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What happens when something goes wrong?

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999

So you bought your first computer. Enjoy it, if you can.

Reliability and service remain a challenge for the PC industry, which means it's more important for consumers to do homework, ask questions and read the fine print in ads and warranties before they buy.

"Historically, if you bought a PC, you had roughly a 50-50 chance of something going wrong with it," said Brad Grimes, senior features editor of PC World who works on the magazine's reliability and service surveys. "That's unchanged. It's what we've come to expect, but that's not very acceptable."

Some companies, such as Dell, consistently rank high in user-satisfaction surveys. Some, such as Packard Bell, which is leaving the U.S. market, don't fare well.

Cheaper machines may have an attractive initial price, but cost users later. Grimes said PC World has been inundated with complaints about service and problems with low-end machines.

"There is definitely a lure to cheap machines," Grimes said. "(But) I would be very cautious. . . . It's tough to get something for nothing. It's tough to get something for very little."

Particularly for first-time buyers, a lemon PC or trying to wade through the jargon can lead to discovering some not-so-consumer-friendly policies or issues they've never encountered with any other purchase, such as:

Tech support: Free phone support can be for a limited time. For example, eMachines, whose sub-$500 computers took the market by storm, offers free phone support for only 15 days after the first tech call is made -- unless the consumer buys an extended warranty. It charges $20 for a call unless the company finds that the product was defective.

Not every company offers a toll-free number for support, which means customers foot the bill for the call when a problem occurs.

Warranty period: Many companies offer a three-year warranty on parts, one on labor. Not all do, however. Some low-end machines have much more limited and restricted warranties, and some companies that mention a three-year warranty fail to point out that it doesn't cover labor the last two years.

Experts criticize extended warranties and don't recommend them. In some cases, though, extended warranties aren't available even if a buyer wants one: Rhona Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Apple Computer Inc., says AppleCare Protection Plan, which extends Macintosh support beyond the initial 90-day period, isn't available to individuals in Florida because of state law that permits only Florida-based manufacturers to offer such warranty extensions directly. But the extended support plan is available to companies.

Additionally, people need to know what voids a warranty. Grimes said PC World receives a lot of letters from people who lost their warranties after they opened their PC and changed something. "You've got to ask," Grimes said. "Usually it's in the fine print somewhere."

"On-site" service. Some companies that promise on-site service send a tech to your house only if the problem can first be diagnosed by phone or by the Internet. If not, buyers may have to take their machine to an authorized dealer or ship it back to the company. So people need to know who picks up the tab for shipping.

"On-site service is obviously the most expensive way for a company to service a PC," Grimes said, "so they try to avoid it at all costs."

Refunds. Some companies charge a restocking fee of up to 15 percent, and refunds may be available only for a very short time after purchase.

"Did I say that?" The rules sometimes change after the purchase, leaving the consumer unaware. For example, Apple Computer settled Federal Trade Commission charges this year that it deceived customers after advertising free tech support and then charging a fee for computers purchased between 1992 and 1996.

"It's not our problem": One of the most frustrating situations for consumers is when they hear, "It's a software problem," from a hardware company, then "It's a hardware problem," from a software company.

It's not only important for buyers to understand the warranties on their new computers, but also to check support for software that comes with the computer or that they buy.

Unlike other household appliances that have only one function, a PC is complex, Grimes said, making service difficult. He likens it to trying to figure out a problem with a car. Add to the mix first-time buyers who call with sometimes minor questions, and you have jammed tech support lines.

Increasingly, companies are using Web-based support, where consumers can go to a site for help. "Web support needs to get a lot better if it's really going to become a useful tool," Grimes said. He said Web support needs to become easier to use and more interactive.

Repair shops: Once the warranty has run out, finding a good repair shop also can be a challenge. Again, homework is necessary. PC World did a story last year on repair experiences at national chains, none of which did an acceptable job, according to the magazine. Finding a good local repair shop can be hit or miss, Grimes said, so it's important for people to check out a shop before leaving a computer.

The magazine's surveys show that, in general, mail order companies such as Dell and Gateway have slightly more reliable products and provide better service than PCs purchased through retailers, Grimes said, sounding a note of optimism:

"We hope one day computers won't be so malfunctioning," Grimes said, "that they'll be more reliable."

-- Times staff writer William Lampkin contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files.

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