Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tech Support

So Thayet's laptop went down a few days ago after installing Service Pack 3. This isn't really a surprise per se; veteran PC owners have by and large come to accept the fact that Microsoft will occasionally break their systems for no good reason. It's sort of the PC equivalent of living in tornado country. Going Mac would be, I guess, I don't know, like living in New York. Do they have natural disasters in New York?

I'm not a PC expert, but I've picked up enough to be able to do basic household maintenance. I can usually diagnose the cause of a problem with reasonable precision, and I can buy and build a functional system from components. I own one or two useful gizmos with no real purpose other than when things go wrong. So I ran through the usual battery of tests and determined that the problem was indeed most likely SP3. No trouble: simply rolling back to the previous system restore point should do the trick.

Except of course you can't do that without a CD of Windows, and Thayet's laptop runs Windows XP Media Center Edition. If you're thinking that nobody has an actual disk copy of XPMC, you're right. Actually, we might have had a copy at some point; I don't know what Dell provides in their recovery CD package. Knowing Microsoft I rather doubt it (/shakes fist), but in any case, somehow those CDs got lost.

I'm not really a fan of recovery CDs, but they're cheaper than going out and buying a new copy of XP. So I called up Dell to see what it would take to get a replacement set. This meant I had to deal with tech support.

I'm not one of those geeks who abhors tech support. They're doing a job, and as anyone who's ever tried to do tech support over the phone to friends and family knows, their job is terrible. I've found that the key to a successful tech support call is to treat it like scuba diving: just relax, and never be in a hurry. Be ready to walk through all the steps you've done, and communicate everything little thing you're doing so you can stay on the same page (There is a button on the screen labeled "yes." I am going to click the button. I have clicked the button). So this post is not about how Dell tech support sucks. It's about how Dell tech support is ridiculous.

Turns out the recovery CDs are free (great!). But they're only available to computers in warranty, which Thayet's was not (no surprise). And in any case, we really should have a service call to try to resolve the problem now, which will cost $69 since the computer is out of warranty (here we go). Couldn't they just mail me the CDs? I don't really want a service call. Well, yes, they can, but only if I purchase a temporary warranty for $69, which comes with a mandatory free service call (sigh). Is there any way I can get my hands on those CDs without paying $69 for something? No. At least the guy admitted it.

So we have our service call. There were two surprising things about that service call. The first is that it did in fact convey useful information. The second is that, if you sift through the mandatory tech support communication (see two paragraphs up), the sum total of said useful information came down to this:

Hold down Ctrl and mash F11 on boot.

I'm serious. Apparently Dell has a system restore utility on their hard drives which will hose the system and put it back to the state in which you purchased it. Accessing this utility requires holding down Ctrl and mashing F11 repeatedly on boot (I actually had to do it twice in order to mash F11 with the requisite frequency). Ridiculous.

Since I had pretty much given up hope of getting to do the easy fix (roll back to a previous system restore point) and wasn't sure that would work in any case (it is a Microsoft recovery product, after all), hosing the system was about all I could hope for. And I had an up-to-date complete backup of her hard drive anyway, so it's not like I lost anything.

But seriously. I just paid $69 for you to tell me how to access something you deliberately hid from me on the disk? There's no way I would have stumbled upon that by myself, so I admit I received valuable knowledge, but ... $69? You couldn't have, I don't know, just told me? You couldn't have included that little tidbit in the laptop's documentation somewhere?

I don't know if the Ctrl+F11 is a Dell standard thing or an industry standard thing, but this one totally goes into the computer home repair file. And it should go into yours too.

That'll be $69, please.