Anyone who's owned a computer for a while knows how tough it can be to get a mystery problem solved. You're not always sure which program or piece of hardware is causing the glitch, and often when you call, the makers of the hardware will blame the makers of the software, and vice versa.
That's one reason for the growing popularity of third-party support companies - firms that offer technical support for all PC programs and hardware. They typically cost a flat fee per problem, per month or per year, and offer frustrated PC owners a way to get nagging issues fixed without spending a lifetime on hold.
Two services that offer to fix problems with slightly different approaches are PC Pinpoint (www.pcpinpoint.com) and Speak With a Geek (www.speak withageek.com). PC Pinpoint services cost $14.95 for a one-week trial or $49.95 a year, per PC. Speak With a Geek offers a five-day free trial and charges $34.95 a month for one PC.
PC Pinpoint uses software to automatically identify and solve basic problems. Self-help tutorials also address basic problems. If the software doesn't pick up the issue, then you contact the company's tech support folks. If that doesn't work, you can opt for an on-site visit for an additional fee.
Speak with a Geek allows you to call or e-mail anytime with problems on almost any platform. The fees aren't unreasonable when you consider that most tech support from software and hardware companies becomes pay-per-use after the initial warranty period (and sometimes before), costing up to $50 per call.
That's assuming, of course, that you can get through to them. Jonathan Whittenberg, who owns Nathan Whitt Construction in Royal Oak, Mich., spent more than an hour on hold with the maker of his handheld computer before giving up and trying Pinpoint to figure out why he was losing information.
"You get dependent on these things," he said about his machine. "If I lose it for a day, I feel naked."
The software didn't pick up a problem, but the tech support person did: He had inadvertently created two user IDs with near-identical names. Sometimes his appointments were saving to one, sometimes to the other.
He recently used the service to identify that a problem with his laptop was actually a failure in its hardware. It's covered under warranty, but he didn't want to be without it for the four-week service period unless he could confirm that he couldn't fix the problem with a simple software setting.
"I'm very glad I found them," he said.
Paul Scheckel of Pullman, in western Michigan, and Rob Hentschel of Traverse City, Mich., are both Speak with a Geek customers.
Scheckel called the service for help with a persistent virus attack with which his antivirus software company seemed unable to help. Hentschel calls for quick answers to questions that would take him too long to research in his job as a computer professional.
"Instead of spending all this time doing research, I can just call and they have specialists that tell me," he said. Recently, he was looking for instructions on setting up software that could remotely control another machine over the Internet, and the technicians walked him through the process.
Scheckel couldn't get an answer from the first technician he spoke with about the virus problem, but was quickly referred to another who solved it. He said he planned to call them again to ask about complications now that he's linking two computers together in his home.
"I'm happy with them," he said. "I'm not that computer-competent, but I try."