Where to go for computer tech support

When you need a little help with your computer, should you go to the manufacturer or a retail store?

Published: May 28, 2015 06:00 AM

Find Ratings

Apple Genius Bar earns high marks
Photo: Christian Science Monitor

If you want an army of geeks you can count on to tame an unruly computer, you’d better buy a Macintosh: Apple tech support is by far the most effective of any computer brand’s. With most Windows PCs, there’s only a 50-50 chance that a manufacturer’s tech support will do the trick.

That’s what more than 3,200 computer owners told us when Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed them earlier this year. Mac users gave Apple’s phone and online support glowing reviews, and four out of five said tech support was able to resolve their problem.

It’s no surprise that Apple had the highest score for overall user satisfaction. In fact, the company has been top-rated every year since we first asked consumers about tech support back in 2007—even though Apple provides just 90 days of free phone and online tech support, compared with one year for most Windows PC companies.

When you're shopping for a new computer, remember that tech support matters: Check our Ratings of manufacturer tech support and our in-store tech support.

The help desks at Windows PC companies often didn’t live up to that name. For four of the six PC brands in the survey, tech support solved only half of the problems consumers brought to them. Even the best of them—Lenovo and Dell—came through just 61 percent of the time.

Tip: Though online tech support (via website, chat, or e-mail) was the option most used by our survey takers, consumers who picked up the phone to call were more satisfied with the results. So next time you need help, consider phoning tech support rather than going to the website.

The store can be your savior

Retailers might be a better resource for PC owners seeking assistance. Users who went to a walk-in retail store for help were generally pretty happy, whether they had a PC or a Mac. The Genius Bars in Apple stores were among the best-rated options, and independent shops were rated pretty much even with Apple. Best Buy’s Geek Squad and Staples’ EasyTech were a step behind Apple and the independents but did a decent job.

There’s one huge difference among them: The Genius Bars in Apple retail stores offer free lifetime support. With the other services, you generally have to pay for help. Prices vary greatly depending on the service you need and by retailer, so get an estimate before you commit.

Staples, for example, will diagnose and repair a problem via online support for $80 or in store for $160. Best Buy’s Geek Squad offers unlimited troubleshooting for three devices for $200 per year. You can also pay per service. Microsoft’s Answer Desk (which didn’t receive enough reviews to be included in the survey) offers free in-store consultations and repairs for software-related problems, plus support by chat and phone. There is a charge for certain services.

Close all those apps when you're not using them.

Easy DIY fixes

When trouble strikes, it’s easy to forget the basics. Before you seek help, try to resolve the problem yourself.

Close apps you’re not using. That will keep them not straining system resources.

Restart. This will clear out digital detritus (such as temporary files) and free up system memory and other resources.

Enter your problem into a search engine. You might find a quick fix at a user forum or an expert site. In some cases you can post a problem to get feedback from other users.

If a virus scan is running, pause it until you’re finished working. Scans hog system resources, slowing everything down. Set auto scans for times you’re not using the computer. Don’t skip antivirus software entirely, because malware can really mess with your system. Also set Windows for automatic updates so that you get the latest security patches.

Still no luck? Restore your system. Use the built-in utilities on your Windows PC or Mac. Unlike a full factory restore, that won’t erase all of your files and require you to reinstall apps.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Find Ratings

Computers Ratings

View and compare all Computers ratings.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Electronics News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more