How Gateway's tech support tortured an editor

Gateway PC has editor pining for old IBM Windows Me system

Tech editor documents nightmarish tech support from Gateway.

I’ve been at the Gateway to Hell.

At the risk of exposing my naiveté, I confess that I’ve been completely blindsided by the ineptness of Gateway's technical support over the past year.

After conducting a modest amount of research last fall, which included reading trade pubs, checking vendor Web sites and talking to colleagues, I pulled the trigger and purchased a Gateway GT 5220 desktop through Circuit City. The Windows XP system -- boasting a dual-core AMD processor, 1GB of memory, 250GB of storage and a 17-inch, flat-screen monitor -- set me back $750. It wasn’t the top-of-the-line model, but I didn’t think I’d completely cheaped out either on this Vista-upgradeable desktop.

It had been ages since I’d bought a home computer. The one that conked out and forced me to pry open my wallet for the new machine was running Windows Me at the time of its demise -- a reliable, old IBM box purchased via PeoplePC, which offered computers and Internet access. (I will say this: Those mean ol’ virus writers pretty much left us Windows Me users alone while they were abusing other Windows customers.)

Anyway, I foolishly expected our new Gateway system would show up and work right out of the box. You know, like an iPod. It did, sort of. But Internet access was another matter.

Naturally, I figured the problem had to be on the ISP's end (cable-service provider RCN) and so I called their support. They claimed they were getting an IP address for us and that the problem must be with the new computer. This sounded odd to me, but I thought maybe we were having some sort of issues with device drivers. So I called up Gateway technical support for what would turn out to be the start of a tortured relationship. Maybe I should have been clued in when the interactive voice response system pled ignorance when I spoke the model number of the machine into my phone when prompted (and it has failed to recognize the model number every time since then as well).

Once I got ahold of a person at Gateway, I got ping-ponged between Gateway support and my ISP’s support during seemingly endless hours on the phone over the course of several late nights. Predictably, Gateway concluded the problem must be with the ISP, and vice versa. Finally, one of the half-dozen or so unfailingly nice support people I spoke with suggested I try a new cable modem. That did the trick.

Fast forward to May. The computer stopped recognizing anything inserted into the CD/DVD drive. Figured maybe the drive went bad, so tried a spare one. No dice. Worked through the online tutorials to try to fix the problem, including setting the computer software back to a previous date. Uh-oh. That caused the whole system to go dark. I couldn’t get it to turn back on, so wound up back on the line with Gateway support. I ran through three or four more support people, who had me rummaging through the BIOS and monkeying around with DOS commands over a couple of days, and none could figure out what was wrong. Their conclusion was that it must be a hard drive problem.

One support person said I might want to try contacting one of their authorized dealers. CompUSA would be the best, she said. CompUSA, however, had pretty much packed up and left Massachusetts, including its one site that used to be within a few miles of our house (the company’s Web site lists far-away Holyoke as CompUSA’s only Massachusetts location now).

I called Gateway back. This time my helper suggested trying Best Buy or Circuit City. Circuit City seemed the logical choice because I bought our computer from the company via the Web. But Circuit City didn’t want anything to do with me because I hadn’t bought an extra service contract at the time of the purchase -- regardless of the fact that the system was under warranty. Best Buy also told me to take a hike.

I really dreaded sending the computer off to Gateway’s fix-it shop (more because we didn’t want to be without it for what they said could be six to eight weeks than because of what I was afraid they might do to it), so I dropped it off at a friend’s house because she and her husband do home-based PC support. They found that the system registry on the hard drive was corrupt and prevented XP from booting. They accessed the hard drive from another machine and manually restored the registry to an earlier state. They tried Gateway’s recovery system, but it didn’t work. They couldn’t get the system to recognize the CD/DVD drive or any disks slid into it.

So, figuring someday we might need that drive to restore the operating system, we did wind up backing up our programs and data to an external drive and shipping the computer off to Gateway in Tennessee. DHL, the package delivery company dropping off the big cardboard box to ship the computer in, couldn’t find our house, of course.

Anyway, Gateway actually got the computer back to us in three weeks, a pleasant surprise. It included some cryptic paperwork that didn’t say what exactly had been done to the computer. But I plugged it in and figured, again perhaps naively, that it would just work.

The welcome screen and Windows desktop did appear to my satisfaction. But there was this little matter of the cursor not budging when I moved the mouse. I rechecked that the mouse was plugged in about 20 times, then called Gateway, which patted itself on the back in its voice recording for providing us with the North American-based support we asked for.The cheerful support person from South Dakota with whom I spoke had me power up and down a few times, but to no avail. Must be the mouse, she concluded. But I doubted she was right. I brought my mouse from work home and gave it a try. It didn’t work either.

So I called back Gateway, and this time the support person suggested we restore the system completely, starting from scratch by loading the operating system disk. It would take 45 minutes or more, she said, taking my number and promising to call me back. She never did.

I wound up handling the installation myself and got the system up and running, though now I couldn’t find Outlook Express (I was attempting to import our addresses into it). I gave Gateway one more call and spoke to a mild-mannered sort from Utah. At this point, I told him selling a lemon to an editor from a high-tech business magazine probably wasn’t the best thing Gateway could do. He agreed, but said my troubles with support might be partly explained by the fact that he and the others I had been calling on a non-800 number these many months were just a first line of defense. I’d have to pay up to get support from people who actually knew what they were talking about, not just reading off of scripts.

“If you call us up because you forgot your password, we’d have you do a system restore,” the support person told me. I wasn’t sure if he was joking. He said the company’s “Our Answers by Gateway” people would figure out a less extreme way to solve a problem, but you need to pay extra for their advice.

At this point, I’m just hoping the PC, the warranty for which expires in November, lasts for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I’ve started thinking about whether we need a second system in the house and no, Gateway isn’t on the short list.

Of course, things could have been worse. I wound up spending less than $1,000 and wasted some time. Meanwhile, Acer wants to fork over $710 million to buy Gateway itself.

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