For consumers, finding competent PC support is a challenge

What happens if something goes wrong with a Windows PC? Good luck finding honest and competent help. Right now, somewhere in the world, an incompetent support professional is performing "repairs" that make things worse and suggesting useless "upgrades" that line their pockets and slow down PCs.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

One reason people love Macs so much is the simplicity of the support experience. If you buy a Mac, your hardware and your operating system come from the same vendor, which makes support a dead-simple experience. When something goes wrong, you call Apple. In the worst-case scenario, you haul your hardware into the nearest Apple Store, where a trained support tech can diagnose and repair most problems.

So what happens if something goes wrong with a Windows PC? Good luck finding honest and competent help.

I'll be making a house call later this week to undo the damage a major PC vendor's support professionals did to a neighbor's PC. He had called them for assistance because his computer (a year-old, high-end laptop) was running slowly. I had helped him set up this machine less than a year ago and I know it's working well.

The tech he reached collected a $79 fee up front and then rolled up his sleeves and went to work. When he was done, the formerly fast machine was a hopeless mess.

  • There was no malware on this system, but the tech installed and ran Malware Bytes anyway.
  • The agent recommended that my neighbor install a "system optimizer" program "to erase crap your PC accumulates." Not coincidentally, that will be another $40, please.
  • Although he had a functional, up-to-date copy of Microsoft Security Essentials, the guy at the other end of the line (halfway around the world, by the way) recommended he purchase McAfee antivirus software instead. "You need more than just a free service." Oh, and ka-ching! That will be another $80. McAfee software is at the top of my "not recommended" list.
  • The support tech uninstalled Internet Explorer 9 and restored IE8. "Folks are having problems with IE9," my neighbor was told. He, of course, had been perfectly happy with IE9, which is considerably more secure than its predecessor. In the process of removing it, they also disabled the LastPass plug-in, which meant he could no longer access his collection of saved passwords and automatically log on to websites.

And here's the best part of all. The reason he called for support was a slow computer. After spending an hour on the phone with the PC's manufacturer, his computer was still slow. He was $80 poorer, and the tech had tried (but failed) to sell him $120 worth of additional software that would have made his PC even slower. After he hung up, he tried what any competent support tech should have done first: "I unplugged the cable modem and reset it … and things immediately started running faster."

A similar scene is probably being repeated every minute of every day, somewhere in the world, as incompetent support professionals perform "repairs" that make things worse and suggest useless "upgrades" that line their pockets and slow down PCs.

The irony is that it doesn't take a genius to work at one of Apple's Genius Bars. Their limited hardware selection and support for a single OS means that a little training goes a long way. Apple also charges enough for its hardware and its AppleCare add-ons that it doesn't need to squeeze out extra profits by selling needless crapware.

Maybe if Microsoft had a network of retail stores as large as Apple's it could step in and offer this service. For now, though, finding a competent PC support professional is a challenge as big as finding an honest auto mechanic.

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