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How can you get great MS support for free? Just ask an MVP!

Here's a choice: You can pay to get your Microsoft support questions answered. Or you can rely on Microsoft's handpicked cadre of 600 independent experts who will answer your questions for free. Which will it be?

Here's a choice: You can pay anywhere from dozens to hundreds of dollars to get your Microsoft support questions answered. Or you can rely on Microsoft's handpicked cadre of 600 independent experts who will answer your questions for free. Which will it be?

I'll play the "Jeopardy" music while you make your decision. And tell you there is a great tradition of computer users helping one another solve problems. I wouldn't be writing this column if back in the early 1980s a bunch of my fellow Kaypro users in Texas hadn't taught me the ropes.

Time's up. So, you'll take "Save the money and have some fun" for $500? Good. All you need is an Internet connection and some willingness to explore. You don't need any special software--a browser works just fine. And no question is too stupid.

YES

Microsoft operates hundreds of Internet newsgroups, where users post questions and other users post answers. The messages are archived so you can search past message threads--beneficial because most questions have probably been answered before. And when you post a question, or just see one you are interested in, you can "subscribe" to the message thread and all the responses will be sent to your e-mail address.

If you already use and understand news readers, great--you can use Outlook Express to download the messages just like any other newsgroups you subscribe to. (The server is news://msnews.microsoft.com, and no logon is required).

For everyone else, Microsoft provides simple Web browser access to the groups. Click on the link and you'll see the names of the groups on the left side of your screen and a help window in the middle. Read the help files (use your browser "back" button to return to the opening page so you can read both help files), click on a group you are interested in, and you're off.

I apologize that this is a little geeky, but you have to read the names of the newsgroups somewhat carefully to choose the right one. For example, the newsgroup for Excel templates is called excel.templates. and there's another called inetexplorer.ie5.outlookexpress.stationery. So look for periods where spaces should be in the group names.

There are hundreds of these groups, and not all of them are in English, making this a great international resource as well.

Whiel anybody can ask--or answer--a question in the newsgroups, the real stars are the 600 people designated as "Microsoft Valued Professionals." These are people selected by Microsoft not just for their technical expertise, but due also to the number of years they've been providing free, peer-to-peer help. These are folks who spend many hours helping other people and have proven to be very good at it.

Yes, these people get a special thrill out of providing tech support for free. I don't really understand it, but I am sure glad there are people like this to help the rest of us.

Reader Vadim Rapp, who introduced me to the MVP program, says the MVPs often provide better support than the "official" Microsoft support channels. And he offers a tip that may make it even easier to find the information you're looking for:

"Before asking a question in a newsgroup, it's a good idea to perform a search--most likely, somebody already faced the problem and got an advice. Search at http://groups.google.com/ using the keywords of your problem, and you will have answers in seconds. Actually, Google is such a good search engine that you can just search on it (not even in newsgroups) for the keywords of the problem, and get the results instantly."

Microsoft is not the only company that supports newsgroups for its products. So feel free to search online for answers to any question that may be bugging you. It's likely someone has faced the challenge before and you can benefit from their experience.

If you know the answer to a problem, feel free to chime in and post a reply to someone else's question. That's what peer-to-peer support is all about. And, who knows, you might join the next generation of MVPs. They all started just like this.

(Thanks to Vadim Rapp for introducing me to the MVP program--which Microsoft could do a better job promoting. He tells me, I tell you, you tell a friend. That's user-to-user support at its best.)