Knowing a little about the nature of your problem should help you decide whether to use an online service--one where you install software that lets a technician control (and fix) your PC over an Internet connection--or an on-site service company. Each type of service has advantages and weaknesses.
For instance, if speed is of the essence, an online support service can begin to diagnose and fix your problem almost immediately, as long as neither your problem nor its solution interferes with your Internet connection. In our tests, getting help online cost less than on-site service. We paid only for the minutes we were connected to a remote technician, which turned out, in this case, to cost considerably less than having a tech visit in person.
Besides costing more, on-site service requires you to set aside time for an appointment, usually within one to two business days of when you call. On the other hand, a technician sitting in front of a balky PC can solve far more complicated matters.
Small software problems that don't inhibit your ability to get on the Internet (issues such as reinstalling device drivers) are best handled by online support services, but overall, for spyware problems, we preferred to work with a competent on-site tech.
For this test, we used three unglamorous PCs of a kind still serving in many homes: Dell Dimension XPS T700r desktops, now more than three years old, running Windows 98.
We introduced a range of problems that we felt were fixable either on-site or online: We "lost" some important work files (by dragging them from the My Documents folder to another place on the hard drive); we deleted the graphics board's driver files; and we installed four common spyware apps. For the on-site technicians, we added a final, challenging test: a damaged IDE cable that prevented the CD-ROM drive from working.
We sent the sick PCs to reporters in three metropolitan areas: Boston; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles. Our field operatives called four repair companies that make house calls: CompUSA, ComputerAssistant.com, GeeksOnTime, and Geek Squad (affiliated with Best Buy). One person also tried out three online service companies: PC Pinpoint, PlumChoice, and Tech24.
What's in a Fix?
Ideally, the techs would fix all the problems. But this was not always the way it worked out. As with most tech support, the results you get are largely dependent on the quality of the support person you end up working with. Even the best services have some PC wizards and some real duds--and we dealt with both. For example, some techs couldn't solve our spyware problem even though it's one of the main reasons people call for help.
Based on our experiences, among the on-site companies we have a slight preference for CompUSA's Technical Services. ComputerAssistant.com did a good job in Boston and Austin, but our experience in Los Angeles was so poor that we cannot fully recommend the company. Online, PC Pinpoint and PlumChoice both had smart, spyware-savvy techs on hand, but we liked PC Pinpoint a bit more because, unlike PlumChoice, it doesn't require you to make an appointment in advance.