Where to turn when IT problems strike
It's 6pm on Sunday, and you absolutely must get the work finished by 9am Monday. But you just can't remember how to format something in Word, or the printer is playing up, or Windows is behaving oddly. Who can you turn to for help?
The good news is that there's a huge mass of advice and support available - even at the oddest times of day or night. But be prepared to pay for it, in money or patience.
It's always worth starting with the software's built-in 'Help' function. All software should come with an instantly-available Help facility - usually the final option at the top of each window, and often available by pressing the F1 key. This may have a search option where you can look for particular keywords.
If you're having a hardware problem, and you can't remember what happened to the manual, there may well be an electronic copy of it stored somewhere on your computer. You probably installed this automatically when you installed the hardware. If it's not immediately obvious, hunt through the folders listed in Program Files for something that looks relevant, often as a PDF file.
�FAQs vary in quality, quantity and helpfulness.�
Just about every supplier and manufacturer has an FAQ (frequently asked questions) area on their website. These vary in quantity, quality and general helpfulness, but it should be one of your first stops. It should be free.
With Windows XP and Office XP, Microsoft integrated the computer-based help and its online help service. So when you press F1 for assistance and search for a keyword, you can specify whether the search is restricted to 'offline' help (information residing on the computer) or 'online' help (Microsoft's support web pages). If you've got a broadband connection, you probably won't even notice the join.
In fact Microsoft's support pages are a must-visit for any Windows or Office problem. They are recognised as a model of their kind, especially the Product Solution Centres; these have information about particular Microsoft products including troubleshooting steps and solutions to common problems.
Also from this site you can access the Knowledge Base, a huge collection of web pages covering advice, information and fixes on every Microsoft product. It's vast, but it's searchable; the downside is that the information is intended for a pretty advanced user, so it may not always be easy for the novice to understand.
�When you get through, you will probably get to a solution.�
Most sellers and manufacturers now have a number you can phone for advice. It's usually a premium-rate service, so it could cost you �1.50 a minute or more. It probably won't be available 24/7; 8am to 8pm six days a week is probably the best you can hope for. Try to have relevant information on hand before you call, including things like software version numbers to identify any awkward problems.
When you do get through, you probably will get to a solution: those guys have heard most of the common problems, they will access to a big database of questions and answers, and they follow a standardised procedure of fault-finding that has been proven in practice.
If you've got a bit of time, it's well worth joining a discussion group or forum, and putting your questions to the other members. These are ongoing online discussions about a particular topic - sometimes very particular, sometimes really quite general.
�Discussion groups are knowledgeable and generous with their advice.�
Provided you follow the etiquette - check the site FAQ pages, and read through a few exchanges to see how it works - you'll find that participants are usually knowledgeable and generous with their advice. There's also the attraction that such forums are often international, with members all over the world: with luck, you could post your query last thing at night, and find it answered when you wake in the morning.
There lots of places to join these groups, and membership is generally free. Use your favourite search engine to find one you'll feel comfortable with, or try those listed at Yahoo or MSN. Microsoft itself runs several and lists many more.