Where can you turn when technology goes awry? The most obvious choice is an anxious call to tech support. But, as we discovered in two test scenarios, it's not always the best solution; you can often do better at some of the Web's independent troubleshooting sites.

The first scenario: After adding a second e-mail account to our mail program, our original AT&T WorldNet account goes on the fritz and we can't receive stupid forwarded jokes or hot deals on real estate. The first panicky step: Contact AT&T WorldNet's toll-free customer service. An automated attendant asked that we visit the Web first, but just to be difficult, we stayed on the phone. Our problem matched up with the first choice on the menu; there, we were told to use the AT&T Fix It utility. We had six other menu options, none of them offering human assistance. After a trip back to the main menu and a second referral to the Fix It program, the cheerful automated attendant was getting on our nerves; we hung up, having spent about 7 minutes on the phone. (We didn't want to use Fix-It without checking to see if it would wipe out our second account's settings.)

XpertSite.com (http://www.xpertsite.com), a Web site that advertises "real people giving advice, for free," was the next stop. We posted the question to the open message board and saw an answer posted there five hours later. But along with some good tips, it also included a not-so-subtle advertisement for an unrelated service. Not a big fan of junk e-mail, we took our question elsewhere.

The last option was the Web site of Smart Computing magazine (http://www.smartcomputing.com). Its refreshingly unintimidating search engine yielded us an answer in about five minutes--a troubleshooting guide that covered every possible e-mail woe, from the obvious "check to see if you're connected to the Internet" to verifying the incoming and outgoing mail-server addresses. We did the latter and found that the former was off by one number. Ba-da-bing, problem solved.

Second scenario: Sometimes our modem makes an awful static sound when the computer is booting up. How to quiet the little guy? After striking out at the Answers.com site (http://www.answers.com), where a request for modem-troubleshooting help earned us a "Sorry, we didn't understand your question," reply, we punted in favor of a more traditional solution. We called a techie friend. But she had no idea what to do, was in the middle of a work crisis and suggested we contact Dell instead of bothering her.

Dell Web site looked promising but couldn't deliver information what we needed, so it was time to try to track down a carbon-based life form. After a few minutes searching for a customer service number (computer companies seem to make a point of hiding these numbers from plain sight), we dialed Dell Customer Support, entered the express service code and the express code service tag number, listened to a Huey Lewis ditty and canned suggestions to visit the Web site or call Dell's Auto-Tech line--and finally got through to a real live person.

Mark the tech guy suggested we run Dell's diagnostics disk and advised us to press the "function" and "end" keys and pay attention to whether the sound occurred before or after Windows loaded. He was helpful and seemed genuinely concerned with helping us fix the problem; 10 minutes on the phone (counting hold time) got us to the heart of the problem. That is, we have a good idea of what's going wrong, but haven't gotten around to fixing it for good just yet.

Where you end up finding the best help for your computer troubles depends on the severity of the problem and the manufacturer you're dealing with. If it's something catastrophic, like your laptop has frozen and won't go back up, you're best bet is usually to call the manufacturer's customer support line right away. But if you're just looking for a quick software fix or upgrade, a tour of the Web's larger troubleshooting sites will probably do the trick in less time.

About.com's Focus on Mac Support: http://macsupport.about.


Has your iMac bit the dust? Go here for help. Offers a great selection of freeze and crash tips.

About.com's Focus on Windows Guide: http://windows.about.


Includes tips and tricks, upgrading info, customizing, what to do if your system crashes, etc.

Cnet's Help.com: http://www.help.com

How-tos on everything installing and uninstalling software to fixing a slow Internet connection.

Deja.com: http://www.deja.com

The odds are that somebody has looked for, and found, an answer to the same computer dilemma as you; this archive of newsgroup discussions can help you look up on that conversation.

ExpertCity.com: http://www.expertcity.com

Live help from computer experts; free registration is required.

MacFixIt: http://www.macfixit.com

Frequently updated trouble-shooting help for Mac users.

SmartComputing: http://www.smartcomputing.com

An extensive, quickly searchable list of tips for PC users.