The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : On-Line Forums Can Provide Help With Nagging Problems

Even the most experienced computer users sometimes need help. When I need help with a product, I typically start by calling the manufacturer's technical support department. I prefer this option because it allows for give-and-take between me and the technician.

But telephone support has its drawbacks: Some companies charge for it; often it's a long-distance call; sometimes you can't even get through. I don't know what's worse, staying on hold or having to leave a number hoping that a technician will call you back and actually reach you.

Another option is to use an on-line service or computer bulletin board to seek help from the company or a fellow user. Many hardware and software companies operate forums on the commercial on-line services, and some have their own dial-up bulletin boards. You'll probably have to pay long-distance charges to dial into their boards, but you'll pay an hourly on-line fee if you dial into one of the commercial on-line services.

CompuServe, which charges up to $9.60 an hour (at 9,600 or 14,400 bits per second) to access its forums, is by far the most popular service for hardware and software support. America Online ($3.50 an hour) comes in second. Prodigy ($3.60 an hour for bulletin board access) is gearing up its product support boards.

Many of the major software and hardware vendors, including Microsoft, WordPerfect, Lotus, IBM, Apple, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, operate CompuServe forums where company representatives provide help to customers. In many cases, fellow users are also willing to help.

In fact, these fellow users often know more than the company representatives. And because they're not on the company payroll, they're more than willing to share their frustrations, report bugs and suggest techniques to get around the product's limitations.

Before posting a question, browse through the board to see if your question has already been answered. Most company forums are organized by product and further broken down by topic. If you do ask a question, be sure to post it in the right spot and use a descriptive subject line. Don't just type "Help Me." Enter a subject line such as "Microsoft Word Printing Problem" or "Speadsheet for Mac--What's Best?"

Intuit, which publishes the popular Quicken personal financial management software for DOS, Windows and Mac, is one of the many software companies on CompuServe. One Quicken user posted a query about her frustrations in trying to use the program to manage her 401(k) retirement plan. Several others immediately responded that they too had run into this problem, and they offered work-arounds to make up for the program's limitations.

In addition to messages, the forums offer files you can download. Last month I was having trouble with my video display, which I traced to an out-of-date video driver for my Diamond VGA card. So I signed on to Diamond's CompuServe forum and downloaded the newest software driver, at no cost other than CompuServe's connect fee. My problem was solved, and I never had to leave my house or wait for someone to send me a disk.

Symantec, which publishes the popular Norton Utility programs for the PC and Mac, uses its on-line forums to provide customers with interim program updates. These are not new versions of the programs (there's a charge for those) but minor bug fixes or special files, such as one that lets its anti-virus program tackle viruses that weren't around when the software was last updated.

Forums are also great places to find add-ons, macros and templates to enhance popular programs such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Ami Pro, Excel and Lotus 1-2-3. In many cases, these files will add functionality that simply wasn't built into the program itself. Some are provided by the software publisher, but many come from fellow users or developers of shareware, who allow you to download their handiwork freely. You're required to pay if you keep any shareware permanently.

Relatively few companies offer support via the Internet, but I expect that to change over the next few years. There are, however, a number of "newsgroups" (forums) where users discuss software and hardware. It's also possible to download files (such as video drivers and templates) via the Internet, but you have to know where to look and how use the file transfer protocol (ftp). Locating files on the Internet can be tricky, but one resource, called Archie, can help you find a file if you know its name. If you don't know exactly what you're looking for or you're not network-savvy, you're better off using one of the commercial on-line services.

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