After Hours

What do you do when you need help?

At one time or another, we all have computer problems. In this Daily Feature, Brien Posey shows you where to go for help.

At one time or another, everyone has computer problems. When trouble strikes, your first instinct may be to call a friend of yours who is an information systems professional. However, it's a hard revelation for many of us when the day comes that we have trouble and realize we are that information systems professional. Where do you go for help when your abilities are far beyond that of all your friends? In this Daily Feature, I'll address this issue and tell you where the pros go for help.

A second pair of eyes
Even though you've exhausted all of your high-end friends’ brains, there's definitely something to be said for having a novice to look at the problem. Someone who knows little about computers is much more likely than a seasoned IS pro to pick up on small problems that can cause big repercussions. The reason for this is that the professional is usually looking for a really complicated solution to this monstrous problem, while the amateur doesn't even know that the complicated solution even exists. They're more likely to begin looking at square one. I've seen this theory put to the test more times than I can count. It's always embarrassing when a novice fixes a problem in ten minutes that you've spent the last seven hours trying to solve, but it is nice to have the problem solved. I could tell you some stories, but they're too embarrassing.

Perhaps the most forgotten resource for getting help is the good old [F1] key. Practically all Microsoft products have searchable help built right into the product. Even Microsoft BackOffice products, such as Exchange Server, have online help. Many times, this help is surprisingly good.

As I mentioned, the help files are searchable. When you're having problems, you can launch the help file by pressing the [F1] key. When you do, you'll see the main help properties sheet. It tends to differ between products, but generally speaking, the help properties sheet is divided into three tabs. The Contents tab presents you with some general topics. You can double-click on any of these topics to get more specific topics, and finally, the information that you're looking for.

The second tab is the Index tab. The index tab is just like the index in a book. It contains an alphabetical listing of every topic covered within the help file.

Finally, there's the Search tab. The Search tab allows you to type in keywords pertaining to your topic.

TechNet is a monthly CD subscription service, offered by Microsoft. It contains in-depth white papers filled with highly technical information about Microsoft products. It also contains a database of solutions to problems that Microsoft’s technical support department receives calls on. Furthermore, TechNet includes all of the latest patches and fixes for various Microsoft products and a plethora of evaluation and support.

When it comes to troubleshooting, the Microsoft Knowledge Base portion of TechNet is worth its weight in gold. The Knowledge Base is a database of technical support calls that Microsoft receives, along with the solutions to those problems. If you don’t have a TechNet subscription, you can access a large portion of the Knowledge Base online at Microsoft’sWeb site . For information on getting a TechNet subscription, check out the TechNet Web site .

Resource kits
Another source of good information is the Microsoft resource kits. Resource kits are very large books on various Microsoft products, such as Windows 98, Windows NT Server, Windows NT Workstation, and BackOffice. The resource kits also contain a CD with electronic (searchable) versions of the book along with some utilities designed to help you solve various problems. You can get the resource kits from most large bookstores or directly from Microsoft Press .

Other books
Although the resource kits are by far the most abundant source of printed information, they're sometimes too technical. If you need similar information written at a slightly simpler level with more instruction, a good source is the various MCSE training kits. These books are available from most bookstores and from Microsoft Press. They contain detailed troubleshooting instructions for many common problems. Several other companies make MCSE training books too. Since these books aren't all created equally, I recommend giving the books a good look before selecting one.

The Internet
Perhaps the most abundant troubleshooting resource in the world is the Internet. What makes the Internet so good is that not only is it being constantly updated with new information, but you can also download new drivers and patches if that's what you need.

With the Internet being so large, it can be a bit tricky to find the information you need. Fortunately, there are some tricks you can use with the search engines to make finding information much easier.

My favorite search engine for looking for technical information is AltaVista . When you type in a search query on AltaVista, it will search for pages containing any of the words in the phrase. Of course, it will list pages with the most occurrences of those words first, but a simple search often isn't good enough. For example, suppose you searched on the phrase BOOT PROBLEMS. You'd get information on boot problems, but it would also be mixed with other things, such as advertisements for Bob’s Discount Boot Outlet and places to deal with drinking and gambling problems.

Obviously, you need a better method. Fortunately, you can tell AltaVista exactly what you're looking for. For example, you could put the phrase BOOTPROBLEMS in quotations. Doing so will force AltaVista to search for the exact phrase BOOTPROBLEMS, not on the words BOOT and PROBLEMS.

Two other shortcuts are the plus and minus keys. The plus key means that the page must contain the word in question. The minus key means that the page can't contain the word in question. Remember that not including a plus or minus sign in front of the word makes the word optional. For example, suppose you were having trouble booting up a Windows NT machine. Now suppose you searched for Windows NT boot problems but kept turning up a lot of references to boot problems on Alpha machines. To better qualify your search, you might enter a search string like this one:
+"Windows NT" +"Boot Problems" -Alpha

Of course, there are other options that you can use within AltaVista, but space doesn't permit me to cover them all. As I mentioned, there are also countless other search engines, each with its own set of options. If you don't have any luck on AltaVista, you might try another search engine such as Lycos or Yahoo!.

My favorite Web sites
To make troubleshooting easier, I've listed some of my favorite Web sites below. I've divided them into general information, computer companies, and search engines. Obviously, it's impossible for me to list every site, but these are a few of the more frequently used ones.

Computer companies
Creative Labs
Computer Associates

Search Engines

Tech support by phone
If you've tried everything that I've listed but still have had no luck, you can call the Microsoft technical support line. The phone number differs, as does the price, depending on the product. Typically, Microsoft offers free telephone support for low-end products, such as games. High-end products, such as Microsoft BackOffice Server, typically cost $245 per incident. You can get the same level of support online from Microsoft for about $195 per incident. You can get rates and phone numbers from Microsoft’s Web site .

It can be frightening to have nowhere to turn for help when a big problem occurs. In this Daily Feature, I've discussed some resources you can use to troubleshoot problems after you've run out of friends to call.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE and works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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