January 07, 2012, 7:12 AM — It's bad enough that you have to spend your Sunday with the phone wedged between your shoulder and ear, as you root through your computer's control settings or tangle with a mess of serpentine cables behind your home entertainment system, because something isn't working. Having to pay for help just makes matters worse.
In that regard, things are looking up. More and more companies, including Microsoft and Crutchfield, now offer free or inexpensive help to resolve many of your gadget dilemmas. The chart below identifies some of the features offered by three free or low-cost tech-help services: Costco Concierge Services, Crutchfield, and Microsoft Answer Desk.
Microsoft Answer Desk
In early December 2011, Microsoft quietly launched Answer Desk, an online tech support center that provides free help to customers dealing with basic Microsoft software malfunctions, and offers in-depth help for a fee. The company's move may have come in response to Apple, which offers free in-store support for basic problems, and priority support for a yearly fee.
If you're having a problem with Excel, or if your version of Windows isn't behaving as it should, Microsoft has technicians standing by to help you out at no charge. Answer Desk staff can assist you over the phone or via a custom Web chat service. Support is available around the clock to anyone with a Hotmail account, which is free and easy to create.
Answer Desk's free service is available only for dealing with simple problems involving a Windows product. For more-complex issues, you'll have to pull out your credit card.
In a series of informal trials, I asked for advice on buying a Windows phone, setting up Entourage (the Apple-only Microsoft Office email and calendar client), and finding some toolbars that had gone AWOL in my version of Word.
The technician I spoke to about Entourage seemed happy to ditch me with a link to a relevant FAQ page, but my other two support agents were very patient and helpful.
Microsoft aims to make the whole experience seem personal. Each of its technicians has a profile picture, a personal page that can be bookmarked, and a Yelp-like star rating. Some even speak multiple languages. If you find a technician who is particularly helpful, you can search for and request that person in the future, by name or by ID number.