Where to turn for help with hardware and software troubleshooting

So many things can go wrong with your computer, from software to hardware, that it can be a tricky beast to handle at times. Diagnosing what the problem is can be difficult enough at times, let alone fixing it once you know exactly what is wrong. Some issues might be easily fixed – by, say, applying a software update – whereas others are more complicated and could leave you wanting some expert advice. But where can you turn for help when something goes wrong with your computer?

You can't always depend on manufacturers for help. Maybe your warranty has lapsed and you can't get support. Or maybe your PC vendor says you voided the warranty when you had the audacity to upgrade your OS, or install a new graphics card. Or perhaps companies are playing a blame game: The printer vendor says the problem is with Windows, while Microsoft says the problem lies with your PC hardware.

Don't worry. We're here to help you find help. We've got some suggestions for great free support sites that offer troubleshooting advice and technical forums. We’ll look at a few general help websites first, and then some which deal with specific software, and then hardware.

General help

This is a giant site populated by many professional IT experts. You earn points by answering questions and can then trade in your points to ask questions and view answers. Alternatively, you can pay a monthly fee (£20 per month – although you can have a month’s free trial). Questioners are expected to report whether the answers solved their problems. The site boasts massive amounts of accurate information, but you have to plough through a lot of irrelevant answers to find the one you want.

More like a raucous, crowded bar than a one-on-one consultation, this wide-ranging site is littered with lots of replies from people who don't know anything about the subject in question. But eventually a real expert gets a word in and provides terse, accurate information. One suggestion: Always look at the latest answer in a thread before ploughing through the rest.

If you want either software or hardware help with your Mac, this is an invaluable resource. Don't be misled by the eye-candy design of Apple's discussion groups: This is a serious, scrappy site where Mac users complain about hardware and software problems – and usually get answers, often in the form of links to well-written posts that summarise every known fix for common Mac problems. When problems hit your Mac, start here.

Software

Microsoft's own tips and troubleshooting site for Windows and related products is packed with wiki articles, and forums for users having trouble with Windows 8, or indeed previous versions of the OS. It’s an obvious place to turn for Windows help, although questions aren’t always answered in a particularly timely manner.

This forum is packed with messages, so it's a good thing that the search engine almost always leads to the best possible solutions to problems with Adobe products. And the first items on the list in each forum answer the questions you're most likely to ask. Problems that can't be solved generate vigorous complaints, so you won't waste time looking elsewhere for non-existent answers.

This site offers loads of well-organised tips on everything from keyboard shortcuts to Visual Basic programming, along with details about every recent version of Excel, naturally enough. If the webmaster's tips don't solve your problem, ask in the visitor’s forum.

Hardware

People who build or upgrade their own PCs converge on this site to trade tips and links, and there's a huge range of tips here on all manner of subjects. Topics range from professional-level configuration questions all the way down to cool time wasters like blinging up your PC case to look better (well, in theory).

The forums at this hardware-obsessed site overflow with friendly, accurate answers to visitors' questions, but the most impressive postings are the answers to frequently asked questions posted at the top of most of the message lists. You may find the answer to your hardware question before you even ask it.