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Beyond the Box, Service Can Be Distinguishing Factor

I look at a lot of PCs and, to tell you the truth, the difference between similarly equipped machines from different companies is usually pretty insignificant.

One machine might be a hair faster than another or come equipped with different software, memory, storage or peripherals, but there’s a reason those of us who review PCs sometimes refer to them as “boxes.”

Except for Macs, which have a different design from Windows PCs, one box is often much like another.

One thing that does distinguish a PC is the warranty and the quality of service and support.

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* Warranty tips. Warranty terms vary widely. Some cover parts for one period and labor for another. In some cases, the warranty applies only if you bring your machine to a service center or ship it back to the manufacturer; in others, service can be done in your home or office.

In many cases, a warranty will cover carry-in or mail-in service for a relatively long period, such as three years, but on-site service for a shorter period, such as a year or 90 days.

Be sure to find out who pays shipping charges--the manufacturer or you. The cost of shipping can be as much as what you paid for the PC.

When you ask about a warranty, specify the product--terms may vary widely among them.

Some companies offer special warranty services. Compaq has just announced a new “pickup” warranty service for its newest Armada business notebook PCs. The company sends out a courier who boxes up the machine. You get back the repaired unit within 48 hours.

Dell’s Dimension desktop PC comes with what the company calls “next business day at home service,” which means if you call by 3 p.m. Pacific time, you’ll have a service person at your house the next business day.

Many warranties specify that the company may use used or refurbished replacement parts. This concerns some people, but it doesn’t bother me. If a computer part is going to die, it’s more likely due to “infant mortality” than old age.

Some manufacturers and dealers sell extended warranties, which add technical support and service. With some stores, the extended warranties guarantee faster turnaround, immediate replacement for broken parts, or loaner replacements if the repair will take more then 24 hours. As with any type of insurance, it’s really a question of how much you’re willing to spend for peace of mind. That can be a commodity in short supply when it comes to computer repairs.

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In general, I’m a bit cynical about purchasing extended warranties. If a machine already has a three-year warranty, for example, I see no reason to pay for extra years. If you buy a Compaq Presario with the standard 90-day on-site service, it might be worth spending an extra $39 to extend it to one year. However, as you contemplate buying the machine, remember that some of Compaq’s competitors offer better warranties.

Also, be sure to read the fine print when it comes to the components. The warranty for the monitors, for example, is sometimes different from that of the CPU, even when you purchase it as a system.

* Help! Service problems. Until the magazine was sold last month, I wrote the Consumer Watchdog column for HomePC and heard from thousands of disgruntled PC users. By far the largest complaint had to do with poor customer service, particularly difficulty in getting through to tech support or finding a technician who could solve their problems.

What companies offer the best service and support? That can be hard to judge, because the quality of support depends to some extent on when you call and the person you reach--assuming you actually do reach someone.

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PC World magazine’s most recent survey of 13,500 readers found that readers “spend an average of 10.5 minutes on hold waiting to get through to technical support.” On average, users found that it takes them “nearly 26 hours to reach a support person who can actually help them” and “just over seven days on average to resolve their problems.”

A variety of surveys have placed Dell at or near the top for customer satisfaction. Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Micron and Apple also distinguish themselves. Packard Bell and Acer have tended to do far less well.

My experience with Gateway’s and Micron’s technical support reflects the survey results, yet I’ve received letters from people who have nothing but complaints about these companies.

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Packard Bell, which is near the bottom of the list on several customer support surveys, may be improving. A year ago, I had a terrible time reaching its tech support department. However, the company has been working to improve its support, and when I called last week, I got through to a technician in less than 10 minutes.

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I recommend you try calling a company’s tech support department before you buy, to see how quickly you get through. Be sure to find out about the company’s tech support policy. Some of the better mail-order companies, such as Gateway, Dell and Micron, offer free 24-hour support via a toll-free number for the life of the product.

Others have the audacity to charge for support. Compaq consumer products and Packard Bell provide free support during the warranty period, but after that, each charges about $35 per incident or lets you call a 900 number and pay a per-minute charge. Apple offers a one-year warranty but provides free tech support for only 90 days. After that you pay $35 per incident.

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Companies usually offer tech support via their Web sites, and most offer some type of interactive phone support for anyone patient enough to respond to voice menus. My experience with automated support is not all that good--I often can’t find the answer to my specific questions. Besides, if your PC is down, you can’t get on the Web in the first place.

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You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at https://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword LarryMagid.


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