and some other small bit of software. Piece of cake: most Web sites have links to file libraries - or FTP sites - filled with drivers, upgrades, utility programs, and documentation.

Downloading a file is simply a matter of finding the file name and clicking on it. At some of the more polished sites like Gateway 2000's and Compaq's, you'll find well-organised lists with short descriptions of each file.

But other Web sites, such as Creative Labs', display a primitive directory tree based on the FTP site's file structure. Here files and subdirectories are listed by name only, or with just a few descriptive words.

If you have to look for a file in one of these FTP directories, usually the best place to start is in a pub (for public) directory. You can examine the contents of an FTP directory by clicking on its name. This displays a list of all the files and subdirectories, just like a crude version of Windows File Manager. The best way to avoid confusion is to find the exact name of the file you want from the knowledge base, e-mail, or other source. Then go to the file library. Once you find what you need, click on the file name to begin downloading.

Since many library files are actually multiple files stored in a single compressed one, you might also want to create a new directory - or folder in Windows 95 - where you can conveniently uncompress them.

If cruising vendor web sites has left you empty-handed, it's time to look into some other venues. The Internet is loaded with helpful resources such as Usenet newsgroups. The trick is to pinpoint the useful information and still get to bed before sunrise.

If Usenet newsgroups seem similar to vendor-supported newsgroups or user forums, that's because user forums are modelled after Usenet's winning formula: Usenet newsgroups cover hundreds of computer-related topics and offer a vast array of technical information and experience. Since most of them aren't directly supported by a single person or company, the character of these different newsgroups varies widely. Posting a question to a busy group like can get you a response in hours. The same question posted to the rarely visited newsgroup may never be read.

Usenet newsgroups can be accessed directly by using an Internet software utility known as a newsreader, or indirectly via the Web. The Zippo News Service (, for example, lets you view many Usenet newsgroups in Web-page format. But for easiest viewing, you need to use a newsreader to connect directly to a Usenet server. You can download a free version of Forte's Free Agent, an excellent newsreader, from the company's Web site ( Many Internet service providers include Usenet access as part of their standard package. Also, both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer have newsreaders built in.

There are thousands of newsgroups available, many with names like alt.cow.moo.moo.moo Your job is to find the one that has the answer to your problem. Your best bets for technical help are the newsgroups that start with the prefix alt (for alternative) or comp (computer). For example, alt.sys.pc-clone.gateway2000 is the address of a newsgroup that deals exclusively with Gateway 2000 computer systems, while focuses on problems with IBM sound cards. Many other newsgroups favour technical professionals, but you'll also find groups that concentrate on general topics, such as comp.multimediaIf you want to avoid scanning the long lists of newsgroups to find something specific, go to a search engine on the Web. AltaVista, best known for its Web searching capability, also searches the titles and body text of current Usenet postings. And Deja News ( searches both current and archived Usenet messages.

When posting a message to Usenet, follow the same guidelines as for vendor forums and remember a couple of procedures that are specific to Usenet. First, always read the FAQ for the newsgroup. Posting questions that are already answered in the FAQ - especially in highly focused technical groups - may elicit a barrage of less-than-polite responses telling you to look there first (this is called flaming). Second, it's always a good idea to "lurk" in a newsgroup, reading the postings and getting a feel for how the group functions before you post a message.

When used in the right situation, however, on-line resources can be useful and effective tools. And with many companies placing the bulk of their technical support on-line, you may find yourself there more often than you expect.

Get the right advice the first time

Researchers from PC World magazine asked on-line tech support people to describe the best ways for users to get answers to their questions - quickly. You, or your customers, can use these tips in all technical support communications, be it by e-mail, voice, or fax.

Repeat history. Describe the events that led to the problem. If possible, reboot the computer and re-create the situation. Record every error message or unusual event that you see on screen, from boot-up until the problem recurs.

Sock it to them. Give as much information as possible in the first e-mail, including software version numbers and hardware model numbers. Use the built-in Windows utility SysEdit, and cut and paste the contents of your autoexec.bat, config.sys, win.ini, and system.ini files.

Device and consent. Device Manager in Windows 95's My Computer lets you output its contents to a file. You can attach this file to any e-mail you send so the tech support people will know your computer's configuration.

Easy does it. Keep your message simple by using short, direct sentences, and avoid using vague or general words like "it" or "thing".

Chill out. Most of all, keep cool. It's easy to take your frustrations out on a faceless technical analyst. All you're going to do is slow down the process by annoying someone who's trying to help you.

On-line alternatives to the Web

By Michael Lasky

Before Internet mania struck America, the main place to get on-line support was on CompuServe. There you could find company-sponsored forums with access to trained technical support personnel and extensive file libraries.

Though many companies - most notably, Microsoft - are moving their support services to the Web, the on-line services still offer a vast array of support services. Here's how to get the most out of them.

CompuServe has forums for hundreds of hardware and software companies, maintained by their own technicians and/or competent third-party support firms. There are also scores of generic subject-based computing forums (CD-ROM, Multimedia, Windows) populated with knowledgeable users.

How to find it. To locate the forum you want, click on Find in the Services menu or on the tool bar and type in the name of the company, product, or technology you want to investigate. Find will return all forums linked to the keyword.

How to use it. When you arrive at a forum for the first time, you'll see a dialogue box that asks whether you want to join the forum. You do. (If you choose the visit option, you may not be able to access all parts of the forum.)Make your first stop at the library by clicking the bookshelf icon. Here you'll find FAQs, utility programs, software updates, device drivers, and other files that may help solve your problem. To search for a specific file, or to find files on a particular subject, click the magnifying glass icon. If you want to browse through all the files in the library, click on the hand icon.

If the library doesn't have what you need, it's time to visit the message board. Here you can post queries to trained support technicians (in vendor-supported forums) and experienced users.

Click on the hand-and-pencil button and fill in the form. If you're not sure where to send the message, note the addressees for the posted responses to other messages. Some analysts specialise in certain topics and give quicker replies. If you're still not sure whom to address a message to, send it to the sysop (system operator) of the forum that interests you; the sysop will either answer it or redirect it for you.

On-line help is becoming an integral part of both software and print media. Many troubleshooting utilities include links to on-line support databases. Check out these programs and books.

Oil Change (Cybermedia, $US39.95 per year, Tel: +1800 721 7824) logs the software installed on your PC and provides revisions and updates at your request. When you connect to its database on the Web, Oil Change notifies you of available updates and installs them to your system as you wish. This utility also backs up old drivers when it updates them, so you can undo any unwanted (TouchStone Software, $US29, Tel: +1800 531 0450), is a wizard-based troubleshooting utility. It first queries users about the hardware or software problem, then combines this information with a system profile. A detailed report is then sent via e-mail to the tech support department of the manufacturer of the product diagnosed as causing the problem.

SOS Help Center (Torch USA, Tel: +1800 300 2199, is a research service that can answer questions on any PC-based technical issue, from troubleshooting hardware and software problems to locating replacement parts for hardware. The subscription price is $US4.95 per user per month with unlimited access to the replacement parts database. The cost per question varies on the amount of research Torch USA must do.

The Computer Phonebook (No Starch Press, Tel: +1800 420 7240, $US12.95) is a comprehensive US directory that lists mailing addresses, phone and fax numbers, and (when available) the direct BBS and on-line addresses for more than 14,000 computer hardware and software companies, national user groups, trade/dealer groups, and third-party support firms.

Tech Support Yellow Pages (Cybermedia, 1996, Tel: +1800 721 7824, $US19.95) includes the US technical support numbers and on-line addresses of some 2,000 hardware and software companies. Its included CD-ROM has built-in hyperlinks that let you conveniently connect directly to company Web sites.

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