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When vendor support fails, where do you turn? We try nine support sites to see which ones provide the answers you need, at a price you can't refuse.

When a PC suddenly and for no apparent reason conks out, most people pick up the phone and call the manufacturer's technical support line. Sometimes, that means waiting forever on hold. Or it could involve sending e-mail that never gets answered, paying money for help, or receiving bad advice. Don't worry. Third-party technical support sites offer practical tips on computer-related problems and a useful, accessible alternative to less-than-stellar vendor support. Like so much else on the Web, most of these sites are free (supported by ads) and some of them provide exemplary advice.

When Leigh Washburn needed help designing an Excel chart, she went first to Microsoft's Web site. "Their only advice was to buy a book," she says.

Eventually, she found her way to another site, MyHelpDesk.com, where a search for "Excel chart" brought her quickly to a graphic explaining exactly how the procedure worked. Initially, she doubted the accuracy of the advice: "When it works that easily, it couldn't possibly be right." But she soon became a believer. Washburn had discovered one of the conundrums of today's Internet: it's full of helpful free advice - if only you can find it.

Is third-party support any good? In many cases, it's excellent. We examined nine free sites - 32bit.com (www. 32bit.com), About. com (www.about.com), Computing.net (http://computing.net), EHow.com (www.ehow.com), Goofy Guys.com (www.goofyguys.com), My HelpDesk.com (www.myhelpdesk.com), NoWonder.com (www.nowonder.com), PC Support Center (www.pcsupport.com) and VirtualDr.com (www.virtualdr.com) - looking for answers to questions about computers, the Windows OS, applications and peripherals. Time and again, we found clear, complete and correct answers, though no single site performed best consistently. Forum sites, where a community of users helps other users, did particularly well.

That's more than we can say for the vendors' own sites. We asked the same questions at Web sites maintained by Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and other leading companies. Finding the correct answer was generally either very difficult or nearly impossible (Dell proved to be the one major exception).

Internet support usually falls into one of three categories: forums, expert advice sites and knowledge bases. Forums are bulletin boards where people post questions and answers for each other. You can also post a question at an expert advice site, but only one person will respond - an "expert" responsible for answering questions. At a knowledge base, you can search an online database to find answers to specific questions. A site needn't be limited to a single approach - NoWonder.com, for example, offers both forums and expert advice, while About.com uses all three methods.

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