Help Without Headaches

It needn't cost a fortune to get your computers humming

By Larry Armstrong

Maybe your tech department, if you have one, is on vacation. Or your office's self-styled computer jockey or a friend's teenager offered to "fix" that sluggish computer. Now it's not working any better. In fact, it's not working at all. So who ya gonna call?

One option is the Geek Squad. Thanks to its edgy TV advertising and its fleet of black-and-white Volkswagen Beetles painted like police cars, Geek Squad may be the best known of the on-call computer services. Since 2002 it has been owned by electronics retailer Best Buy, which has one in each of its more than 700 stores and is opening stand-alone Geek Squad "precincts" in major cities. The Squad's competitors include CompUSA, Data Doctors, and Geeks On Call.

Unlike most independent computer technicians who charge by the hour, Geek Squad charges flat fees for specific jobs regardless of the time or the number of trips it takes to finish. Geek Squad's fees, which seem to be about average, start at $29 for in-store service and $129 for house calls. They can go many times higher -- say, to install a server for an office. Either way, clients know the total cost up front.

To test out Geek Squad, I rode along with Kempton Everist, a former network specialist at a data communications company who now works out of the Best Buy in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. We hopped into the Bug and were off to the home office of Bill and Kristy Bremer. He's a freelance writer, and she does public relations and marketing. A week earlier they had bought a wireless router and PC card at Best Buy to tap into a broadband Internet connection. Geek Squad set up the router and configured both Bremers' computers to work with it, a $159 job.

But Kristy's laptop kept dropping the connection, so Everist went back later in the week to tweak the system. No luck. The Bremers decided that a wired connection would be better than an intermittent one, and on this trip Everist snaked a cable over a door frame and ran it from the router to Kristy's desk -- at no charge.

At first I was a little uncomfortable with Everist's running patter, which included lots of suggestions for extra-cost add-ons, presumably to be purchased at Best Buy. But then I realized that his recommendations made sense -- and that I already own everything he suggested.

Our next stop was the Wine Vault, a seven-person Glendale wine-storage business that rents temperature- and humidity-controlled lockers to individuals and restaurants. Owner Nancy Hathaway started the business in 1988 and recently discovered the Geek Squad when she went to Best Buy to replace her company's computers.

Everist's task was to take data files from an old computer and move them to a new one ($229). While he waited for the data to transfer, he installed a new copy of QuickBooks and gamely fielded questions such as "How do I put our logo on an invoice?" from Hathaway's staff.

Hathaway was clearly pleased. "I've hired so-called computer experts before, and I'm more frustrated after they leave than before they get here," she says as we walk out the back door. "But I love the Geeks." Everist, beaming but a little embarrassed, was already digging through the boxes of Cat 5 cable and Spy Sweeper software in the Bug's tiny trunk, getting ready for his next call.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek magazine

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