To find out how well third-party Web-based free support handles the programs we use to get our work done, we asked two questions about Microsoft Office and two about Quicken. Most of the sites provided some help with Office but did very poorly when we asked about Quicken, a market leader in a very popular category.
We asked how, in Microsoft Word, you make the first line of a paragraph stick out farther to the left than the other lines (a formatting arrangement called a hanging or overhanging indent - though we didn't acknowledge knowing the term). We also asked how to create an Excel formula for x to the power of y. Again, we avoided using the technical term, exponentiation.
Our first Quicken-related question concerned use of a common shortcut,
You're not likely to find answers to these questions at Microsoft's or Intuit's site. Although Microsoft. com has an extensive database, we found only a long, complex way to create hanging indents and nothing explaining exponentiation. Intuit's site had no relevant help.
NoWonder.com offered the best advice in response to both sets of questions, perhaps because it combines expert advice and a forum. When one proved inadequate, as when the Word expert didn't provide enough details with his instructions, the other came through.
The exception involved the Quicken share-price question. Here, once again, the expert didn't include enough details, but this time the only reply we received in the forum was just plain wrong. On the other hand, NoWonder was the only site that offered the correct answer to the Quicken paste question, from both the expert and a kindly soul on the forum. We also tested NoWonder's chat-based expert area, which was on its trial run at press time. Unfortunately, since this facility was still in an early stage of development, it was not as successful in providing us with a prompt response.
On the design front, NoWonder's site could be called NoNonsense. The straightforward site is easy to use and navigate. To ask an expert, you simply fill out a form that asks for all pertinent user information. For forums, NoWonder.com employs Prime-Web's Ultimate Bulletin Board software, which enables you to easily enter messages, respond to them, browse and find answers to your questions.
Good Quicken experts are, apparently, hard to find. Consider what we encountered at PCSupport.com, the other site using a chat feature. It handled the Office questions quite capably. When I asked about Quicken on a Tuesday, I was told to come back the next day for the Quicken expert. Come Wednesday, I was told the expert would be there on Friday. Someone who was there on Wednesday took a stab at the paste question, figuring out the problem but not a solution. He asked for my e-mail address so the Quicken expert could answer the price-change question. But the expert's eventual reply was that he didn't have an answer - not exactly useful.
None of the knowledge bases held answers to any of our application-related questions. Even MyHelpDesk.com, which is the best of the knowledge bases because it culls information from various sources rather than depending on what its own people produce, couldn't help here. MyHelpDesk is a technical support portal that guides you to information on other Web sites. It's a great place to find extensive data about a subject, but you can't rely on it to find answers to specific questions. MyHelpDesk is still improving its site, however.
No site bombed in the applications category quite as badly as About.com - forums, a knowledge base and an expert advice site rolled into one. The forums are difficult to figure out and returning to questions you posted can be nearly impossible. What's more, About.com's forums are sparsely populated, limiting the give-and-take that usually makes these venues attractive. Finally, they're not carefully moderated; postings are often off the subject and can sometimes be offensive.
A knowledge base typically covers a broader area than just computers and doesn't fare well with technical questions. Although About.com's experts were often on the mark in other categories, giving prompt and accurate answers, they failed to make the grade with applications. We didn't obtain correct answers to either Quicken-related question. And 24 days after posting our Microsoft Office questions, we had yet to receive any answer.