SAN FRANCISCO (04/17/2000) - Many companies offer free technical support over the Internet these days. But with a service launched last week, CompUSA is charging for it. Is it worth the price? Only if you ignore the Internet and use the phone.
The new service, Dialatech.com, is an extension of CompUSA's existing Dial-a-Tech telephone support system. In addition to the phone service, you can now look for help on the Web, chat with a techie, or e-mail your question to someone who might have an answer. The Web lookup service is free and open to everyone, but the other Dialatech.com services require payment: a 120-day subscription costs $49.95.
With the free Web service, you get what you pay for. In fact, you get considerably less than you would from other free sites. All Dialatech.com offers is a directory of other companies' support pages. You drill down to a page for your particular product--say, a Dell Dimension computer or Microsoft Office--and get a list of links to other pages, mostly on the vendor's site.
The search engine is simple and not particularly helpful.
The subscriber-only Chat option has the closest feeling to a phone call: You're one-on-one with a technician. Of course, a phone call doesn't require special software, as does Chat. And it's very special software indeed; the technician can take over your keyboard and mouse. Scary, but useful.
Difficulty Getting Through
My own experience with the Chat feature wasn't great. I had difficulty getting through, and the technician suggested reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling Windows as the solution to a relatively simple problem. When I complained, he walked me through an easier fix.
E-mail seems like the simplest way to get help. You type your question, hit the Send button, and wait for a response. But how long do you wait? CompUSA promises a maximum wait of 24 hours. Sixty-five hours after I posted a question, I've received no response.
Perhaps these problems stem from the fact that the service is new. When I tried Dial-a-Tech's well-established, toll-free telephone service, I got through in less than a minute, and got courteous, accurate help. The techie didn't have the answer right away, but I held for only a couple of minutes while he figured it out.
Once upon a time, such telephone technical support was free. But today, $150 per year is a good price for having someone you can call when your computer isn't working. But if you want to get help over the Internet, save your money and go elsewhere.