Product Reliability and After-Sale Service, 2008

Maybe it's not the accent. Maybe, after all, it's poor training that makes phone support so bad.

That's the word from PCWorld.com visitors who completed this year's Reliability and Service Survey. We're receiving fewer gripes about thick-accented customer service representatives with incongruously American names like "Jack" and "Susan," and more about robotic staffers who seem never to veer from their script, regardless of the problem at hand.

Mike Berich, a Hewlett-Packard customer in Waterford, Wisconsin, has experienced robo-reps first hand. Soon after he purchased his HP Media Center PC two years ago, the system began freezing up and wouldn't run backups. Berich telephoned HP support, which he describes as "very poor in knowledge."

"They would start reading, and you could sense they're reading because they don't even reply to you at times," says Berich, a retired Army colonel. "It's apparent that they're not very skilled."

HP sent Berich a CD to reinstall Windows, but that didn't fix the problem. Ultimately, he had to ship his PC back to the company to have it repaired.

Another HP customer, Mike Omelanuk, had a similar experience. When he contacted HP to replace a broken DVD drive on his notebook, he endured a Kafkaesque series of e-mail messages and phone calls. Numerous e-mail responses, for instance, included the same boilerplate text explaining HP's support policies and asking Omelanuk whether he understood them. No matter how many times he answered "yes," the same question would appear in the next e-mail message. It was hard to tell whether he was communicating with man or machine.

"Aside from difficulties with accents, which I think is improving at foreign support centers, I think the major problem is that companies don't give their [support representatives] the ability to do anything but follow the script," writes Omelanuk in an e-mail interview. "They hire some pretty bright folks, but essentially they rent their voice without the brain."

Winners and Losers

Apple and Canon did best overall in our study. Apple earned 17 better-than-average scores across four product categories. Canon snagged 10 high marks-down from 18 last year-in the printer and camera categories. In the losers' bracket, HP received a stunning 18 worse-than-average scores (up from 15 in last year's reliability and service survey) over four device categories, while Lexmark collected 4 subpar grades (improving from 6 last year) in the printer category.

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey--laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players--follow the links below to the appropriate pages. (For similar reliability and service ratings for HDTV vendors, see "Sony HDTVs Rated Most Reliable by PC World Readers.")

Who's Hot, Who's Not

More than 44,000 PCWorld.com visitors rated leading computer and peripheral vendors in our annual Reliability and Service Survey. Companies were graded head-to-head against their competitors in six product categories: desktops, notebooks, printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, and routers.

Who's hot this year? Perennial top dogs Apple and Canon once again smoked the competition. Apple's desktop computers earned better-than-average marks in seven of nine categories. Participants in our online survey were very satisfied with the overall reliability of the Mac and gave Apple high marks on two measures involving customer service. MacBook notebooks scored very well too, with six above-average grades, though surveyed PCW visitors did gripe about failed components. Apple's routers were praised for their reliability and ease of use. Results were mixed for the iconic iPod player, however: Our readers generally found it very easy to use, but a higher-than-usual proportion noted problems that became apparent the first time they used the product.

Canon printers repeated last year's triumph with top scores in eight of nine grading categories--the best showing of any product in the survey. The only average grade Canon received involved customers who called Canon support but never had their problem resolved. Canon cameras, though, were less impressive in this year's survey, with just two above-average marks; last year, Canon cameras earned high marks in eight of nine categories. Still, this year's Canons did better than most in problems on first use, and in owner satisfaction overall.

Hewlett-Packard, the world's largest PC manufacturer, continues to pull disappointing ratings, with some subpar scores in each of its product categories, including desktops, laptops, printers, and cameras. HP's laptops fared the worst, as survey participants nailed them with six subpar scores, citing poor component reliability and lackluster support. HP printers performed marginally better, collecting five subpar marks. As for desktops, our readers slammed HP (and its Compaq brand) for poor support and so-so reliability. One bright spot: PCW readers think that HP does a better job than its peers of replacing failed desktop components.

Dell, meanwhile, improved its marks for desktop reliability this year. Survey participants rated Dell's phone support hold time as average, up from last year's worse-than-average score. The bad news for the company is that its printers earned below-average scores in ease of use and reliability. Speaking of printers, long-time cellar-dweller Lexmark improved somewhat, though its rankings remain very low. The company's customer service rating improved from below average to average, but our readers report that the reliability and usability of Lexmark printers are still subpar.

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Reliability Is Improving

Industry-wide, hardware continues to become more reliable, though plenty of room remains for further improvement. "I'm seeing reliability going up quite a bit across the board," says Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering, who has covered PC quality-assurance issues for more than 20 years. Among the factors that have contributed to this trend, she says, are manufacturers' growing recognition that dollars spent up front to make products more reliable will yield back-end savings, thanks to fewer support calls and warranty repairs. Fiering also cites higher-quality motherboards from suppliers and more consolidation of system components.

Laptop PCs--especially corporate models--have become significantly more durable in recent years. In 2004, for instance, the first-year failure rate of business-class notebooks was 20 percent, meaning that 1 in 5 portables had a component that needed to be replaced in its first year. That percentage has since fallen to 12 percent, according to Fiering.

The situation is less rosy on the consumer laptop side, where the failure rate within the first year of ownership runs as high as 50 percent among some makers, according to Fiering. But notebooks that stay plugged in at home or at the office may have a lower failure rate than ones that are carried around in a high-school kid's book bag, for example. Consumer desktop computers, meanwhile, are far more reliable, Fiering says, with failure rates that have remained in the "mid-single digits" for several years.

Motherboards and hard drives still account for the majority of notebook failures; LCD screens and batteries, despite a few isolated incidents, are less likely to cause trouble these days. Anecdotally, few participants in our survey griped about the screens or the batteries on their laptops, but many grumbled about slow system speeds, operating system glitches (particularly in connection with Windows Vista), skimpy amounts of RAM, and diminutive hard drives.

Will falling laptop prices hurt reliability? We're already seeing well-equipped laptops priced at under $500, and some mini-notebooks (or "netbooks") sell for even less. "We could see a situation where there is higher failure at the very low end," says Fiering. She thinks that the bargain laptops of the future may have more external problems than internal ones--that is, problems such as cases breaking or keys falling off.

Acer senior product manager Ray Sawall disagrees. "Sub-$500 netbooks and notebooks have not been achieved through cutting corners on reliability and quality," he says. "These price points have been realized through price reductions in key commodities such as displays, memory, and hard drives." Sawall points to portable DVD players, many of them equipped with 8.9-inch LCD screens, to illustrate his point. As sales of these players increased, the manufacturing costs of smaller LCD panels fell. "As a result, the sub-$400 netbook became a reality, where it was not possible for most of 2007," he adds.

Though PC reliability is improving, the personal computer is still the worst troublemaker in consumer electronics. With its multiple hardware components and software applications, its fragile moving parts, and its jack-of-all-trades complexity, the PC is a support nightmare waiting to happen. In our survey, roughly a third of desktop and notebook PC users who participated reported one or more significant problems with their PC's hardware or software. Next most vexatious is the printer: Less than 30 percent of printer owners had one or more problems, followed by about a quarter of router users, a sixth of MP3 player owners, and an eighth of digital camera users. The technology research firm IDC recently completed a large study whose results tally with ours. The study looked at support issues for 14 consumer electronics devices, including the 6 included in our survey. "Of those 14 devices, desktops and laptops clearly had the most support issues," says IDC research manager Matt Healey, who coauthored the report.

Printers can be a problem too. "There are some unique situations with printers," says Jodi Schilling, HP's vice president of customer support operations for North America. New and updated operating systems are notorious for garbling software drivers and making printers inoperable; and the sheet-feeding design of some models can be a nuisance.

Jim Lee of Naperville, Illinois, owns a Lexmark inkjet printer, but he says that he has never cared much for the printer's design. "It's really an awkward machine to use," he explains. "Occasionally it'll feed two sheets instead of one, so you'll get a blank one stuck on the back of yours. That seems to be a quirk of the machine that we just had to learn to live with." Lee recently bought a newer HP Officejet printer, which he says handles paper much better than the Lexmark does.

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Make It Easy to Use--and Reliable

Not surprisingly, Apple iPod users in our survey say that they like the cool design of the leading MP3 player.

John Pyne of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is clearly an iPod devotee--in fact, his family owns four of them. He and his wife opted for the slimmer, lighter Nano, while his teenage son and daughter prefer the hard-drive-equipped Classic, with its greater storage capacity. Nevertheless, Pyne and other PCW readers aren't reluctant to describe problems they've encountered and to suggest ways to improve the iPod.

"My son's Classic just died one time, and then all of a sudden it came back to life," says Pyne, who runs a disaster recovery consulting firm. "We've never been able to figure out what happened. It's still playing a couple of months later now."

Pyne would also like to see Apple upgrade the way iPods sync with iTunes. His home network connects up to nine computers at any one time--a desktop and a laptop for each family member, plus an extra home-office PC. But each iPod is designed to sync with only one specific computer, which can be a hassle, particularly for his kids. "They'd like to be able to go between their laptop and desktop, but they have to pick one or the other" to sync their players, he says.

Computer consultant Seth Novogrodsky of Berkeley, California, likes the reliability of his 80GB iPod Classic, which he listens to on his walk to work, but he recognizes its faults. "Apple is known for its ease of use, but I think they could've done a better job," he says. He'd like to see such design enhancements as a dedicated volume control, more menu shortcuts, and a built-in (rather than optional) FM tuner.

For Matt Schaidle of Goodfield, Illinois, reliability trumps usability. He once owned an iPod, but when his second-
generation model with a 20GB hard drive stopped working about a month after the warranty expired, he switched to a Creative Zen Vision M instead. "I like the look of the iPod, but I wanted something [other than] an iPod after it died on me like that," he says. And though Schaidle doesn't care much for the Vision M's bundled software--he uses Windows Media Player to sync the device with his PC--he appreciates the Creative player's reliability during the two years he's had it.

Any Hope for Phone Support?

Year in and year out, most of our readers' support-related gripes center on poor phone support. The story's the same this time around, though customers do appear more tolerant of foreign accents as long as the tech reps know their stuff. All too often, however, that's not the case. "You can do good service via phone, but frankly it's just so horribly, horribly done," says James Governor, an industry analyst for Redmonk, a technology research firm. IDC's Healey agrees: "Device manufacturer support, because of all of the pressures they're under for [profit] margin, has traditionally not been exceptional."

Soon after Matthew Davis of Lincoln, Nebraska, bought his Acer laptop, the machine's power cord started to fall apart. The rubber split and the wires frayed. "You would have to hold the wires in a certain spot to get the computer to charge," he writes via e-mail. (His fiancée's Acer portable had a similar problem.) Davis, a tech support analyst, contacted Acer support, which told him that his one-year warranty didn't cover the power cord. As a result, he had to spend $99 for a new Targus adapter. His next laptop will be a Dell or Sony, he says.

"The bottom line is that customer service as it currently stands has failed," says Governor. Vendors cut costs by outsourcing support, but too often the result is disgruntled customers. "Low cost is not a benefit in customer service," he asserts. "You may think that way, but it is short-sighted, and it will come back to bite you. In my experience, outsourced customer service is just nowhere near as good."

Whether outsourced or not, good support can encourage strong customer loyalty. Susan Payton of Astoria, Illinois, phoned Dell when her LCD monitor stopped working. The vendor determined that the display's backlight was out, and it quickly shipped her a replacement monitor. A few months later, she bought the identical desktop model for her 30-year-old son John. When John, who is disabled, needed help setting up the computer, Dell was very helpful. "The gentleman who worked with [John] was wonderful," Susan Payton says. He gave John his private number. When John had a problem, he would call and ask to talk to that Dell support person.

"There's a high correlation between good tech support and repeat customers," confirms IDC's Healey.

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Why So Bad, HP?

For two years now, Hewlett-Packard has fared the worst in our survey. So what is HP doing to fix things? One effort involves shortening hold times for phone support. Specifically, HP strives to answer 80 percent of support calls in 3 minutes or less. In addition, it's reworking its automated call system to ask customers fewer questions before connecting them to an agent. The new call system will be rolled out this spring. "We think it'll make a big difference in customers' experience when they contact us," says HP's Schilling. In our survey, PCW readers were especially unhappy with HP's hold times for calls related to desktop PCs and printers. They expressed general dissatisfaction with HP's overall customer support for printers, notebooks, and desktop PCs.

HP points out that it has also recently upgraded its online support forums to make it easier for owners of its products to help each other. HP computer users, for instance, can click a link from the Windows desktop and go directly to an online community that the company maintains; there they can post questions or browse a variety of topics. "It's a one-to-many support vehicle, as opposed to self-support or the one-to-one support that you get when talking to a single individual," says Brent Potts, who manages HP's online support.

Analysts are skeptical about such initiatives, however. "Community support always works well for people who really know what they're doing. But for the masses, it may not be a great option," says Healey. HP counters this criticism by arguing that younger users are more likely than older users to try support forums. "The younger generation typically has a very strong willingness to hear from other users, and to explore what they have to say," says Potts, who adds that baby boomers often prefer talking with a company representative.

To be fair, there are a lot of perfectly happy HP customers, too, such as Malcolm Leonard Jr. and his wife. The couple divide their time between Arizona's White Mountains in the summer and Tucson in the winter. They own three HP desktop PCs, two of which have an HP Pocket Media Drive bay, which holds a portable USB hard disk. "When I move, I take the drive with me," says Leonard, who adds that the portable disk is considerably easier to carry around than a separate notebook. And though Leonard owns a lot of HP hardware, he says that he has had to call tech support only one time--and that was just for a minor Windows problem that HP fixed quickly.

What the Future Holds

Today's typical home computer resembles an air-traffic control tower that is responsible for regulating a growing number of associated tech devices, including printers, MP3 players, digital cameras, and routers. "It's really a portal into the broadband-connected world," says IDC's Healey. Unfortunately the growing level of complexity poses problems for traditional computer vendors and their support staff. They're willing--though not always able--to fix a notebook or desktop problem, but not a home-networking glitch that involves, say, a Wi-Fi router and a printer. "The device manufacturer says, ‘Oh, wait, we don't do home networking. We're just a PC provider. We make the box.'" Healey adds.

As a result, other companies are filling the void by offering home tech support--for a price. In-home service visits from traveling techies employed by the likes of Geek Squad and Firedog have been around for years, but they can be prohibitively expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars for a single visit. New players in this space include Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, both of which offer fee-based phone support. The AT&T ConnecTech service, for instance, charges $20 a month to diagnose and fix computer hardware, software, peripheral, and networking troubles. Support calls are limited to 20 minutes, however.

Will customers agree to pay for such service? Yes, according to IDC's recent consumer support study. "Tech support was the second highest application that consumers are willing to pay for," says Healey. A typical subscriber might have to schedule around a "high-pressure, high-paying job," he says. "They come home and have the 13-year-old screaming at them that they're not doing their homework because the computer is broken. Their BlackBerry is getting pinged by their boss, who needs an assignment done by tomorrow. And they just don't have time to fix the computer."

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Dell's Gone Social, Too

Like its archrival HP, Dell is investing heavily in online, user-to-user support. In 2008, its community forums adopted a feature called Accepted Solutions, which encourages members to rate the technical fixes suggested by fellow users. If a fix works, it earns an Accepted Solution icon. (Dell staffers also test these Accepted Solutions to verify them.)

The program is a success so far, says Bob Pearson, manager of Dell's communities and conversations group, which oversees Dell support blogs, forums, wikis, and other content. In Accepted Solutions' first eight months, users submitted more than 15,000 solutions, with an average of 350 views per solution. That works out to 5 million page views. The program eases the burden on Dell's phone support, too. "Let's say 20 percent of the people who view those solutions didn't need to make a phone call," says Pearson. That would mean 1 million support calls avoided by the vendor. The bottom line: Fewer calls and greater cost savings for Dell.

Pearson rejects the argument that older users won't try online support tools, saying it's really a matter of personal preference. "It's not just age. Some people want to surf and find the answer. Some people are the Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it of their neighborhood, and they want to keep up to speed on everything. And some people just prefer to pick up the phone."

So will thin profit margins on hardware sales, increasingly complex home networks, and a move toward user-to-user tech help spell the end of free support? Opinions vary. "Free support may be dying," says Healey. Your future $299 notebook may have an optional warranty covering tech support that costs an extra $50 to $100, he predicts.

Vendors, however, say that's unlikely. "We believe that customer support is a critical part of our long-term business success," declares Jim Kahler, HP's director of consumer warranties. In the past, when PC makers cut warranty lengths to 90 days or cut back policies, "it has had a pretty significant impact on their ability to compete in the marketplace," he says.

Ultimately, the reaction of consumers will decide the matter. As Kahler notes, "If customers don't value free support, they'll speak with their dollars."

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Laptop PCs

Reliability and service data for ten laptop manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
Apple's ratings for reliability and service, though stellar among laptop manufacturers, fell slightly from last year's results. Survey participants again rated the MacBook maker better than average in six of nine categories--by far the best showing achieved by any notebook vendor--but they also reported a higher-than-average incidence of problems with failed components. Acer, Dell, and Sony did well overall, too, though not at Apple's level. Acer and Sony laptops earned praise for their reliability, and readers reported that Dell did a better job of resolving customer problems in 2008 than in previous years. Dell's efforts to reduce hold times for phone support seem to be paying off as well: The company's score on this measure rose to average from worse than average. On the other hand, Dell needs to do a better job of replacing failed parts, according to our readers. Lenovo, which last year challenged Apple for the top spot, posed less of a challenge this year. Its only high mark came in overall reliability; last year it earned five better-than-average grades, mostly for aspects of its service.

At the other end of the spectrum, HP repeated last year's dismal last-place finish with six subpar marks, plus another one for its Compaq brand. In fact, HP's 2008 grades are even worse than its 2007 marks, which included two ahead-of-the-pack scores for reliable components. The good news this year? Well, HP says that it has been working to shorten phone-support hold times--and our readers noticed the difference. The world's biggest PC vendor rose to average from worse than average in that area.

Another interesting survey finding: One-third of our respondents reported experiencing one or more significant hardware or software problems with their laptops. Desktops caused just as many headaches, but other peripherals--except printers--were much more dependable.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Desktop PCs

Reliability and service data for 11 desktop PC manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
In the desktop category Apple once again shone, with a top mark on every reliability and service measure except two involving phone service, where our readers judged it to be average. The company exceeded its own excellent performance in last year's survey, where it earned six above-average grades for its desktop Macs. Another standout manufacturer was Acer, which seems to have navigated its October 2007 merger with Gateway successfully. Readers were pleased with the reliability of Acer components, including those in the vendor's eMachines line. Nevertheless, a greater-than-average number of readers criticized Gateway's ability to resolve customer problems.

The report card for Hewlett-Packard's desktops was mostly bad. Readers knocked HP's phone support and the reliability of its Compaq-brand desktops. On the plus side, HP did a good job of replacing failed parts. Gaming-rig builder CyberPower took its licks for the second year in a row, with readers again griping about component problems. Sony lost a step this year, falling to worse-than-average in three reliability categories.

One interesting factoid not shown on the chart: Roughly a third of our survey participants reported encountering one or more significant hardware or software problems with their desktops. Only laptops caused headaches at a similar rate. Other peripherals were less troublesome.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Printers

Reliability and service data for ten printer manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
Printers in 2008 were slightly more reliable than desktops or laptops, according to our survey participants. About 3 in 10 respondents reported having one or more significant hardware or software problems with their printers during the preceding year. That figure correlates neatly with customer satisfaction: Two-thirds of users said that they were either very satisfied or extremely satisfied with their printers.

Canon is to printers what Apple is to desktops and laptops: Simply put, our readers love their products. Like last year, the vendor garnered high marks in eight of nine categories, missing only on the "Problem was never resolved" measure.

Meanwhile Hewlett-Packard, which earned five below-average scores, stays on the schneid. Indeed HP's printer grades in 2008 are worse than they were last year, when it collected subpar marks in just two areas ("Any significant problem" and "Average phone service"). One semibright spot: Our readers deemed HP printers average--up from below average--in usability this year. In any event, despite its poor showing, HP retains a commanding share of the market: Of the 16,000-plus readers who participated in the printer assessment, half use an HP inkjet or laser printer.

Lexmark didn't fare much better than HP did, though it did improve on last year's results. Our readers slapped it with it four subpar grades, down from six last year. Specifically, our readers indicate that Lexmark still needs to upgrade its printers' usability and reliability; its phone support is improving, however, as is its ability to resolve customer problems.

Kodak dropped a bit this year, too, slipping to a below-average score (for three total) in ease of use.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Digital Cameras

Reliability and service data for 13 digital camera manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
Canon no longer dominates the digital camera category, suffering a dramatic drop-off in consumer approval in our survey this year compared with its performance in last year's survey. In 2007, Canon smoked the competition with above-average scores in eight of nine categories; this year, it earned just two such marks. Still, the pluses were on a couple of important measures: Our readers reported relatively few out-of-box problems with Canon cameras, and said that they were quite satisfied with the cameras overall.

This time, however, other vendors did just as well. Fujifilm and Panasonic, for instance, won kudos in two reliability categories. Kodak earned praise for its cameras' usability and dependability, but got dinged on a service measure (resolving customer issues). Nikon's results were a mirror image of Kodak's: Survey participants said that it was great at fixing user problems, but complained that its cameras were relatively difficult to use and had a higher-than-average number of serious glitches.

Hewlett-Packard received low marks on two reliability measures, but its cameras still scored a bit better than they did last year, when it earned four below-average grades. Where's the improvement? HP cameras are now easier to use and more reliable, readers say, though serious and out-of-box problems remain irritants.

Overall, the best news about digital cameras is that they were the most reliable peripheral assessed in our survey. More than three-fourths of readers said that they were either very satisfied or extremely satisfied with their cameras. Less than one-eighth of survey respondents reported encountering one or more significant problems with their cameras. By comparison, a third of desktop and laptop users had major problems with their devices.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

Routers

Reliability and service data for nine router manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
Most people don't fret much about their Wi-Fi routers, because they're pretty reliable compared to other devices. Just under three-fourths of our surveyed router users pronounced themselves either very satisfied or extremely satisfied with the reliability of their Wi-Fi routers; and nearly half of the router users who phoned tech support said that their wait on hold was 5 minutes or less. Overall, less than a quarter of survey respondents reported having one or more problems with their routers.

That said, not all router brands are created equal. Readers graded Apple slightly above the pack, giving it high marks for reliability and usability. That's a small step up from last year, when Apple earned just one better-than-average mark (for ease of use). Belkin also garnered high marks for usability--a repeat of its performance last year--as did Trendnet.

The biggest disappointment was 2Wire, whose ratings fell dramatically this year. 2Wire received worse-than-average grades on three measures, as readers indicated that they were less than pleased with the reliability of the company's hardware. The low scores are a big change from last year, when 2Wire got top marks for ease of use and was rated average in other areas.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

MP3 Players

Reliability and service data for 13 MP3 player manufacturers based on our 2008 reader survey. For each measure, the company's rating is identified as Better than average, Average, or Worse than average.
As a class, MP3 players are very reliable. Less than a sixth of our readers who responded to this part of the survey reported having one or more problems with their music players. With fewer parts to break or wear out, the devices are a lot more dependable than desktops, laptops, printers, or routers.

Though the iPod may dominate the market for digital music players, it isn't superior to other MP3 devices across the board, our readers told us. Readers praised the iPod's ease of use and its reliability, but they also reported a higher-than-average number of problems on arrival and of severe problems that rendered the device inoperable. Apple's schizophrenic ratings constitute a step down from its showing in our survey last year, when it earned two better-than-average marks for reliability and usability, and no below-average grades. Nevertheless, the iPod remains wildly popular: About 40 percent of our MP3 survey respondents said that they used one.

One reason for the iPod's popularity may be its acclaimed usability. A surprisingly large number of MP3 players--nine in all--earned worse-than-average grades for ease of use. The iPod was the only player rated better than average in that category.

The news was both good and bad for Panasonic as well. Problems with its MP3 players appear to be minor, but readers wish that the devices' usability and reliability were better. Panasonic appears to have improved its process for fixing severe problems, though, as readers bumped its score up to better than average in that area.

Creative earned three subpar grades, down from just one last year. Readers reported that the vendor should make its players easier to use, and that it should reduce the number of serious problems and out-of-box glitches.

Other Categories, Other Charts

For charts and discussions of the other product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey, follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

What the Different Measures Mean

We asked PCWorld.com visitors to rate vendors in six product categories: laptops, desktops, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players. (For similar reliability and service ratings for HDTV vendors, see "Sony HDTVs Rated Most Reliable by PC World Readers.") In each category, we rated each vendor in nine specific areas of customer service or product reliability.

On each measure, we determined whether the vendor's score was significantly better than average, not significantly different from average, or significantly worse than average. If a vendor drew 49 or fewer responses in an area, we discarded the results as statistically unstable. This prevented us from rating some smaller vendors.

Reliability Measures

• Problems on arrival (all devices):Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported one or more problems with the device out of the box.

• Any hardware or software problem (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem at all during the product's lifetime.

• Satisfaction with reliability (all devices):Based on the owner's overall satisfaction with the reliability of the device.

• Failed component (laptops and desktop PCs):Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported replacing one or more original components because they had failed.

• Core component problem (laptops and desktop PCs):Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported problems with the processor, motherboard, power supply, hard drive, system memory, or graphics board/chip at any time during the life of their laptop or desktop PC.

• Severe problems (printers, cameras, routers, and MP3 players): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported a problem that rendered their device impossible to use.

• Ease of use (printers, cameras, routers, and MP3 players):Based on the percentage of survey respondents who rated their device as extremely or very easy to use.

Service Measures

• Phone hold time: Based on the average time a product's owners waited on hold to speak to a phone support rep.

• Phone rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners' ratings of several aspects of their experience in phoning the company's technical support service. Among the factors considered were whether the information was easy to understand, and whether the support rep spoke clearly and knowledgeably.

• Failure to resolve problem: Based on the percentage of survey respondents who said the problem was never resolved after contacting the company's support service.

• Service experience: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners' responses to a series of questions that focused on 11 specific aspects of their experience with the company's service department.

Survey Methodology

We polled roughly 44,000 PCWorld.com readers who responded to print advertisements and e-mail messages. We used methods of statistical analysis to determine which companies were significantly better or worse than the average, based on all responses about a certain product type. Because our survey sample consists entirely of generally tech-savvy readers, it may not be representative of the general population, which may have different expectations and experiences with technology products.

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

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