Who’s Smarter: The Apple Genius or the Best Buy Geek?

Many of us have turned to in-store support from the Best Buy Geek Squad or from an Apple Store Genius to help us get out of a technology bind. People who have talked to both quickly notice that the two employ very different styles and approaches--but which one has the better tech chops?

Apple’s Genius Bar and Best Buy’s Geek Squad are more branding than actual people, and I find both labels annoying, albeit in different ways. On the Apple side, you have the smug and self-aggrandizing “Genius” characterization--an appropriate name for people who not only know more than you do about how tech products work (a status that a word like "Expert" might convey), but are intellectually superior to you in every meaningful way. Look at it this way: You consult an expert; you impose on a genius. At Best Buy, meanwhile, the nonthreatening “Geek” is a step down in the social hierarchy from "nerd"--essentially an object to be used and pitied. That’s what geeks are, right?

But real technicians work under these corporate caricatures. I was less interested in prior impropriety and ongoing hucksterism, and I wasn’t going to embark on a months-long study. I just wanted to know how the individuals compared. So I set out to anecdotally determine whether the Geeks or the Geniuses have the better tech chops.

Though the Best Buy Geeks aren’t geared toward face-to-face drop-by questions the way the Apple Geniuses are, nearly all of the Geek Squad desks I approached said that they could help me for 10 or 15 minutes at no charge if I brought in the troublesome computer.

The Apple stores I visited were crowded with customers and people waiting for tech support. The free Genius Bar draws such a large audience that you may need to make a reservation instead of stopping by unannounced--even if you just have a quick question.

When I arrived at the various Apple stores, I learned to flag down a blue-shirted employee who would then either check me in for my appointment or usher me to a different employee to begin that process. It’s too bad that Apple’s nouveau-retail design doesn’t include a simple sign to explain the process.

How I Tested

I devised a series of seven platform-agnostic questions based on real issues that friends, family members, and I have encountered. I designed the problems to plumb a range of tech-support knowledge while still being applicable to a Mac or PC. Though the scenarios were the same, I posed them to the Geeks in the context of Windows 7 and to the Geniuses in relation to Mac OS X 10.6. Over the course of eight trips to various Best Buy and Apple stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, I gathered answers. In each case, I followed my script as closely as I could and provided additional details when asked for them.

The Questions

Q: I can’t play certain online video files. On my Windows 7 PC, the problem seems to happen on Apple’s movie trailer site. On my OS X Mac, I can’t see various HD files on the Microsoft site.

Geek [answers about the PC]: If you’re getting video from the Apple site, it’s going to need QuickTime. There should be an error message telling you that.

Genius [answers about the Mac]: The video should say what the requirements are. Those videos should be in Windows Media; you’ll need to get the Windows Media codec. You could also download Perian, a multicodec tool. Perian works for all kinds of Internet video.

Both answers solved the problem, though I give the edge here to the Genius, for suggesting a multicodec package that could allay similar issues from other video sites.

The winner : Genius, by a hair

Q: A friend installed Windows XP for me on a second hard disk, but I’m stuck in the wrong OS. How do I switch back and forth?

Geek: It should come up when you boot; you’ll select it there. If not, something is not set up right. I would have to check it out.

Genius: Hold down the Option key--that’s if you’re using an Apple keyboard--when you start up, and choose the operating system. Option number two: When you’re in OS X, go to the System Preferences Startup Disk to select it. The third option is to boot into OS X while in Windows; in the lower-right corner, there’s a black diamond; click on that.

Both answers were correct, but the Genius was more thorough. The Geek could have also explained how to switch the boot order in the BIOS.

The winner : Genius

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