NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2007
Free Online Tech Support Resources
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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Many of us have found that technical support from some hardware manufacturers and software publishers is often lacking, so we occasionally need some third party alternative resources. There have been some recent email discussions among the board members and advisors of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG) about assistance that may be available online to help novices and others with common technical support issues. Fortunately there are many online resources that often can help us find the answers to our computing questions when manufacturers and publishers can not easily provide us with answers that we need.

The magazine “Smart Computing”, which calls itself the “plain English” computer magazine offers its online “Tech Support Center” at http://www.smartcomputing.com. According to the banner on the magazine website, “We’re your one-stop shop for computer problem solving. If you still can’t find an answer for your problem after using our Tech Support Center, call us up and we’ll help you through the problem.” Based on my own personal experiences and contacts, Smart Computing magazine is a very popular and reliable source of technical support information. The database of problems and solutions is easily searchable using only one or two words as search terms.

There are also about a dozen categories or topics listed, including such topics as error messages, a knowledge base, a listing of trouble shooting articles, security and privacy issues, maintenance, networking, and other useful topics. Smart Computing provides an outstanding service to the computing community, and deserves the thanks of those who can benefit from its Tech Support Center service. “Thanks, Smart Computing!”

One of my personal favorites is the website at http://www.annoyances.org. Annoyances is fully searchable by topic, and offers a variety of discussion forums covering all flavors of Windows from the current Vista offerings, to the archaic and obsolete Windows 95, with everything in between. Not surprising, one of the most active forums is the support forum for Windows XP, with over 14,000 pages of information! The newer Vista has only 160 pages in its Annoyances forum, but it has only been on the market for about a tenth of the time of its older brother, XP, and has only a tiny fraction of the installed user base. Still, there is extensive and comprehensive information that is easy to search, and many of the issues that have come up can be resolved at Annoyances.

In addition to the forums covering the range of operating systems, Annoyances also offers 10 categories of information to help the user with any problems that may arise. Categories listed include Using Windows, Customizing, Annoyances, Networking, Reducing Clutter, Performance, Troubleshooting, Applications, Humor, and FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). Other assistance is available as well, including tips on getting started with Windows, working with the registry, other software, and a listing of books written by Annoyances that contain much of the online information in book form. Annoyances.org can be an excellent resource to try and find the help that many of us often need.

Another comprehensive resource that contains a wealth of technical data that can assist those in need of computer support is Jupiter Online Media’s “Virtual Dr.” at http://www.virtualdr.com. Virtual Dr. (Virtual Doctor) is a self described online “community where problems get solved.” Virtual Dr. offers a variety of discussion areas covering desktop computers, laptops and PDA’s, digital imaging, security and privacy, networking, storage, software, Windows, Linux, Mac, and a forum on spyware. While anyone can read any of the Virtual Dr. forums and discussion areas, a free registration is required to post a question or respond in the forums. Virtual Dr. has about 90,000 registered users, an indication of its popularity as a method of technical support separate from the manufacturers and software publishers.

For those who prefer to try and find answers to their technical problems on their own, a popular trick in geekdom is to use the immense powers of the major search engines to find solutions to technical problems. The mega search engines such as Google, AllTheWeb (my personal favorite at http://www.alltheweb.com), and Ask (ask.com) contain a wealth of technical support information for those willing to look. These, and other major search engines, allow the user to type a question in the search box, with the search engine reporting back potential answers based on the key words in the inquiry. While this method may require some perusing to find the answer sought, it is a viable method of locating information. Similarly, if a user needs technical information on a piece of hardware, all he needs to do is enter the brand name and model number in the search engine and comprehensive information resources will appear on the screen containing information on the product. A similar tactic works for software; if the user had a problem or has a question about software applications, then likely thousands of others have had comparable issues. Typing in the name of the software and a few words of inquiry in the search box will likely return a desired response. Whenever a search engine is used, it may require some effort to locate the precise information desired from the massive selection displayed.

These are but a few of the advantages of using the internet to resolve technical support issues. In my experience I have often found it faster and more accurate to use some of the above resources to locate answers to my questions, than it is to try and contact the hardware manufacturer or software publisher. The web is always available, and problems do not always occur 9 to 5 on weekdays. Check out the above websites and determine which ones you like the best, so you can be familiar with them prior to an urgent need. In addition, you might learn something useful.

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