PC Repair Undercover

What if the odds of emerging from your doctor's office hale and hearty ran two-to-one against you? We'd be a nation swamped with shamans instead of surgeons. Fortunately, a visit to the doctor is generally nothing to fear. But your PC's trip to the repair shop may be another matter.

That's the sorry conclusion we must draw from our investigation of the state of PC repair. (We were joined for portions of our research by an undercover team from the TV newsmagazine Dateline NBC, researching its own feature on the topic. The story will air on July 10.) When we first tackled this topic back in 1998, we encountered sloppy technicians, unnecessary repairs, and rampant rudeness. Two years later, have matters improved? Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In all, we did business with 18 repair stores in six states. A dozen of these stores were branches of three national chains--Best Buy, Circuit City, and CompUSA--which together boast over 1200 outlets nationwide. This time we extended the investigation to include 6 mom-and-pop-style shops in as many cities across the country. We wanted to see if independent stores live up to their reputation of offering better customer service than the chains.

Chain retailers and independents don't exhaust your service options. Manufacturers that sell PCs directly, such as Dell and Gateway, handle repairs themselves, often via on-site service. And if you work in a medium-size or large company, you probably call on your IS department for help. But national chains and local computer shops remain a primary repair choice for consumers, especially for PCs bought at retail and those out of warranty.

Judging from our findings, that's terrible news. For every store that solved our problems quickly, courteously, and competently--and some did--more dropped the ball. When we left malfunctioning PCs for repair, half of the chain outlets didn't fix them, and a staggering 83 percent of the independents bombed. In the end, only 7 of the 18 stores did their jobs correctly; 6 of the 7 were Best Buy or CompUSA outlets.

Setting the Scene

We tested the mettle of repair shops by disabling 18 identical three-year-old Compaq Pentium II PCs. To measure phone support shrewdness, we corrupted the PCs' video drivers, which degraded image color and resolution. Good technicians should be able to identify the problem and guide users through the solution--which is to reinstall the driver--over the phone.

To measure the competence of in-store crews, our reporters took a balky PC into each shop. Previously, we had replaced the PC's working hard disk IDE cable with a defective one, leaving the system unable to boot. We also disconnected the CD-ROM audio cable, so the PC couldn't play music CDs. (We didn't mention this symptom; we wanted to see if the stores' technicians would be attentive enough to notice the loose cable.)

These malfunctions duplicate the problems we posed two years ago and are designed to stress-test service savvy. The malfunctioning drive cable--a relatively uncommon glitch--can't be identified at a cursory glance. A technician at the Rhode Island CompUSA, which fixed the PC in less than a day, called this problem "hard to diagnose, but easy to fix." Although it was unusual, he said he'd seen it himself four or five times.

Of course, not every service shop experience will match ours. Your problems may be easier--or harder--for a tech to diagnose and correct. But what our investigation does show isn't pretty.

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