Inside story

PC World promotes its Healthcheck as an MOT for your computer, but is it a useful service for the computer novice or just a ploy to sell more kit? Robert Blincoe takes his system in for an overhaul
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The Independent Online

Has your PC seen better days?" asks the PC World flyer promoting the retail chain's PC Healthcheck. "If you've had your system for more than a year and it's now performing slower than it used to, you need to book your PC in for a PC Healthcheck." Well, why not? I felt it was time for my PC to drop 'em and cough.

PC World is big on its Healthchecks; it calls them the MOT for your PC. This seems to overlook the point that, for many people, an MOT means the annual expense of making your car legally roadworthy, allied to the suspicion that the garage is taking advantage of you when you're told that certain expensive repairs are "essential" because item X is "on its last legs". Ostensibly, the £39.99 Healthcheck gives the computer engineer the opportunity to sell upgrades to the technically illiterate based on unseconded advice.

The suggestion annoys the company's managing director Simon Turner, who says: "The point of the Healthcheck is a customer service. We're the only place that employs engineers in store and gives customers the opportunity to spend an hour with them." He says that, financially, the Healthchecks just break even, but they're offered because they deliver positive customer feedback.

Can that be right? PC World carried out more than 100,000 of them between April 2001 and the end of March 2002, raking in more than £4m from the service. They're promoted heavily in store, and when there's a major event or scare going on in the computing world, national press adverts kick in.

For your one-hour Healthcheck, you are promised: a one-to-one consultation with a technician to discuss what you do with your PC and how you'd like to use it; a diagnostic check and virus scan followed by advice on how to improve your PC's performance; a PC valet; "free" upgrade installations; and a technical pack containing a troubleshooting guide.

So, in the spirit of investigative journalism, I took in my Toshiba Equium desktop, running Windows 98, with a 600MHz Pentium III, 128Mb RAM, 15Gb hard disk, and CD and floppy drives. I bought it in June 2000, and it did the job required, but there was scope for improving its performance. There was no CD-R or DVD drive. Updates and fixes had never been downloaded for the second edition of Windows 98 or Internet Explorer 5.5, and the operating system's Disk Cleanup utility, Scandisk or Disk Defragmenter had not been run. It was mainly used for writing, web-surfing, e-mail and downloading MP3s. Word documents, free games and MP3 clients littered the desktop. I didn't booby-trap it with viruses; it was the PC of someone who didn't know basic system housekeeping, and had better things to do than track Microsoft fixes.

Steve, my technician, took the PC out of the box, connected the PC to a keyboard, monitor, and mouse, turned it on and pressed tab to see what I'd got. He didn't speak to me about what he was doing until he couldn't detect a modem. (The PC used an external one, and as I'd been told to just bring the system unit, the modem didn't come.) I wasn't asked about my internet connection, and my missing modem seemed to pose no problem.

He then went to Windows Explorer to delete the contents of the Windows temporary files folder. I had to ask him how he knew there was nothing useful there; he was moving too quickly for a novice to follow. His answer: "I just know. You can get rid of these files from time to time." Hmmm. This method doesn't get rid of all temp files, and there may be files you want to keep.

The next step was deleting the Temporary Internet Files via Internet Explorer. I'd seen a Temporary Internet Files folder when he'd been deleting the Windows temp files, and asked why he wasn't deleting them that way. "That's not the proper way to do it," he said, simply. He didn't discuss what to do about the hundreds of cookies and downloaded files that were lurking on the machine, and which would have been clear to see if we'd gone to C:\Windows\Temporary Internet Files after we had supposedly deleted them.

Next up was a virus scan and diagnostics check, run from a CD-ROM. The virus scanner was F-Prot and the diagnostic software had been developed in-house for PC World. No viruses were found, and I said that I used a free piece of antivirus software, AVG 6.0 Free Edition from Grisoft. Was this up to the job? Not really, said Steve, because it wasn't scanning e-mails. This isn't true, but I pushed for a product recommendation, and he finally chose Norton Anti-Virus.

The diagnostic software picked up that the system was running DirectX version 6, and upgraded this to version 8. No updates to IE 5.5 were suggested, though Microsoft has collected its fixes for it into one update package to sort out many virus and security problems. My surfing history was deleted.

My system was then whisked off for its valet: a blast of compressed air before being returned and polished with moist towelettes. As I hadn't brought in my keyboard or mouse, the parts of my system most in need of a clean didn't get buffed up. Steve then pointed out what I could add to my machine. He thought a CD-writer could be good for back-up and burning music CDs, but didn't push it. He felt I didn't need more memory, or a bigger hard disk. No advice on removing and reorganising files was offered, and his introduction to Scandisk and Disk Defragmenter turned out to be brief.

It's probably unsafe to condemn the Healthchecks on one visit, but I didn't feel a customer would get their money's worth. Nor did I get the troubleshooting manual. I could have got the wrong man on the wrong day, so I asked if the technicians had to do a lot of Healthchecks. "They try and make us," Steve said. But people interested in fiddling around with PCs aren't necessarily interested in spending time with a PC novice. Other PC World technicians I've spoken to describe Healthchecks as the bane of their lives because of the customers and PC World management, which considers the Healthcheck vital to its business, and an effective way of selling more kit.

Though technicians don't work on commission, store managers do, and the Healthcheck quota is one of the things they're measured on. The Healthchecks contribute to less than half a per cent of PC World's turnover (sales for the chain were £581m for the 28 weeks to 10 November 2001), but they must be profitable. The content of the Healthcheck isn't worth £39.99, and PC World technicians just require a day's training. They're selected from computer buffs and paid a "premium basic rate", which is unlikely to be more than £10 an hour.

So finally, was it worth the money? To be honest, mine wasn't. But did I pay for a one-hour sales pitch? No, I didn't. I would wait until computers need real MOTs. Though when they do, I bet there'll be engineers sucking their teeth and shaking their heads: "See, you need a new defragmenter, this one's about to give out...."