When Michael Price moved his small consulting business, Octagon Energy Advisors, to a new office in Houston three years ago, he hired a computer-repair technician to reassemble and reconnect his computers. Not only did the fellow fail to get the network up and running, but he also erased the system's hard drive. Says Price: "I ended up having to send it to a data-recovery outfit," and this cost him more than $6,000. Subsequent bad experiences inspired him to take several computer courses at a community college: "I decided it would just be easier if I learned to fix things myself," he says.
Horror stories abound about inept techs -- from lost data to smoking hard drives. So you want to be sure whomever you call in for help won't compound your computer troubles. How do you find a qualified repair person?
First, ask your local computer user group for a referral. "User groups are full of enthusiasts and geeks who will know who's good," says Kim Komando, host of a nationally syndicated radio show on technology. You can find a neighborhood group at the Web site of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (http://cdb.apcug.org/loclist.asp). She also advises searching Google groups before you hire anyone to see if any complaints have been posted on message boards. Computer users are more likely to gripe online than to complain to the Better Business Bureau, notes Komando.
Check whether a repair person is certified by the Computing Technology Industry Assn. (CompTIA). There are various levels of certification, but your geek should have an A+ designation, which indicates proficiency in basic hardware and operating system configuration, diagnostics, and preventive maintenance. "It tells you they have entry-level competency," says Nick Torino, a consultant and president of Geeks n Tweaks, a computer user club in Bartonsville, Pa.
Look for someone who fixes computers full-time. If it's a sideline, you may not get prompt service. "I get a lot of calls from people who have gotten fed up waiting for some other repair guy to get time off from his real job," Torino says. And moonlighters may not be up to date with the rapid changes in technology. Experience matters, too. Look for technicians who have been in business for at least two years and have verifiable references. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour. Ask if there is a minimum charge in case your problem is fixed with a couple of key strokes.
Whether a tech makes house calls or has a shop, the tools of the trade should include a bootable disk, virus software, and diagnostic programs. Jeanna Matthews, assistant professor of computers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., says another good sign is if your tech wears a static wrist guard to keep from zapping your CPU's innards when opening the case. Even better, she says, is if the person first safeguards data with an external backup device.
Be leery of anyone who uses incomprehensible techno-babble. "Good techs should be willing and able to tell you what your problem is and how they are going to fix it," says Torino. You also need to help out your geek by writing down verbatim any error messages you've received and exactly what you were doing when your computer started misbehaving. "That will save at least 30 minutes in troubleshooting," he says.
Finally, you should get a minimum 90-day guarantee for software fixes, 120 days for network solutions, and 6 to 12 months for anything hardware related, depending on whether you paid for new components. And the repair person should have insurance to pay for mishaps like what happened to Price in Houston. Computers are just like anything else you have repaired. You have a right to expect quality assurance.
By Kate Murphy