Getting Computer Help

Why doesn't my mouse work? When are the new video cards coming out? What features will the next major operating system release bring?

Computers lead to questions. Lots and lots of questions. And in this modern era, there are a large number of resources available to help you answer those questions. So many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming. The trick is in knowing where to look.

The most efficient way to find information is usually to start with one source, and then expand to more if you have to. The exact ordering varies, but what follows is a decent general guideline. While this advice is slanted toward computer (and related) questions, the basic methodology applies to just about anything.

Ask a friend

Almost everyone has at least one friend that knows more about computers, or about a particular topic, than they do. It's often a good idea to start your search by asking such a person, because they already know you well enough to have some idea of what you know and don't know (and therefore what they need to explain) and because it's easy to ask follow-up questions.

But be considerate. Odds are, you're not the only one that asks this friend such questions. In particular, if they are professionally involved in the topic you're asking about, try to bear in mind that they may have to answer a lot of similar questions. So try not to go overboard. And remember: if you ask them a question once in a while, it's flattering. If you ask them a question several times a day, it's annoying.

Ask tech support

If you are having trouble with something and think it is unique to the product you're using (for instance, you just assembled your Dell system and it won't turn on), consider contacting tech support for the company that made it. Company tech support is sometimes more familiar with the particular oddities of their own products, and may know some tricks that are not broadly known.

But don't expect miracles. Tech support for technology products is notoriously hit or miss. In general, the more diverse a company's products are, the less likely it is that tech support will be able to help you.

Search the specialists

It pays to keep track of sites that specialize in topics that interest you. If you can search a site that deals primarily with the topic you're looking for information about, you're much more likely to get more credible information and hit fewer dead ends. More signal, less noise. This often comes in handy if you don't find much success with tech support, but need to find information specifically about a single product. You could go round and round with HP/Compaq tech support trying to figure out what goes into one of their systems, or you could simply look it up on their web site.

Unfortunately, some sites don't have a built-in search function. Or they don't have a very good one. In that case, you may want to rely on Google's site search functionality. All you have to do is run a Google search that includes "site: example.com". For instance, you could find the Windows XP home page on Microsoft.com with the search windows xp site:microsoft.com. You can apply whatever limitations you might like. Using site:.edu is popular. If you want to make your search more narrow, you might specify the server (windows xp site:support.microsoft.com) or the subdirectory (windows xp site:microsoft.com/kb).

Search the world

Sometimes you need to cast a broader net. Maybe your question is very general. Maybe it's little-known. In those times, Google is your friend.

Once again, you want to make use of specialized search tools if a basic query doesn't work. This may range from the very basic (putting - in front of a word to exclude pages that contain it, using "" to surround words that you want to appear together) to the more esoteric (using define:example to get a definition, or using define example to get definitions as well as regular results).

And never underestimate the power of specialized searching modes. Google provides a variety of tools, some of which need to be manually invoked and some of which do not. You might try the above search for Windows on their Microsoft search. Or say you're looking for information on a topic that happens to be different for Linux than for BSD, and want to be able to easily separate results concernign each. Google provides Linux- and BSD-specific searches. These searches provide results only from sites that Google has judged to be relevant to the topic. You may also only want a particular type of result; if you were looking for academic papers, Google Scholar would be much more efficient than a regular Google search.

The automatic features are often less known. Google provides a feature they call "Q&A", for instance, that will directly provide answers to factual questions above regular results. So if you were looking for the population of Japan, you could simply search for population of Japan and immediately get the answer. This information is culled from the most reliable sources, such as the CIA World Factbook. Math-oriented results are powered by Google Calculator. Many physical constants are available this way, such as the permittivity of free space. Oh, and it can do math, including some relatively complicated operations.

Hit the forums

Web forums (alternately "message boards", etc.) can be a great source of information. I myself read and post on several. If you simply can't find what you're looking for, or it's not a factual question that can be easily searched (say you want advice on parts to put into a computer you are going to buy), forums can be a great way to mine the collective expertise of a large number of people. Just remember to follow appropriate etiquette. A summary of this etiquette (and some other pointers) can be found at the How to ask a question on an Internet forum Knowledge Base entry, but the highlights are condensed here.

Before posting a topic to a forum, always - ALWAYS - try to find the information on your own. At the very least, run a basic Google search.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to make an effort of helping yourself before posting. It is strongly advised that before you post a topic, you perform a Google search using the thread title for the query. Not only will this often answer your question, but it is likely the first thing many people will try if they want to help you. It will not please them to find out you could have easily saved them the trouble by putting forward a little effort. Additionally, it is recommended you search the forum (via its built-in search, or via Google Site Search) before posting, as similar questions often come up time and again.

Choosing a forum to post in is, of course, not always easy. For best results, try to find a forum that is specifically concerned with what you're trying to find out. If you're having trouble installing a piece of software, for instance, consider trying the forums run by the company that produces the software. If you want to know the average battery life of a particular Dell laptop, ask on the Dell forums. If what you need is help with a more general computer question, consider a more general board such as Tech Support Forum, Tech Support Guy, or Anandtech. If all else fails, try looking through the Big Boards list for a relevant forum.

Remember, also, that most forums have subforums devoted to specific topics. You are likely to get more, better, and more pleasant help by picking the right one. Most people are fairly forgiving of new users in this respect (and most forums have facilities to move threads to different subforums), but do your best anyway.

Success

If everything goes right, then by now you should have found what you're looking for. If not, you have one major option: iterate. Often, looping back through some of this process (by asking a slightly different question, as you have hopefully at least found some guidance on what you really need to be asking) can bring you closer to knowing what you want to know. The main thing, as always, is just not to give up.

  • RSS feed StumbleUpon del.icio.us Digg Yahoo! My Web 2.0