Computer problem? Why tech support often isn't the best place to start.

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

When it comes to computer tech support, Apple and its stores get top marks from our readers. Still, Apple isn’t perfect and is not without its own horror stories, though they are fewer than the stories from most Windows vendors.

Should live tech support be the first thing you try when having a problem with your machine, no matter what kind of computer you own? Probably not, especially if you have to pay extra for it and you don’t like sitting on the phone until someone mistakes you for a piece of furniture.

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There are so many other ways to get help that could be easier, less time-consuming, and maybe even cheaper. Whether your problem is computer malware, an error message, or anything else, there probably are many other users who already have experienced the same problem you are dealing with and have posted the issue on websites and/or forums where experts have already offered a solution. Or maybe the maker of your misbehaving hardware or software program has posted a bulletin online that offers an easy fix or a software update.

Real problems and solutions

You may, for example, be getting an “Error 7” message when you open iTunes for Windows. Search for the issue and you’ll come up with this Apple support article about a bad installation of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, complete with instructions for putting things right.

Is your Web browser frozen with an alert from the “FBI Cyber Department,” telling you that all of your files have been recorded and instructing you to pay a “release fee” of $300? Search for that, and among the resources you’ll find are easy-to-follow instructions from Bleeping Computer for disabling what you’ll discover is the “Your Browser has been locked” ransomware. (Of course, you may need to use someone else’s computer, a tablet, or your Smart phone to get there.)

When opening a blank Microsoft Word document, are there grid lines all over it? It’s not a bug. All you need is a little help from eager strangers in cyberspace.

On the other hand, you could start by calling computer tech support, and perhaps wait on hold for who knows how long, and then perhaps find out the hard way that you would have been better off looking for help elsewhere first.

My story

At least that’s how it usually worked out for me in the old days, before I knew better. Many years ago, when I was a computer newbie, I didn't understand why I couldn’t record my voice on my new laptop. I had carefully followed the instructions for using the Windows recorder. But nothing I said into the microphone was recorded. So I called tech support. The technician’s answer? He wanted to have me spend hours reformatting my hard drive and reloading the operating system, drivers, programs, and all the rest.

Had I researched the problem online back then, I probably would have found instructions like these, revealing that the problem was a simple one: My computer was set to record from the “line-in” jack instead of the built-in microphone. Instead of spending hours formatting, I simply could have clicked a checkbox and been set to go.

Check out our computer buying guide. And before monkeying around with your computer, find the best solution for backing up your computer files.

The problem is that computer tech support staff often follow scripts designed to find the quickest solutions to the most common issues.  Technicians may not take the time to research error messages or other problems that may affect only those machines configured in certain ways. Perhaps the problem is that a program you installed has some glitch that tech support isn’t aware of but is well-known to the community of people who use that software. Maybe it’s a problem with your printer driver, and the printer manufacturer has posted an update.

If you can’t find an answer with a Web search, you can try posting the problem on an online forum. Many hardware and software manufacturer websites have message boards, and there are lots of independent ones, too. No waiting on hold, no having to give your customer ID or credit card, no having to answer inane, irrelevant questions the technician is required to ask.

Microsoft, for example, has an online community with certified experts known as MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals), who have been answering user questions about Microsoft products for decades. They’re joined by ordinary users who are just as eager to help. And over the years, Microsoft and Apple have issued thousands of so-called knowledge base articles to help users resolve problems with their products.

To learn new tips and techniques for Microsoft Office, one of our favorite online resources is Office Watch. For Windows users, another great site is Windows Secrets. Did I remember to say the word “free?”

Proceed carefully

Of course, you always should exercise judgment when using resources you find online, especially unfamiliar websites or forums. If you’re unsure, do some digging to see how helpful the information is. Try searching the Web with the name of the site to see what others are saying about it. Be particularly cautious if you're being instructed to download software or some other kind of file or if you are being asked to let someone take control of your computer remotely.

There’s obviously less reason to be concerned if the information is being provided by your hardware or software manufacturer or other users on a manufacturer-sponsored forum. But even then, be careful. Even the best-intended users may suggest something that doesn’t work or, even worse, turns a minor problem into a major one. One trick is to look for solutions that have worked for others. (If a fix is successful, those having the problem often will post a big thank you. If it isn't, someone probably will ask for additional help.) Another way to verify is to see whether you can find others giving the same advice on the same site or elsewhere.

Also keep in mind that even the best help can be dangerous if you don’t follow the instructions carefully. Many times, the cause of a problem isn’t obvious. Instead of a quick solution, a company or user may provide a list of items to check, along with a variety of solutions, depending on what you find. So pay attention, and don’t rush. And back up your personal files, just in case. If you’re instructed to download anything, be sure your antivirus program is up to date (which you should do anyway). If you’re a Windows user and about to follow instructions to edit your computer’s registry, back that up first, too.

None of this means you should never contact your computer manufacturer's tech support. It may be your only choice if your computer experience amounts to little more than pushing the “on” button and your tech-savvy nephew, Orvis, is on an extended trip to the Grand Canyon. And if the problem is a hardware failure, contacting support may be a necessity, especially if your machine is under warranty. Just one bit of advice before calling: Get into your slippers, make a pot of coffee, and have your copy of "War and Peace" at your side. Oh, and plan on missing dinner.

Anthony Giorgianni

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