These are the times that try computer users' souls.
It doesn't matter whether Santa left a shiny new computer under the tree or you've had the old clunker for several years. If you're having computer trouble right now, good luck!
The first reaction of the home user with a flaky computer is to call someone. Anyone. Usually the company's tech-support line.
Unfortunately, at this time of the year lots of other folks are setting up new hardware, installing new software and generally wreaking havoc with their home computers.
What's making it bad is the number of computers sold this Christmas. Marketing research firm Computer Intelligence estimates that more than 9 million PCs were sold in the United States in the last quarter of 1997, 25 percent more than last year.
And International Data Corp. estimates that by Jan. 31, 1.5 million more U.S. homes will have a first PC.
''We're getting killed on first-time users of machines and software,'' said Tom Farrell, vice president of end user support services for DecisionOne, which provides computer support services for companies such as Netscape and Microsoft.
Mr. Farrell estimated that his company is seeing a 30 percent increase in support calls.
He attributed the increase to lower PC prices and popular high-tech products such as the new Cross pen that works as a mouse. Not to mention all that game software.
''They sell bunches of it in the weeks before Christmas, and Christmas Day, they open it all up, and we get slammed,'' Mr. Farrell said.
Keith Feike, manager of the MicroCenter store in Sharonville, said that much of the store's technical support has centered on scanners and photo editing software. He said that the drop in prices and increase in quality attracted first-time users.
Overall, however, Mr. Feike said post-holiday tech support has been ''pretty normal.''
Confusion going online
While most new PCs come out of the box with software already installed, there's one thing that confuses many home users: hooking up to online services.
Adding to the confusion is that little icon on most Windows95 machines, right above the Start button, called ''The Internet.'' Just click on it and you're on the Internet, right?
Wrong. That's just the browser software. You need to find an Internet service provider, set up your modem and hook your computer to a telephone line.
Or you can take the easy route to the Internet: America Online. And since AOL, like every other computer company, is swamped with support calls this time of year, many frustrated users turn to computer or modem makers.
''Because we provide AOL software, many call about AOL issues,'' said Dondi Dismer, manager of technical support for Global Village Communication, a modem manufacturer. ''They're having trouble reaching AOL or getting a busy signal.''
Mr. Dismer said the company sees a 20 percent increase in support calls after the holidays, when people start trying out their new equipment.
Offices, too, have their share of post-holiday computer blues. Mr. Farrell said that when office workers return after the long year-end holidays, the second tidal wave of support calls begins.
''When they're away for so long, they forget how to do things,'' he said. They also forget passwords and face e-mail pileups.
The truly unlucky return to work to find their trusty PC has died, taking those all-important year-end reports with it.
Janet Tritch of ONTRACK, a company that recovers data from damaged hard drives, said the company has seen a 50 percent increase in business in the days following the holidays. She attributed it to PCs left unattended for the holidays or users attempting to do computer maintenance themselves.
Recommendation: Back up your data regularly, especially before leaving on vacation.
Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com. This column and Charles Brewer's past columns can be found at The Enquirer's Web site http://enquirer.com/columns/brewer.