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Published: Saturday, 12/22/2001

Get a free computer checkup

Automated technicians in a PC diagnostic center just gave my PC a thorough physical examination. Results from the battery of tests included several items with an ominous red flag, indicating a serious problem. With a few mouse clicks, I asked the mechanics to fix the problems. They did, verified by a second checkup of the PC.

Other problems on the diagnosis list, including two lower-priority items marked with yellow flags, need my personal attention. The technicians provided detailed, understandable instructions for dealing with them.

To check out your own PC, try parking it in one of the bays of PC Pitstop (www.pcpitstop.com), an automated diagnostic and technical support center on the Internet.

Sites like PC Pitstop may get a lot of action in 2002 as computer companies, hit by economic problems, continue to cut back on staffing of free telephone technical support.

Consumers already have noticed longer “hold” times on technical support hotlines and technicians who seem less capable of solving problems and less interested serving customers.

Manufacturers offer free technical support for different periods of time after purchase of a new computer or software. Offering it and providing it, however, are two very different matters.

The alternatives include free technical support sites on the Internet and for-pay technical support services.

Dozens of free sites, which vary greatly in quality and ease of use, can be found by searching for “technical support” on the Internet. Two of my favorites are Wayne's Computer World (www.waynescomputerworld.com) and an online forum called VirtualDr.com (www.virtualdr.com).

PC Pitstop combines features of free and fee-based sites. It offers the free diagnostic service and basic technical support, plus paid technical support for more complicated problems. The fee-based technical support is through an alliance with pioneering online technical support service called Askdrtech (www.askdrtech.com).

Expertcity (www.expertcity.com) and Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) are among other well-established companies that provide fee-based tech support services.

Fees and approaches vary. Most are

In its current form, PC Pitstop's diagnostic service is not a lead-in to the fee-based technical support. The service analyzes a PC's hardware and configuration, and provides genuinely useful advice on how to improve performance and plug security gaps.

PC Pitstop says the analysis is safe, making no changes to system settings, and does not snoop on personal information on your computer. The analysis may take 10 minutes on a dialup telephone connection, and you can't perform other tasks while it's under way.

Some advice is obvious.

I tested the service on an older PC with a 2 Gigabyte (GB) hard disk, which I knew was short on space. It flagged the hard disk because only 20 percent of its space was free.

Generally, you should keep about 25 percent of disk space free for best performance. The suggested solutions included either upgrading to a bigger disk or uninstalling some programs.

The checkup did turn up a couple of surprises.

For instance, it found a problem that made Internet Explorer lose track of about 11 megabytes of files, so they couldn't be deleted. The solution was just a mouse click, which automatically fixed the problem, and freed much-needed hard disk space.

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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