PC Repair Undercover

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - Over half the repairs in our investigation were botched or overpriced. Here's how to protect yourself when your computer goes to the shop.

What if the odds of emerging from your doctor's office hale and hearty ran two-to-one against you? We'd be a nation swamped with shamans instead of surgeons. Fortunately, a visit to the doctor is generally nothing to fear. But your PC's trip to the repair shop may be another matter.

That's the sorry conclusion we must draw from our investigation of the state of PC repair. (We were joined for portions of our research by an undercover team from the TV newsmagazine Dateline NBC, researching its own feature on the topic.) When we first tackled this topic back in 1998 (see www.pcworld.com/apr98/repair), we encountered sloppy technicians, unnecessary repairs, and rampant rudeness. Two years later, have matters improved? Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In all, we did business with 18 repair stores in six states. A dozen of these stores were branches of three national chains--Best Buy Co. Inc., Circuit City, and CompUSA Inc.--which together boast over 1200 outlets nationwide. This time we extended the investigation to include 6 mom-and-pop-style shops in as many cities across the country. We wanted to see if independent stores live up to their reputation of offering better customer service than the chains.

Chain retailers and independents don't exhaust your service options.

Manufacturers that sell PCs directly, such as Dell and Gateway, handle repairs themselves, often via on-site service. And if you work in a medium-size or large company, you probably call on your IS department for help. But national chains and local computer shops remain a primary repair choice for consumers, especially for PCs bought at retail and those out of warranty.

Judging from our findings, that's terrible news. For every store that solved our problems quickly, courteously, and competently--and some did--more dropped the ball. When we left malfunctioning PCs for repair, half of the chain outlets didn't fix them, and a staggering 83 percent of the independents bombed. In the end, only 7 of the 18 stores did their jobs correctly; 6 of the 7 were Best Buy or CompUSA outlets.

Setting The Scene

We tested the mettle of repair shops by disabling 18 identical three-year-old Compaq Pentium II PCs. To measure phone support shrewdness, we corrupted the PCs' video drivers, which degraded image color and resolution. Good technicians should be able to identify the problem and guide users through the solution--which is to reinstall the driver--over the phone.

To measure the competence of in-store crews, our reporters took a balky PC into each shop. Previously, we had replaced the PC's working hard disk IDE cable with a defective one, leaving the system unable to boot. We also disconnected the CD-ROM audio cable, so the PC couldn't play music CDs. (We didn't mention this symptom; we wanted to see if the stores' technicians would be attentive enough to notice the loose cable.)These malfunctions duplicate the problems we posed two years ago and are designed to stress-test service savvy. The malfunctioning drive cable--a relatively uncommon glitch--can't be identified at a cursory glance. A technician at the Rhode Island CompUSA, which fixed the PC in less than a day, called this problem "hard to diagnose, but easy to fix." Although it was unusual, he said he'd seen it himself four or five times.

Of course, not every service shop experience will match ours. Your problems may be easier--or harder--for a tech to diagnose and correct. But what our investigation does show isn't pretty.

The Ugly Truth

How bad were our repair experiences? Consider the evidence:

* Of 31 total problems posed to 18 stores, 18 were misdiagnosed or left unresolved. That percentage of wrong responses is slightly higher than in our 1998 results.

* Of the 18 stores, 11 couldn't provide acceptable service for the bad hard disk cable problem. We had high hopes for the mom-and-pop shops here, but they disappointed us: Only 1 of the 6 got it right. And none of Circuit City's outlets made the grade.

* Only 8 of the 18 stores reinserted the CD-ROM audio cable.

* In 8 of 18 stores--4 mom-and-pops, 2 Circuit City outlets, 1 Best Buy, and 1 CompUSA--techs advised us to replace perfectly good parts. The average cost for these useless repairs: $340.

* When it came to cost, CompUSA's flat labor rate of $100 was steep, while Circuit City's seemingly cheap rate (just $20 up front) lost its luster since none of its techs correctly fixed our PCs.

* Of the 13 stores that offer phone support, 7 couldn't solve the video snafu; 2 Best Buy stores made the grade, as did 2 CompUSA outlets and 2 mom-and-pops.

(Circuit City and one of the small independents don't provide phone support.)Depressing, isn't it?

What Went Right

Inundated with bad news, we treasured our successes. And indeed, some stores did the kind of work we wish on anyone burdened with a sick system. The stores that did right by us had a lot in common. Their techs were courteous, neither resorting to geek-speak nor talking down to us. They listened as we described the problem and didn't leap to conclusions and stick with them, as did some of our worst-scoring technicians. And they didn't gouge us on the bill.

Take our Texas reporter's experience at his local Best Buy. The technician "was working on the other side of the counter, so I was able to observe the entire process." The tech quickly tried several troubleshooting measures, and then scrounged up a spare cable when he concluded the one in the PC might be defective. Just 35 minutes after entering the store, our reporter walked out with the fixed PC. The cost: a thrifty $25.

The Best Buy in California beat that price: Though the tech initially misdiagnosed the problem, he caught his mistake and fixed the PC without charging us a dime. Across the country at a CompUSA in Rhode Island, we dealt with courteous, savvy store reps at both drop-off and pickup, and the system was fixed in less than a day. But because CompUSA charges a flat rate of $100 for labor, the repair was pricey. (This flat-rate policy could work to your advantage if your system requires a labor-intensive repair such as a motherboard replacement.)A Colorado store--the only independent to pass--was a model others could learn from. Located in an aging strip mall, it didn't look like anything special. But "everything went right," says our reporter. "They knew what they were talking about, they were courteous, and they fixed it within 24 hours." The store charged a reasonable $60 for labor and just $3 for a new cable.

Little Shop Of Horrors

But that can-do attitude was in short supply at most repair shops. Our discovery shouldn't have come as a surprise: It's not as if poor service and repair are new. Welcome to America, where consumers find it easier to dump stuff than to get it fixed.

Half the techs at the 18 stores we visited let their imaginations run wild when diagnosing our disabled hard-drive cable problem. After jumping to wrong conclusions, they often doggedly pursued their assumptions without examining the system thoroughly enough to identify the real problem. Worse, in only 3 instances (2 Best Buy stores and 1 CompUSA outlet) did techs who misdiagnosed the problem eventually catch their mistake.

Without question, Circuit City took the prize as the least effective chain store we tested. Unlike Best Buy and CompUSA, the company doesn't fix systems at its stores at all; instead, it ships them to its centralized repair depots.

But all four of our encounters with Circuit City service were failures. One store told us over the phone to bring the PC in, then refused to work on it once we arrived, claiming Circuit City did not repair systems purchased elsewhere. Another accepted the unit but then said it didn't have the information or parts to fix it. Our reporter pressed for details, and was repeatedly promised that a tech would contact him. But he heard nothing and eventually got his PC back unrepaired.

In Rhode Island, a Circuit City technician wrongly blamed our hard-disk problem on a flaky drive. But instead of compounding the error by trying to fix the machine, he advised us that the necessary repairs could cost hundreds of dollars and that it "wouldn't be fair" to us to have Circuit City do the job.

(He suggested that we buy a drive at a swap meet and install it ourselves.) His Circuit City counterparts in Texas also mistakenly concluded we needed a new hard drive. We okayed that repair: a hefty $214 to install a piddling 3.2GB drive. When we got the machine home, we found a sticky note on the case reminding the technician to finish installing the software. Apparently, the tech had overlooked that memo--the new drive had DOS installed, but not Windows.

Our dealings with mom-and-pop stores truly disappointed us. Two years ago we surveyed only chains, and we wondered whether small shops, which have a solid reputation for service, could have done better. Nope. Five of the six flopped.

And they seemed eager to stuff unneeded parts into our PCs. In all, two-thirds of the small stores said we needed a new motherboard or a new system.

Both the Rhode Island and North Carolina stores incorrectly deduced that our PCs had dead motherboards. The Rhode Island store ordered and installed a replacement. The other shop said it couldn't get a board to fit the Compaq's case and recommended rebuilding the PC with a combination of its own parts and new components. By the time we were through, the register rang up $295, and our desktop system had turned into a minitower.

The New Jersey independent, which made a house call to our New York location, went further. The tech decided the problem lay in a bad motherboard and possibly a corrupted hard disk (wrong); he said it would cost about $400 to get a new motherboard and fix our disk. Instead, he advised us to consider buying a new PC. His quote: $1000 or more for a system sans monitor--a price commensurate with the specs, but yikes!

Mildly good news: Unlike in our 1998 tests, no stores installed pricey parts without our prior go-ahead. Nor, as happened previously, did any techs falsely claim to have installed a new part. Give partial credit for this to our reporters, who usually asked to get the old parts back after the repair. You should always make that request, to ensure that you actually get new components.

We'll Get Back To You

Want to live without your business or home PC for days or weeks on end? Neither do we. That's why speed of repair is second only to a correct diagnosis in our book.

The roadrunner repair prize goes to CompUSA: Three of four locations we tested had the machine back to us within a day. True, that included the store that misdiagnosed the problem and advised us we needed a new motherboard--even the tech said the quoted $627 (from the store's price guide) was too high. The fourth CompUSA store took about ten days but fixed it right.

Best Buy was nearly as fast. Three Best Buy stores also turned our PC around in 24 hours or less--though only two fixed the cable problem correctly--but the fourth outlet needed a mind-numbing 36 days. We could have built a new PC in less time.

Almost all of the mom-and-pop stores were slow--half of them took seven days or longer to complete the job. The only independent store to return the PC in less than 48 hours was also the only one that passed the test.

At Circuit City, the wait was even longer. The three stores that took the problem on needed an average of 16 days to return the PC.

Worse, our reporters encountered some service procedures that were inefficient at best. CompUSA drew the ire of three of four reporters, who cited trouble reaching the service department and having to trot between service and checkout areas to prepay for the repair. The Rhode Island Best Buy that held on to our PC for over a month kept us poorly informed, too, telling us little of substance when we called for status updates. And two promised callbacks from that store never came.

Most independent shops communicated well. But a California store didn't call us back; another showed scant interest in doing the repair. "They seemed to be put out at having to help a customer," said our Texas reporter, who was told that fixing the PC might take a week, despite the store's advertised promise of same-day service.

Phone Help: Not Much Better

If no service center or mom-and-pop store is nearby, you can try punching numbers on the phone. Phone support is worth considering in other instances, too, since a good technician should be able to grasp the gist of the problem and walk you through a fix. If the fix works, the typical cost for fee-based phone support--around $25 per incident--is a good deal. But only 6 of the 13 stores that offered tech support by phone provided good service for our video-driver problem.

The brightest spot was CompUSA, whose techs nailed the problem two out of four times. A third made the right call--and provided the diagnosis free--but failed to walk us through a correct fix. Even at CompUSA, however, we ran into lousy advice. One of its techs told us, "I'm 99 percent certain you'll have to reinstall Windows." If that didn't solve the problem, he said we'd need a new motherboard. Talk about jumping to conclusions.

Even more disturbing, some phone techs simply refused to lend a hand. That reaction was understandable at Circuit City, since its policy is not to work the phones. But how do you explain the response at Best Buy? Though the voice menu at that company's toll-free number clearly mentions a $25 per incident support option, its reps rebuffed us repeatedly, claiming no such support was available. Our reporters persevered, however, and two of the four eventually reached a technician and got help.

Not surprisingly, many independent mom-and-pop shops can't afford to provide full-fledged phone support, and as a result they decline to offer any. But in the five cases where we managed to enlist small-shop technicians' guidance over the phone, only two of the advisors solved the problem correctly.

All told, we had somewhat better results with phone support than with drop-off service. But the experience still left us disheartened. If your tech support encounters are like ours, you may need to assert yourself somewhat aggressively just to convince a service department to tackle your problem. And once you do convince someone to help you troubleshoot your cranky computer, you may end up wishing you hadn't bothered.

The Stores Respond

What explains our results? Once all 18 PCs were back to us, we sought responses from each chain and independent shop to comment on our experiences.

Circuit City spokesperson Morgan Stewart clarified the chain's position on repairs, stating that Circuit City will repair products purchased elsewhere, as long as they're out of warranty and Circuit City carries the brand (this matches the policy at the company's Web site). He said store staffers who told us otherwise must have misspoken. Stewart said that our test presented an unusual, hard-to-diagnose situation, and he noted that Circuit City's surveys of 30,000 customers show high satisfaction with purchase and repair experiences (the latter where applicable). He also noted that all of the chain's technicians have A+ certification (a Computing Technology Industry Association rating).

Representatives of Best Buy and CompUSA, which mixed repair successes with jarring failures, conceded the problems and predicted service would improve with time. Lowell Peters, senior vice president of services for Best Buy, says the chain recently installed monitors and utilities at store counters for on-the-spot diagnosis. (This setup let the Texas store fix our hard-disk cable problem in just 35 minutes.) The chain has installed a system for relaying current repair status to customers. Peters explains that not all Best Buy personnel have been fully trained on the new repair procedures: "It definitely must get smoother," he admits.

At CompUSA, recent service changes include mandatory technical certification for repair staffers and compensation incentives based on customer satisfaction, according to Tony Weiss, executive vice president of business solutions. Though one store misdiagnosed our problem as a defective motherboard, Weiss expressed confidence that the mistake would have been caught and the problem fixed correctly if we had gone ahead with the repair, since the problem would have persisted even with a new board. Weiss agrees that shuttling customers between the service center and the checkout counter to pay for a repair is inconvenient; the company hopes to eliminate the need for such footwork sometime this fall. CompUSA is also adding a more thorough check of drive cables as part of its diagnostic process.

And the independents? Like Circuit City's Stewart, some small-store managers said our cable problem was out of the ordinary and therefore unusually difficult to diagnose. But the ones that got it wrong didn't dispute their misdiagnosis. For example, an owner of the North Carolina store, who didn't personally work on our PC, said the hard-disk cable "would have been the last thing I'd have checked, but I would have checked it."

Beware: Bonehead Tech Inside

Our PC repair misadventures trained us to spot some common characteristics of technicians who did more damage than good--and the mishaps helped us dispel some myths about reliable indicators of good service. It wouldn't hurt to keep these life lessons in mind if you want to avoid your own repair disasters:

Dangerous Tech #1: The Leaper Many technicians made snap judgments almost as soon as we started talking. They were almost always wrong. If the technician claims to positively know what's amiss before opening the case, proceed with caution.

Dangerous Tech #2: The Parts Peddler Technicians who recommended pricey repairs that involved replacing major parts were way off base. Be skeptical of any tech who claims that the only way to fix the trouble is to swap out major components.

Myth #1: A good attitude means good service. In our drop-in tests, we found no real correlation between Helpfulness scores--where we gauged the techs' courteousness and ability to communicate with us--and successful repairs.

Myth #2: A short wait means a quick fix. A short wait when you're calling for help doesn't mean you'll get the right answer. Of the eight tech support staffers who answered our phone calls after an on-hold wait of less than 5 minutes, only two solved our video driver problem. We had a higher success rate--three out of three--when we waited 10 or more minutes to get through.

Winning Moves

Clearly, hauling your computer into a shop is risky. Our advice: Buy a computer with a strong manufacturer's warranty, so you can delay having to worry about out-of-warranty repairs. If you need to find a repair shop, don't pick one at random. Instead, turn to someone you know or ask for recommendations from friends who rely on computers in their businesses.

With the right knowledge and tools, you can fix or avoid many PC problems yourself. Equip your system with diagnostic software (see our suggestions at www/pcworld.com/aug00/repair), use online tech support sites, including those hosted by your PC's maker, and learn basic troubleshooting skills.

In other words, the surest way to win at repair roulette is to avoid spinning the wheel at all. But if you must head to the service shop, reach for your rabbit's foot. And watch your wallet.

Repair Tales

Cheapest repair: Best Buy, CA, fixed our PC for free.

Highest repair estimate: CompUSA, NY, wanted $727 for an unneeded motherboard swap.

Quickest turnaround: Best Buy, TX, fixed our PC in 35 minutes while we watched.

Slowest turnaround: Best Buy, RI, took more than a month to replace a faulty cable.

Most honest (albeit incorrect) advice: A phone rep at one of Circuit City's service centers told us that repair costs for our PC would be prohibitive: "It wouldn't be right to do the job."

Best deal from a mom-and-pop: Independent shop, CO, fixed the PC in 48 hours for $63.

What? Where? How?

We started with 18 Pentium II-233-based Compaq Deskpro 4000 PCs. We then corrupted the graphics driver and made tech support calls for help. Next we replaced the functional hard disk cable with a damaged one, disconnected the CD audio cable, and took the now-broken PCs in for repair.

We went to four stores from each of the following chains: Best Buy, Circuit City, and CompUSA. We also tried six independent stores across the United States.

FIX IT OR BUY IT? We visited PC superstores with Dateline NBC and found that you can pay less for a new PC than for some repairs.



The Fix Is In: Top Repair Tips

These everyday tips for smart computing can help you make future service trips less painful--or even avoid them.

1. Buy your PC with a three-year warranty: That will insure your PC for most of its useful life. If that level of protection doesn't come standard, as little as $100 can buy the additional years (see Consumer Watch, page 27, for more on long-term warranties). Where possible, get this coverage from your PC's manufacturer, so you always deal with the people who built your system--it's often cheaper, too.

2. Back up your data: Don't wait. Your PC's single most valuable thing is the data it contains--from bank and tax records, to your MP3 collection, to your sales contacts. Keep an updated backup on CD-RW, Zip disks, or some other storage medium.

3. Invest in a good utilities package: Norton SystemWorks and Ontrack's Fix-It, for example, cost about $50 and include not only system diagnostic tools, but often antivirus software and backup utilities (see www.pcworld.com/aug00/repair for details).

4. Keep your restore CD handy: When a problem hits, your system's restore CD, which has all the PC's original software settings, is the quickest way to get up and running again--especially if recently installed software triggered the problem.

5. Check out tech advice sites: Candidates include AskMe.com, NoWonder.com, and Service911.com. If your PC isn't completely inoperable, entering a chat room with techs and fellow PC users or dashing off an e-mail that clearly describes the problem will often net you a fast, accurate--and usually free--fix.

6. Choose a shop carefully: If the worst does happen, call several shops for facts on repair procedures. Is there a diagnosis fee? If so, is it applied toward the repair cost? What is the hourly fee or flat rate for labor? Is the work guaranteed? If so, for how long? What's the expected turnaround time?

Finally, check with the Better Business Bureau to identify stores with poor records.

7. Get the facts straight: Before you head out to the store, list your PC's symptoms, including the precise wording of error messages. Take any CD-ROMs or floppies (like the restore disk) that came with the system; the store's technician may request them.

8. Have open communication: At the shop, give service reps full details about the problem. Ask the rep to call for your okay before performing services that will cost more than the fee (if any) you pay at drop-off.

9. Check the math: When you pick up the PC, review what was done and its cost.

Ask for a written report, with specifics on warranties for parts and labor.

10. Test the PC right away: A shoddy repair job may introduce problems, so check your PC as soon as you return to your office. Reconnect add-ons such as your printer and verify that everything works properly. Report problems immediately.

If you want to dispose of your old PC, check the PEP National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs (www.microweb.com/pepsite/Recycle/recycle_index.html). You'll find info at the state, national, and international level about organizations that will take your PC to a new home (and get you a tax write-off).

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