The Most Reliable Tech Gear

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The Most Reliable Tech Gear

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.

Links to full results (with charts) for each product category--laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players--appear in the the navigation bar at right. (Last month we reported similar results on reliability and service for HDTV vendors.)

Please see "What the Different Measures Mean" for a guide to the results charts.

Who's Hot, Who's Not

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.

Phone Support Issues Persist

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

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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