Friday, December 21, 2007

PC repair undercover investigation,17240-page,1/article.html

PC Repair Undercover
We surveiled the state of professional PC repair from deep cover and
found that the knowledge--as well as a mass of ineptitude--is out there.
Friday, June 16, 2000 12:00 AM PDT
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PC Repair UndercoverOver half the repairs in our investigation were
botched or overpriced. Here's how to protect yourself when your
computer goes to the shop.

What if the odds of emerging from your doctor's office hale and hearty
ran two-to-one against you? We'd be a nation swamped with shamans
instead of surgeons. Fortunately, a visit to the doctor is generally
nothing to fear. But your PC's trip to the repair shop may be another

That's the sorry conclusion we must draw from our investigation of the
state of PC repair. (We were joined for portions of our research by an
undercover team from the TV newsmagazine Dateline NBC, researching its
own feature on the topic. The story will air on July 10.) When we
first tackled this topic back in 1998, we encountered sloppy
technicians, unnecessary repairs, and rampant rudeness. Two years
later, have matters improved? Sadly, the more things change, the more
they stay the same.

In all, we did business with 18 repair stores in six states. A dozen
of these stores were branches of three national chains--Best Buy,
Circuit City, and CompUSA--which together boast over 1200 outlets
nationwide. This time we extended the investigation to include 6
mom-and-pop-style shops in as many cities across the country. We
wanted to see if independent stores live up to their reputation of
offering better customer service than the chains.

Chain retailers and independents don't exhaust your service options.
Manufacturers that sell PCs directly, such as Dell and Gateway, handle
repairs themselves, often via on-site service. And if you work in a
medium-size or large company, you probably call on your IS department
for help. But national chains and local computer shops remain a
primary repair choice for consumers, especially for PCs bought at
retail and those out of warranty.

Judging from our findings, that's terrible news. For every store that
solved our problems quickly, courteously, and competently--and some
did--more dropped the ball. When we left malfunctioning PCs for
repair, half of the chain outlets didn't fix them, and a staggering 83
percent of the independents bombed. In the end, only 7 of the 18
stores did their jobs correctly; 6 of the 7 were Best Buy or CompUSA
Setting the Scene

We tested the mettle of repair shops by disabling 18 identical
three-year-old Compaq Pentium II PCs. To measure phone support
shrewdness, we corrupted the PCs' video drivers, which degraded image
color and resolution. Good technicians should be able to identify the
problem and guide users through the solution--which is to reinstall
the driver--over the phone.

To measure the competence of in-store crews, our reporters took a
balky PC into each shop. Previously, we had replaced the PC's working
hard disk IDE cable with a defective one, leaving the system unable to
boot. We also disconnected the CD-ROM audio cable, so the PC couldn't
play music CDs. (We didn't mention this symptom; we wanted to see if
the stores' technicians would be attentive enough to notice the loose

These malfunctions duplicate the problems we posed two years ago and
are designed to stress-test service savvy. The malfunctioning drive
cable--a relatively uncommon glitch--can't be identified at a cursory
glance. A technician at the Rhode Island CompUSA, which fixed the PC
in less than a day, called this problem "hard to diagnose, but easy to
fix." Although it was unusual, he said he'd seen it himself four or
five times.

Of course, not every service shop experience will match ours. Your
problems may be easier--or harder--for a tech to diagnose and correct.
But what our investigation does show isn't pretty.
The Ugly Truth

How bad were our repair experiences? Consider the evidence:

* Of 31 total problems posed to 18 stores, 18 were misdiagnosed or
left unresolved. That percentage of wrong responses is slightly higher
than in our 1998 results.

* Of the 18 stores, 11 couldn't provide acceptable service for the
bad hard disk cable problem. We had high hopes for the mom-and-pop
shops here, but they disappointed us: Only 1 of the 6 got it right.
And none of Circuit City's outlets made the grade.

* Only 8 of the 18 stores reinserted the CD-ROM audio cable.

* In 8 of 18 stores--4 mom-and-pops, 2 Circuit City outlets, 1
Best Buy, and 1 CompUSA--techs advised us to replace perfectly good
parts. The average cost for these useless repairs: $340.

* When it came to cost, CompUSA's flat labor rate of $100 was
steep, while Circuit City's seemingly cheap rate (just $20 up front)
lost its luster since none of its techs correctly fixed our PCs.

* Of the 13 stores that offer phone support, 7 couldn't solve the
video snafu; 2 Best Buy stores made the grade, as did 2 CompUSA
outlets and 2 mom-and-pops. (Circuit City and one of the small
independents don't provide phone support.)

Depressing, isn't it?
What Went Right

Inundated with bad news, we treasured our successes. And indeed, some
stores did the kind of work we wish on anyone burdened with a sick
system. The stores that did right by us had a lot in common. Their
techs were courteous, neither resorting to geek-speak nor talking down
to us. They listened as we described the problem and didn't leap to
conclusions and stick with them, as did some of our worst-scoring
technicians. And they didn't gouge us on the bill.

Take our Texas reporter's experience at his local Best Buy. The
technician "was working on the other side of the counter, so I was
able to observe the entire process." The tech quickly tried several
troubleshooting measures, and then scrounged up a spare cable when he
concluded the one in the PC might be defective. Just 35 minutes after
entering the store, our reporter walked out with the fixed PC. The
cost: a thrifty $25.

The Best Buy in California beat that price: Though the tech initially
misdiagnosed the problem, he caught his mistake and fixed the PC
without charging us a dime. Across the country at a CompUSA in Rhode
Island, we dealt with courteous, savvy store reps at both drop-off and
pickup, and the system was fixed in less than a day. But because
CompUSA charges a flat rate of $100 for labor, the repair was pricey.
(This flat-rate policy could work to your advantage if your system
requires a labor-intensive repair such as a motherboard replacement.)

A Colorado store--the only independent to pass--was a model others
could learn from. Located in an aging strip mall, it didn't look like
anything special. But "everything went right," says our reporter.
"They knew what they were talking about, they were courteous, and they
fixed it within 24 hours." The store charged a reasonable $60 for
labor and just $3 for a new cable.
Little Shop of Horrors

But that can-do attitude was in short supply at most repair shops. Our
discovery shouldn't have come as a surprise: It's not as if poor
service and repair are new. Welcome to America, where consumers find
it easier to dump stuff than to get it fixed.

Half the techs at the 18 stores we visited let their imaginations run
wild when diagnosing our disabled hard-drive cable problem. After
jumping to wrong conclusions, they often doggedly pursued their
assumptions without examining the system thoroughly enough to identify
the real problem. Worse, in only 3 instances (2 Best Buy stores and 1
CompUSA outlet) did techs who misdiagnosed the problem eventually
catch their mistake.

Without question, Circuit City took the prize as the least effective
chain store we tested. Unlike Best Buy and CompUSA, the company
doesn't fix systems at its stores at all; instead, it ships them to
its centralized repair depots. But all four of our encounters with
Circuit City service were failures. One store told us over the phone
to bring the PC in, then refused to work on it once we arrived,
claiming Circuit City did not repair systems purchased elsewhere.
Another accepted the unit but then said it didn't have the information
or parts to fix it. Our reporter pressed for details, and was
repeatedly promised that a tech would contact him. But he heard
nothing and eventually got his PC back unrepaired.

In Rhode Island, a Circuit City technician wrongly blamed our
hard-disk problem on a flaky drive. But instead of compounding the
error by trying to fix the machine, he advised us that the necessary
repairs could cost hundreds of dollars and that it "wouldn't be fair"
to us to have Circuit City do the job. (He suggested that we buy a
drive at a swap meet and install it ourselves.) His Circuit City
counterparts in Texas also mistakenly concluded we needed a new hard
drive. We okayed that repair: a hefty $214 to install a piddling 3.2GB
drive. When we got the machine home, we found a sticky note on the
case reminding the technician to finish installing the software.
Apparently, the tech had overlooked that memo--the new drive had DOS
installed, but not Windows.

Our dealings with mom-and-pop stores truly disappointed us. Two years
ago we surveyed only chains, and we wondered whether small shops,
which have a solid reputation for service, could have done better.
Nope. Five of the six flopped. And they seemed eager to stuff unneeded
parts into our PCs. In all, two-thirds of the small stores said we
needed a new motherboard or a new system.

Both the Rhode Island and North Carolina stores incorrectly deduced
that our PCs had dead motherboards. The Rhode Island store ordered and
installed a replacement. The other shop said it couldn't get a board
to fit the Compaq's case and recommended rebuilding the PC with a
combination of its own parts and new components. By the time we were
through, the register rang up $295, and our desktop system had turned
into a minitower.

The New Jersey independent, which made a house call to our New York
location, went further. The tech decided the problem lay in a bad
motherboard and possibly a corrupted hard disk (wrong); he said it
would cost about $400 to get a new motherboard and fix our disk.
Instead, he advised us to consider buying a new PC. His quote: $1000
or more for a system sans monitor--a price commensurate with the
specs, but yikes!

Mildly good news: Unlike in our 1998 tests, no stores installed pricey
parts without our prior go-ahead. Nor, as happened previously, did any
techs falsely claim to have installed a new part. Give partial credit
for this to our reporters, who usually asked to get the old parts back
after the repair. You should always make that request, to ensure that
you actually get new components.
How Long Can You Live Without Your PC?

Want to live without your business or home PC for days or weeks on
end? Neither do we. That's why speed of repair is second only to a
correct diagnosis in our book.

The roadrunner repair prize goes to CompUSA: Three of four locations
we tested had the machine back to us within a day. True, that included
the store that misdiagnosed the problem and advised us we needed a new
motherboard--even the tech said the quoted $627 (from the store's
price guide) was too high. The fourth CompUSA store took about ten
days but fixed it right.

Best Buy was nearly as fast. Three Best Buy stores also turned our PC
around in 24 hours or less--though only two fixed the cable problem
correctly--but the fourth outlet needed a mind-numbing 36 days. We
could have built a new PC in less time.

Almost all of the mom-and-pop stores were slow--half of them took
seven days or longer to complete the job. The only independent store
to return the PC in less than 48 hours was also the only one that
passed the test.

At Circuit City, the wait was even longer. The three stores that took
the problem on needed an average of 16 days to return the PC.

Worse, our reporters encountered some service procedures that were
inefficient at best. CompUSA drew the ire of three of four reporters,
who cited trouble reaching the service department and having to trot
between service and checkout areas to prepay for the repair. The Rhode
Island Best Buy that held on to our PC for over a month kept us poorly
informed, too, telling us little of substance when we called for
status updates. And two promised callbacks from that store never came.

Most independent shops communicated well. But a California store
didn't call us back; another showed scant interest in doing the
repair. "They seemed to be put out at having to help a customer," said
our Texas reporter, who was told that fixing the PC might take a week,
despite the store's advertised promise of same-day service.
Phone Help: Not Much Better

If no service center or mom-and-pop store is nearby, you can try
punching numbers on the phone. Phone support is worth considering in
other instances, too, since a good technician should be able to grasp
the gist of the problem and walk you through a fix. If the fix works,
the typical cost for fee-based phone support--around $25 per
incident--is a good deal. But only 6 of the 13 stores that offered
tech support by phone provided good service for our video-driver problem.

The brightest spot was CompUSA, whose techs nailed the problem two out
of four times. A third made the right call--and provided the diagnosis
free--but failed to walk us through a correct fix. Even at CompUSA,
however, we ran into lousy advice. One of its techs told us, "I'm 99
percent certain you'll have to reinstall Windows." If that didn't
solve the problem, he said we'd need a new motherboard. Talk about
jumping to conclusions.

Even more disturbing, some phone techs simply refused to lend a hand.
That reaction was understandable at Circuit City, since its policy is
not to work the phones. But how do you explain the response at Best
Buy? Though the voice menu at that company's toll-free number clearly
mentions a $25 per incident support option, its reps rebuffed us
repeatedly, claiming no such support was available. Our reporters
persevered, however, and two of the four eventually reached a
technician and got help.

Not surprisingly, many independent mom-and-pop shops can't afford to
provide full-fledged phone support, and as a result they decline to
offer any. But in the five cases where we managed to enlist small-shop
technicians' guidance over the phone, only two of the advisors solved
the problem correctly.

All told, we had somewhat better results with phone support than with
drop-off service. But the experience still left us disheartened. If
your tech support encounters are like ours, you may need to assert
yourself somewhat aggressively just to convince a service department
to tackle your problem. And once you do convince someone to help you
troubleshoot your cranky computer, you may end up wishing you hadn't
The Stores Respond

What explains our results? Once all 18 PCs were back to us, we sought
responses from each chain and independent shop to comment on our

Editor's note: After press time, Circuit City representatives
contacted PC World and said they had done further investigation of the
company's repair policy, and determined that their original statement
to us had been partially incorrect. Circuit City will repair products
not purchased at its stores if the items are out of warranty and the
stores carry both the manufacturer and the model. Since Circuit City
does not carry Compaq Deskpros, none of its stores should have
accepted our PCs. This policy was not stated by any of the stores we
spoke with nor was it made clear on the company's web site. Circuit
City spokesperson Morgan Stewart clarified the chain's position on
repairs, stating that Circuit City will repair products purchased
elsewhere, as long as they're out of warranty and Circuit City carries
the brand (this matches the policy at the company's Web site). He said
store staffers who told us otherwise must have misspoken. Stewart said
that our test presented an unusual, hard-to-diagnose situation, and he
noted that Circuit City's surveys of 30,000 customers show high
satisfaction with purchase and repair experiences (the latter where
applicable). He also noted that all of the chain's technicians have A+
certification (a Computing Technology Industry Association rating).

Representatives of Best Buy and CompUSA, which mixed repair successes
with jarring failures, conceded the problems and predicted service
would improve with time. Lowell Peters, senior vice president of
services for Best Buy, says the chain recently installed monitors and
utilities at store counters for on-the-spot diagnosis. (This setup let
the Texas store fix our hard-disk cable problem in just 35 minutes.)
The chain has installed a system for relaying current repair status to
customers. Peters explains that not all Best Buy personnel have been
fully trained on the new repair procedures: "It definitely must get
smoother," he admits.

At CompUSA, recent service changes include mandatory technical
certification for repair staffers and compensation incentives based on
customer satisfaction, according to Tony Weiss, executive vice
president of business solutions. Though one store misdiagnosed our
problem as a defective motherboard, Weiss expressed confidence that
the mistake would have been caught and the problem fixed correctly if
we had gone ahead with the repair, since the problem would have
persisted even with a new board. Weiss agrees that shuttling customers
between the service center and the checkout counter to pay for a
repair is inconvenient; the company hopes to eliminate the need for
such footwork sometime this fall. CompUSA is also adding a more
thorough check of drive cables as part of its diagnostic process.

And the independents? Like Circuit City's Stewart, some small-store
managers said our cable problem was out of the ordinary and therefore
unusually difficult to diagnose. But the ones that got it wrong didn't
dispute their misdiagnosis. For example, an owner of the North
Carolina store, who didn't personally work on our PC, said the
hard-disk cable "would have been the last thing I'd have checked, but
I would have checked it."
Watch Out for These 'Bonehead Technician' Types

Our PC repair misadventures trained us to spot some common
characteristics of technicians who did more damage than good--and the
mishaps helped us dispel some myths about reliable indicators of good
service. It wouldn't hurt to keep these life lessons in mind if you
want to avoid your own repair disasters:

Dangerous Tech #1: The Leaper. Many technicians made snap judgments
almost as soon as we started talking. They were almost always wrong.
If the technician claims to positively know what's amiss before
opening the case, proceed with caution.

Dangerous Tech #2: The Parts Peddler. Technicians who recommended
pricey repairs that involved replacing major parts were way off base.
Be skeptical of any tech who claims that the only way to fix the
trouble is to swap out major components.

Myth #1: A good attitude means good service. In our drop-in tests, we
found no real correlation between Helpfulness scores--where we gauged
the techs' courteousness and ability to communicate with us--and
successful repairs.

Myth #2: A short wait means a quick fix. A short wait when you're
calling for help doesn't mean you'll get the right answer. Of the
eight tech support staffers who answered our phone calls after an
on-hold wait of less than 5 minutes, only two solved our video driver
problem. We had a higher success rate--three out of three--when we
waited 10 or more minutes to get through.
Winning Moves

Clearly, hauling your computer into a shop is risky. Our advice: Buy a
computer with a strong manufacturer's warranty, so you can delay
having to worry about out-of-warranty repairs. If you need to find a
repair shop, don't pick one at random. Instead, turn to someone you
know or ask for recommendations from friends who rely on computers in
their businesses.

With the right knowledge and tools, you can fix or avoid many PC
problems yourself. Equip your system with diagnostic software ( see
our suggestions), use online tech support sites, including those
hosted by your PC's maker, and learn basic troubleshooting skills.

In other words, the surest way to win at repair roulette is to avoid
spinning the wheel at all. But if you must head to the service shop,
reach for your rabbit's foot. And watch your wallet.

Gregg Keizer is a frequent contributor to PC World.
Repair Tales

Cheapest repair: Best Buy, CA, fixed our PC for free.

Highest repair estimate: CompUSA, NY, wanted $727 for an unneeded
motherboard swap.

Quickest turnaround: Best Buy, TX, fixed our PC in 35 minutes while we

Slowest turnaround: Best Buy, RI, took more than a month to replace a
faulty cable.

Most honest (albeit incorrect) advice: A phone rep at one of Circuit
City's service centers told us that repair costs for our PC would be
prohibitive: "It wouldn't be right to do the job."

Best deal from a mom-and-pop: Independent shop, CO, fixed the PC in 48
hours for $63.
How and Where We Investigated

We started with 18 Pentium II-233-based Compaq Deskpro 4000 PCs. We
then corrupted the graphics driver and made tech support calls for
help. Next we replaced the functional hard disk cable with a damaged
one, disconnected the CD audio cable, and took the now-broken PCs in
for repair.

We went to four stores from each of the following chains: Best Buy,
Circuit City, and CompUSA. We also tried six independent stores across
the United States.

How the Stores Fared: No Big Winners (chart)
Top Repair Tips

These everyday tips for smart computing can help you make future
service trips less painful--or even avoid them.

1. Buy your PC with a three-year warranty: That will insure your PC
for most of its useful life. If that level of protection doesn't come
standard, as little as $100 can buy the additional years (see Consumer
Watch for more on long-term warranties). Where possible, get this
coverage from your PC's manufacturer, so you always deal with the
people who built your system--it's often cheaper, too.

2. Back up your data: Don't wait. Your PC's single most valuable
thing is the data it contains--from bank and tax records, to your MP3
collection, to your sales contacts. Keep an updated backup on CD-RW,
Zip disks, or some other storage medium.

3. Invest in a good utilities package: Norton SystemWorks and
Ontrack's Fix-It, for example, cost about $50 and include not only
system diagnostic tools, but often antivirus software and backup
utilities (see "Do-It-Yourself PC Diagnosis" for details).

4. Keep your restore CD handy: When a problem hits, your system's
restore CD, which has all the PC's original software settings, is the
quickest way to get up and running again--especially if recently
installed software triggered the problem.

5. Check out tech advice sites: Candidates include,, and If your PC isn't completely
inoperable, entering a chat room with techs and fellow PC users or
dashing off an e-mail that clearly describes the problem will often
net you a fast, accurate--and usually free--fix.

6. Choose a shop carefully: If the worst does happen, call several
shops for facts on repair procedures. Is there a diagnosis fee? If so,
is it applied toward the repair cost? What is the hourly fee or flat
rate for labor? Is the work guaranteed? If so, for how long? What's
the expected turnaround time? Finally, check with the Better Business
Bureau to identify stores with poor records.

7. Get the facts straight: Before you head out to the store, list
your PC's symptoms, including the precise wording of error messages.
Take any CD-ROMs or floppies (like the restore disk) that came with
the system; the store's technician may request them.

8. Have open communication: At the shop, give service reps full
details about the problem. Ask the rep to call for your okay before
performing services that will cost more than the fee (if any) you pay
at drop-off.

9. Check the math: When you pick up the PC, review what was done
and its cost. Ask for a written report, with specifics on warranties
for parts and labor.

10. Test the PC right away: A shoddy repair job may introduce
problems, so check your PC as soon as you return to your office.
Reconnect add-ons such as your printer and verify that everything
works properly. Report problems immediately.

If you want to dispose of your old PC, check the PEP National
Directory of Computer Recycling Programs. You'll find info at the
state, national, and international level about organizations that will
take your PC to a new home (and get you a tax write-off).
Undercover, In the Stores

Fix it or buy it? We visited PC superstores with Dateline NBC and
found that you can pay less for a new PC than for some repairs.

One store transplanted parts from our old PC onto a new motherboard in
a new case. Our reporter made sure he got his original parts back.

Best Buy is equipping stores for on-the-spot diagnostics, by setting
up monitors right at service and repair counters.

The Price You Pay

Resolving seemingly simple PC problems can cost hundreds of dollars.
For a PC over three years old, we recommend spending a maximum of $300
on repairs--remember that new, better-equipped computers cost as
little as $400. For PCs between one and three years old, budget up to
$500 for repairs.

Labor costs vary widely, so get quotes from several shops. Most will
charge a diagnosis fee of $20 to $50, though some shops provide this
service free. Hourly labor rates generally range from $50 to $90; some
stores charge a flat labor fee of $100 to $125--a good option if you
suspect a serious problem. On the next page are average prices for
parts that may be replaced during a repair.
The Price You Pay (chart)
Do-It-Yourself PC Diagnosis

If you have an ailing computer, don't panic. You're not automatically
destined to face a mountain of repair bills or doomed to days of
crying over lost data. A good diagnostic program can help you avoid
having to painstakingly reconstruct your financial records, and it can
help you bypass a trip to the repair shop.

Assuming the PC is still running and just acting funny--maybe it can't
find that file you saved just yesterday, or graphics are looking
odd--you can do some preliminary diagnosis yourself. Numerous
diagnostic utilities are available for Windows, but two of our
favorites are Norton Utilities ($49.95) and Ontrack's Fix-It Utilities
($49.95). You can also check out McAfee's $39.95 Utilities Deluxe, but
we prefer the others overall.

Both Norton Utilities and Ontrack Fix-It provide a one-stop set of
Windows-based hardware and software diagnostics that ferret out
problems and issue a comprehensive report. Ontrack Fix-It's crisis
center edges out Norton in this category: It focuses on recovering
data and even has links to online technical support and online data
recovery services such as Remote Recovery, in which Ontrack's techs
attempt to recover your data through a live Net connection, and In-Lab
Recovery, which requires you to send in your disk for help. Costs vary.

If your PC runs but won't boot from the hard drive (so you can't get
into Windows), both utilities offer emergency floppy boot disks that
load a basic set of diagnostics sufficient to perform triage, and
perhaps even save the day. Norton Utilities has a slight edge in this
department because its CD-ROM is also bootable (assuming that your
PC's BIOS supports that feature), and will load a more intensive group
of diagnostic tools onto the PC. Both utilities also allow you to
create custom bootable floppies tuned to the specific settings of your

Does your PC have maddening, intermittent problems? Give PassMark's
BurnInTest ($22) a try: It's a unique utility that continually
exercises your PC's components, from RAM to hard drive to motherboard.
It can find and highlight hard-to-find problems that conventional
diagnostics utilities miss.

Although diagnostic utilities can't perform miracles, they can often
resurrect lost data and solve common problems such as a corrupted
Windows Registry. They can narrow down or isolate the problem, and
help you decide whether the solution is one you might want to tackle
yourself (like installing a new drive) or if you're better off going
to a pro--or getting a new system. Regularly running such utilities
can help even in the case of a sudden failure: At least with info from
a diagnostic utility you'll go to the shop armed with information that
could help you avoid paying for unnecessary repair jobs.
--Stan Miastkowski

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