New stuff on the Net for nix

Best: 32bit.com and VirtualDr.com

Worst: None

So many different printers and modems are out there, no third-party site could possibly cover them all. Luckily, none has to. Most questions about, say, a particular ink jet printer pertain to other models, too. To test support sites' helpfulness with peripherals, we asked general questions one might ask about any printer or modem.

Our printer question asked why we couldn't load the paper in our Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C so it wouldn't jam. For modems, we asked a universal question: when in Europe, can you operate a modem designed for use in the US? If the site asked us for more details, we identified the modem as a 3Com US Robotics Modem PC Card and the country as Germany.

How did the vendors themselves do? Hewlett-Packard fared reasonably well, but only after we figured out that its advice for other DeskJet model numbers worked equally well with our 882C. On the international modem question, 3Com quickly responded - we sent the question and received an answer the next day. But the company's recommendation that we buy a European modem could have been sales motivated; other sources advised us that an adapter would do the trick.

Two of the forum sites, 32bit.com and VirtualDr.com, outdid every other site in the peripherals category. One 32bit.com user not only told us about modem adapters but also pointed us to roadwarrior.com (www.roadwarrior.com), a retail site that sells kits and adapters for travelling users. On VirtualDr.com, a response from a DeskJet 882C user offered the only model-specific advice about loading the printer.

Both sites use the same Ultimate Bulletin Board software as NoWonder.com and are equally powerful and easy to work with. The trick to using both successfully involves finding the right forum. For instance, 32bit.com has 11 different Windows 95/98 forums, including General, Hardware, Internet and Utilities. There's no specific Modem forum, so do you go to the Hardware forum or the Internet forum or both? The key is to look in the Posts column, which tells you if a forum is heavily used. The larger the number of people using the forum, the better your chances of getting a fast, accurate reply. We posted our query to the Hardware forum, which had 2433 posts, compared to the Internet forum's 533.

No site completely blew it on both questions; all had something useful to say about either printers or modems. We did get some bad advice, however. An expert at GoofyGuys.com wrote, "DeskJets are known to have this problem when they get old," indicating that he didn't know the DeskJet 882C is a newer model. Experts at both About.com and NoWonder.com told us that a modem made for use in the US could be used in Europe without any serious problem - true, but not sufficient advice.

And, of course, a wrong answer - a possibility with any technical support source - can be worse than no answer at all. With forum sites, including 32bit.com, Computing. net, NoWonder.com and VirtualDr.com, you're likely to find the right answer to your technical questions faster than you can say, "Read the manual."

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