In an ideal world when your PC packs up, or starts behaving strangely, one phone call to the retailer or manufacturer’s customer help line will resolve the problem, either with useful practical advice, or the promise of a visit from a service engineer that same day. It does actually happen sometimes and a lot of common problems can be easily fixed over the phone but what happens when the offer of free helpline assistance or guarantee has expired? Unless you have an extended warranty, service contract or a knowledgeable friend or relative on call, you’re effectively on your own, or are you?


If fact there is more free (or nearly free) help on tap for dealing with computer problems than any other commercial product, you’ve just got to know where to look, and the right questions to ask. Unfortunately much of this help is only available if you have a working PC, or access to one with an Internet connection, which is a fat lot of good if your one and only PC has turned up its toes, you don’t have the Internet or the problem is you can’t go online…


If you’re not in an absolutely desperate hurry you can always write or fax a query to our very own Faqs! Facts! Fax! column and most PC magazines have reader’s problem pages though be aware that we (and most magazines) do our best but simply haven’t got the space or facilities to answer every plea for help. PC agony aunts and uncles also tend to give precedence to the sort of problems that are likely to affect a lot of users in the hope that the solution will benefit the greatest number of readers. Obscure faults associated with a very particular combination of hardware and software are extremely difficult to diagnose at a distance and so stand a lesser chance of making it into print.


We know that a lot of readers keep clippings of F!F!F! and magazine help pages, which is a very good idea as quite often you’ll encounter a  problem or fault that you vaguely remember reading about, why not start your own reference library? Keep all of the manuals and instruction books that came with your PC, peripherals and software in one place, so you can get at them easily. There are countless of books on the subject, including -- at the risk of a shameless plug -- the two ‘Boot Up’ books, compiled from past episodes of Boot Camp and F!F!F! (available from Daily Telegraph Books on 0870 1557222 and all good bookshops). The computing section in your local library and bookshops that tolerate browsers are also worth getting to know, but without doubt the fastest and most comprehensive source of help is the Internet.


Even if your PC is out for the count you can probably still go on-line using a friend or relative’s computer; publicly accessible PCs can also be found in schools and universities, libraries, motorway stations and Internet cafes or you could get an old Internet capable PC or laptop out of retirement, either way the net is your best and fastest hope of solving a problem.


There are many ways to use the Internet to get assistance, depending on the nature of the fault. Internet help falls into two broad categories: passive help, where the information you require is on a database somewhere and you have to look it up, and there’s active help, where your problem is dealt with by a real person, or people and it’s encouraging to know that there are lots of them out there in Internet land who give their time and expertise freely and unstintingly to help their fellow PC users.


If the problem occurred immediately after installing a new piece of hardware or software your first port of call should be the manufacturer’s own web site, to check whether there are any known problems or compatibility issues, drivers or patches to download and it’s worth trawling through the site’s FAQ sections. Many manufacturers’ web sites offer free on-line technical assistance and will reply by email though the speed and reliability of these services varies enormously.


My favourite method for dealing with mysterious or obscure error messages that don’t appear to relate to a specific item of software or hardware is to simply type the bones of the message into the Find field of one of the main Internet search engines. It’s surprising how often this yields useful results; it’s also very reassuring to know that you’re not alone…


Any problem with Windows and you should head straight for the Microsoft Windows Troubleshooters and Knowledge Base, the largest product database in existence. Unfortunately, whilst the answer to your Windows or Microsoft product related problem is almost certainly buried in there somewhere, finding it is another matter.


There are two points of entry, try the ‘Windows Troubleshooters’ first at:

tshoot/default.asp? for reasonably straightforward configuration and common error problems, otherwise go to the

main Search page at:

As you might expect it gets incredibly busy and you’re often better off visiting the UK ‘mirror’ site at:


Once there deselect everything except ‘Support & the Knowledge Base’ and try searching just one or two keywords relating to your problem using the ‘All Words’ and Any Words’ options first. 


When it comes to seeking help from a real person then you have a number of options. Posting your query on one of the many Newsgroups, On-Line Conferences and Bulletin Boards can be a bit hit and miss. You could get lucky and be inundated with replies within minutes, or hear nothing for weeks. Generally speaking it’s not something you can easily get into from cold and is perhaps better suited to experienced users who know the best places to ask for help. If you would like to know more about accessing Internet Newsgroups have a look at Boot Camps 70 and 71.


Alternatively, try your luck with one of the many free on-line help web sites staffed by experts, again the quality of help can be a bit variable and you may want to seek a second opinion before you do anything too drastic to your machine. Here’s a small selection if sites to try to get you started:



Next week – Pranks, hoaxes and scams





Frequently asked questions, a simple guide to a particular topic or subject area



A web site containing a duplicate set of archives or data – usually geographically distant to the parent site -- to help relieve strain on busy sites and net infrastructure



Public notice boards on the Internet where like-minded net users can post e-mail messages, pleas for help, articles and announcements for others to read and respond to.



If you’re bored with the standard Windows 98 colours for Title bars on windows and message boxes here’s a quick way to cheer them up with a very snazzy ‘gradient’ colour, which changes gradually from one colour to another. This trick works best if your PC is set to True Colour or High Colour, to check right-click onto an empty part of the desktop, select Properties from the menu and click the Settings tab. To create your colour gradient stay with Display Properties and select the Appearance tab. Click on the Active Window title bar in the display window then click on Colour, a palette of 12 colours appears, with the facility to create a colour of your choice by selecting the ‘Other’ button. Now click on Colour 2 and select a second colour, the effect is immediately displayed. Have fun, experiment with some bright and outrageous shades; it can really brighten up your desktop! 

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