If you're thinking of squeezing another year out of that old 386, there's a good chance you're going to have to start replacing some worn-out computer parts. That is, if you can track down new ones. You might first try your local retail outlet, which of course won't have what you need. Then you might call the manufacturer, who will direct you to a 900 number that costs $2 or more a minute.

Or you could simply hook into Tom Barnes's SOS Help Center (http://www.torch-usa.com, torchusa@ultranet.com, 800-300-2199), a 24-hour hardware help desk. Barnes has rallied an army of 1,100 certified technicians to provide frustrated computer users with advice about everything from the serial number on their laptops' SIM module to the appropriate power supply or chip type for their PCs.

For $4.95 a month, subscribers get unlimited access to a parts database and unlimited answers from the center's nearly boundless list of FAQs -- a crucial resource when you're looking for the cheapest parts supplier (they're listed by zip and by brand). The site also links to the technical-support area of every major hardware manufacturer.

If you want an answer to a specific question, there are two ways to go: a phone consult or an on-line exchange. Both cost $1.99 a minute; a technician will take your question and get back to you within 48 hours. "By connecting people directly with technicians and suppliers, we take the legs out of the service network," says Barnes.

-- Joshua Macht