When the muzak and endless repetitions of "your call is important to us, please stay on the line and your call will be answered by the next available operator

Tech support — where to go for help

When the muzak and endless repetitions of "your call is important to us, please stay on the line and your call will be answered by the next available operator" finally drives you over the edge, take a deep breath and hang up that phone – you may not need their help anyway.

Tech support for computers and software is readily available online. Providing your computer can still get online that is – if not, the 1-800 approach may be your only hope, and I sincerely pity you. But if you can still open web pages, then start there to save yourself a lot of aggravation.

First of all, the nature of the help you need will determine where the place to go might be. If it has to do with a Microsoft product or program – Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, MSN Messenger, Outlook Express – then start at Microsoft’s online tech support. If it’s an Apple product, start at Apple.

Microsoft Tech Support

The portal for most Microsoft tech support can be found at On the left side navigation bar you’ll find links to "Solution Centers" for different products, as well as a link to Downloads and Updates, Microsoft Services, and Self Support Options. From there you can find a link to Microsoft Newsgroups, which is where customers share their own tech support solutions with one another. It’s easy to search and because it’s not coming from Microsoft, help is often offered in simple layperson’s terms. There’s also a link to contact Microsoft, where you can contact the specific department you need to reach. Surprisingly, they actually do respond, and it doesn’t take too long either.

If you can’t find what you need on the Microsoft site, a lot of third party sites out there can help you.

One neat site is, "the most complete collection of information assembled for and by actual users of Microsoft Windows." If you get too frustrated there’s even a Humour section.

If you’re not that versed in the ways of computers, check out

If you’re slightly more advanced that the average user, you might need to check out Tek Tips at

Some of the leading PC magazines like PC World ( and PC Magazine ( can also be helpful, especially if you’re having problems with a newly released product.

Apple Tech Support

If Apple is guilty of anything it’s being a little too smug about the robustness and ease of use of its products, and the belief that all the answers you need are in the manual. Lots of times they’re right, but definitely not all the time. Unfortunately attitude comes across at Apple Tech Support at, which is why you’ll want to spend most of your time in the Discussions section.

If you can’t get answers at Apple, try MacAssistant ( Other good sites are MacObserver (, MacWorld ( and MacAddict (

A Sober second look

There are so many computer viruses out there these days that it really takes something spectacular to make headlines. Sober is one of those special viruses, with various versions infecting tens of thousands of systems. Last week it was estimated that one out of every 22 e-mails sent was a Sober variant.

All viruses are slightly different, but what is most unique is how the virus writer chooses to spread his malicious code around – because in the end it’s computer users that spread viruses by opening suspect mails and attachments, the viruses don’t spread themselves. Past successes include viruses that promise naked photos of Anna Kournikova, viruses like "I Love You" that appeared to be Valentine’s Day cards from friends and co-workers, and viruses like MyDoom that used realistic subject lines and body text to convince people that the server was returning an earlier e-mail that was not sent.

Sober offered people free tickets to the World Cup of Soccer in 2006 that appeared to be legit. With billions of soccer fans around the world, some of them none too versed in the dangers of computer viruses and e-mail attachments, opened the virus and let it propagate itself through their e-mail address book.

The virus itself is not too bad – it can be cleaned out with updated antivirus software, and appears only to slow your computer down when you’re infected. The problem is the rate at which it is spreading, filling up e-mail clients, hogging bandwith, and causing massive inconveniences for system administrators and Internet Providers.

The best cure, as always, is prevention – do not open e-mail attachments without scanning them first. Better yet, don’t open any e-mail attachments unless you know the sender and the body contains a personal message that couldn’t be applied universally to just about everyone else. If you do become infected, shut down your e-mail program immediately, and visit, the virus and security alert watchdog at Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute.

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