Is paying for technical support worth it?
If a slow computer is driving you crazy, synchronising your mp3 player is making you mad or tuning into digital TV turning you doolally, how about getting the geeks in to help you out?
As our household gadgets grow in number and complexity, more and more companies are offering technical support either over the telephone or in person.
According to DSG - the owner of Currys and Dixons - the market for technical support is booming in the UK with an estimated value of £1 billion. And the advice does not stop at computers and broadband set-ups. Home support services will tackle technical problems with any of the devices in your home, from a malfunctioning iPod to attaching a flatscreen TV to the wall.
"These firms are being set up to help IT-illiterate consumers sort their technical problems out - this can only be a good thing," says Tim Wolfenden, head of home services at price comparison website uSwitch.com. "There is no point customers spending good money on broadband and computers, and not being able to use them properly."
It's all geek to me
Backed by the Carphone Warehouse in the UK, the Geek Squad is one of the best-known technical support companies. The firm started in the US and styles its 'agents' on the FBI, complete with uniform and regulation socks. It says the two biggest problems for customers are computer viruses and wireless routers.
The Geek Squad offers a subscription service called MyGeek. For £10 a month, customers get round-the-clock technology support over the phone. If necessary, the "geeks" will take control of the PC remotely via the customer’s internet connection.
You don’t have to be a member to get to your computer fixed. Advanced diagnostic and repair work (troubleshooting, virus/spyware removal, software updates and operating system repairs) costs £100, hardware and software installation is £30 and setting up a wireless network, £30.
If you prefer a home visit, these start at £99 on a "no fix, no fee" basis. However, at the moment the service is only available in London, the South East and the North West, although there are plans to increase geographical coverage later in 2008.
The Geek Squad was the sure-fire winner when the Sunday Times went undercover to test various geeks’ technical knowledge in 2007. One of its 'agents' fixed all four deliberate errors on a reporter’s laptop and even sussed the undercover set-up, suggesting that it looked as if the computer had been deliberately disabled.
BT launched its Home IT Support service in March 2006 and, like the Geek Squad, it offers both telephone support with remote access and home visits. A three-month subscription costs £9.99 a month and a year-long subscription costs £6.99 for the first four months and £8.99 thereafter. For one-off telephone help, a 45-minute call will set you back £25.
BT home visits start at £90 for wireless network set-up or a computer health check while setting up an entire PC will cost £120. Another household name that has entered the technical support market is Dixons via its subsidiary, the Tech Guys. It offers services in some PC World and Currys stores as well as over the phone and in customers’ homes.
Some Tech Guys services can only be carried out instore and others are only available at home. For example, PC health checks in PC World stores cost £29.99, setting up a PC at home costs £89.99 and setting up and mounting a flatscreen TV will set you back £299.99. You can also buy the TechFriend telephone support service for £89.99 for 12 months, giving you access to a dedicated call centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Watch out for the charges
Other technical support services charge by the hour rather than per job or visit. London-based Scooter Computer charges £69 plus VAT for the first hour then £35 plus VAT for each half hour after that. It also offers computer lessons for £55 per hour.
Geeks on Wheels operates in London and Sussex and charges customers in the capital £75 for the first hour then £37.50 per half hour after that. PC users in Sussex benefit from cheaper rates - £60 for the first hour and then £30 per half hour thereafter.
Alternatively, website fixITLocal has access to a nationwide network of engineers. The site finds you an engineer within five miles of your home. There is a fixed price of £49.99 for the first hour, but after this you will have to negotiate a price with the individual engineer.
But despite it being a growing market, some experts are sceptical about whether expert help is really necessary with some everyday computer issues.
Computer users should make sure they read the manual before splashing out on support services. All computer manuals have troubleshooting pages that identify simple problems. Most manufacturers also host these pages on their website or will respond to email queries.
Microsoft’s online support centre at support. microsoft.com has software that can be used to run diagnostic tests on your PC. There is also a library of how-to articles and troubleshooting advice. Likewise, a quick Google search will return pages detailing how to solve common iPod problems.
"Consumers should think carefully before splashing out," says Michael Phillips, product director at Broadbandchoices.co.uk. "For example, you would pay £90 for Geek Squad to set up a home wireless network, while ISPs such as BT, Sky and AOL provide preconfigured wireless routers and software that make getting online very simple with no additional charges.
"Before you pick up the phone and pay for help, we would recommend customers try friends and family that have a patient disposition and are technically minded. Alternatively, consider switching to an ISP with a reputation for good after-sales service such as Plusnet or Pipex or to an ISP with free technical support, such as BT."
Back in April 2008, BT made customer calls to its technical support team free, so if you have problems with BT Broadband or a BT router you no longer have to call an expensive 0845 or 0870 number. However, the free help is only available for BT broadband problems - if the problem is caused by your own equipment, BT technical support won’t be able to help. By contrast, other internet firms charge for advising on problems with their own kit - Orange charges 50p/minute and Virgin Media 25p/minute - which is something you should take into account when choosing a provider.
N.B prices correct as of May 2008.
Invented by a Frenchman in 1954 and ironically introduced in the UK on 1 April 1973, VAT is an indirect tax levied on the value added in the production of goods and services, from primary production to final consumption and is paid by the buyer. Its levying is complex, with a number of exemptions and exclusions. For example, in the UK, VAT is payable on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on chocolate-covered cakes and the non-VAT status of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes was challenged in a UK court case to determine whether Jaffa Cake was a cake or a biscuit. The judge ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake, McVitie’s won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes in the UK.