The most basic technical support questions concern the computer itself and the operating system. To find out how different sites handle these queries, we asked each one a series of four questions.
First, we asked how to get the computer to start with the NumLock function off. Second, we looked for advice on picking the right kind of RAM to buy to upgrade a PC's memory. Then we searched for a way to make Windows' taskbar disappear. And finally, we asked why Windows 98 SE couldn't shut down properly. (This is a known bug, for which Microsoft's Web site provides a patch.)We started by looking for answers on the vendors' own sites. We asked the first two questions at Compaq, Dell and Toshiba. Extensive searches proved futile at Compaq and Toshiba. At Dell, by contrast, we quickly found what we were looking for, thanks to the site's natural-language search tool. We also checked Microsoft's site for answers to the two Windows questions. After much searching, we discovered the cause of Windows 98 SE's shutdown problem and a fix for it. We didn't find an answer to the taskbar question.
The best answers for system questions came from users at the Computing.net forum site. Their explanations, though not always conventional, were sound and useful. For the RAM upgrade, for example, someone suggested that we pull our existing SIMMs from the computer and bring them to a store for reference. Computing.net is also extremely straightforward and simple to use. Its unpretentious design has no doodads to slow the download and no odd colours to make reading difficult. Posting a question is ridiculously easy: you just scroll to the bottom of the page and find the form. Unlike the other forum sites, Computing.net doesn't require you to register to post a message.
The worst site for this set of questions was EHow.com, a knowledge base that covers far more than computer use. Ask EHow how to attract hummingbirds and you'll get a wide selection of useful tips. Ask it how to turn NumLock off and you'll get a short list of irrelevant suggestions, ranging from "How to Make a U-Turn" to "How to Top Turn Off the Lip on a Windsurf Board". EHow sports a natural-language search tool, but it lacks the intelligence to guess just what your question means. If you ask how to turn off the taskbar in Windows, you'll get a list of answers, including the ubiquitous "How to Make a U-Turn".
Worse, in many cases the info we sought wasn't there. For three of the four questions we asked EHow, no right answers appeared among all the wrong ones. For the upgrade question, however, it provided a useful article, "How to Buy RAM", written for the site. And since EHow provides canned solutions for common problems, we didn't have to wait for an answer.
Overall, we received few blatantly wrong answers to our questions. The experts at NoWonder.com and PCSupport.com had trouble with the shutdown problem, offering general advice that evinced no knowledge of the documented bug. In fact, the PC Support Center guru went so far as to tell us that the only probable solution would be to reformat the drive, though he admitted that answer was too drastic.