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After a recent discussion about technical support questions, I went through some of our recent closures to gather more data. I return with a question for the community:

How do we tell the difference between "pre-purchase" and "technical support"?

A few examples to illustrate my point:

The user clearly states what they are trying to do - cool the CPU - and asks how quickly an additional fan should spin to accomplish this goal. I voted to close it as technical support. However, after looking at it again, I can see that it could very easily be a "pre-purchase" question. The user needs to know if they should look at fans that spin fast or slow before they can narrow down their choice of fans. How is the line drawn in this case?

This user is asking if something is compatible with two other pieces of hardware. It was closed as technical support (which I agree with). However, looking at it from the "pre-purchase" perspective, would a compatibility question such as this be on topic? The user has a list of hardware they already have and want to know if something else is compatible with it before purchasing. The question is lacking some potential details, but the idea remains - can compatibility questions, if scoped correctly, be pre-purchase questions?

This is asking about an AMD vs an Intel chip. The user explains their goals and requirements for this potential purchase. Now they want to know if they should consider AMD and just update their CPU or if they need to look at Intel instead and consider a much larger upgrade. Is this technical support or pre-purchase?

I am not saying that all technical support questions are potentially pre-purchase questions. But, after looking at a few in the last couple days and being able to see both sides, I am looking for a bit of clarification. What is the difference between a well defined pre-purchase question and a technical support question?

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This is pretty difficult.

Honestly, I see two options for pre-purchase questions:

  1. Require detail about the problem.
    We could require the asker to include detail about why this is a pre-purchase question. I think we can agree that if you haven't bought any hardware yet, it's a pre-purchase question, and if you have and you're asking about it, that's technical support for existing hardware.

    We could ask for details about what the OP is planning on doing, what hardware they think they need, and how their question relates to making their choice of hardware. This would make it clearer which is which.

    The major disadvantage of this method is it's difficult to enforce. It means adding more stuff to our help center, potentially the sidebar and our meta FAQs, and it requires us to go through the process of asking for detail and coming back later to check whether it's been added, is tech support or is pre-purchase. I don't like it.

  2. Nix them from our scope.
    The other option I see is to remove pre-purchase questions from our scope entirely. At the moment, questions that could potentially be pre-purchase are often getting closed as technical support (and yes, I am aware that a significant number of those closures are me, though not always alone).

    In my opinion, this is what we should do. The effort to differentiate the two types of question seems disproportionate to the benefit we can derive from having them around - see above. I don't want this to become an issue where the mods are relied upon to police every new post for this, because we don't have time to. I fear that's a potential outcome of the first option - unlikely, perhaps, but possible.

If we decide we want to keep pre-purchase questions in the scope, then the only way I see to define pre-purchase vs. tech support is by requiring those extra details.

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    I think we should remove them from our scope. If it is difficult for US to determine what type of question it is, how can we expect a new user to get it right? – Cfinley Feb 12 '16 at 17:50
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    @Cfinley Yes, that. When I suggested early on that "If the question is not seeking a product recommendation specifically, it should be [off topic]", I was accused of <quote> ...completely destroying the site... – Robert Cartaino Feb 12 '16 at 19:39
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    @RobertCartaino It would appear that opinion is in the minority, fortunately. – ArtOfCode Feb 12 '16 at 20:01
  • @ArtOfCode That's good to hear. With -10 downvotes on the post and +10 votes on the comment, it sure didn't seem like that at the time :( – Robert Cartaino Feb 12 '16 at 20:26
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I think the most obvious distinction is whether or not it directly leads to a hardware purchase. Technical support looks like:

I tried to baz the foo, but bar happened. Help me fix it.

The main problem with this is that no answer leads to a hardware purchase. Even if the answer is

Your hard-drive is broken, you need to buy a new one.

This is still not a hardware recommendation. That would be an appropriate technical support answer, but is has nothing to do with specific models or requirements of hard drives.

PPI (pre-purchase inquiry) should look more like:

I need to buy a foo that does bar. I think baz will work, but I have XYZ concerns before I buy it. Will baz meet my requirements, or is there an alternative that meets it better?

Just as with a regular hardware recommendation question, a good pre-purchase inquiry should meet all of the requirements stolen from this answer. Specifically the first two. A good pre-purchase inquiry should:

  • Clearly define requirements.

    Why are you looking for a graphics-card, TV, PC case, server, power supply or whatever it is? What purpose will it serve once you buy it? What are your objective requirements? (cost, power, compatibility, size, etc.)

  • Show Previous Research

    What hardware have you looked at? What are your concerns before purchasing it?

Here is a technical support question: https://hardwarerecs.stackexchange.com/questions/2032/can-i-use-a-pci-soundcard-connected-via-video-card-dock-to-laptop Paraphrased here, it basically says:

I need good audio on my laptop. If I get a PCI sound card, will that work?

This doesn't lead to a purchase. An answer would look like "Yes that would work." or "No, that would not work." That doesn't recommend anything. Even if that were on-topic, it's very broad. It's also hard to answer. How will we know if they are compatible if we don't have a link to the soundcard or the laptop?

Here is a better question:

I have the foobar 9000XD laptop, (link) but the audio isn't great. I want to buy an external sound card for it. I have looked at the Spam-Master 350 (link), and it looks great. It has the power I want, and I am happy with the price. (50 dollars) However, I'm not positive if it will work with my laptop, since the spam-master has PCI, but the foobar 9000XD only has mini PCI-E. Could they be compatible together, or do I need an adapter? Is there alternative that would be better than kludging the 2 together with a PCI dock?

Even though this has elements that look like technical support (will it work?), answers will clearly lead to a recommendation of some sort. For example:

You should look at the spam-master 350 lite. (link) It has the same specs as the 350, but is designed for laptops, and will connect over mini PCI-E.

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    My issue with this is: "Could they be compatible together, or do I need an adapter?" - For an answer of: "They are compatible, no adapter needed." In this case, it is technical support. – Andy Feb 16 '16 at 2:35

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