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Nerds with a problem find that assistance is off-line

Computer helpline promises are not what they seem, writes Colin Brown
A telephone line operating out of a small industrial estate in the Midlands is likely to be the most overloaded number in Britain this Christmas. It is one of the main chain store's computer-software helplines. And it is jammed most of the time. I know, because I have been trying to get through.

The tree fairy arrived early, in November, with a personal computer promising "effortless access to all the fantastic built-in software and on-line facilities" for "adults and children alike". The Packard Bell executive multi-media, packed with pounds 1,000 of software installed in the factory, will be one of the best sellers this Christmas, and "adults and children alike" will be dialling the help number.

It was comforting to see it flashing on the screen as I prepared to plunge into the world of PC nerds. I had a bewildering range of options - take a virtual-reality trip around the Louvre, explore the sea with a dolphin, make my own Batman and Robin cartoon, play the computer chess, learn French with Asterix, or enter the Internet through Planet Oasis. But I had a more mundane task first: to write a report and file it to the Independent. I had been doing this without a hitch on a laptop, and knew there was something to do with a thing called a modem before I could hook up.

I looked up modem in the quick-start guide. It offered advice on how to send a fax from Windows 95, from paper, how to access the Internet. Page 64 was headed "using a modem"; underneath was a section on "fax/modem set-up and diagnostics". It seemed pretty straightforward. "Clicking Start, Settings, Control Panel and Modems successively brings you in the Modems Properties screen." That is where I made my first mistake. I entered the right dial-up numbers, sat back, and waited for the connection. I got an irritating "bing" before being told the other modem was not responding. It was clear from the noise emanating from my twin speakers that it had responded. Something was wrong.

I twiddled with the settings, and got nowhere. Then I remembered the helpline number. Engaged. I tried again. Still engaged. I tried at night. Engaged. I tried in the morning. Engaged. I tried another number for Packard Bell. They advised me to ring another number. It was the same number I started with. And it was still engaged.

I continued fiddling with the settings. Bored, I tried the Internet. Now I ran into real trouble. An error sign said I had committed an illegal act! Worse, the computer moaned "Oh, no" - a noise which sounded as if it was borrowed from the Simpsons television cartoon.

I tried the help line at all hours of the day. It was constantly engaged. Things were getting pretty desperate. Child's play had defeated me.

As the days grew into a week, I tried at all times of the day and the evening to get through. The constant beeping of the engaged tone was beginning to disturb my sleep. I woke at four one morning and finally snapped. I telephoned the helpline. Outside, the moon was up. Britain was gently sleeping. And the call was answered.

The software expert was all caring, like a Samaritan helper for suicidal computer nerds. "We do get pretty busy. The busiest times are at the weekend. It usually gets busy again at about 8am, and then all day until about 1am. Then it tails off a bit."

Sleepless computer nerds all over Britain were queuing up even now but he listened to the problem and suggested the simplest solution would be to start from the beginning again, by restoring all the software to the factory settings by using the master disk.

Since then, I have not looked back. I discovered the modem program I was using was the wrong one - I should have used something called the "HyperTerminal". There are still a few problems. I still cannot find the pounds sign in the word-processing system. And every time I try to call up the CD system in the Navigator room, I get the following message: Unable to launch c:\voyetra\voyetra\windata\audiosta.exe. But who cares? I can phone the software helpline again. I will not give you the number: it will only add to their queues.