Get the Microsoft help you deserve

SAN FRANCISCO (03/19/2004) - Getting help from Microsoft Corp.--either for free or for a fee--involves negotiating a virtual rat's nest of ifs, ands, and buts. Several readers have asked about Microsoft's policies recently, so this month I'll try to clarify how the company's support options work.

Ironically, if you're having trouble with its software, Microsoft may not always be the company to call. If your version of Windows and Office, say, came preinstalled on your PC--and you're still covered by your vendor's software warranty--the company you should contact is your PC maker.

However, if you purchased your Microsoft product separately, you need to contact Microsoft. And the support you're entitled to will vary. Consumers and small businesses using Windows XP, and Microsoft Office XP, for example, are entitled to limited free support (via either e-mail or phone): You're covered for free if you have problems with installation, and you get free support for two "incidents" on top of that.

If you want telephone support, start with this initial support page at Microsoft's site and click through to locate the right phone number (often a toll number). For online assistance, you must navigate a different series of steps at Microsoft's site (go to Submit a Request for Help); you also have to be registered with Microsoft Passport (head to .Net Passport Registration to sign up). Microsoft advises you either to go online or to call the appropriate phone number--but not both (you might give up your two chances at free support that way).

Once you've used up your two free incidents, support will typically cost you US$35 per incident. (Note: Other software, such as Encarta, comes with unlimited support. Also, Microsoft provides free support for downloading or installing security patches; call +1-866/727-2338.)

One good thing is that as long as the product is still under mainstream support--usually five years from the product's release date--your unused free support does not expire in most cases. After five years or so, older software enters the extended support phase, where you always pay. See Product Lifecycle Dates for details on the life cycles of all Microsoft products.

And one minor blessing: The paid support lines are toll-free. A good place to start for most Microsoft products is 800/936-5700 (otherwise, visit Microsoft Support).

Tax Time: Fix Quicken and Taxcut Snags

Quicken 2004 Release 5 Update (available at Intuit Quicken Updates) fixes several problems, including one where banking transactions would not be counted in the Average Annual Return calculation in the program's Investment Performance Report. Visit the link for details about Quicken's One Step Update.

Block Financial released an update for the federal version of TaxCut for the 2003 tax year to fix a few sticky problems. Among them are two situations where TaxCut may shut down unexpectedly. Go to Taxcut Knowledgebase: 30-234882371 and Taxcut Knowledgebase: 30-234882446 for the lowdown on both scenarios. All members of the TaxCut family--the Standard, Deluxe, and Premium editions--are affected. See the link for TaxCut's update instructions.

In Brief: Word Crash

Microsoft recently fixed a problem in Word 2003 that can cause the program to crash. Visit Word 2003 Update: January 27, 2004 for a link to the patch (article number 830000).

Big Windows Fix

Windows XP, 2000, and NT users need to patch their PCs because of a new threat. To prevent an attacker from taking charge of your PC, go to the link to grab Microsoft's "critical" update (numbered 828028).

AntiVirus Flaw

Symantec plugged a security hole in Norton AntiVirus's LiveUpdate feature (for retail products). Head to this link for LiveUpdate 2.0.

Bugged?

Found a hardware or software bug? Tell us about it via e-mail at bugs@pcworld.com.

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