Cheap Fix

How to Retrieve Lost Files Without Breaking Your Bank

Q: I'm trapped in computer hell, man. My PC won't boot up, and I haven't backed up my files in months—files I need oh-so-desperately. I'm tempted to enlist some professional tech support, but don't want to spend my rent money on data recovery. How steep a tab am I looking at here?

If you do your homework, you might be able to keep the cost under $200—a pretty sweet deal, mein freund, considering the agony of losing documents, photos, and MP3s. The trick is to shop around for a reasonable rate, and to realize that hucksters abound. Like auto mechanics, many tech supporters pad the bill by preying on the naive: "Ah, I see your Meierhoff Lifters are discombobulated. That'll be an extra $150, pal."

First, an admonition: Tsk, tsk for not backing up more frequently. Just last week, Mr. Roboto noted that 20-gigabyte, portable hard disks can be had for under $150. Get in the habit of creating backups every week or two; Mr. Roboto's newest ritual is to copy his works in progress every other Monday, during The Late Movie on WLNY (the only channel gutsy enough to have aired the Vegas-themed Leprechaun 3—God bless 'em).

Before you look for a local pro, try the manufacturer. If your machine's still under warranty, phone or on-site tech support may be part of the deal. Say what you will about the flimsiness of Dell notebooks, but the company has wowed many a Mr. Roboto ally with its friendly, prompt house calls. Without a warranty, though, you may have to pay $20 or more just to talk to an operator. Mr. Roboto recently tested Sony's over-the-phone service, and was underwhelmed—besides suggesting a Windows restart in Safe Mode, the guy was plum out of ideas.

The "Computers" section of the Yellow Pages is full of ads touting "Rapid Response" and "Emergency Computer Repair." Some of these joints even boast 24-hour hot lines, though it's not like they'll be rolling out to your crib at 3 a.m. You'll get a voice mailbox, and a call back at nine the next morning. The exceptions are franchises like Tech on Call Hotline (tochotline.com), which'll diagnose your problem, for free, at any godforsaken hour.

Though it's natural to panic and go with the first company to respond, resist the urge. There's lots of competition out there, and companies may undercut each other on price if prodded. Fees are usually by the hour, and a two-hour minimum is common. Getting a geek out to your house, rather than lugging the machine in, will run you another $20 or so. Mr. Roboto recommends this, as it means you can track how many hours the repair takes.

The most important question to ask up front is "How long?" Any legit company will give you an estimate, and promise to cap fees if the job starts to look impossible. And don't be shy about prying into the fixers' credentials. At a minimum, they should have passed the A+ certification exam administered by the Computing Technology Industry Association (comptia.org). As a PC user, you'll sleep better if they also aced the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer test. Steer clear if they get cagey about sharing this info.

You didn't specify whether your machine can even power up, or if it's merely a problem getting Windows to start because it's somehow FUBAR—a virus, perhaps, or a critical .dll file. Mr. Roboto once experienced the latter misery, which forced him to enlist the services of a pro. The first call went to Tech on Call, which quoted a $120-per-hour figure, and predicted a three-hour job. A small place uptown countered with $80, but said they'd need the machine overnight—a rip-off tip-off for a software case. Next up was Rescuecom (rescuecom.com), a national chain, which quoted $88 per hour, plus $20 for the geek's gas, with service time likely under 60 minutes. Sure enough, the super-proficient techie popped out the hard drive, transferred it to his own laptop, and burned out some ultra-critical files that would've otherwise vanished. With tax, the final tab came to $116.91. Nice.

A lot of these tech-support firms say they'll help you with less crippling problems, too, like setting up a home network or reinstalling software. The feeling here is that the price is too high for non-emergency help like that—especially considering that Mr. Roboto's stellar advice on such matters can be had for free.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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