When your eight-speed CD-ROM drive starts giving you a zero-speed performance, having to make that tech-support call is the consumer equivalent of the morning after. Now that you've already forked over your money, will your equipment's manufacturer still love you? Or will you instead have to wait in phone limbo listening to numbing elevator music?
More to the point: When you do inevitably wind up on hold, will you enjoy the sounds?
We decided to call the tech-support numbers of the manufacturers reviewed here and listen to what their customers get an earful of when they dial in for help. The surprisingly good news was that at most numbers, which we called at different times over several days, we didn't have to listen to much hold music at all before reaching an actual support person--a typical call got me to a human being in three to five minutes (a couple of minutes to key through various menus, followed by wait time). This happy state of affairs may change for a few weeks after the latest wave of customers boot up this holiday season.
The spoken bill of fare has reached a nearly ironclad sameness across the board: Our menu has changed; this call may be recorded to improve service; please try the tech support at our Web site, it's really quite helpful; please have your serial number ready; and--in most cases--your wait time is approximately X number of minutes.
The music portion of the show, however, runs the gamut from grating to numbing-- to just plain weird. At Apple, for example, the hold music has a sort of new-Agey feel. Some of it sounds like an untalented version of Eurythmics, some of it sounds like the end credit music from an old John Woo movie mixed with the theme from "Tootsie."
EMachines takes the opportunity to talk about some of its current deals on computers "instead of playing you nauseating elevator music" before an eventual segue into some Fleetwood Mac-ish jam sessions after you've been on hold long enough.
At Dell, the main activity was punching numbers to get through level after level of phone menus, followed by hold music featuring pop ballads along the lines of Whitney Houston's. Compaq, however, usually featured the same, grating synthesizer riff, which gradually sucked a few IQ points out of my head; once, somewhat incongruously, I was treated to some half-decent acoustic guitar work. Hewlett Packard offered to support me in French and Spanish before blaring some piano-and-saxophone-heavy riffs that sounded like Air Supply trying to rock out.
Gateway's hold experience was the most interesting--a good thing, since I spent the most time on hold there--because it played something almost like music that you'd hear on the radio. Between tracks, a "DJ" comes on, thanking you for listening to the "Voice of Gateway" ("Did you know? Most applications have help files built right in"). The Voice didn't play anything that I actually recognized, but there were some sensitive country folk with reassuring lyrics along the lines of "If you call, I will pick you up, I will answer." But Gateway also played some blues, with lyrics that could've been referring to a human-computer relationship gone bad: "I can't get you out of my mind now, baby, I can't get you out of my mind." Gateway may score last in my book for making me hold the longest; it still gets a point or two for playing some tolerable tunes.