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Tech Support Services Just a Click Away

October 09, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Just about anyone who uses a PC needs a bit of help now and then, especially when things go wrong with software or hardware.

You can call the company whose product is causing the problem, although you may have a tough time getting through and some companies now charge you a fee to answer your question.

Most companies offer free help on their Web site, but finding the answer you need can be a daunting experience. It often involves looking through a series of "frequently asked questions" or, with Microsoft, typing in your question to see whether an answer can be found in its knowledge base.

I'm a pretty sophisticated PC user, and most of the time these Web-based support tools leave me clueless.

In search of a better help line, I've recently tried a company called, which charges a fee, and I am generally impressed.

The technical support specialists at won't talk with you on the phone, but they will interact with you in a live chat session, which is almost as good.

The Vancouver, Canada-based company has live technicians on call 24 hours a day, who will chat via the company's Web site. Access to the technicians costs $36.50 a year, but you can sign up for a free 14-day trial membership.

I took out a trial membership and immediately signed on to ask some questions. I clicked on the live assist button, and a window popped up welcoming me to the live customer support center. About 40 seconds later, I received a message from Christy asking me to state my question. I asked her how to get rid of the RealPlayer icon that shows up on my computer screen whenever I start Windows 98. A minute later, she told me to go to the Windows Start Menu, click on Run, type "MSCONFIG," then click on the start-up tab and un-check the "RealTray" item. It worked.

In another session, I asked for help removing a piece of jammed paper from a Hewlett-Packard printer. The technician first suggested that I check my printer manual, but when I told her I couldn't find it, she went off to the Internet to find my answer. About five minutes later, she redirected my browser to the page on the Hewlett-Packard Web site that contains an online version of the manual and pointed me to the page that explains how to recover from a paper jam.

I also signed on at night to ask about a problem I'm having with the Web browser Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5. My question was answered by Ranganath in Bangalore, India, where it was early morning. I told him that the browser sometimes freezes when I do a search on Yahoo or other search engine. He responded that it was a known bug in the software and advised me to "downgrade" to an earlier version of the program or wait for Microsoft to fix the problem. That wasn't the answer I was hoping for, but at least I knew that there was nothing I was doing wrong.

In addition to its fee-based services, also offers free services such as e-mail assist, in which you're promised a response to your question within 48 hours (four hours if you're a fee-paying member). I asked the same question about removing the RealAudio icon from my screen and got an answer about three hours later. The answer, by the way, was different from what Christy told me, but it was also correct. Another free feature scans your hard drive for software that is out of date. When it finds such a program, it points you to a Web page where you can download an up-to-date copy.

When I used the service, I discovered that I have a number of out-of-date programs that I don't use. Rather than update them, I just deleted them., a service of ZDNet, also offers a free service that scans your hard drive for software, printer drivers and other files that may be out of date. I found it to be a bit friendlier to use than the similar service at PCsupport, but it didn't find as many out-of-date programs. When it does find a program that should be updated, it allows you to download and install it in just a couple of steps.

Microsoft's Windows Update page ( will scan your hard drive for out-of-date Windows system files and will suggest both "critical" and "recommended" updates. Some of the recommended updates add features that you may not need, but it's a good idea to download and install any critical updates, as they often include bug fixes and software that improves security and privacy for Microsoft Internet programs.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at His Web site is at Recent PC Focus columns are available at

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