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High-tech house calls

If you are not comfortable doing any computer maintenance, you might want to schedule quarterly visits from your IT professional to make sure that your system is in good shape.

A recent column I wrote about becoming an on-site computer technician caused a flood of e-mail. It seems that there are a lot of folks who would like to help you keep your system up to date, trouble-free, and ready for use. Many of them would be happy to show you how to get the most from your machine, too. And, I think it might be worthwhile to ask them for some help with the software on your machine if you’re new to the programs that came with it. For example, if you use Outlook or Outlook Express for your e-mail, your computer helper will set it up once and you might not need to touch the settings again for the life of your computer.

Still, you may want to have them write out the setup instructions in the event that you change ISPs. Also, you might want to ask how to back up your e-mails and address book. This is pretty simple to do but it is something that folks routinely leave out of their back-up strategy.

In fact, it’s a good idea to ask for written instructions for any computer maintenance that your technician recommends. I suggest keeping a small notebook near your computer with information on how to do your backups, Windows updates, and antivirus and anti-spyware maintenance at the very least. Please remember that this notebook should not contain any passwords or pass phrases. If you are not comfortable doing any computer maintenance, you might want to schedule quarterly visits from your IT professional to make sure that your system is in good shape. As with most other machines, prevention is less expensive than repair.

Get all the facts

Some on-site computer repair folks sell software or other services on the side. That can be a good thing in terms of convenience or a bad thing if you get a recommendation based on profit margin rather than your best interests.

My feeling is that full disclosure is important in these cases. If your technician offers to sell you a particular solution such as an anti-spyware program or an online backup plan and does not tell you if they are making money by suggesting that particular item, you might want to ask if they have other solutions to choose from. techs who insist that only software purchased from them will fit the bill might need to get their walking papers. If you have an established relationship with your service person and have had good results with their support in other areas for a period of time, however, you won’t need to be so suspicious.

I’ve had good consumers ask me if there is a standard amount of time that a certain computer repair job should take. I think the idea here is sort of like a book that automobile mechanics might use to determine that a transmission should take about two hours to replace. The time question is valid since many computer repair folks work by the hour, and I wish there were a standard resource for this, but I don’t know of one. Some mechanical tasks like adding RAM or replacing a hard drive could be timed and standardized, I think, but that would only be a partial answer.

Get up to speed

When it comes to working on your computer, though, the technician’s speed at completing many tasks will be influenced by the speed of your processor, among other factors. Take virus removal as an example. The tech will need to check the logs of your antivirus program to see which bug you’re fighting. If the antivirus definitions aren’t up-to-date, they’ll have to be downloaded and the entire hard drive will have to be scanned. Nothing can go forward until the scan is complete.

If you have a slow machine, this could take a while. That’s fine in an office where the technician can work on to another machine during the virus scan, but in a home with only one computer, you may have to pay them to sit and wait for the results. In cases like this, I sometimes offer to go off the clock and study for my next certification or run an errand while the procedure finishes. Otherwise, this can be a good time to write those instructions for the client to follow after I leave.

Another key to getting the most from a computer service call is the ability of the tech to communicate with you. This is something you can determine during your initial contact. You might want to ask a generic question like, “What is spyware?” and see if he can answer clearly and precisely without lapsing into computerese. If you understand his explanation, you might have a good prospect.

Being a good consumer almost always pays dividends. With a little work on your part, you can save yourself money on your computer maintenance bill and get the best help available when the time comes.

Alan Thornton owns Decatur Computer Help, an on site technical support business in the Atlanta area. Write him at:

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